Sweet and Sour Milk

views updated

Sweet and Sour Milk

by Nuruddin Farah


A novel set in and around Mogadiscio (Mogadishu), Somalia, in 1975; published in English in 1979.


Loyaan, a Western educated Somali (Soomaali) dentist, searches for the reason behind his twin brother’s mysterious death.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

Nuruddin Farah was born in 1945 in the Italian-controlled south of Somalia, to a merchant father, Hassan Farah, and a poetess mother, Aleeli Faduma. As a child Farah became fluent in Somali, Arabic, and Amharic, and then proceeded to learn both English and Italian at school. His exposure to these languages as well as his mother’s stature as a recognized poet had a profound impact on Farah. His family moved to Mogadishu in 1963, and Farah later left to study abroad. He received his bachelor’s degree in India, and pursued graduate studies in England. On his way home from England in 1976, he placed a casual call to his brother from the Rome airport and learned that his novel A Naked Needle had offended the government of Somali dictator Muhammad Siyad (Siad) Barre. He then ran into the Somali minister of justice in the very same airport, who warned him that, if he returned home, he would find himself jailed for the next 30 years. Thus began Farah’s long exile from his homeland. He wrote Sweet and Sour Milk in Rome, following it with Sardines and Close Sesame, completing a trilogy known as Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship. Nuruddin Farah was awarded the Neustadt Prize for Literature in 1998, a prestigious honor considered by many to be second only to the Nobel Prize.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

Somalia—an overview

Located in East Africa, Somalia (officially the Somali Democratic Republic) sits to the east of Ethiopia and Kenya. Its capital, Mogadishu (Mogadiscio in the novel) is on the Indian Ocean. At the time of the novel there were some 4.5 million Somalis spread over 500,000 square miles. Since much of the Somali peninsula is arid and unfit for reliable cultivation, most Somalis are pastoral nomads who herd sheep, goats, cattle, and camels. Somalis in the south and certain portions of the north farm fertile pockets of land, living sedentary lives. The rest of the rural population travels during the year in search of water and pasturage. At the time Sweet and Sour Milk was written, a devastating drought, which first began in 1969, was choking the nation. Between October 1974 and May 1975, a total of 16,685 Somalis had died in government relief camps; another 250,000 were still alive in these camps; nearly 20,000 others perished outside the camps (Facts on File 1975, p. 503). Uganda, China, and many other nations offered aid in the form of food and medicine. The Somali government took the opportunity to change the way of life led by the drought-stricken nomadic people, who were moved from their familiar lands and settled collectively on farms or in fishing villages. This was an extremely bold move—the nomadic Somalis revered their traditions and the change demanded that they detach from their clans and live with nonrelatives.

A Cushitic-speaking people, the Somalis have intermarried over the centuries with Arabs (almost all Somalis are Muslim) and trace their lineage to a mix of traditional African clans and Islamic nobility. The legendary origin of the Somali people is traced back to a single common ancestor, Abu Taalib, uncle of Mohammed—the great prophet of Islam. Legend has it that from Abu Taalib came the few clan families into which all Somalis fall.

Somali clan system

The Northern Somalis are divided into four major clan families: the Dir, Isaaq, Haawiye, and Darood. In Southern Somalia, a large confederacy of clans, called the Raxanwayn, arose in the eighteenth century. A number of other Southern Somali peoples, such as the Jiddu, Funni, and Garree, lie outside this system. The Northern Somalis often group these peoples together as the Digil. The clan-families vary in size—the Darood clan-family, for example, numbers more than one million. Clan family members can count back 30 generations. A subclan might consist of only a few thousand and perhaps count as far back as 10 generations. (Children learn this family history by heart.) Smaller than the subclan is the “dia-paying” group, a juridical-political set of kinspeople that ensures that its members receive dia (or compensation) if they are ever wronged. A person thus belongs to a least four major social groupings; the built-in likelihood of unstable allegiances as one negotiates demands of clan-family, clan, subclan, and dia group draws Somalis “into a powerful social fabric of kinship and cultural solidarity while setting them against one another in a complicated maze of antagonistic clan interest” (Laitin and Samatar, pp. 30-31).

A person … gives political allegiance first to his/her immediate family, then to his immediate lineage, then to the clan of his lineage, then to a clan-family that embraces several clans including his own, and ultimately to the nation that itself consists of a confederacy of clanfamilies. Each level of segmentation defines a person’s rights and obligations as well as his/her standing in relation to others. The segmentary law dictates, for example, that two lineages that are genealogically equidistant from a common ancestor should stand in an adversarial relationship to a third lineage whose genealogical lines fall outside of the common ancestor. The result is a society so integrated that its members regard one another as siblings, cousins, and kin, but also so riven with clannish fission and factionalism that political instability is the society’s normative characteristic.

