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SHIRE JAMA AHMED.

Shire Jama Ahmed is the inventor of the version of the Latin script that is today the official language of the Somali people. Shire Jama Ahmed was also the first president of the Somali National Academy of Culture and founder of the first Somali National magazine titled ‘The Light of Knowledge and Education’ (Iftiinka Aqoonta)[1]

This piece of biography about the Creator of Written Somali was written by the intellectual Dr. Xuseen Tanzania:

“When people talk of Xirsi Magan Ciise and his commitment to the Osmania script, they often(Almost in the same breath) mention Shire Jama Ahmed and his commitment to a modified Latin version for Somali. The 1961 Linguistic Commission (in which Shire Jaamac acted as Secretary) had in fact recommended his Latin version for adoption. The 1965 Linguistic Commission did the same (Should Somali Government opt for Latin characters) and went on to suggest some modification which has been gladly accepted by Shire Jama. He appears more social ( sometimes short-tempered) than Hirsi Magan and this, together with the fact that he enjoys some rapport with the educated (civil servants, the ‘graduates”) Somalis, means that he spends a lot of time in Mogadishu coffee shops in what may be termed an ‘oral propagation’ of his views. While Xirsi acts like someone who has no time to lose, Shire may seem like someone who has all the time in the world, He does believe, in fact, in that “time is on his side”.

Nevertheless, he has published a number of books and pamphlets in Somali using his Latin version. From November 1966 to July 1967 he has published about six issues of the popular booklet entitled Iftiinka Aqoonta covering various subjects such as Somali grammar, proverbs, folklore, and history. He has also published numerous books on Somali grammar for foreigners such as An Elementary Somali Drill Book (prepared by Shire Jaamac Ahmed and Charles Kozoll for the Somali Education and Legal Assistance Peace Corps Training Program at the Teacher’s College, Columbia University). Using modern language methods that he learned while teaching Peace Corps volunteers in America, Shire Jaamac has been able to make an outstanding contribution of immense help to foreigners interested in learning Somali.

Shire was born in Wardheer (near Walwaal now called the Ogaadeeniya province of Ethiopia) in 1936. ¬†From 1940-1942 he attended a Koran school and was later made a “kabiir”, which means that he had excelled enough to be able to help the Sheikh in teaching other students. He was able to study some English as well as Arabic by 1945 when his father brought him to Mogadishu. He attended teacher training courses (1945-51) in a school organized by the British Military Administration of Somalia. When the Italians came back to administer Somalia as a UN trusteeship, Shire decided to switch onto Arabic studies because Italian administrators did want to recognize his English training qualifications.

From 1951-54 he took up studies in advanced Arabic, Islamic Law and theology at an Egyptian-sponsored school in Mogadishu whose teachers were mainly Al-Azhar graduates. in order to win his bread and butter, Shire took up part time teaching jobs (teaching Arabic mainly) in SYL-sponsored schools. He as given a scholarship to study at Al Azhar University and he left for Cairo in 1955. He did not find conditions at Al Azhar much to his satisfaction and so he switched over to study agriculture at another institute in Cairo. But the Suez crisis of 55-56 and other personal consideration prompted him to return to Somalia after a year’s stay in Egypt.

Yet his Egyptian experience had made a permanent impression on him. Shire is widely read in Arabic. While in Cairo, he took a special interest in Critical Readings pertaining to the Arabic language and culture in general. He admits to having been deeply influenced by Taha Hussein, Ahmed Amin, Salama Musa and other eminent Arabic scholars. He made a special collection of scholarly criticism on the Arabic script. Agreeing with those Arabic scholars who advocated Latin for the Arabic language, he became convinced that Somalis would be making a grave mistake should they opt for the Arabic script.

Back in Somalia Shire taught Somali to Italian school-children for two years before going to the London School of Oriental and African Studies (1959-1960) where he took a diploma in linguistics. From 1960-1965 he has taught English in USAID and USIS programmers in Mogadishu. He has also been abroad several times especially in connection with teaching Somali to Peace Corps volunteers (at Syracuse University in 1965 and at Columbia University in 1966). This has caused his opponents to accuse him of complying with American designs to impose Latin script on Somalis (references to this effect are made in his letter quoted previously in this chapter). His desire to prove his own independence of Americans seems to be one of the reasons that have made him leave Mogadishu in September 1967 to study linguistics and philology in Moscow on a USSR-sponsored scholarship. He did this after he failed in his plans to attend McGill University in Canada to study for a BA in Linguistics and anthropology.

Shire Jaamac expressed succinctly his reason for advocating the Latin script in a letter addressed to the Editor of La Tribune:

“I think that the most useful script for transcribing Somali is Latin. It is economically wise to accept Latin since we are already in possession of an adequate amount of Latin type-writers and printing presses and any additional quantities can be obtained at reasonable cost. Latin is an international alphabet and Somali would benefit by using it. The other alphabets suggested would entail a loss of time and money. The adoption of Latin characters would facilitate the printing of Somali textbooks. It would also be possible to use scientific symbols and formulas. This would not be the case were we to choose a Somali originated script. A Somali-originated script would not spare our children the burden of learning two other scripts: Arabic and Latin, the former for religious studies and the other for advanced secular and scientific studies. The Latin script is so convenient that one is able to publish a national periodical like Iftiinka Aqoonta utilizing existing printing presses.

We should also not ignore the fact that the majority of our people are aware of the Latin script and all the educated Somalis know how to use it. Let us not forget the fact that the International Telegraphic Code is Latin. It is time to stop paying attention to those perfidious enough to propagate against the adoption of Latin for our mother tongue. Hiding their true aims, these elements have coined phrases such as Latin = Laa Diin in order to exploit the feelings of our people in an irrational, illogical way. I would like to urge the Somali youth – our young and prejudice-free brothers and sisters – to adopt Latin scripts in neither full awareness of the fact that it would not compromise or prejudice neither our national spirit nor the sanctity of our religion.”

Shire Jama was also involved in Prime Minister Abdullahi Ciise’s 1946 abortive attempt to publish Somali pages in the government paper Corriera Della Somalia. From September to November 1966 he conducted a course on the use of Latin for Somali for about 25 teachers of the Somali National Congress (a political party that favours Latin). Although Shire Jaamac has provided symbols for representing the sounds of Somali, he (like all the other advocates) has not yet come into full grips with spelling conventions and word-division rules that are to be attached to the symbol-system. Maybe he plans to continue tackling this problem while carrying on his studies in the Soviet Union.”