The following pages are extracts taken from an unpublished draft manuscript titled ‘Stars, Seasons and Weather in Somali Pastoral Traditions’ written by the late Musa. H. I. Galaal (1909-1982). I am currently re-editing and revising this valuable manuscript for future publication which was originally written by Musa. H. I. Galaal (in 1972); a distinguished Somali academician who has produced many pamphlets, essays, periodicals and books on the varied aspects of Somali culture-poetry, folklore, nomadic lifestyle and the vigour and richness of the Somali language.
In acknowledgement of our profound debt to Musa and his life’s work, we will honour him and pay our tribute by featuring in the coming months in Somaliland Times weekly publication extracts taken from his ‘Stars, Seasons and Weather in Somali Pastoral Traditions’ manuscript.
Text in Italics is where I felt a broader meaning or explanations was needed and are of my own words, including illustrations and graphics.
Your feedback/comments will be most welcomed.
Rashid Mustafa, X. Noor
Part one: First appeared in Somaliland Times newspaper issue 187 20/08/2005
Somali astrological & meteorological traditions and literature
Somalis, particularly those who still follow the traditional nomadic life, have a profound interest in, and knowledge of the weather, the stars and planets, and their penetrating effects upon the lives of this people. This is reflected in the language itself, which contains a large number of sayings, riddles and songs which link astronomical phenomena to events in nomadic life with which they are associated. I was myself a camel herder when I was a boy, and I recall many of these sayings and songs. They have always interested me, and during my life I have collected very many more.
There are for example phrases, in the language (especially, those in replying to a greeting) that closely associate the weather and the well being of my people: such as the Dabayl Caafimmad, the breeze of health and tranquility. Nabaad iyo naq-roobaad, peace and the greenness that follows rain. Bash-bash iyo barwaako, this term has the underlying phonetic representation of waterlogged undergrowth which has soaked up recent heavy rains and means a period of plenty and prosperity, for all'.
Some terms are deeply allusive: Abaar iyo oodo-lullul, meaning in the vicinity of a drought, also lurks the rattling or shacking of one's thorn-fence. The image here is of drought -stricken nomads who have lost all their livestock and try to force their way into the corrals of those more fortunate ones who still have cattle, or other livestock left.
There are moreover, countless songs in Somali traditionally sung to girls, to camels or to cattle which link astronomical phenomena, as observed omens, to years of prosperity or drought, to the deaths of important persons, to wars or storms. This song I remember clearly from my youth:
Xaydho-dayihii, Kuu xiddiginjirey, Xareed bardiyo, Xays inoo sheeg. (My beautiful camels)
The reader of the Xaydho,¹
Who is also the expert on stars,
Announces a long-lasting supply of rainwater,
An unexpected season of heavy rain
Note: 1. Xaydho, this term refers to the fat that covers the stomach of the goats. This fat was used in the past by the Somalis for telling the future. It was removed from the goat and held to the light. Inductions were then made from looking at the inside of the fat – about the weather, wars, rain, etc.
There is a famous saying ascribed to one or two such persons who use to read the Xaydho for the sultanate of the Iidaagale clan. On one such occasion, in the coronation of Sultan Diiriiyey, of the Iidaagale clan in around 1880’s, when the Xaydho readers completed their inspection of the fat, they were asked what the Xaydho foretold regarding the new sultan. One of the Xaydho readers said that ;“This new sultan, unfortunately will not be as wise as his father use to be” , and the other replied, while gazing at the fat: “ Even worse! According to my inductions his reign will be long and live a long time, God willing” . Oddly enough, Sultan Diiriiyey died at the ripe old age of around 80 to 85 ’yrs.
Going back to our subject theme: Another song depicts the anguish felt by the herder, seeing that the beginning of the spring rains and the passing of the spring rains has gone by without a drop of rainwater. For, he knows that the season for spring rains has begun, due to the setting of the Urur stars or Pleiades in the early hours of the twilight. And the end of the spring rain season, due to the setting of the stars in Afagaale or virgo constellation Castor, Pollux, Procyon and Gombiza. This is song alliterated in the vowel letters:
Haddaan ururkiyo, Afaggaal ridey, Mugga eeddaa, Ilaah bayska leh',
Anna orodkay, Waa intii hore. My lovely cow,
now you can see that the Pleiades (Urur) and the twin stars of Virgo have set,
And still there is no sign of the spring rains. I have laboured hard to keep you well,
So that you may live through the harsh dry season,
Be witness, then, it is the Will of God, (A traditional "Hees Lo'aad" or cattle song)
Particularly, severe droughts seem to occur in the Somali nomadic regions every eight years. The singer sings of this, with parched lips, to his lovely girl: Alliterated in the B letter.
