Archiving Somali Folktales: Language, Song, and Rhythm as Old as the World

Yamini Vijayan

‘Dhagdheer was as strong and swift as the wind. She had an unusually pointy ear with the  strange power to hear even the gait of camels a half day’s journey away.’

Inspired by Somali folklore, Dhagdheer, a short animated film (2023), begins with a cannibalistic woman’s hunt for her next meal. A popular figure in Somali mythology, Dhagdheer’s name has been whispered over generations to nudge children into ‘good’ behaviour. In the film, strikingly animated by artist Aindri C, a ravenous Dhagdheer is shown waiting for her prey, and when a tired young woman comes along with her child, she is unable to resist.

Watch Dhaghdeer below.

At Dark ‘n’ Light, we are always thrilled at the chance to feature good storytelling, and Dhagdheer nudged us to think about many wide-ranging topics: like hunger, the portrayal of women in folktales, notions of sin, and parenthood. And we were especially happy to have had the chance to talk to the duo behind the film, both of whom are based in the UK—Kinsi Abdulleh, the founder of Numbi Arts, and Aindri C, who developed the film’s bold visual language. 

Interestingly, in the film, it is Dhagdheer’s daughter who warns the young woman—who stops for some water and rest—of her mother’s appetite, and urges her to escape. As the film draws to an end, the fate of the young woman, her young son, and Dhagdheer are decided by the Hargega Valley. “If you are free of sin, I will allow you to cross,” the valley said. “If you are not, I will eat you up.”

For Numbi Arts, a Somali-originated and African centred arts and heritage organisation based in the UK, it was vital to record and retell this old folktale since much of Somali history has been passed down orally, and is as a result, slowly disappearing. And while their intention was to make it more accessible to young Somali people, and to help them to stay connected to their roots, we’re delighted that it’s now possible for more of us to listen to these marvellous stories. 

The film—which follows Dhagdheer’s attempt at satiating her hunger—concludes with a short, musical performance by Faynus Shaikh Dahir and Mohammad Ali, who do the folk retelling of Dhagdheer.

Excerpts from our interview with Kinsi Abdulleh, the founder of Numbi Arts: 

What do you think is the role and relevance of folktales in today’s world, especially at a time when there’s an abundance of stories across mediums?

Folktales are a way of sharing history and heritage, the way of life and culture of a people, especially for African and indigenous peoples. I compare it to one of my favourite African proverbs from Yoruba peoples which says: 

“Oju oloju, ko la da oju eni,” translating to other person’s eyes cannot see like mine / for me. 

Some of the greatest writers and artists in the world utilise folktales as tools, bringing these stories and what they teach us all to the here and now. The reality is that Western racial-colonial violence erased and destroyed much of humanity’s histories.

Sometimes, folktales, handed down and shared along the generations are all we have left. They are timeless and we need to preserve them, to retell them in ways that are beautiful and reflective.

 In Somali culture, folktales carry language, song, rhythm as old as the world. 

You’ve worked on the retelling of Dhagdheer, an old Somali folktale centred around a woman that hunts children. What drew you to this particular story?

We collaborated with our friends at StoryEast—a local organisation in London archiving community East End stories through their project ‘East Voices Digital Series,’ and we were invited to contribute Somali folktales collected from our network of artists and local supporters. 

We invited two of our artists and elders: the legendary Somali dancer and actress Faynus Shaikh Dahir as well as journalist, translator and Qaraami music enthusiast Mohammed Ali, to share their favourite Somali folktales from childhood. 

In Somali folklore, Dhagdheer is a cannibalistic woman whose victims were typically lost or wandering children. All art by Aindri C.

These stories were then recorded and translated, transcribed and narrated. The Dhagdheer story was one of the many stories we collected. We then collaborated with our dear friend, accomplished animator Aindri C who made this amazing animation you see. It’s been a long process, but it was so joyful creating it, and if I personally had to choose a Somali folktale, it would have been this one.

