(N.B. Due to the sensitive context of this story, key details have been disguised to protect the people involved.)
Admittedly, I had dragged my feet about seeing it soon after its premiere back in 2013 because I did not want another disappointment after “Black Hawk Down.” The guys who had played Somalis in that movie were clearly not from the Horn of Africa, and there was no fooling people like me who counted a few Somalis as good friends. If we Asians are insulted when told that we all look the same, we should understand the dismay of Africans when they are lumped in pretty much similar ways. I breathed a sigh of relief to read and see that they had cast one Barkhad Adi, a Mogadishu-born Somali, as the main antagonist. Although now a Minnesotan, Adi is certainly a true son of Somalia.
These days, I find it difficult to talk about my Somali friends, especially among narrow-minded folks, because the international media have focused on headline-grabbing, copy-selling stereotypes of them: terrorists, pirates and warlords. I do not relish getting caught up in arguments with armchair activists who know the issues as dumbed down to simplistic proportions that register well as tweets and Facebook shares. When the Garissa University College massacre happened on April 2, 2015, leaving behind 147 dead, I joined the rest of the world in condemning the Al-Shabaab atrocity, but I also worried for the welfare of more than a dozen Somalis I knew personally. See, they are not a faceless, nameless group of people to me. They are real human beings whose life narratives of survival I knew intimately.
In the beginning, it was not easy to befriend Somalis. They seemed to be a naturally suspicious and proud lot, wary of anyone who approached them, especially people with promises of help. I was told this to my face—no apologies offered—when I first encountered a small cluster of them in Hurlingham Estate, within the Kenyan capital. My tiny teaching team and I were just then starting literacy and English classes among refugees, and we wanted to include Somalis among the groups we worked with. The Somali elders would have none of it and promptly put us in our place. They approached relationship building from a position of distrust. One had to earn their trust; it was not freely given. It was from them that I learned one of the most important truths about working in Africa: Never go to the continent with the romantic notion of being a messiah, of helping its people. You are not needed and wanted that way. Instead, be a trustworthy friend. Everything else flows from that fundamental relationship.
My team and I threw literacy and English classes out the window and focused on knowing them as a people. We did not offer them anything. We just spent time eating camel-meat stew with them, learning some of their key conversational phrases, and visiting their homes to listen to their stories. Sometimes, we played with their babies while the mothers went off to attend sewing classes. In time, my team and I did obtain the Somalis’ trust, but it was not easy. We had to bleed, sweat and cry our way through the ordeal.
One day, their entire assembly of about a hundred adults and kids needed to travel out of town for the weekend to give their rather stressed, city-worn selves a chance to breathe and enjoy the outdoors. By this time, my team and I had become a fixture in their gatherings, enough for us to be able to speak up without fear of censure. My co-team leader (another Filipino) and I thought out loud that we could try to find some transport for them—operative word being “try” and uttered from a Filipino context. This meant that it was not a promise and may not happen at all, but we would do our utmost to see if we could do something about it. Nothing was supposed to be taken against us if it did not push through.
Except that they did not know that cultural idiosyncrasy. What they heard and perceived was that we had uttered an oath; we would find something for them, for sure; they did not understand the Filipino concept of “try.” We did not realize all this until they thanked us without fanfare or kowtowing and said they looked forward to hearing from us again about the logistical nitty-gritty. All this had to happen right quick because their outing was less than a week away, regardless of what heaven and earth we moved to get it done.
My colleague and I left the Somali elders’ circle with our hearts in our throats, wondering what form of suicide we had just gotten ourselves into. That very moment, we did not even have enough cash on us to pay for a full tank of petrol to get to our home some 36 kilometers away from Nairobi. How could we possibly provide transportation for a hundred-strong community?
As we sat in our team Trooper and expressed fear and panic at our imminent failure, I remembered an incident that happened just a few days ago. By sheer serendipity, we had met the operations manager of the biggest bus company in the country. He had given us his business card and invited us to ask him for any assistance—random words when spoken that time but now a knife’s-edge hope.