(Laitin and Samatar, p. 31)

This last insight is particularly important in understanding much of the political strife in Somalia, at the time of the novel and otherwise. Farah himself has said that in Somalia, “you are not a person but a member of a clan. My being a Somali matters outside Somalia. But when you are inside, your own clan demands that you become a member of that and not of a large nation” (Farah in Wright, p. 8). Sweet and Sour Milk repeatedly alludes to “tribal upstarts” and people who have secured government jobs through their clan connections. At the time the novel was written, Somalia was more or less in the hands of the dictator Siyad Barre’s clan (his father was Darood, of the Marehan clan). His immediate family, known as the “Gang of Five” (himself, his first wife, her oldest son, his brother, and his cousin), effectively ruled the nation (Wright, p. 11). In Sweet and Sour Milk, Farah writes: “In order to feel well-guarded, well-protected, the General had of late appointed a number of his tribesmen to key army positions” (Farah, Sweet and Sour Milk, p. 172).

The central irony here is that Barre had, from the earliest days of his rule, singled out “tribalism” as the root of all evil in Somali culture. In a speech delivered April 29, 1971, he came out squarely against the practice: “We are unanimously agreed that tribalism should have no place in the affairs of the State—in government, the SRC [the Supreme Revolutionary Council], among Secretaries, the Army, Police and the civil servants. We are the servants of our people and our country …. There must be no return to tribalism” (Barre, p. 180). The General insisted that promoting one’s “tribesmen” was the sign of a weak leader; by the mid-1970s, however, when Sweet and Sour Milk takes place, he himself had succumbed to the temptation of installing his relatives in seats of power.

Political/linguistic landscape

Because the Somalis are a pastoral people, it comes as no surprise that the Somali language was, until quite recently, an entirely oral one. It developed a highly poetic style and expressive diction, and has produced a vast body of oral literature, including folktales, fables, poetry, and other literary genres. Somali culture is infused with poetry; it deeply influences both public and private life. Clan warfare and vendettas are incited by verse; marriage is contracted and terminated through poetry; and virtually all matters of national importance are discussed through poetic dialogue.


On October 21, 1969, Major General Muhammad Siyad Barre led a bloodless coup d’état and seized control of the Somali government. Three years later, on October 21,1972, the third anniversary of the coup, Barre decreed Latin to be the official script of the hitherto unwritten Somali language.

We have to face and solve once and for all the question of script for our mother language, which goes back historically to our very beginning. It is rich in literature and poetry and can compare with the best languages. Through verbal transmission our ancestors have handed down to us a rich heritage to safeguard and develop…. As dedicated revolutionaries we must now ensure that what has been handed down to us over the centuries is no longer lost….

(Barre in Laitin, pp. 120-21)

The resolution of the script crisis enabled Barre’s regime to tackle the problem of illiteracy. By 1974 illiteracy had almost disappeared in urban Somalia. However, Somalia is not an urban-dominated nation: in 1978, just before Sweet and Sour Milk was published, only 5 percent of Somalis were literate (Wright, p. 143, n. 5).

Nuruddin Farah was raised in this rich poetic tradition. From his mother, Aleeli Faduma Farah, a talented poet, he became aware of the important social function of poetry. He learned how it can enter into political debates in sophisticated ways, becoming epic and satirical but also oblique and allusive. Much of this early knowledge and appreciation for his oral culture informed Farah’s later writing, as shown by the manner in which it functions as political critique. Also, each chapter in Sweet and Sour Milk begins with a short prose poem that uses natural and pastoral metaphors to set the mood for the action that follows.

As a written language Somali came into existence only in 1972 when Siyad Barre decreed Latin to be the national script. Before that, various languages—including Arabic, English, and Italian—were used for legal and bureaucratic purposes. Arabic entered Somalia with the first Muslims who immigrated to the area after Islam’s birth in the seventh century c.e. As Islam spread and Somalis came to embrace it as their religion, Arabic took hold, and to this day it remains the language of religion.

English and Italian, on the other hand, are more recent colonial additions to the Somali linguistic landscape. Italy entered the colonial game in 1869, gaining a foothold in East Africa through Eritrea and then becoming active in southern Somalia. From 1886 onwards Britain also began to acquire or capture parts of the Somali peninsula for its East Africa sphere of influence.

In addition to Italy and Britain, France and Ethiopia seized parts of traditional Somali territory at this time. Turkey and Egypt showed an active interest in the area as well. The two decades from 1920 to 1940 mark the period of colonial consolidation in Somalia. Of the various colonial powers involved, only Italy made serious efforts to economically develop its territory. Among other things, this included the introduction of the Italian language and bureaucratic systems in southern Somalia. The British introduced the English language in the northern region, called British Somaliland, but did not believe their territory to be economically viable for development.

Somalia’s colonial history is important in understanding the rich linguistic milieu in which Nuruddin Farah developed. Being educated in different languages opened up multiple worlds from which Farah learned immensely. Sweet and Sour Milk reflects this cultural diversity because it draws on Farah’s various linguistic sources. While the novel was originally written in English, Farah constantly employs Somali proverbs, Italian phrases, and knowledge of Arabic. The result is a novel rich in reference to Somali linguistic and cultural history.