Beydaney Berdaale gudh, Bullaalena gaabi orodkii,
Anna biifihii dhigey,
Xaggaan biyo kaaga doonaa. Oh, my lovely Beydan, The well Berdaale is dry,
And my horse Bullaale is old and weary,
How can I then fetch water for your thirst?
(A traditional Hees Cayaareed or dance song )
Knowledge of the stars and the weather is part of every child's upbringing in the nomadic countryside. In this chorus dance song made up of riddles, alliterated by letter D, a group of nomadic girls challenge their nomadic counterparts, the boys, to show their knowledge of the stars.
Young nomadic girls challenge their nomadic counterparts, the boys.
End of Part One back
Waar xiddigaha maxaa dira? Maxaa deris iyo walaalo ah?
Maxaa dan-u-heshiisyo ah?
Maxaanse daabano kala gelin?
Which constellations are most ancient?
And which are both neighbours and cousins?
Which live in peace and unity, together?
And which are strangers?
and the boys answer
Naa xiddigaha waxaa dira
Waxaa deris iyo walaalo ah,
Afagaallaa dushaas mara,
Waxaa dan u heshiisyo ah,
Laxahaa dan u heshiisyo ah,
Waxaanse daabaano kala gelin,
Lixda dameerajoogeen iyo,
Inta uu dayaxu maro
The oldest constellation is Scorpio.
The stars that are both neighbours and cousins
Are those of the Virgo constellation.
The Pleiades live in peace, in union and together.
And the stars that are strangers to each other
Are the six stars of Sagittarius
And those that lie on the moon's path.
Somali astrological & meteorological traditions and literature
The stars play a vital role in the Somali nomadic countryside. Yet, for those Somalis, who dwell in the urban cities, will show a great deal of enthusiasm in the stars and their knowledge. Although, many Somalis of second or third generation city dwellers will not have experienced, a true life in the countryside. Yet, if you ask him/her the names of the stars, planets or the time, the Pleiades set in winter or spring seasons, many will know the answer. And this is because of the Somali language or the influence of traditional & modern literature. For, you will always find a reference to some star, planet or astronomical phenomena of some kind or another made in every song played on the radio, theatrical play or a poem. Somalis love of poetry and the verbal arts was, so much so that Richard Burton, the English explorer, in his travels to Somaliland in 1854 commented:
The country teems with "poets, poetasters, poetitos, poetaccios": every man has his recognized position in literature as accurately defined as though he had been reviewed in a century of magazines-the fine ear of these people causing them to take the greatest pleasure in harmonious sounds and poetical expressions, whereas a false quantity or a prosaic phrase excite their violent indignation. Richard Burton, First footsteps in East Africa (New York: Praeger, 1966), p.93
Because, the Somali people are an oral society, much of their traditional and modern literature has become inseparable from the stars and the heavens above. And this can be said as to the reason why so many of the city dwellers know so much of the stars, than of animal husbandry.
