The Proper Weight of Fear
Ten years after fleeing in terror, an American expat revisits Somaliland to consider who she has become.
Hargeisa — June 13, 2014
As soon as the Jubba Airways plane lands I fold in on myself. I tug on my black scarf with fringes and a maroon hem, settle it over the masar that already tightly conceals my curly blond hair. I defer to my husband. I disembark behind him. I keep my eyes on the ground. I don’t smile at the immigration officer, make small talk, or even look at the Somali man with the power to deny me entry. I’ve been here before, to Somaliland, done these things before.
So when the woman behind me presses her large purse with the gaudy gold buckle and her massive breasts into my back in a futile attempt at moving forward in line, I press back. I speak in a voice even more hushed than my normally quiet voice. I notice the color of my ankles, peachy beige, and the way they flash, scandalously, if the wind blows just so and lifts my long black dress.
The first time I landed in Hargeisa was in 2003. Less than a year later my family was part of an evacuation of all foreigners, after three expatriates were murdered.
Annalena was shot in the head in the dirt lot outside her tuberculosis/HIV clinic in Boroma, a ten-minute walk from our house in the village that we referred to as the end of the earth. Her murder is still unsolved. Richard and Enid were English teachers in an even more remote village. Drive to Boroma and keep on driving, over the edge of the end of the earth, and you will find yourself in Sheikh. The couple was shot through the windows of their home there while watching television in the evening. Their murderer was put on death row, where he remains. I sometimes wonder who died first, if they knew what was happening, if they tried to grasp hands in the space between the living and the dying. Their maid found their bodies the next morning. The television was still on.
I never met the Eyeingtons but their death has shaped the past ten years of my life. I never met them but I attended their memorial service in Nairobi, Kenya. I wanted to memorialize what they had given to Somalia and what we all had lost. A life. A dream. Educating leaders in a country awkwardly and painfully pulling itself out of hell. I never met the Eyeingtons but I will never forget them.
Minnesota — 1999–2002
My husband and I spent three years forming that dream, ten months living it in East Africa, and a decade redefining it in Djibouti. We came from stable, middle class families and met at the University of Minnesota. He was a farm boy, I a city girl. Tom earned a masters in mechanical engineering; I had a degree in linguistics. We dated, married, and celebrated our thirteen-month anniversary with the birth of twins, Henry and Magdalene. We were on the cusp of the American Dream: solid jobs, the suburbs, and a life of comfortable security looming. But that version of the Dream wasn’t for everyone.
We lived in Cedar Riverside Plaza in downtown Minneapolis, low-income housing where the hallways and elevators reeked of whatever spices were used to cook in the countries undergoing the crisis of the moment. When we lived there it was cumin, fried onions, boiled goat, cardamom, smoky frankincense — the smells of Somalia.
We rented the single-bedroom apartment on the twenty-second floor because it was cheap and close to the university campus, and in that choice our lives began intersecting with global tragedy and hope, which simmered down into the personal tragedies and hopes of people who were no longer nameless refugees but newly minted citizens. Ubah and Fadouma and Asli. And our career trajectory radically and forever changed.
I asked my neighbors if life in Minnesota was an improvement over life in Somalia. They shook their heads, no. They nodded, yes. They mentioned the misery of snow and ice, of long, dark, slippery winters. They talked about strange food and being foreigners at school. But they had survived civil war and the ensuing anarchy, the rule of warlords. So they also talked about hunger and violence, how, if they had stayed, they wouldn’t have been able to go to school at all, how far they had to walk in the refugee camps to get water. The shadow of memories they didn’t share hung over their eyes.
I asked if they had received help from international aid organizations. Maybe the Red Cross or Red Crescent. Maybe the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Maybe Doctors Without Borders. “There were foreigners around,” one woman said. “They came to the refugee camps with cameras and bags of food. But they stayed a week or a month. No one stayed long.”
I understood. They stayed long enough to create videos of starving children and rape victims. Long enough to drop off bags of rice and sugar. Long enough to treat a few cases of malaria or to make plans to build a high school, but not long enough to see that the building was staffed and classes opened. Not long enough to create sustainable solutions, indigenous ownership, or transformational, long-term development.
The more Tom studied, the more he realized he didn’t want to be an engineer. He wanted to be a professor. The more our life gleamed of privilege and abundance, the more compelled we felt to give out of the much we’d received. The more we heard about the chaos and interminable violence in Somalia of a civil war that began in 1988, morphed into a clan war in 1991, and continued to plague the nation, the more surprised we were to hear a different story from inside the borders of that same country, one of persevering hope.