“The General”: Siyad Barre and the rise of “scientific socialism.”

In 1960, when Nuruddin Farah was 15 years old, Somalia gained its independence from Britain and Italy. The new state incorporated the two former colonial territories of British Somaliland and the Trust Territory of Somalia under Italian administration (Italian Somaliland). Its boundaries were delineated by Britain, Italy, Ethiopia—which possessed the Somali-speaking Ogaden area—and by France—which retained claim to a small territory on the Gulf of Aden known as French Somaliland (present-day Djibouti). A democratic parliamentary government was established and a national constitution written in 1961 and ratified. Gradually the parliamentary system, a Western-style import, broke down under the temptations of personal gain and clan interests. Historians cite rampant nepotism (“tribalism”), waste, and corruption as the causes for what came next.

Early in the morning of October 21, 1969, a military coup put Somalia into the hands of major General Mohammed Siyad Barre. Six days earlier, Somali president Abdirashid Ali Shermarke had been assassinated by one of his own guards, and, while the ruling party was arguing about who should be his replacement, Barre stepped into the vacuum. He abolished the constitution and the National Assembly, then appointed himself president and head of the Supreme Revolutionary Council (SRC). The SRC announced that it would eliminate corruption and “tribalism,” end illiteracy, assure women’s rights, and bring about social, economic, and cultural development. It also outlawed all political parties and replaced regional governors and commissioners with army or police officers acting as chairmen of local revolutionary councils.

Barre came from the Marehan subclan of the Darood clan, “the largest and most widely distributed of all the Somali clan-families” (Lewis, p. 6). He was trained by the Italian and Soviet military, and influenced by the successful revolution in Egypt under its leader Gamal Abdul Nasser (also spelled Jamal ʿAbd al-Nasir). When Barre first seized power, he seemed to have been an ardent reformer, intent on fostering Somali nationalism and improving the lives of its people. Illiteracy was almost universal, women’s rights were minimal, and drought had begun to further impoverish an already poor rural population. On the first anniversary of the coup, Barre proclaimed Somalia to be a socialist state; he had already nationalized all banks, petroleum companies, insurance companies, and import-export companies (Patman, p. 94). In October 1970, he revised history somewhat and claimed that his coup had actually been a socialist revolution and that “scientific socialism”—which in Somali was called hanti-wadaagga ’ilmi ku dhisan, or “wealthsharing based on wisdom”—would now be official policy (Lewis, p. 209).

This meant that the country would be a Marxist-Leninist state in which all means of production and natural resources belonged to the entire society. National products would be distributed according to the contributions of each individual. Somalia, however, had no history of class conflict in the Marxist sense—that is, as a preindustrial, pastoral nation, it possessed no proletariat (working) or bourgeois (middle) classes. Barre substituted tribalism for class and Somalia’s socialist goal became self-liberation from distinctions imposed by lineage group affiliation. He stressed that Somalia’s brand of socialism, while in keeping with that of countries like the Soviet Union, had to be applied according to the conditions found in Somalia. Thus, the official ideology was composed of three parts: Barre’s own conception of community development based on the principle that Somalia should be self-reliant; a form of socialism based on Marxist principles; and Islam, which, according to Barre, was in complete accord with this ideology.

Although Barre proclaimed socialism to be the national ideology, he was pragmatic in its application. He counseled others to regard socialism not as a religion but as a political principle for organizing government and for managing production. In its first few years the new regime began to tackle the socialist objectives it had set for itself, namely social inequality and language reform. The early announcements of the Supreme Revolutionary Council focused on the corruption of the old government. It accused politicians of being ineffectual and of mishandling government funds, and called for accountability. Although the SRC was made up of military and police officers, it relied on a number of civilians to hold ministerial positions. “Appointments, for the first time in the republic’s short history, were not carefully scrutinized according to clan affiliation. Merit appeared to be the order of the day” (Laitin and Samatar, p. 79). This would not, however, last very long.

Soviet influence in Somalia

In the 1970s Somalia was at the center of Cold War tensions (the competition between the Soviet Union and the United States for global domination). Interested in keeping a military base on the Indian Ocean and access to the Red Sea, the Soviets had established a presence in northeast Africa, mainly in Egypt and the Sudan; some historians even speculate that the Soviets had sponsored Barre’s coup to counter pro-American tendencies in the area. For a variety of reasons, the Soviet presence was threatened beginning in 1971. Somalia stepped in and offered to help the Soviets consolidate their position, partly in hopes of increased Soviet aid. The Soviet Union consequently began pumping military equipment and personnel, technicians, and money into the Somali economy. The Russian fighter planes that roar across the sky at various points in Sweet and Sour Milk, the shadowy Russian doctor who may or may not have given Soyaan a fatal injection, the KGB (Soviet Secret Service) agents who are so greatly feared by those on either side of the revolution—all of these novelistic elements are firmly rooted in historical fact.