The crucial distinction between different forms of Somali poetry is in the number of syllables in each line. The following rough guide may be found useful;
Halaanhal normally 12 syllables (oldest metre)
Gabay normally 14 to 16 syllables
Geeraar normally 7 syllables (classical metres)
Jiifto normally 7 syllables (classical metres)
Heelo normally 10 syllables
Hees-Xoolaad normally 1 to 5 syllables (livestock husbandry song)
Hees-Cayaareed normally from 6 to 11 syllables (dance song)
Hees-Caanood normally from 6 to 9 syllables (milk-shaking song)
Hees-Mooye normally 6 syllables (wheat-maize grinding song)
Hees-Carruureed normally 8 syllables (nursery or sung to children)
From last week, we can see that the weather is all-important for the nomadic people of this country: if rain fails at the expected season, there is drought and suffering, heavy losses amongst the herds, and consequent poverty, leading often to war. It is therefore hardly surprising that they should have become so closely acquainted with the paths of the moon and the stars, and should have come to rely so heavily on the interpretations and predications traditionally drawn from "the stations of the moon",
The stations of the moon, a fundamental concept in Somali astrology and weather prediction, and studied by the nomadic experts with great care and thoroughness, consists of twenty eight different groups of stars or stations fixed along the ecliptic path of the moon, and served to mark the life span of the Somali lunar month, number of days in each year, seasons and for weather predications and astrological forecasts . Each station has from one to over ten stars in its makeup. In addition, however, to the 28 stations along the visible path of the moon during each lunar month, there are said by Somalis to be one or two nights in every month during which the moon is not visible. These are the 'empty stations' when the moon is a 'new-moon' not in conjunction with any star or group of stars visible to the Somali observer. The period is known in Somali as "Dibbad or Dubbad" and means 'an invisible moon. Thus the Somali lunar calendar month will vary from 29 to 30 days
The importance of the Urur group of stars or Pleiades constellation for the Somali nomad
There is indeed a deep commitment of the Somali nomad to signs and portents, based upon long tradition, and not subject to orthodox Islamic beliefs. There is a proverb in Somali from the religious sections of the community that says; 'foolish people who spend all their time reading the stars would do better to ponder on the Divine Will'. 'Malluug moogow Maruubsatadaada fiirsoy'. And I recall a poem recited by an Arab sheikh, scorning the Somalis for their over-dependence on astronomy and the astrological deductions made from it:
Hadday laxo dhacaan
Hor Soomaali-qalinley siday yeelidoontaa? If sheep start lambing At the setting of the Pleiades,
But the life giving (Seermaweydo) spring rains failed,
What would the foolish Somalis do then? (Jiifto or classical poem)
The Pleiades stars are known in Somali as "Urur" or "Laxo". Urur means 'a confederation' because these stars 7 in total are grouped tightly together and the latter word Laxo means 'sheep'. The Pleiades play a very important role in the Somali weather lore system. Because, rams and ewes are kept apart in the Somali country throughout the year, so that the ewes do not give birth to new born lambs in the dry and non-grazing seasons. Somali nomads let loose the rams with the ewes for mating on the night of "Dambasamo" : this is the night when in the middle of autumn (November) the moon is in conjunction with the Urur/Pleiades on the 15th day of the lunar month or full moon: the mating must be timed so that the lambs are born in a season of abundance.
When full moon is in conjunction with the Urur group of stars or Pleiades on the night (15th November) is known in Somali as 'the night of Dambasamo'
Lambs conceived on the night of "Dambasamo" will be born about 150 days later, which should be in the middle of the spring rains (April), and this is when the time the Pleiades will start to set at about twilight. The nomad, therefore knows when to let the rams mate with ewes in the middle of autumn by using the Urur/Pleiades as a point of cue, and also will use the Pleiades as a precursor for tracking the time period left for when the rains will begin in spring.
Going back, to the Arab sheikh's poem, the verse 'the setting of the Urur/Pleiades' signify the beginning of the rain season, and this is the time when the sheep give birth to new born lambs, and if these rains fail it will spell disaster for the nomads and their sheep. In other words, the Arab sheikh is rebuking the nomads for not taking into consideration the Divine Will as being the force behind the rains and the cycles of seasons and not the Urur/Pleiades, stars or heavenly bodies as responsible for the onset of the rains. The nomad however would defend his over-reliant attitude by saying: ' not only on man has God conferred this knowledge, but also onto the animal kingdom as well'. The nomad will argue, that ' God has taught the "Cawl" a species of the gazelle the power to read the stars, for whenever it wants to mate, it does so, in accordance by reading the stars and knowing when the rains will begin, with God's leave.'
There are countless phrases, songs, proverbs and poems in Somali, which ascribe these skills to the 'cawl gazelle and countless other wild animals. 'Cawl' in Somali is pronounced, in similar to the English pronunciation to the word ‘owl’ as in the night-bird ‘owl’. 'Cawl' is also a poplar Somali name given to boys. This Gabay by Cali Dhuux, recorded from Jaamac Daahir of Buuhoodle ascribes, these skills to the ‘Cawl’ or species of the gazelle (alliterated in the Somali vowel letter 'C' pronounced in English as 'ah'):
When the male 'Cawl' wishes to mate with his females,
he first makes astronomical calculations.