Somalia as it appears on maps is shaped like the number seven. The Somali national flag is robin’s egg blue, with a white five-pointed star. Each point of the flag’s star refers to a slice of ethnic regions not included in the seven-shaped official Somalia: Northern Kenya, colonized by Britain. Southern Somalia, colonized by Italy. Northern Somalia, colonized by Britain, and referred to as Somaliland. The Ogaden, a swath of eastern Ethiopia nestled into the crux of the “seven.” Somali portions of Djibouti, colonized by France.
The war in the 1990s had been primarily between the two largest Somali clans in the south and engulfed much of Somalia, though the north remained comparatively peaceful. Now, as the south flails blindly as it tries to piece itself back together, multiple regions inside the political borders of Somalia have declared themselves independent. To varying degrees of success, they function peaceably, with a semblance of political and clan-based autonomy and ever-disputed borders, as with Somaliland in the north, Puntland to the east, and Galmuduug in the south central. Somaliland is the most stable and long-term of these breakaway republics.
Culturally, linguistically, religiously, these regions are relatively homogenous. Some Somalis insist on maintaining unity within the wider borders decided by international parties. Other Somalis, a majority of them northerners, see little hope for peace in the south and are determined to make Somaliland independent. Technically, Somaliland is Somalia but in the hearts of many, Somaliland stands apart.
A Somali proverb says aqoonta waa iftiin. Education is light. In northern Somalia, in Somaliland, a light flickered at Amoud University. AU started in 1996, the first university in the north and the only functional university in greater Somalia after the war decimated the academic sector. AU boasted a uniquely Somali vision: quality education for the development of the nation, and the maintenance of peace.
How does a country bombed to shreds and harboring the collective memory of slaughter learn to live in peace again? Somaliland youth needed hope and purpose. Leaders chose the path of education. Amoud means ‘dirt’ in Somali. Dirt U was looking for professors and, through connections at Cedar Riverside, asked Tom to consider a position teaching physics and math, to be a professor focused on developing quality and keeping students busy. As an Amoud administrator told Tom, “Amoud University was established to play a role in the peace of this country because to give hope to the young people, we can least make them busy. Without these universities, no matter what the quality is, the young people would be on the streets or joining militias.”
I had spent more than a year around those Somali cooking smells, hearing the guttural syllables, feeling the flowing dresses. Somaliland felt familiar — wild and intimidating, but not entirely unknown. Somaliland also felt untouched, ignored by the rest of the world. We wouldn’t be another cog in the anonymous, massive machinery of the development world, we would be involved at the grassroots level. Helping to build a nation from infancy alongside local visionaries who wanted us there, and who could guide our process and teach us what they needed most.
I knew that if we moved to Somaliland, we wouldn’t come back to Minnesota for a long time. But I didn’t want to be one of those who didn’t stay long. I didn’t want to be swept up into the urgency of an immediate drama, drop in to deliver some handouts, and fly home again to comfort and familiarity. If we were going, we were going to be a part of long-term solutions. Long-term solutions would require long-term investment.
When we announced our decision for Tom to take the job, people — white, Midwestern American, middle-class, Christian — asked if we were afraid. Our new neighbors would be black, from the Horn of Africa, mostly poor, Muslim. I think people wanted us to be afraid. If we were afraid they could feel less guilty for their reticence to invest in the refugee down the street. If we were afraid they could pity us and feel relieved that they were staying. But I don’t remember feeling afraid. Sitting in an armchair and watching the world implode on the 6 o’clock news, that felt more damaging to our souls than the risk of moving to Somalia.
In August 23, 2012, before reporter Austin Tice disappeared in Syria, he wrote for The Washington Post, “No, I don’t have a death wish — I have a life wish. So I’m living, in a place, at a time and with a people where life means more than anywhere I’ve ever been — because every single day people here lay down their own for the sake of others. Coming here to Syria is the greatest thing I’ve ever done, and it’s the greatest feeling of my life.” We had a similar life wish, and it propelled us forward.
Maybe we weren’t entirely sane. Maybe we didn’t understand fear. Maybe the arrogance and invincibility of youth drove our decision. Maybe we never should have gone, never should have brought our children, never should have imagined another way to live for ourselves and for Somalis. Maybe. But we did it anyway and I can’t take that back now. I don’t want to.
The second question after weren’t you afraid was were you safe? Of course we were safe. Of course we were not safe. How could we know? Nothing happens until it happens. People get shot at schools in the United States, in movie theaters, office buildings. People are diagnosed with cancer. Drunk drivers hurtle down country roads. Lightning flashes, levees break, dogs bite. Safety is a Western illusion crafted into an idol and we refused to bow.
