The Somali Studies International Association (SSIA) was founded in 1978 by a number of scholars, both Somali and non-Somali, with a particular interest in Somali questions. The objectives, as defined at the time of its founding and repeated at every opening of an SSIA congress, are:
- to promote scholarly research, both within and outside Somalia, in all areas and disciplines within the social sciences, natural sciences and humanities;
- to encourage international cooperation and to facilitate the exchange of ideas among scholars engaged in research on Somalia and the Horn of Africa;
- to encourage the publication and dissemination of articles and books on Somali Studies and related topics;
- to organize periodic panels and symposia on Somali studies at meetings of national and international associations and organizations;
- to provide the general public with information on historical, cultural and contemporary issues in the Horn of Africa.
More specifically, the Somali Studies International Association finds its most concrete expression in the organizing of its regularly occurring international congresses and the subsequent publication of its proceedings.
The structure of the association is twofold. On the one hand, it is an association formally registered as a non-profit organization in the USA, upholding the aims of the association as expressed above; on the other, it is, in the words of one of its founding fathers and first president, Hussein Adam, a loose network of researchers around the world, which takes on the tasks of organizing congresses on a voluntary basis. Thus, the formal association is dependent on the network for its practical functioning. Each congress proposal must get the go-ahead of the formal SSIA, and then raise its own budget.
This flexible structure has proved to be resilient enough to allow the SSIA to continue over time, in spite of all the political and social difficulties that the Somalis go through. Although discussions can be lively, and tensions may arise, the congresses have always proved that scholars within the field of Somali studies can come together and debate, and if needed, agree to disagree.
The SSIA aims to hold a congress on average every three years, somewhere in the world. The first one was held in Mogadishu in 1980, then followed Hamburg, Germany in 1983, Rome, Italy in 1986 and again Mogadishu in 1989, at the brink of the collapse of the Somali state. After that, the pause was slightly longer, but in 1993, the fifth congress was held at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, USA. Then followed, quite regularly, Berlin, Germany in 1996 and Toronto, Canada in 1999. After only a two year pause, the eighth congress was held in Hargeisa, Somaliland in 2001, and then in 2004 Denmark was host to the ninth congress, held in Aalborg.
In spite of the ongoing civil war and the various aspirations of the territories formerly belonging to the Republic of Somalia, the 10th congress was held as expected in 2007 – quite an achievement under the circumstances. To honor this, it was decided to acknowledge both good congress candidates and hold a double congress, in Ohio, USA in August and in Djibouti in December.
After that, as the situation in the Horn of Africa degraded further, it became very difficult to get support for a purely scholarly congress, with no explicit aim of achieving political agreements among the opposing parties in the conflict. Only in 2012, after a five year pause, was it possible to hold the 11th congress, this time in Lillehammer, Norway. Already at that time, participants from Finland announced their will to take on the next congress in 2015 in Helsinki.
In addition to these congresses, the European Association of Somali Studies was active in the mid-1990s, organizing two congresses, in London in 1993 and in Paris in 1995. One congress was held jointly by the two associations, in Turku, Finland, in 1998.
Several other events of a more regional character have also taken place over the years.
Almost as important as organizing a congress, and in the long run the most tangible record of it having taken place, is the publication of its proceedings. Most past congresses and several other events have resulted in publications. For details, see SSIA bibliography and related material.