[Beginning in mid-1972] the Soviets supplied miG-15 and miG-17 fighter aircraft, IL-28 bombers, Yak trainer planes, Antonov transport aircraft, T-34 and T-54 tanks, armoured personnel carriers, P-5 torpedo boats and large quantities of automatic guns and artillery. Furthermore, the number of Soviet military advisers and technicians present in Somalia rose from less than a thousand to around 3,600. This was an unusually large figure even allowing for the fact that the mainly Soviet-equipped and Soviet-trained Somali Army increased … by almost 50 per cent during this period.

(Patman, p. 117)


The drums bargained: they would not be silenced. The men who beat them perspired heavily, they sang as they beat; they beat as they sang the praise-songs of the General. They were the griots [storytellers] in green.

“Long live the General…. There is no General but the General…. Long live the Revolution…. The Marxist-Leninist Islamic Revolution…. Long, long live the General….

(Sweet and Sour Milk, p. 187)

In Farah’s novel, the youthful Green Guards parade through the streets of Mogadiscio, calling citizens to sweep the city in preparation for a state visit by Ugandan president Idi Amin Dada. They are modeled on the Victory Pioneers, who also wore bright green unisex shirts, and who maintained law and order. Their insignia was an eye. Founded in the summer of 1972, the organization was based on a similar Soviet organization called the Komsomol. The Victory Pioneers ensured that the revolution was kept within sanctioned bounds, that people participated in volunteer work (like the Revolution of the Brooms in the novel), and that foreigners were monitored while in the country. Special Victory Pioneers branches for women kept an eye on family welfare programs and other community services.

In 1975, the year in which Sweet and Sour Milk is set, the Soviet presence in Somalia was strong; this would all change, however, in 1977, when Somalia and Ethiopia battled each other for control of the Ogaden region. Supporting Ethiopia, the Soviets would cut off all aid to the Barre regime.

The decline of human rights

Perhaps more important than the “scientific socialist” ideology espoused by Barre—for Nuruddin Farah at least—was the personal power and control exerted by Barre himself and the mythic image he projected. Following the 1969 revolution, Barre, who is referred to only as “the General” in Sweet and Sour Milk, fostered the growth of a cult of personality around his image. He called himself the “Victorious Leader” and had portraits of himself as well as Marx and Lenin displayed in the streets and during public ceremonies. Following the lead of Chinese leader Mao Tse-Tung and Libyan leader Mu’ammar Qaddafi, Barre even produced a little blue and white book containing his epigrams and advice to the populace. Not only was Siyad Barre the person who had synthesized Marxism with Islam; he was also the “Big Man” of Somali tradition, the “warrior often possessing a religious charisma” (Nelson, p. 52).

Such “charisma” and personal power ultimately led to the downfall of democracy and personal freedoms. In addition to abolishing the National Assembly and Somalia’s 1960 constitution (which enshrined civil rights), Barre’s 1969 revolution extinguished virtually all human rights, turning Somalia into a police state. Barre recreated the law in his own image; his coup marks the abolition of Somalia’s Constitutional Court and the High Court of Justice, neither of which were ever reestablished under the regime. Instead, jurisdiction was assumed by the National Security Court, which was under the direct control of the Supreme Revolutionary Council and—it was widely held—under the personal control of Barre.

The overthrow of democratic law went hand-in-hand with the construction of a highly effective internal security machine. Barre’s regime, conscious of its origin in a coup d’état, sought foremost to protect and preserve itself against possible domestic threats. After the 1969 coup roughly 60 leaders of the previous government, businessmen, lawyers, and senior military personnel who did not support the coup, were arrested and tried by the National Security Council, which made disruption of peace or the sovereignty of the new socialist nation a crime punishable by death. Following Soviet advice, Barre’s regime sought to control political opponents through the use of arrest and imprisonment for broadly defined crimes against the state. On July 3, 1972, Barre caused two Somalis to be executed publicly on charges of plotting his overthrow.

By the mid-1970s Barre’s popularity began to decline and his revolution stagnated. As he and trusted members of his clan came to almost completely dominate the government, the regime devoted more time and energy to internal security. Somali intellectuals, artists, and businessmen critical of the regime were increasingly subject to arbitrary arrests and torture. A number of the intelligentsia fled the country. The corruption and tribalism that the regime had set out to eradicate now became an integral part of its politics. While the regime had established a written language and boasted a number of other achievements, in the minds of many none of these compensated for the loss of individual rights and personal freedoms.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

As Sweet and Sour Milk opens, 29-year-old Soyaan Keynaan lies ill in bed, attended to by his mother, Qumman. Soyaan fell ill after dining with a government minister at the home of his father’s second wife, Beydan. Qumman speaks of the possibility that he has been poisoned or perhaps bewitched by an unnamed woman of whom she does not approve. She urges upon her son traditional remedies and refuses to hand him the prescription medicine of Dr. Ahmed-Wellie until Soyaan promises to hear without derision the shaykh who is to come and read to him from the Qur’an. He then briefly recalls a recent day that he spent with his lover, who is, or was, also the mistress of a powerful government official. They speak obliquely of “a strong political statement” that he has written and that she has discovered, a statement that will reappear throughout the novel (Sweet and Sour Milk, p. 7).

