The incredible journey of an Ohioan who composed Somalia’s national anthem, from herding camels to national acclaim

The Incredible Journey Of An Ohioan Who Composed Somalia's National Anthem, From Herding Camels To National Acclaim

The Columbus Dispatch
Peter Gill
Columbus Dispatch
Wednesday September 6, 2023

A man who played a significant role in shaping the history of Somalia, despite living thousands of miles away in a quiet suburban neighborhood in Columbus, has passed away at the age of 97.

In a planned suburban subdivision called Jefferson Township, with its neatly maintained lawns and cookie-cutter houses, it’s hard to imagine the arid mountains of northern Somalia where Ali Mire Awaale was born into a family of camel and goat herders in 1926. Awaale emerged as a key figure in Somalia’s formal education system and later faced persecution from the country’s military dictatorship in the 1970s.

However, he is most renowned for composing the song “Soomaaliyee Tooso,” which served as the anthem for Somalia’s independence movement in the 1940s and ’50s and later became the national anthem. Awaale spent the last three decades of his life in the United States, working for a parking company in Dayton before retiring in Columbus.

Upon his death on June 24, numerous members of Columbus’ Somali community attended his burial in the Islamic Cemetery near Easton Town Center. Osman Hassan, an 86-year-old former student of Awaale residing in Switzerland, emphasized the significant impact Awaale had on Somali history. According to Hassan, Awaale’s short song galvanized the nationalist movement and resonated throughout the Horn of Africa, making him an influential catalyst.

Awaale, who raised 19 children, spent his final years living with his daughter Ayana Mire, who operates a disability services company in Columbus with her husband. She expressed the community’s profound respect for her father’s contributions and his unwavering commitment to helping others.

Awaale’s early years were spent in British-controlled northern Somalia, where education opportunities were limited to a few Quranic schools offering Arabic classes to a select few. At the age of 7 or 8, he was sent to work in Aden, now part of Yemen, a bustling port city that attracted many Somalis seeking prosperity. Awaale picked up Arabic and English during his time there by eavesdropping on literacy classes through a window and demonstrating his remarkable ability to learn.

Eventually discovered by one of the teachers, Awaale was invited to join the class. His thirst for knowledge led him to pursue education in Somalia upon his return, where he became a teacher at the English-language Sheikh School. Known for his vibrant personality and engaging teaching methods, Awaale connected with his students by sharing stories of Somali folklore and organizing dramatic performances based on local traditions.

It was around 1947 that Awaale wrote a poem that would later be transformed into the song “Soomaaliyee Toosoo,” which called for Somali unity in the face of foreign occupation. The powerful lyrics resonated with the Somali people, who memorized and shared it before the advent of widespread radio access.

While Somali politics today is marked by clan divisions, conflicts with extremist groups, and territorial disputes, Ayana believes that her father’s anthem still holds relevance and serves as a reminder of the importance of unity.

Awaale’s lifetime dedication to education and service extended into his later years in Columbus, where he taught English as a Second Language and adult literacy classes for senior citizens in Somali coffee shops. He was widely admired for his generosity and willingness to support those in need.

Awaale’s impact on the Somali community was recognized in 2021 when he was honored as a special guest at a Somali Independence Day celebration at Columbus City Hall. With great pride, he delivered a speech about the beauty of the Somali language, followed by a heartfelt rendition of “Soomaaliyee Toosoo” joined by the crowd.

Peter Gill covers immigration, new American communities, and religion for The Dispatch in partnership with Report for America.

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