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Personally Speaking- Professor Abdi Samatar

Abdi was born in a pastoral camp in northeast Africa. He spent his early childhood with his nomadic family until they eventually settled in the small farming village of Gabiley in Somalia where he attended Quranic and primary school. 

When asked about what it was like to grow up in a country that in recent times has been severely impacted by various forms of conflict and instability, Abdi recounted a childhood that was peaceful, nurturing and idyllic in every sense. The Somalia of Abdi’s childhood was a post-colonial democratic state, where much of today’s political violence was non-existent. Murders and other forms of physical violence were unheard of or were accidental. Abdi recalled growing up in a community where he could not misbehave outside the confines of his home, because the nearest adult would promptly frog-march him by his ear back to his parent’s home, where he would be disciplined. 

Although Abdi’s parents were not formally educated, both were staunch believers in education. His father was the community leader who led the establishment of the first elementary school in the entire district. His parents and particularly his mother played a significant role in shaping his core values. Abdi describes his mother as “a woman who had very big thoughts and ideas, about a world she knew little of.” Such was her determination to embrace the world, that she learnt to read and write in Somali late in her life. Abdi also looks up to his older brother, an ASA member, who he describes as a “trail-blazer for the family.”Gabiley, Somalia. Courtesy of Panorama

It was Abdi’s parent’s commitment to educating their children that put him on the path to academia. Perhaps one of the most significant periods in his early life and education was Quranic school. The Quranic school or madrasah, is where many young Muslim children in most parts of Africa are taught the fundamentals of Islam, and where many learn how to speak and write Arabic. For Abdi however, his time at madrasah shaped him more significantly than that. His values were formed and entrenched by his Quranic teacher, Maclin Hassan, who taught him that life was not only about being a good muslim, but also about being a good human being.                                                                        Gabiley, Somalia- Photo courtesy of Panoramio

Abdi’s education in madrasah is perhaps more than anything what has informed his sense of fairness and justice because these are traits he exhibits to no small degree. Anyone who has interacted with Abdi will know that he has very clear ideas about what is right and what is wrong, and he will always try to see that “right” gets the upper hand. He is also passionate about bringing Somalia back to the happy and peaceful place of his childhood memories. As long as injustice remains in Somalia and in other parts of Northeast Africa, you can be sure that Abdi will be shuttling back and forth between his comfortable office at the University of Minnesota, and the African continent. 

A major watershed moment in Abdi’s life was the military coup of 1969 in Somalia when he was in school. This event was significant for him not only because it was the advent of a series of events that would plunge Somalia into an extended state of conflict, but also because it marked the beginning of Abdi’s activism. He did some jail-time for resisting the authoritarian order and this had a lasting influence in shaping his career in academia and outlook in life.

After his release from Jail, there were only two options for Abdi. He either had to accept becoming a low state employee or seek further education overseas. He first of all went to the United Kingdom where his brother worked for the BBC World Service and stayed in the UK as migrant worker in a steel factory for over a year. Abdi sailed through his educational years and had to work hard to support himself   during his time as at the university in the United States. Because he did not have any kind of financial aid as a foreign student, he had work as a janitor for several years during his undergraduate days.  

He eventually ended up at the University of California, Berkeley, for his doctoral studies. Berkeley is famous the world over as a haven for activists and “cause fighters,” so it will make sense to anyone who knows Abdi that he is a product of that institution. It was at Berkeley that he consolidated the wealth of his life experience and launched his productive scholarly and civic activist journey. He is unrelenting in his scholarly engagement with African development, but most of all Abdi’s passion is to see justice and democracy restored in the Somali Republic 

Abdi is currently Professor of Geography at the University of Minnesota and Research Fellow at the University of Pretoria. Samatar served as Chair of the Department of Geography at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of An African Miracle, which was a finalist for the Herskovits Award, and three other books. He is also the author of over sixty articles, chapters, and essays. His research spans two African Regions: East and South.

The ASA has been fortunate to have Abdi as its President during this year. He has seen the organization through a period of rejuvenation, and his quiet and constant presence has been both reassuring and motivating. As he hands the presidential baton over to Professor James Pritchett we would like to express our profound gratitude, and we look forward to having him on the Board as an officer for an additional year.

56th Annual Meeting Presidential Lecture

Abdi will give his Presidential Lecture entitled Scholarship, Politics and the Fate of the Somali People on Friday November 22nd, 1:00PM - 2:00PM in Grand Ballroom Salon VI. We hope you can join us!

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