The novel returns to Soyaan’s sickbed, where he is visited by the shaykh and by his father, Keynaan, whom he dislikes. Keynaan is a domestic tyrant, a murderer, and a government informer. The two disagree on national politics: Soyaan protests the Soviet presence in Somalia and the restriction of civil rights, but Keynaan warns him away from protest for his own good. Next, Ladan, Soyaan’s younger sister, is introduced; she is sensitive, intelligent, and worried about her brother’s political connections and the trouble they have brought him. She reveals that he has spoken feverishly of being jabbed with needles, which he somehow recalls: “these injections, thought he to himself, how they pained!”; also in his fever he mutters “obscenities about the General” (Sweet and Sour Milk, p. 12). The family is made complete with the return of Soyaan’s twin brother, Loyaan, a rural health official. After calling Loyaan’s name three times, Soyaan dies. Loyaan decides to investigate the cause of his twin’s demise and to unravel the meaning of Soyaan’s life.

Loyaan begins with puzzling clues left to him in Soyaan’s diary: “M to the power of 2.1/M comrade-in-project” (Sweet and Sour Milk, p. 21). He also obtains a short, antigovernment piece that Soyaan wrote, calling the civil service “clowns,” “cowards,” and “tribal upstarts,” and exposing the dictator’s means of internal security: “The methods of the General and the KGB are not dissimilar, I can tell you that. Instructions: Know who do not know you. Plant seeds of suspicion in every thinking brain and hence render it ’unthinking’” (Sweet and Sour Milk, p. 33). Soon after, Loyaan finds among Soyaan’s things a government directive, which states that any person who spreads information aimed at damaging the sovereignty of the government is liable to death. This paper tips Loyaan off about his brother’s political life.

Through Ahmed-Wellie, Soyaan’s doctor and friend, Loyaan learns about the abductions, arrests, and tortures that the regime routinely performs. Loyaan does not trust the doctor because the political environment makes trust very difficult. Loyaan’s mother repeatedly warns her son not to trust Ahmed-Wellie because he is related to the General by clan ties.

At Soyaan’s funeral, the Minister to the Presidency arrives to offer his condolences to the family. He tells Loyaan that, officially, Soyaan’s last words were “Labor is honor,” but Loyaan knows this to be a lie. When he tells the Minister what actually happened, the Minister replies: “We were given a different version. We prefer that” (Sweet and Sour Milk, p. 42). Before the Minister leaves, he asks Loyaan if he has found a memorandum that Soyaan was working on. Loyaan does not know what memorandum is being referred to, but the Minister is insistent on finding this document.

The next morning Loyaan learns that public eulogies are praising Soyaan as a martyr for the Revolution. A woman with a baby boy comes to see him; the woman turns out to be Soyaan’s mistione (half-Italian, half-Somali) lover, Margaritta, and the boy, Marco, their son. She invites Loyaan to visit her.


In Sweet and Sour Milk, Loyaan is puzzled by the coded message he finds among Soyaan’s papers. At the time, Somalia was actually awash in cryptic sayings, because people were aware they were being listened to and watched. Barre’s regime itself was known in some circles as M.O.D.: M for Barre’s patrilineal clan, the Marehan; O for his mother’s clan, the Ogaden; and D for the clan of his favorite son-in-law (who was head of the National Security Service), the Dir. However, no one could speak openly of M.O.D.—Barre had come out aggressively against “tribalism” and to point to the open transgression of this principle by the General himself would have had consequences. Thus, “[w]ith their usual verbal facility, ingenious Somali sophists developed an alternative circumlocution, substituting dates, starting from that of the Glorious Revolution [Barre’s coup of October 21, 1969] to represent the major power-holding groups. In this idiom 21 October was used as a synonym for M, 22 October for O and 23 October for D” (Lewis, p. 222).

Later that day Loyaan walks into Mogadiscio to pick up Soyaan’s death certificate. On the way he remembers a letter Soyaan wrote to him, revealing his disgust for political corruption and the tyrannical dictator:

If you ever come to Mogadiscio and you go to the centre of it, you will now find new buildings, new high structures whose ribbons of inauguration have been cut with the very scissors which made the wrist of the nation bleed and this country grow weak….[H]e [the dictator] breaks the pride of one’s dignity; he reduces women to mistresses of his prowess: He is, after all, the General. He constructs showy pieces of tumorous architecture, he gives us monuments of false hope. He creates for the nation heroes of his own choosing.

