Celebrating East African Writing!
I am three or four; I still remember those days. The heat; the smell of bat droppings emanating from the eaves of the building; the bats flying off at dusk and coming home at dawn. We are seating on the veranda of our old, Arab-style building. Two large rooms out front-the shop and “restaurant”- facing the Wajir-Mandera road. Three others at the back, the living quarters. Many of us crammed in that little space. It is a typical village in North-eastern province. Dry, dusty, on either side of a “main’’, murram road. The only tailor in the village is also on the veranda, the steady pace of his feet on the old Singer sewing machine adds to the music. The music my mother is singing to.
She’s weaving a traditional Somali mat made out of sisal soaked in an array of natural colours, the multi-coloured strands deftly going through her fingers as one piece of the mat comes together. My father’s old Phillips radio is sitting precariously on the window-ledge; it’s the time of the day I look forward to most. Sitting by my mother’s feet and listening to her beautiful, youthful voice, full of promise.
Magool’s powerful voice wafts through the heat. It’s Radio Mogadishu. Half-yodeling, half singing, she and Mohamed Suleiman are welcoming the New Year “Neyrus” and the promise of love. A group of singers is urging the Somali troops not to surrender to the Ethiopians, to keep on fighting to the last man, to liberate Gothey, to keep pushing till Addis, to get back Ogaden “wrongfully” given to Ethiopia by the Brits. We are living under maajiisii, under Emergency Laws and the askaris would always ask “wapi kipande”?
Growing up in North Eastern Kenya gives one a fluid sense. We are hyphenated Kenyans. Kenyan-Somalis. Or is it Somali-Kenyans? To most northerners, the order does not matter since anything outside of North-Eastern is “down-Kenya”, “down-country” or simply “Kenya”. The trip to Nairobi epitomizes this “otherness”. It starts with the numerous road blocks dotting the long road to Nairobi, the main clearing-house of those headed for various national schools and all the traders headed for Eastleigh. Nairobi is the place where all the trucks ferrying goats to Kariobangi are headed and that’s all the poor secondary school student can afford. The scanty knowledge of Kiswahili, long-considered by the locals the policeman’s language, the kipande language, with connotations of oppression, does not help matters.
It doesn’t stop there, the well-meaning secondary school-teacher will call you by various permutations of your unusual name. Soon you’ve cleared seko and it’s time to get a national identity card or that much-cherished passport. The extra documents needed from you, the overzealous immigration official at JKIA trying to shake down the hyphenated Kenyan for some money. Kijana you don’t look like this photo at all, hebu simama kando…please step aside…
My mother’s songs, full of hope, of a young Somalia, of an egalitarian society where all was dandy and everyone got along soon comes to naught. They are all headed for Eastleigh, for “Little Mogadishu”. Now there is no difference between Kenyan-Somali and Somali Somali. The absurdity of it is laughable. Trying hard to perfect your Kiswahili, that askari language again, to escape the night raids by the same askaris.
My mother’s songs still resonate in my head, not for the hope they represented but for the elephant in the room, the feeling of being neither here, nor there.
© Abdinasir Amin 2009
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