I did not intend to find her. In fact I wasn’t even looking. But there she was, soaring before me, on my last night in Baidoa. This majestic Somali woman reached high into the heavens, engulfed in a glorious wraparound garment that reflected the hues of the world around her: the azure of the Indian Ocean, white sparks of the splendiferous Milky Way, the orange of the clay soil beneath her feet.
The golden snake wrapped around her arm identified her immediately. This was Arawello, the Somali Goddess.
I had only heard hints of this treasured goddess. She was born of her people in the first century. She took the beatings, the whips that scarred her as a child, and escaped to the aromatic fields of myrrh in the northern Somali mountains. Female torture was rampant at that time, an outgrowth of the centuries-old clan wars.
In the fields of myrrh Arawello found many women like herself, women who ran to save their own lives, women who wanted to help their sisters, mothers, aunts and friends left behind.
And so she formed her plan.
Calling together all the women of the myrrh fields one night, Arawello spoke to them of creating an army, an army of women, an army that would restore peace in Somalia and stop the brutality against Somali women.
When the women asked How? Arawello responded, “We will kill the men who hurt us!”
A riotous cheer resounded over the mountainside. Everyone clapped and danced. Except for one woman. One woman stood apart, her head lowered, and said nothing.
Arawello saw this solitary woman. “What troubles you, my sister?” Arawello asked.
The solitary woman spoke softly, but her voice was carried over the breeze. “My daughter,” she said. “My beautiful daughter. A dozen soldiers raped her, and I could do nothing to stop them. My beautiful daughter died.” The woman paused, searching for the words. “Killing is too good for these men. I want them to suffer as my daughter suffered.”
Arawello called the women to the circle around the fire, raised her hands to the sky and prayed. She knew of the eunuchs of the Mediterranean worlds, those men reduced to obedience by emasculation, and believed that this might be the answer. “Come,” she called out to the women. “Let us take this night and pray. Pray to the spirits of our grandmothers. Ask for their blessings, if indeed this is what we are called to do.”
Throughout the night the women gathered in prayer.
As a golden dawn broke, Arawello asked that every woman who believed in her heart that this was the path, every such woman should step forward. Every single woman stepped forward without hesitation.
This army of women trained furiously for months, then formed platoons that scattered throughout the country. At first men laughed out loud at these country women, not believing that they could defeat local warriors. The laughing soon stopped when the men discovered that the women had learned their military skills well. Fortunately, few men were emasculated, for news of this women’s army spread rapidly.
Village by village, the Arawello’s army of women brought peace to the country, handing the reins of power to the women in each village.
With Arawello’s army emerged an era of peace and prosperity that Somalia had not seen in many centuries. Men and women alike worked to rebuild agriculture and industry, re- creating the Somalia of legend, the Somalia of abundance.
When Arawello died, the women built a small tomb near where her army trained, in the hills of northern Somalia, and they called her “Goddess”. The remnants of that tomb remain today. Should you go to see it, you may see men throwing stones at the tomb, shouting that Arawello never existed. Women don’t throw stones, they simply bring snippets of bright cloth and small bouquets to brighten her tomb. And still the women call her “Goddess.”
Note: There are dozens, if not hundreds of versions of the Arawello story. Those told by men differ significantly from those told by women. In men’s versions, Arawello is sometimes called a “Queen”, but never a “Goddess” – it is assumed of course that she inherited her power from her father, the king. Nor is there any mention of emasculation in men’s tales. In one man’s tale, Arawello simply led a three day household chores strike by the women, then later referred to her as a “ruthless warrior.” Men often call Arawello “a woman’s heroine,” as though men did not benefit from her leadership.
This particular version, a woman’s version, is an adaptation from the story in “The Mystical Land of Myrrh”, an historical novel that I wrote in the hopes of bringing a clearer vision of Somalia to the modern world. If you have heard a different version of this story, please note it below – I would love to hear it.
MaryAnn Shank earned her Masters of Library Science at San Jose State University, and has used those skills of research throughout her career. A lifetime of research and writing led MaryAnn to bring her Peace Corps experience in Somalia to print. An accomplished business writer, and sometime poet, she simply believes that the time has come to tell the stories that need to be told. The historical novel “The Mystical Land of Myrrh” is just such a story, dispelling modern myths of war lords and pirates in Somalia. It is available in paperback, Kindle and audio versions.
“The Mystical Land of Myrrh” by MaryAnn Shank. Pub by Dippity Press. 2019.
“Bygone Badass Broads: 52 Forgotten Women Who Changed the World” by Mackenzi Lee. Pub by Harry N. Abrams. 2018
“Queen Araweelo, A Children’s Story” by Farah M. Mohamed. Pub by Somali Media Network. 2014
“This brave Somali Queen fought to establish gender equality.” On FaceBook. https://face2faceafrica.com/article/this-brave-somali-queen-fought-to-establish-gender-equality-in-ad-15
“Araweelo, the Somali Queen” On FaceBook. https://www.facebook.com/notes/tari-fe-ras/araweelo-somali-queen/749572555131003/
“Queen Arawelo” in the Washington Post podcast: https://www.washingtonpost.com/podcasts/retropod/queen-arawelo/?utm_term=.6369ebc539cd