(Sweet and Sour Milk, pp. 71-72)

Unfortunately, Soyaan himself is now being turned into just such a hero. Contrary to everything Soyaan stood for and identified with, he is being hailed as “a living legend of revolutionary vitality” (Sweet and Sour Milk, p. 74). When Loyaan returns home, he finds that money has been given anonymously to the family because of Soy-aan’s “honor”—it appears as though Soyaan’s soul is being bought off. Loyaan fights with his mother, Qumman, over Soyaan’s new posthumous status; he tries to make her understand that dishonor is being heaped on Soyaan’s memory and that history is being rewritten.

Later in the day, Loyaan has dinner with Keynaan, who once worked for the dictator’s security forces but was forced to retire after he killed a man in his custody. As punishment, the dictator ordered Keynaan to marry the dead man’s widow, Beydan. Keynaan himself functions as a mini-dictator within the family. At the end of their talk, he tells Loyaan that he has forbidden an autopsy of Soyaan’s body and has corroborated to a newspaper the government’s version that Soyaan’s last words were “Labor is honor.” As a reward, the government has rehabilitated Keynaan and offered him a position. Loyaan is appalled.


At his brother’s funeral, Loyaan sees a circle of fresh, unmarked graves. Dr. Ahmed-Wellie speculates that these may be “the tombs of the ten sheikhs [or shaykhs] … the General has executed” (Sweet and Sour Milk, p. 40). This was no purely fictional execution. On January 23, 1974, Barre actually had ten religious leaders killed by a firing squad. Muslim holy men, they had openly protested a new liberal law giving equal rights to women in areas such as inheritance and divorce.

The next morning the newspaper carries the interview, and proclaims Soyaan a “carrier of the Revolutionary Torch; the Standard-bearer of Scientific Socialism” whose last words were “Labour is honour and there is no General but our General” (Sweet and Sour Milk, p. 97). The article also states that the Supreme Revolutionary Council has decided to name a street after Soyaan and to inscribe his official last words in gold on his tomb. At the registration office for the dead, Loyaan discovers that Soyaan’s secretary, a woman named Mulki, was abducted by the government a few days previously, and that the office no longer has any files on Soyaan because, as a hero of the Revolution, he has become state property.

Next Loyaan visits Margaritta, Soyaan’s lover. From her he learns the particulars of Soyaan’s resistance to the dictatorship: Soyaan was a specialist on the Soviet presence in Somalia, and kept track of the Eastern European teachers, technicians, and doctors in the country. Rumor has it that someone from his mother’s clan, a perhaps pro-Western vice president, asked Soyaan to make such investigations. Loyaan also learns that Margaritta has stowed in a bank safe a copy of the elusive memo the Minister wants so badly, and another copy is with a man called Ibrahim II Siciliano, brother of Mulki. Before Margaritta drops Loyaan home, she shows him the back of a picture on which Soyaan inscribed a poem almost certainly referring to his impending death at the hands of the government. The clues start to make sense: “M to the power of 2” likely refers to Margaritta and Marco, but could also mean “Moscow-Mogadiscio,” referring to the alliance between the repressive Soviet and Somali governments. “I/M comrade-in-project” could refer to Ibrahim and Margaritta as comrades in Soyaan’s antigovernment life, but could also mean Ibrahim and his sister Mulki. It is apparent that there are still many unanswered questions.

The next day Loyaan visits Ibrahim II Siciliano. From him he learns that Soyaan was part of a clandestine movement of opposition, a group of ten intellectuals and professionals who took an oath to serve the true interests of Somalia.

The next person Loyaan goes to see is Beydan, one of the last people Soyaan saw before he became ill. From Beydan Loyaan learns that a government official was with Soyaan when she last saw him, and that Soyaan drank beer and took some strange pills. Ahmed-Wellie arrives unexpectedly and takes Loyaan home. On the way, Loyaan learns that Ibrahim has been arrested. When Loyaan arrives at home, he sees Margaritta waiting for him. She tells him that the Minister broke into her bank safe and now has the only accessible copy of the coveted memo.

The next day Loyaan visits the Minister. Loyaan repeatedly questions him about the disappearance of his brother’s secretary Mulki, the arrest of her brother Ibrahim, and the motives behind buying Keynaan’s lie. Loyaan also probes him about the theft of the memo from Margaritta’s safe and finally accuses him and the government outright of poisoning Soyaan. The enraged Minister denies all charges and feigns ignorance.

Later that day Loyaan’s afternoon siesta is interrupted by drumming and calls outside. It is the “Rendezvous of the Brooms,” a traditional purification ritual that the General has converted to his own purposes: all able-bodied persons are required to “partake in the revolutionary duty of making [their] district clean as glass freshly wiped and washed” (Sweet and Sour Milk, p. 188). This is of the utmost urgency because Idi Amin is due to visit in two days.

Loyaan’s sister and mother urge him to remain at home; they realize that he is in danger of saying or doing something rash. However, Loyaan no longer cares about the government or any duty to it. As the Green Guards go calling from house to house, Loyaan tells them to keep the racket down and let people sleep. This angers the Green Guards and, after finding out who he is, they order him to be at the Rendezvous. Once there, Loyaan sees that the sweepers are mostly women, as it is deemed “untraditional” for men to take part. When a Green Guard begins to harass a pregnant woman, who has taken a break, Loyaan comes to her aid. Soon after, Security men take Loyaan away for questioning.