He also knows their menstrual periods and the techniques of mating, The day he wishes to cause propagation and offspring’s,
He, placing first his front knees on to the female's back,
Judges whether the young will be born in sun or green
from signs in the heavens,
His decision whether to continue mating or to descend is in accordance with his celestial induction's. (Gabay or classical poem)
Markuu cawlku cawlaa orgayn, waa u cibaaroone, Cisaday ku uuraysatiyo, caadaduu garane,
Cashaday calool gelahayaan, cannugga beertiisu, Curcurradiyo lawyada intuu, ku cuskaduu saaro, Cirridiyo cagaar miday ku dhalan, caadka kor u eegye, Hadba cirirka loo nuuriyuu, ku cimro-qaataaye.
The 'Cawl' gazelle is the only gazelle species which mate's outside the normal mating season, when all animals or gazelles are busy mating. For, whenever there is a drought, because the major spring rains have failed, many of the newborn offspring’s of the other gazelle species suffer and die. However, the same is not true for the 'cawl' gazelle.
For you will never see an 'cawl' gazelle with new born offspring's in times of failed spring rains, like you do with the other gazelle species. And this is attributed to the Somali belief that the 'cawl' stag gazelle knows when the rains will fail, because it gazes at the stars before it mates. And this is the reason the Somalis hold with such esteem this species of gazelle. One of the vital Somali seasons of the ‘Gu’ or spring rains is named after this gazelle. The three major ‘Gu’ or spring rains are called ‘Seermaweydo’ and ‘Diriir Cawl’ and ‘Diriir Sagaalo’.
Some nomads will often go to great lengths in the middle of the night to keep a track on a nearby herde of 'cawl' gazelles, so that they can know when to let their rams mate with the ewes, and all this depends on whether the 'cawl' stag gazelles have started to mate or not. Because, in the time period which 'cawl' gazelles give birth to new born offspring's is about the same time as sheep give birth to their new born lambs (five months from the time of conception).
End of Part Two
Somali astrological & meteorological traditions and literature
Somali legend of the origins of the Milky-Way “Jid-Cirir or Cir Jiidh”
The Milky Way is called in Somali "Jid-Cirir" which means "the path of the cursed child". This explains one Somali legend about the 'Milky Way’, which tells the story of a cruel son who use to beat his mother every day and drag her along the rocky ground in the hot sun. One day he was more vicious than usual, and pulled, dragging her by the leg over sharp bits of the rocky ground until she was torn and bleeding all over. Half-dead, she raised her eyes to the sky looking for some deliverance from her oppressor. The Almighty rescued the unhappy old crone by paralysing her son. He quickly died, and his body was cast up onto a special purgatory in the sky where he can still be seen as the constellation Orion known in Somali as “Nin la gigay” which means ‘The incarcerate one or man”. A representation of the rough ground over which he had dragged his poor mother was made for all to remember in the heavens - the Milky Way; and from that time on, no son has been cruel to his parents, fearing that he also would meet with the same fate.
The constellation Orion known in Somali as “NIN LA GIGAY”
The Somali Sky-camel "awrka Cirka"
Let us know have a look at the Somali traditions associated with the legend of the Somali 'Sky Camel "Awrka-Cirka". In the region of 'the coal sack' or 'Crux constellation’ the southern cross, an area known in Somali as "wadaamo-xooro or wadaamo-lugud", is said to appear in the shape or silhouette of a huge male camel on dark nights in the months of March to July.
Image is a rough depiction of the Somali night sky above the (9:60N 44:50E) Horn of Africa and
showing outline of the sky-camel, its head lies left of the Crux constellation
The legend of the Somali Sky Camel "Awrka-Cirka" says that the camel was once, long ago, positioned in the north, above the mountains of "Cir-Shiida" in the district of Erigaabo Northeast Somalia. The name of this particular mountain "Cir-Shiida" means in Somali 'the summit, from where missiles were hurled at the sky'.
"One year, as the legend says, there was a severe drought, and the people of the district suffered greatly, losing all their lively hoods, livestock's and animals decided to attack and kill the great 'sky-camel' as a source for food. First they built a huge platform on top of the highest mountain of the Erigaabo plateau, tall enough for the people standing on it to reach up to the tail of the 'sky-camel' and cut it off. The 'sky-camel' felt the pain and raced off to the south; where it is still to be seen to this day”.
