In Somalia, the ongoing debate about a national hero's legacy
Hawa was either a mythical legend or a pan-Somali warrior killed either by a poisoned arrow or by a bullet either while helping a fellow fallen nationalist or while throwing stones at heavily armed Italian forces who were either fighting in desperate defense or viciously slaughtering peaceful Somali demonstrators who either wanted Somali independence or didn’t know what they wanted and had been stirred up by anti-Italian British officers.
As an oral people, Somalis have not traditionally kept foolproof, written, factual historical documents but rely on the verbal testimony of eyewitnesses and elders. As stories are passed down, they take on the personalities of their tellers and the contexts in which they are told. Memories take on the sheen cast by the story-shapers. Hawa Tako’s story is a powerful example of this.
In January, 1948, a Four Powers Commission, comprised of the US, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union, was sent to Mogadishu to determine how to dispose of Italian possessions in the Horn. In anticipation of the visit, the Somali Youth League and the Italian community became increasingly active politically, hoping to sway the commission to support their opposing, interests.
Most Somalis wanted independence. Italians wanted to retain Somalia for another thirty years. Tensions were high as the Somalis longed to shake off colonial rule and the Italians, humiliated in World War II, as a matter of honor and national pride wanted to maintain, at the very least, a form of trusteeship over the colony.
The Commission wasn’t prepared for the passionate resistance that met them in Mogadishu. On January 11, the Somali Youth League planned a peaceful demonstration protesting the return of Somalia to Italy. Demonstrators wore red armbands that identified them as SYL members. They waved flags and chanted poetry by women like Hawa Jibril, a well-known Somali poet:
At the time we were fighting for our flag
Sisters, we changed and we clapped
till our hands and jaws got sore
Sisters, we sold our jewelry,
and donated to our league,
enriching our struggle
To swell the size of the demonstration, SYLers urged people still at home to come into the streets and join them. Two women, Halimo Godane and Hawa Tako, along with a group of men, remained in the SYL headquarters. What happened next is open to debate. Were the Italians mercilessly slaughtered by heavily armed Somalis or were the Somalis massacred by militant Italians? And what about Hawa Tako? Was she in the wrong place at the wrong time or did she die because of a targeted attack?
According to Christian Witness in Somalia, Italian men were pulled from their homes and shot while hundreds of Italian women and children fled to a cathedral for refuge. Other reports said Italians marched on peacefully demonstrating Somalis and gunned down the crowd.
According to Halimo Godane, in an interview conducted by Harvard scholar Safia Aidid, Italians armed with weapons attacked the peceful demonstration. They began at the SYL building, intent on burning it down. Mohamed Hirsi Noor, one of the founding members of the SYL, was shot when he stood in the doorway to ask the men to leave. Hawa Tako went to his aid, carrying a club and she, too, was shot.
Other accounts, primarily one put forth by Nuruddin Farah in his novel The Naked Needle, and widely repeated as factual, have Hawk killed by a poisoned arrow shot by a pro-Italian Somali named Hassan Barre Tolow. “She was in the Jihad against the Italian infidels,” Farah writes, “and a Somali whose son is now a governor of a region, hit her. The arrow was poisoned, and she died of it.”
Some say she was shot in front of her children. There was chaos on the streets that day and Somalis fought on both sides, with and against the Italians. Who can know for sure how she died and who killed her? There are no reliable sources, no photographs, no investigations or evidence. Only a novel and much-delayed eye witness accounts and repetitions of those accounts.
To solve some of the mystery surrounding Hawa Tako’s life and death, I did what many writers do in the age of social media and turned to Twitter. One Somali, Jama, tweeted back that she was a made up character, a “mythical legend invented for patriotic nationalism purposes.”
He based this claim on the lack of historically reliable data about her identity, place of birth, and extended family members. Others tweeted that she was a hero, a courageous woman, a symbol of Somali autonomy.
While facts about her death are foggy, the numbers are clear: 51 Italians dead and 17 Somalis dead, a tragedy for both sides.
In 1972, twenty-four years after Hawa’s death, the dictator Siyad Barre passed a resolution to build several monuments throughout Mogadishu in “honor of symbolic nationalist figures and events in Somali history.” The monument is near the National Theater, which was bombed on April 4, 2012, and it depicts Hawa holding a sword and a stone. She is also on the 100 shilling bill, armed with a rifle and a shovel, a baby strapped to her side.
There are two ways of remembering Hawa Tako. There is the woman: who she was and what she accomplished. And there is the meaning of the woman: why her story matters. The stories of our national heroes shape our histories and our futures. They become monuments of personal and collective memory.
Siyad Barre took a woman and shaped her into a physical statue. In the retelling of her story, the fight for independence from colonialism, and the development of an autonomous Somalia, Somali oral history is shaping this same woman into a monument of the Somalia that was once strong and independent.
Perhaps Hawa Tako’s story can become a monument marking the way to a peaceful future for Somalia. Whatever was true about her in the past, today she stands for what Somalia needs and what so many young Somalis are demonstrating as the nation rebuilds: courage, pride, and hope.
Rachel Pieh Jones, a frequent contributor to EthnoTraveler, lives and writes in Djibouti.