Loyaan’s masked interrogator tells him that his superiors are upset with the adverse publicity he has brought to Soyaan’s name. Loyaan interrogates his interrogator, asking repeatedly why Soyaan was made a hero of the Revolution after his death and why Ibrahim and Mulki have been detained. The masked man replies that Ibrahim was taken in for “anti-Soviet” activities. Then a woman is brought in who claims to be Mulki and says that she has typed no memorandum for Soyaan. “All this is like a badly written farce,” Loyaan observes disbelievingly (Sweet and Sour Milk, p. 201). At the end of the interrogation Loyaan is told that, rather than being arrested, he has been appointed to Soyaan’s government post and that the General has signed a decree appointing him Somalia’s Councilor in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. The plane will leave the following evening, after Soyaan’s one-week death anniversary.

The next day preparations are made for Soyaan’s death anniversary. Goats are slaughtered to feed the guests, and the family cleans and makes arrangements. Ahmed-Wellie comes for a visit. He knows all about Loyaan’s departure for Belgrade—but how? Ahmed-Wellie, though pretending to be a friend, appears to be a government informer. Loyaan spends some time with Beydan, who tells him that she has had a prophetic dream in which she dies giving birth to a child that will be named Soyaan. Later that evening, Loyaan meets with Margaritta who tells him she believes that the General had a direct hand in Soyaan’s death. After the seventh-day death anniversary, Beydan dies in childbirth and the child is named Soyaan. Loyaan wonders if the child will ever know the truth about his namesake. The novel ends, ambiguously, with a knock on the door at seven in the evening. We never find out what happened to Soyaan.


In July 1975 Idi Amin Dada, dictator of Uganda, paid an official visit to Mogadiscio. According to Amin, he came to speak with Barre about the challenges of heading the annual meeting of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), a pan-African body founded in 1963. Barre had chaired the 1974 meeting and Amin was to head the 1975 meeting. Held in Mogadiscio, the 1974 conference had been an exercise in conspicuous opulence. Barre had bought a fleet of European luxury sedans to ferry about leaders and had built an elaborate “People’s Palace”—no doubt one of the “showy pieces of tumorous architecture”described in the novel (Sweet and Sour Milk, p. 72). All this took place in a very poor nation that had been suffering from drought for six years.

In the novel, Loyaan sees beggars who have been forced out of certain areas by the government in preparation for Amin’s visit: “Before any head of state visited… the security swept away these ugly sights…. This happened… a month or two before OAU or Arab League meetings” (Sweet and Sour Milk, p. 145).

The foundations of dictatorship

In Sweet and Sour Milk Nuruddin Farah critiques the exploitation by Barre’s dictatorship of traditional Somali values and culture for unseemly purposes. He suggests that, in its particulars, Barre’s regime was essentially Somalian, both responding to and supported by specific Somalian cultural practices. For instance, the General uses an intricate method of surveillance called “Dionysus’s Ear.” His security service recruits its spies and informers from among the illiterate masses. Everything the informers report is done verbally—nothing is written down. People who are arrested sometimes languish in prisons for years because there is no record of their being there. Likewise no death certificates are issued for those who perish.

The dissemination of information considered antirevolutionary is punishable by death. While written documents like Soyaan’s memorandum are ruthlessly hunted down, the only daily newspaper, a horrendous piece of journalism that gives “no introductory paragraph, no explanation of anything,” which “come[s] to a point before [it is] started,” is used to rewrite history and proliferate propaganda (Sweet and Sour Milk, p. 74). (This is in fact the very newspaper that censored Nuruddin Farah’s first and only attempt at fiction in the Somali language in 1973, causing him to flee his own country for fear of reprisals.) The newspaper creates heroes and rewrites history; Soyaan will not be remembered by what he actually did or wrote, but by the official lies told to refashion him into a hero of the Revolution.

For Nuruddin Farah none of these methods would succeed were it not for their use of patriarchy and the authoritarian family unit. In his novel, the father, Keynaan, an ex-torturer and paid informer for the regime, speaks with an absolute authority that reflects that of the dictator: “I am the father. It is my prerogative to give life and death as I find fit. I’ve chosen to breathe life into Soyaan [by supporting his transformation into a hero of the Revolution]. And remember one thing, Loyaan: if I decide this minute to cut you in two, I can” (Sweet and Sour Milk, p. 94). Keynaan partakes in the rewriting of Soyaan’s life, threatens his sons, and beats his wives. That such patriarchal control exists in Somali society explains, for Farah, how a dictator such as Barre could rise to power so successfully. According to one critic, Sweet and Sour Milk focuses so much on the workings of families because of the relationship between family and national politics in Somalia:

[Farah] reveals that, for all the vaunted egalitarianism of Somalia’s traditional political institutions, the authoritarian family structure at the roots of the society actually conditions people to and predisposes them towards the tyranny officially endorsed and institutionalized by military regimes.