Somali Sky Camel (Awrka Cirka) under attack
End of part three
Somali astrological & meteorological traditions and literature
The 'Somali Sky-camel’ or ‘Awrka Cirka' also provides a basis for meteorological observation, i.e. the timing of the major spring rains and the changing of seasons from one season to another.
In the months before the start of the main "Gu" (spring) rains, the 'sky-camel' is seen ( image 1 ) with its head down towards the East, as if it were about to start drinking water, "Wuu afku-rubadlaynayaa" is the term known in Somali for when livestock have their heads down drinking water, seen here left in this image.
Image 1:March night sky
In April and May, its image ( Imager 2 ) is upright again, and can be seen clearly between eight and twelve o'clock at night, apparently satisfied, and chewing the cud heartedly.
Image 2: April/May night sky
In June and July, its head ( image 3 ) appears to be turned upwards towards the zenith, its back falling towards the west, apparently cropping the tops of the trees.
Image 3: June/July night sky
In fact, the three different periods of the grazing year in this region of Africa are closely pictured by the onset of the "Gu" or spring rains, all the livestock are busy from the 15th of March drinking the spring waters.
Towards 20th of April in the middle of the rains, when there is plenty of green grass and water, the animals have fed so well that they spend long periods contentedly sitting and chewing. And when the rains are finished in late June, and the green grass parches, the camels begin cropping the new tender leaves and buds from the tops of trees.
It is interesting thought that the region Sanaag in Somaliland in which the 'sky-camel' is said to have originated has a great wealth of as yet un-investigated archaeological interest.
The Maakhir coast, including the Erigaabo country famed for its frankincense and myrrh since antiquity and often referred to by the ancient civilisation of Egypt as 'the land of Punt', is the centre of an area in which numerous ancient ruined cities, whose history is still unknown, have been discovered; and there are also said to be cave paintings and rock carvings still to be examined.
The Somali legend of the 'sky-camel', and men's first ventures into the sky, may be indicative of a great ancient civilisation, which built observatories on the mountain ranges, and studied the heavens.
One Somali saying goes, (alliterated in letter D);
" Awrka-cirka nin daya mooyiye
Nin dayoo ka taga mooyiye
Nin dabrada dad laga waa..... " Man could only gaze at the sky-camel
Gaze and turn away
None could conquer it or make it tame."
This Somali proverb simply reminds us; that 'some things in life will always be beyond man/woman's wildest dreams, regardless of one’s wealth, power or stature in life’.
End of part four
Somali astrological & meteorological traditions and literature
The Somali name for planets is "Malluug" or "Siyaariin" or “Meere” and all three names reflect a regulated motion in movement. Most nomads believe the planets to be huge stars with special courses of their own: they are commonly defined by Somali traditional astro/weather-lore experts as "heavenly bodies that move round on their own orbits, and with the sun". The number of such planets, according to various traditional beliefs, is as few as five or as many as nine. A few experts include the moon among the planets, but most take it to be a satellite of the earth. Mercury is considered by some as a planet, and by others as a star. There is therefore no general agreement about what are planets and what are not, and moreover, although all these bodies are named in Somali tradition, it is very difficult to match the Somali names to the planets identified in Western astronomy. The Somali names themselves vary greatly in different regions of the nomadic country. More research is needed into the whole question of the identification of these planets, and my chart giving the names of each planet in different Somali regions by no means is complete.
Names for the Planets in different Somali regions
International Qardo name Burco name Qabridharre name Banaadiir name
Sun Qorrax Qorrax Qorrax Qorrax
Mercury Dusaa Hurjub Cudaarid Dhayl-Gaduud
Venus Waxaro-xir or Sahra
or Xiddig-Waaberi Maqal xidh-Xidh
or Sahra Maqal Xidh-xidh or Sahra Waxarra-Xir or Sahra
or Xiddig Waaberi
Earth Dhul Dhul Dhul Dhul
Mars Saxal Saxal Guduud or Saxal Saxal Guduud or Saxal Saxal Guduud or Saxal
Saturn Faraare or Mariikh Mariikh Dhiigle Mariikh Mariikh
Jupitor Saxal-Cadde or Mushtar or Cirjeex Cir-Jiidh or Mushtar or Saxal-Cadde or Gob-dhawr Saxal-Cadde or
Gob-dhawr Cir-jiidh or Dhool-Mare or Mushtar
Uranus ? ? ? ?
