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Somalia - Society

Somalis have a remarkably homogeneous culture and identity. As early as the seventh century A.D., indigenous Cushitic peoples began to mingle with Arab and Persian traders who had settled along the coast. Interaction over the centuries led to the emergence of a Somali culture bound by common traditions, a single language, and the Islamic faith.

Population estimates vary; United Nations 1991 estimate shows population of 7.7 million not including Ethiopian refugees but other estimates place at 8.4 million in mid-1990. Until early 1990s, predominantly nomadic pastoralisto and seminomadic herders made up about three-fifths of total; cultivators about one-fifth; town dwellers (vast majority in Mogadishu) about one-fifth. Pattern of residency dramatically altered by civil war in late 1980s onward, raising urban population of Mogadishu to 2 million.

Sizable ethnic groups in the country include some 35,000 Arabs, about 2,000 Italians, and 1,000 Indians and Pakistanis. Nearly all inhabitants speak the Somali language, which remained unwritten until October 1973, when the Supreme Revolutionary Council (SRC) proclaimed it the nation's official language and decreed an orthography using Latin letters.

The Somali language is predominant. Somali has several dialects; Common Somali is most widely used; Coastal Somali is spoken on the Banaadir Coast; and Central Somali is spoken in the interriverine area. English and Italian is used by a relatively small proportion (less than 10 percent) of the urban population. Somali and Italian are used at the university level but Somali is used at all school levels below university. Arabic is used in religious contexts. Indigenous languages include various dialects of Afar and Boni.

Until 1991 modern public education was offered free at all levels; nationally owned educational facilities closed after the collapse of the Somali state. Literacy campaigns resulted in substantial increases in the 1970s but less than government's estimate of 60 percent, with relapse among nomads by 1977; United Nations estimate shows 24 percent literacy rate in 1990.

Improvement in numbers of health care personnel and facilities during 1970s offset by civil war, refugee burden, and failure to expand services beyond urban areas; weak modern medical infrastructure deteriorated dramatically after 1991 collapse of central government. High incidence of pulmonary tuberculosis, malaria, tetanus, parasitic and venereal infections, leprosy, and a variety of skin and eye ailments; relatively low incidence of human immunovirus (HIV) (less than 1 percent) through 1992; general health severely affected by widespread malnutrition and famine in 1992.



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