On the verge of extinction – The Yiber people of Somalia

Even after coming through a brutal dictatorship, things just keep on getting worse for the mysterious Yibir tribe.

March 3, 2015

It’s bedlam in the Yibir village when the ancient fertility ceremony begins. But as a spew of sickly incense smoke rises from the old lady's carefully placed clay cups, silence falls. To the left a small Saharan tree shades a broken cart full of empty yellow jerrycans. To the right a gang of young boys bedecked in a colourful array of bootlegged football shirts stop playing and gather to watch.

Abdi, our host, looks at me and my driver Mohamed – who nervously fumbles his misbaha – and whispers prayers in Arabic and shoots me an anxious glance. Crow's feet snatch at Abdi's ears as he squints in the heat. His wife, who, screaming, had earlier tried chasing us away now sits, defeated, on a dusty carpet beside us. Their children peer out of the family tent like frightened meerkats.

The old woman turns to look at me. "You will have good fertility now," she croaks as the smoke vanishes, her white direh throwing a midday glare into my eyes. Mohamed tugs at my shirt. His eyes are wide and scared. "It's over. We have to go now."

We're barely a few yards away when stones are hurled in our direction. As we jump into Mohamed's filthy Landcruiser one hits it square on the front spoiler, kicking it rudely out of place. The miniature Messis and Ronaldos are banging on the car doors. They want money. If a policeman had seen us at the ceremony, Mohamed says, pulling sharply away from the screaming kids, we'd be on our way to jail.

The Yiber people of Somalia

Dire straits and desperation

Somaliland, a breakaway state in northeast Somalia, is booming. It has crawled from decades of dictatorship and civil war into relative safety – safety, that is, compared to its terror-torn neighbours in Somalia proper. While journalists, aid workers and civilians are killed daily in the capital, Mogadishu (the latest example being last month's deadly Al-Shabab attack, which took the lives of at least 25 people and injured 40 others), Somaliland's own capital city Hargeisa hasn't suffered a suicide attack since 2008. A diaspora that fled to the West during the bad years has returned, and they've brought money. Great glass-covered skyscrapers are popping up over the desert skyline. Hargeisa now has tarmacked streets, and ATMs.

But the good times aren't back for everyone in Hargeisa. Away from the office blocks and packed streets there are vast camps where those displaced over the past 50 years struggle to live. Thousands are bivouacked in huts made from sticks and sheets. Education and healthcare is scarce. Employment is as bountiful as summer rain.

Among them live more than 20,000 Yibir (pronounced 'yih-burr'), a strange clan of blacksmiths and magicians with an apocryphal past that goes back over a thousand years. Centuries ago they levied astrological taxes and practiced an amalgam of Judaism and Islam. But those days are gone. And the tribe who were once kings, now live on Somaliland's scraps. They are the most mysterious tribe in Africa. And they are facing oblivion.

It is at a scrap yard just outside Hargeisa where Abdi and I first meet, days before the fertility ritual. I've been searching for the Yibir for days with little joy until a friend of a friend of Mohamed's hands us Abdi's number. He will not meet in the city centre – "too many ears" – and so here we are, sitting beneath a glowing green tarp alongside six mechanics while they slurp sweet Somali tea and chew khat, a herbal stimulant enjoyed across the region. The smell of tyres and gasoline mixed with the sugary drink is stinging. The Yiber people of Somalia Abdi is keen to speak. He has lived for 42 years as a second-class citizen and has had enough. There are no jobs, he says – certainly none for a Yibir. He struggles to feed his 16 children (the Yibir believe in the deep divinity of birth: their women should give birth once yearly) and they rarely see aid because of their tribe. "The government is annoying poor society," he says, angrily. "We should have a cleaner village. Schools. Health."

I ask him about the Yibir's fabled past: the legends, the wealth, the Judaism. He shakes his head. "The government has made us forget our past for food."

General Mohamed Siad Barre snatched power in 1969. His 22 years in charge of Somalia were among the most brutal of any dictatorship of the era. Barre's model of scientific socialism mirrored Mao's China – and he despised the deep clan lines across which Somalia was riven for centuries. Any mention of clan in the street, in the mosque or even at home could be met with detention, torture or death as Barre built a network of spies loyal to his classless ideal. Anything deemed un-Islamic, such as the notorious ceremonies practiced by the Yibir, were to be purged.

In an ethnic cleansing redolent of Cambodia’s Pol Pot, Barre repossessed Yibir land – much of which was in and around Hargeisa – and turned it over to the building of religious and nationalist monuments. The Yibir were refugees in their own country: some fled to nearby states such as Djibouti, Eritrea and Kenya. But most stayed, shoved so far into the margins of Somali society that they were forced to trade anything they had just to survive. Back then the Yibir still had their legendary smithing skills to fall back on. Now even that is being taken away. The Yiber people of Somalia Hargeisa’s main market, right in the centre of town, is a vast tarpaulined warren of noisy shops where you can buy anything from microwaves and kids' toys to aftershave and mobile phone covers. Half Jemaa el-Fnaa, half Walford Square. There is no tourist chintz, no earthenware nor locally made produce. Security forces have driven out the region's notorious pirates and money is flooding in from the diaspora: business is good. And cheap, mass-produced imports are everywhere.

