The Yibir (also spelled Yibbir) are a small clan of Somalia, subsisting as itinerant soothsayers and magicians. They are said to predate the coming ofIslam to the area and to be descendants of Mohammad Hanif of Hargeysa, who had a reputation as a pagan magician.[1]

The Yibir continue to be a small minority clan, greatly dependent on the host community,[2] and have a language (a dialect of Somali) they keep secret from the ruling Somali clans.[3]


[hide]*1 Social status

[edit]Social statusEdit

The Yibir belong to the category of the sab, a group of minority clans which also includes the Madhiban and the Tumaal. The sab live in subservience to the ruling clans, the Somali. They traditionally perform menial work and "lack almost all those rights common to freeborn Somali."[4] They are peripatetic people, that is, groups who may have originally subsisted by hunting and gathering and later performed menial or sometimes specialized work, often for low wages.[5] In addition, they sell amulets for births and marriages and produce prayer mats.[6]

The non-food producing Yibir traditionally were itinerant peddlers and magicians.[7] Some Yibir believe that they are descendants of Hebrews who arrived in the area long before the arrival of Somalinomads, and that the word "Yibir" means "Hebrew".[8]


The foundational myth for the Yibir involves one Sharif Yuusuf Barkhadle (popularly known as Aw Barkhadle or the "Blessed Father"[9]), a man described as "the most outstanding saint in northern Somalia"[10] and associated with Sheikh Ishaaq, the founder of the Isaaq Somali clan family.[11] The myth underlies the modern Somali practice of offering gifts to peripatetic Yibir soothsayers who come to lay blessings upon newborn children and newlywed couples. The story goes that when Barkhadle first settled near his eventual place of burial in the northern Somaliland region, he was confronted by Mohamed Hanif (also pejoratively known as Bu'ur Ba'ayer), a local Yibir leader who ruled the territory contrary to the laws of Islam. The two leaders then decided to settle the issue of legitimacy between them via a test of mystical strength. Barkhadle challenged Hanif to traverse a small hill near Dogor,[12] an area situated some 20 miles north of the regional capital of Hargeisa.[13]Hanif twice successfully accomplished this task asked of him. However, during Hanif's third demonstration of his powers, Barkhadle "invoked the superior might of God and imprisoned his rival for ever within the mountain."[14] Orthodox Islam thus prevailed over the old pagan cult.[15] However, Hanif's descendants are said to have subsequently demanded blood money or diyya from Barkhadle for the death of their leader and in perpetuity.[16][17] Barkhadle granted them their wish,[18] and this gave rise to the modern custom of samanyo or samayo ("birth gift"[19]), payment made to the Yibir by their Somali patrons.[20]

One of the versions of the story is recorded in Yibir and translated into English by John William Carnegie Kirk.[21] In 1921, Major H. Rayne, a district-commissioner in British Somaliland, also recounts the story, using it as a preface to an anecdote about a Somali who had just become a father and asked him for money to pay a passing Yibir.[22]

[edit]Contemporary situationEdit

Yibir still have a reputation for magic; one of their traditional functions is to bless the newborn and the newly married. In return for these blessings they receive gifts, a continual repayment for the killing of Mohammed Hanif.[23] They subsist in two different ways—by being attached to noble Somali families, or by (cyclically) visiting different households.[24] The payments they receive, called samanyo(described by an English scholar as a "tax"[25]), also function to forestall the fear of a possible cursing of the (Somali) host by the Yibir soothsayer or magician; though the Yibir are the "smallest and most despised" clan of the sab, they are thought to have the strongest magic.[26] Persistently refusing to give a gift on the occasion of a birth invites the curse of the Yibir, which is supposed to result in a violent death for the refusing party or a deformed new-born.[27] Another of the Yibir's supernatural characteristics is that when they die they vanish: no one, according to Somali tradition, "has ever seen the grave of a Yibir",[28] a quality possibly derived from the disappearance of their ancestor, Hanif.[29]

In 1961, the Yibir were estimated to number around 1300 individuals.[30] However, in 2000, Ahmad Jama Hersi, the modern leader of the Yibir, stated he believed 25,000 Yibir to live in Somalia and neighboring countries.[31] In 2000, the clan received legitimacy at the national level when they were to receive a seat in the 225-member parliament of the Transitional National Government.[32]


The language of the Yibir (like that of the Madhiban) is described by early 20th century Western linguists as a dialect of the Somali language. Yibir and Madhiban are similar and share a number of words.[33]

J.W.C. Kirk, a British infantry officer stationed in British Somaliland, published a grammar of Somali with an account of the Yibir and Midgan (i.e. Madhiban) dialects in 1905[34] and commented on the difference of the two dialects from the dominant Somali language. According to his sources, the difference is necessary to maintain a secrecy and keep the ruling class from total dominance of the subservient clans: Each tribe has its own dialect, which has hitherto been kept as a solemn secret from the rest of the world. They still insist upon secrecy from Somalis, and made me promise not to divulge to their hereditary enemies what they were quite willing to explain to the white man.I, therefore, rely upon any who may read this not to disclose to any Somali what I have been allowed to write down for the benefit of the Sirkal,[35] but if any other officer of an enquiring disposition wishes to pursue the subject, he should be acquainted with the Somali language, which all the Sab know, and discuss these things with one of them.[36] Kirk stresses this desire for secrecy repeatedly: "Therefore I must ask any who may read this and who may sojourn in the country, not to repeat what I give here to any Somali, not of Yibir or Midgan birth";[37] a similar note was sounded by the German linguist Adolf Walter Schleicher in his 1892 grammar of the Somali language.[38]

In more recent times, the linguist Roger Blench, referencing Kirk, has similarly indicated that the Yibir and Madhiban dialects both "differ substantially in lexicon from standard Somali". However, he remarks that it remains unknown whether this linguistic divergence is due to some sort of difference in code or is instead indicative of distinct languages.[39]