Many of the older folktales carry ideas that seem antiquated now, especially when it comes to notions of gender and identity. How do you feel we need to address this in retellings?

We are trying to preserve folktales and stay as true as we can to the original narrations, to archive them. They do carry ideas of the past and we have an opportunity to examine and critique as well as enjoy. Folktales are not the canon; their place as legitimate sources of history has always been discredited. To quote Toni Morrison: “My whole education was to make sure I didn’t believe things, and I dismissed all sorts of things that were indigenous in my family—superstition, the discredited information, the discredited way of knowing that. When I began to write, that was the place I had to go, that’s where the information was. That’s where the images were, that’s where the language and colour came in these tales, folktales-attitudes, the normal, easy acceptance of signs.”

In taking folktales seriously, we can consider how ideas around identity and gender norms are constructed and shift over time. Storytelling allows us to examine and retell our own personal stories.

What were some of the folktales that you loved growing up?

Tales with music and rhythm—like Queen Araweelo, another matriarchal figure whose eccentricities may have been lies told by men to discredit her as an archetypal figure.

Your work is anchored in the Somali experience and heritage. What have been some of the delights and challenges of doing this in the UK?

The delights are collaborating with amazing artists like Aindri and this whole team, including our partners organisations, and also working on setting up a Somali Museum in the UK, the first of its kind here in London. Funding and sponsorship are challenging.

Aindri C used gelli printing, a form of monoprinting, to create artwork for Dhagdheer.

Excerpts from our interview with artist Aindri C:

It is through your eyes that we’re able to visualise Dhagdheer, a cannibalistic woman in Somali mythology. What went into depicting her visually? Was there existing imagery that you turned to for reference?

During this project, Kinsi directed me to specific references for the landscape and textile patterns associated with Somali culture. I also had a version of the story retold by Marian A Hassan and illustrated by Betsy Bowen as reference. 

In terms of animation, I used gelli prints—some are patterns made with hole punchers, and some are imprints of everyday objects like fruit nets, bubble wrap, and so on. I am still exploring ways to use gelli prints in animation, so this was a great project to develop and refine my approach. 

Gelli Plate Printing is something I have been fascinated with since coming across the work of the late Cuban printmaker Belkis Ayón through a retrospective held at the Fowler Museum (California) in 2017. Her work has had a huge influence on me. I was introduced to Collography—a printing process in which a variety of materials are collaged onto a cardboard matrix. She developed a powerful visual iconography around the founding myth of an Afro-Cuban fraternal society Abakuá—her paintings were both documentation as well as mythological. 

Since I’m not a printmaker, I struggled with Intaglio (a form of printmaking which uses different methods like etching, engraving with specialised inks, and plates.) So, I decided to start from basic monoprinting with water-based inks. 

At the time, since I was also gardening, my monoprint journey assimilated into prints of things I was growing and also throwing away—non-recyclables such as plastic. This was a way to document things I consumed everyday. I shared some of these experiments with Kinsi, who was very encouraging. I even attended one of her printmaking workshops, where I tried using different kinds of plates. 

When retelling old folktales, there’s always potential to change something. How did you approach this, and find a way to see some new in the old?

I want these fantastic stories to be available in the public domain. As Kinsi mentioned, there are countless possibilities to reimagine and reinterpret them. The story, in this form of animation, is one of the many ways that it will continue to exist and travel.

As an artist, what is it about Dhagdheer’s story that pulled you into this project?

There are many Bengali folktales about cannibalistic, female ghosts. Dhagdheer, sniffing around for flesh, reminded me of “hau, mau, khau, manusher gondho pau” (translating to ‘I can smell a human’). The story of flesh-eating Dhagdheer is subversive in itself, and shows someone with agency. She is different from the popular archetype of the self-sacrificing female character. I agree with Kinsi that such matriarchal figures, made into complicated monsters in the stories, may be a way for men to discredit them.

Numbi Arts is a Somali-originated, African-centred arts and heritage organisation based in London, UK.

For more details, visit their website. Find them on Twitter @numbiarts and Instagram @numbiarts.