Across town, a visit to the Yibir market is like a trip back in time: a great cobweb of covered stalls and stacks of metal goods that bounce the bright sun offensively into your eyes, begging you to buy them. The violent thuds of smithery echo off every cup, kettle and pan: everywhere there is someone cutting, thumping or bending metal. One man uses a bicycle rim as a grinding wheel. Another smashes knives into shape with a hammer in flooring heat.

Outside the market we're set upon by a group of young boys outside a convenience store. One of the village elders, a withered old swain with specs, bright red keffiyeh and a walking stick, wants to speak to us. He sits, flanked by his young Yibir charges, leaning back and posing for snaps like an aged rapper. "This isn't a racial situation," he says, pointing at the boys. "It's our livelihood that is disappearing. No one asks me what my tribe is. They just say, 'Hey blacksmith.'"

Somaliland's returning econoratti has brought with it a hunger for profit which has brought cheap foreign imports to the region en masse for the first time. The homespun appliances that have propped up the Yibir for decades are becoming obsolete. "We were a factory for the early Somalis," the old man says. "But now there are factories in Somaliland. We can't earn any money because everything can be bought from the factories for less." Money is disappearing fast, and with the region's age-old prejudices alive and well, no one wants to hire a Yibir tradesman, no matter his skill. The Yiber people of Somalia A fabled past

A thousand years ago the Yibir travelled south to Somalia from the Levant and quickly established power through a fabled knowledge of medicine, astronomy and the occult. And it was Samayo – a tax leveed on all newborn children – that gave the Yibir their greatest strength. Ancient Somalis would pay out to avoid being cursed by the mighty Yibir elders. In return they would bestow a birthstone-encrusted bracelet with which to ward off evil.

By the 7th century the Yibir controlled vast swathes of modern Somalia. They had their own security, their own banking systems – even a police force. The age of Islam was not yet upon the world and the Yibir practiced Judaic beliefs they had brought from the Near East (Yibir means 'Hebrew' in Somali). Then Islam arrived, and the Yibir, and their strange beliefs, were cast into the fringes. That trend continued all the way up until Barre's bloodthirsty rule.

But Yibir trades are disappearing and their lands have been snatched away. In addition, because of their marginalisation in Somali society, rights groups complain that the Yibir are the last to receive any morsels of aid that make it to Hargeisa. No wonder, then, that the Yibir are facing disaster.

But, one government official calls me to say, Somaliland is trying to help. He gives me a number and tells me to be at the blacksmiths' market the following day. Tomorrow, he says, I will meet the kings of the Yibir. The Yiber people of Somalia I end up, via a crackly phone message the following morning, in a small, empty villa outside town. In the living room a 14-inch television blasts out afternoon prayers as the sun sets beyond a dusty window pane. I sit in a scarlet armchair beside a fat man I'm told is a king of the Yibir. One king, then another, and another and another appear until I'm surrounded by six middle-aged sultans. In the centre of the room sit trays of sweet tea.

One of the men, Sultan Mohammed, sits resplendently in the centre of the room and pours himself a tall syrupy tea. He sports a traditional cream-coloured cap (a koofiyad) and drapes a carefully woven red-and-white shawl over his left shoulder. His face, weather-worn, is half-hidden behind a prickly little beard that shocks grey. Without acknowledging me he begins picking off the greenest leaves of khat from a blue plastic bag. His phone rings to the tune of We Wish You a Merry Christmas.

With all assembled, a younger man, lanky and rawboned with aviator shades and shiny black sandals, walks in and sits in the middle. He looks like a hitman but is, in fact, a government mediator, sent as a new initiative to listen to the gripes of minority tribes like the Yibir, most vocally from Mohammed. For half an hour I sit in silence listening to half-enthused debate - exclusively in Somali – until the young man leaves and I'm left alone with the kings.

One leans to me and says, in perfect English: "Nothing will come of this." The Somaliland constitution demands that minority groups are treated equally, as the region clamours for independence from its maligned southern parent. The locals call this 'recognition'. The international community isn't listening, however. The Yiber people of Somalia And besides, no one is upholding the constitution. There may be dozens of 'mediators' but in truth the Yibir are still headed backwards. Their economy is vanishing, their faiths and practices loathed, and their land a distant memory. Aid is slow and kids are born at alarming rates. The Yibir may be about to vanish from the face of the Earth with a simper.

I ask one expert, as we sit in a Hargeisa hotel room, what will happen to the delicate history of the Yibir, the original Somalis. "It will disappear too," he says. "We do not keep histories like you in the West. There are no Yibir libraries, no documents. If the Yibir go, their history goes too."

Extinction, he adds, is not far away. And no one is listening. The Yiber people of Somalia