Neptune ? Docay ? ?
Pluto ? ? ? ?
Although there is a considerable uncertainty about the identification of the planets recognised by Somalis, there is no doubt that they do constitute an important part of the sky studies of Somali astro/weather-lore experts, and are thought to have astrological influences that are by no means negligible.
The commonest Somali names for Venus are "Maqal xidh-xidh" or "Waxaro xidh-xidh", both names have the same connotation and mean 'the rounding up of sheep's and goats, at sunset back into their pens'. All Somalis accept it as a planet. There is a riddle traditionally associated with Venus, and its periodic absences from the night skies. Sometimes it is reckoned to be absent for only six nights - to correspond with alternating roles of Morning Star (in the East) and Evening Star (in the West). When the absence is of six days, it is said on its return to greet people with question "How did you spend the night" - as if it had gone on a journey and was delighted to see its old friends once more. But sometimes the absences is reckoned to be for sixty days, and then the greeting given is said to take the form of another question: "What have you lost while I have been away" and finally absences considered to last for six months, it is believed to ask: "What wealth have you still left?" The absences of six nights are traditionally held to foretell a year of plenty; those of sixty nights will be hard but not unendurable. But from an absence of six months the assumption is that there will be great drought and suffering in the land. The presence of this planet in the sky is thus considered to exert a mysterious protective influence over people. Because of the serious implications read into the period of its absence from the sky, the "maqal xidh-xidh" is closely watched by the local astronomers and weather-experts.
Significant in a different way are the movements of the planet Mars, known in Somali as "Saxal-Guduud". It is believed to ‘meet and live with' each of the twenty-eight stations of the moon (these stations of the moon are called in Somali “Goddad” and mean ’trench, den, hole or place of moon’s station or sojourn’) once in a cycle of thirty-three years. The stations of the moon, a fundamental concept in Somali astrology and weather prediction, and studied by the nomadic experts with great care and thoroughness, consists of twenty eight different groups of stars or stations fixed along the ecliptic path of the moon, and served to mark the life span of the Somali lunar month, number of days in each year, seasons and for weather predications and astrological forecasts . Each station has from one to over ten stars in its makeup. In addition, however, to the 28 stations along the visible path of the moon during each lunar month, there are said by Somalis to be one or two nights in every month during which the moon is not visible. These are the 'empty stations' when the moon is not in conjunction with any star or group of stars visible to the Somali observer. The period is known in Somali as "Dibbad or Dubbad" and means 'an invisible moon. Thus the Somali lunar calendar month will vary from 29 to 30 days.
It thus plays host to each station for an indefinite period, sometimes for one or two months, sometimes for seven or even more months. The host planet is thought to contaminate the station for as long as they stay together, thus to bring evil fortune to any person born under this station, or to a clan associated with it. The severity of its contamination is said to depend on whether the other planets are in conjunction with certain stations of the moon. It is said by the Somalis that when "Saxal gudduud" and "Mariikh" or 'Mars and Saturn' are close together, the astrologer predicts "Gob-Gob Magan gashay" meaning the fall from power of a noble clan or nation, and its consequent search for protection with another clan.
The same is also said about "Saxal Cadde" or 'Jupiter', in that when it is in a certain station; and ‘Mars or Saxal Gaduud’ is in conjunction with one's birth sign or station, one will face a great battle against all misfortune. For the duration of the conjunction, therefore, it is considered wise to efface oneself as much as possible, to avoid quarrels or involvement in other's quarrels, and most decisively to avoid tribal wars. The enfeebling influence of Mars (Saxal) in conjunction with one's personal birth station is considered a great curse. This is beautifully suggested in the following anonymous "gabey" or 'poem' (alliterated in letter S):
Adduunyadu nin bay saaciddaa, sare u qaadaaye.
Ninna waaba saranseerisaa, yare silleeddaaye.
San barra ka taag-daran ninkuu, Saxalku fuulaaye Life in this world allows one man, to grow prosperous,
While another sinks into obscurity, and is made ridiculous
A man passing through the evil influence of red Mars is feebler
than a new born lamb punched on the nose
End of part five
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