(Wright, p. 48)

In creating Keynaan’s character Farah may have relied on his memory of his own father, whom he has referred to as “despondently despotic, a patriarch willing to submit the world to the authority of his whim” (Farah, “Celebrating Differences,” p. 712). For Farah, patriarchy and the authoritarian family lead directly to political dictatorship: “Because we are dictatorial as societies, it follows that we produce grand patriarchs, dictators par excellence” (Farah in Jussawalla and Dasenbrock, p. 56).

What emerges in Sweet and Sour Milk, then, is not merely an indictment of the General and his oppressive regime. The novel exposes dictatorial power as it operates at different levels of Somali society and points to the interrelationship of these levels. It also shows that such power is the logical result of a society that emphasizes the supremacy of orality and clan affiliations as well as the authoritarian family unit.

Literary context

Nuruddin Farah was the first Somali novelist, publishing From a Crooked Rib in 1970. He is not, however, alone in his treatment of the place of traditional African culture in postcolonial African nations. Although, like most other African cultures, the Somalis’ has been oral-based for many centuries, Farah does not try to valorize the oral tradition, like Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Matigari) or Ayi Kwei Armah (Two Thousand Seasons) or to evoke it as has Okot p’Bitek, Ugandan writer of Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol (also covered in African Literature and Its Times). Rather, as Derek Wright points out, Farah shows “how indigenous traditions, oral as well as domestic, have themselves been implicated in the new political tribulations and terrors of the independent state” (Wright, p. 52). Furthermore, Farah’s characters tend not to be drawn from the same class—peasant and underprivileged—as those in the political works of other African novelists; his heroes and villains are usually from the educated urban elite. Some critics feel that this focus undermines the ability of Farah’s writings to promote political change, but others insist that he draws attention to the wide range of Somali society. By writing of the intelligentsia he states what is perhaps not always obvious to a Western audience: that there is, in fact, a Somalian intelligentsia, and that not all Somalis are poor and uneducated. Sweet and Sour Milk, as mentioned, became the first in a trilogy by Farah. Certain characters resurface in the subsequent novels, Sardines and Close Sesame. In Sardines, for example, Loyaan reappears, although it is unclear whether he is in prison or exile (an uncertainty that the ambiguous ending of Sweet and Sour Milk sets up. In Close Sesame Dr. Ahmed-Wellie returns, now as the Somali Minister of Information.


Writing for the New York Times Book Review, William Ferguson called Farah’s trilogy “a chilling exploration of corruption and terror” and praised the “feverishly lyrical” style of the three novels, which he called “a powerful political statement that moves constantly toward song” (Ferguson in Mooney, p. 612). The Voice Literary Supplement praised the “intricate moral and physical problems” that Farah sets for his characters (Chua in Mooney, p. 613). Most reviewers of Sweet and Sour Milk scrutinized the novel’s integration of politics, ethics, and morality:

In the best scenario, [the political] message is fully integrated into the plot of the novel. Few writers manage to bring off such a wedding with great success, and Farah himself has a tendency to subjugate plot for the sake of his message in some books. But in Sweet and Sour Milk, the most artfully constructed novel in his first completed trilogy, Farah has created a major political novel of lasting value.

(McDowell, p. 253)

—Faisal Azam

For More Information

Ahmed, Ali Jimale, ed. The Invention of Somalia. Lawrenceville, N.J.: Red Sea Press, 1995.

Alden, Patricio, and Louis Tremaine. Nurrudin Farah. New York: Twayne, 1999.

Barre, Siyad. My Country and My People: Selected Speeches of Jaalle Major-General Mohamed Siyad Barre President of the Supreme Revolutionary Council 1969-1974. Mogadishu: Ministry of Information and National Guidance, 1974.

Facts on File 1975. New York: Facts on File, 1975.

Farah, Nuruddin. Sweet and Sour Milk. Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 1992.

_____. “Celebrating Differences: The 1998 Neustadt Lecture.” World Literature Today 72, no. 4 (autumn 1998): 709-12.

Jussawalla, Feroza, and Reed Way Dasenbrock. “Nuruddin Farah.” In Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992.

Laitin, David D. Politics, Language, and Thought: The Somali Experience. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977.

Laitin, David D., and Said S. Samatar. Somalia: Nation in Search of a State. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1987.

Lewis, I. M. A Modern History of Somalia: Nation and State in the Horn of Africa. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1988.

McDowell, Robert. “Nuruddin Farah.” In African Writers. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1997.

Mooney, Martha T., ed. Book Review Digest 1993. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1994.

Nelson, Harold D., ed. Somalia: A Country Study. Washington D.C.: Department of the Army, 1982.

Patman, Robert G. The Soviet Union in the Horn of Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Wright, Derek. The Novels of Nuruddin Farah. Bayreuth, Germany: Bayreuth University, 1994.