After a frantic search through our bags and wallets and pockets and the Trooper’s glove compartment, we found his contact information. We immediately called him, and it went straight to his personal mobile phone—no indifferent secretary to deal with. I stammered my way through an explanation of my team’s dilemma. Needless to say, the Kenyan executive was happy to provide an entire bus, a driver and fuel to us free as part of his company’s corporate social responsibility. And that was how we were able to keep our promise to the Somalis, which pleased the elders no end. We told them the truth about our vehicle acquisition and shamefacedly admitted that we had no resources of our own to give them. To our amazement, the story appeared to have earned us their trust; they saw that we had kept our word even when we had nothing ourselves. Fast forward to several months later; I had a chance to experience firsthand what it meant to have Somalis as friends.
One day, I drove about 14 women and kids back to Eastleigh after a day of classes with the adults and playtime with the children. The red-orange sun hung low, hovering just above the horizon as I maneuvered my way through the dusty, potholed, congested streets of the urban section known as “Little Mogadishu.” I was careful not to antagonize anyone on the road because I stuck out in a sea of mostly black African humanity.
Upon arrival at the designated junction, all my passengers started to alight and make their way hurriedly through the maze of streets back to their homes. It was never ideal to be out on the road in the dark, when the crime rate increased. Even I was eager to drive out of Eastleigh for my own safety.
Just as the group crossed the street and I began to drive forward, a squad of Somali men surrounded the Trooper and started banging on the sides, boot and bonnet of the vehicle. Those who stood in front to block my way were pointing at me with their bony fingers and shouting what clearly sounded like threats. I gripped the wheel as my nostrils flared and sweat poured down my temple. Just when I thought mayhem was going to explode right at my face, I saw the Somali women running back towards me. Apparently, the noise had caught their attention and they saw I was in danger.
At the risk of their own life and limb, the women started to push the men away while carrying some of their children in their arms. At first, the men refused to budge—understandable in a chauvinistic society like theirs. The screaming escalated as the older, taller men talked down at the women and waved their arms about. They looked ready to hit their own womenfolk, regardless of the presence of the babies. Finally, by a sheer miracle, the tension broke and the men moved away grumbling as the women continued to push them back. I could see and feel their menacing stares as they stood with the crowd that had gathered to watch the scene.
In broken English, the Somali women tried to explain what happened. The men had noticed that I always drive their women home and took offence at this. They did not care for a mzungu (Swahili, Kenya’s official language, for foreigner) to interact with their women in any way. After much reassurance that they themselves would be okay, the women sent me away quickly.
That moment, I understood why it took so long to earn the Somalis’ trust and be considered their friend. Because, once they deemed me as one, they were sworn to protect my life, possibly at the price of their own. Literally. To them, it was not a metaphor or a joke. Because of the double-jeopardy conditions they lived in as citizens of a war-torn country and refugees in another that viewed them with increasing suspicion and disgust, the probability of putting their lives on the line was more reality than theory. And they accepted it as fact, part of the daily struggle to survive.
I drove away from Eastleigh just as the sun started slipping below the horizon. That was the last time I was allowed to drive into Little Mogadishu. A male teammate took over my chauffeur duties and I remained behind every time to organise other logistical details during our gatherings with Somali friends. Our friends continued to be harassed by their neighbors because of their association with foreigners. One or two were beaten up. They withstood the taunts and came to see us anyway. We broke more bread, told each other more stories, and came to understand a bit more about each other’s cultures—how different we were by ethnicity, but how alike we were by our shared human experience.
Agatha Verdadero runs the first and sole digital-only trade publishing house, The CAN-DO! Company, in Kenya and East Africa. She loves to travel, write, daydream, and play outdoors. She has enough scar stories now from cycling and trekking to write a book.
More articles by Agatha Verdadero