Boroma — February 2003
I transitioned mentally to the Horn of Africa in January, started counting the days after we boarded that first plane to carry us away from Minnesota. During five weeks of orientation and medical and security training in the United States and Kenya, I lingered in the nebulous space between uprooting and replanting. Until finally, in late February, we landed in Somaliland.
My first day in Boroma, population 40,000 to 80,000 depending on the flow of nomadic camel trains and the seasons: helpless. Redefining normal.
I needed to figure out how to feed my kids. No refrigerator. No cans of Ragu or pre-frozen meatballs. Not even any ground beef or jars of dried spices. In Boroma, tomato sauce came in tomatoes. Beef came in fly-covered slabs over bloodied wooden tables and I would learn to grind it myself. Spices came in their natural form. I walked to the market with the Somali woman we expected to hire as a housekeeper. As we maneuvered over the jagged winding path dotted with cacti, I felt small pebbles hit the backs of my calves. Two children stood in the narrow doorway of an aqal, a nomadic home built from sticks and cloth. They grinned and waved and tossed stones my direction. In Boroma, welcome came in stones against my skin.
I harbored faint aspirations of writing and before I landed, before my toes became permanently smothered in Somaliland dust, the region seemed like the perfect place to gather fascinating stories. From which to tell my own distressing stories of culture shock and loneliness and misplaced dreams. But how could I write about a place I didn’t understand? How could I gather stories from women I couldn’t communicate with, women who were suspicious of outsiders? I could barely keep my family fed and clothed and semi-clean, using bucket baths with boiled water. Before I could write about living in Somaliland, I had to live in Somaliland.
Because of my linguistic background, and because of the extreme isolation that made me desperate for friendship, I started studying Somali. Tom came to teach physics and math but as a native English speaker, English classes soon became the University’s priority for him. He spent mornings and afternoons at Amoud. Mornings I explored the market and poured over Somali lessons and worked to keep us alive. Killed centipede. Pulled toddler out of cactus. Avoided large unidentifiable black snake. Stayed inside during gun battle over property down the road. Decided popcorn and bananas make a well-rounded meal. Learned how to eat flying ants (fried they taste like bacon). Afternoons I took the kids visiting neighbors. I knocked on wooden or cloth or metal doors, pulled out my black language learning notebook and pointed at household objects, scribbling down what I thought I heard, paid attention to which women wanted us back. For security reasons we never left the house after the six-thirty makhriib prayer time. Our days melded into the semblance of a routine.
Was it fear I felt when our daughter fell from the roof? Fear when our son coughed like he had pneumonia and the doctor wasn’t sure? Fear when I visited our guard in jail and brought him soda and cookies from his mother? Fear when Tom carried $10,000 in cash, our money for the next six months, in a transparent plastic bag from the Dahab Shiil money transfer office to our home? In retrospect, I say yes because now I know what fear is, imagining shadows have power, believing darkness can engulf me. But in those moments, I still don’t remember fear. I don’t think this is because I didn’t feel fear. I felt so much that fear never rose to the surface to be called out.
Lonely and overwhelmed until I couldn’t speak. Thrilled about language progress to the point of boasting. Laughter until tears when my daughter and a neighbor girl got into her mother’s makeup and emerged from the bedroom with faces like clowns, with faces like every little girl the world over who gets into her mother’s makeup. So high on adrenaline after my first outing with a neighbor, in the dark, to a restaurant with seating for women, that I couldn’t sleep all night. Every emotion reverberating, multi-faceted, explosive. I couldn’t name them, I could only feel them all jumbled and mashed together and called it culture shock, called it survival, called it this is what we came here for.
We reconstruct the past by the moments we choose to remember and I can tell many stories about living in Somaliland and slant them to shade that time a certain color. But there is always the gun on the mantel. The afternoon gunshots that came two, three times a week. The shooting into the sky that sent me scurrying back home with a watermelon in my arms that I intended to give to my neighbor who had given birth. The guns at the wedding, along with feather boas and disco balls and sequins. The gun in the restaurant, the one our son tripped over. The gun under the guard’s bed.
Ten months is longer than a pregnancy, longer than a school year, longer than winter, spring, and summer all put together. But ten months is not long enough to change the world. Ten months is not long enough to see an educational system graduate leaders and thinkers. Ten months is not even long enough to learn how to make a grammatically correct past perfect sentence in Somali.
Ten months ended with three bullets and a phone call. The first bullet came on October 5, 2003. Annalena: Italian, Catholic, and known as the “Mother Theresa of Somalia,” spent thirty-three years devoted to treating and preventing tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. She labored to eradicate female genital mutilation, started schools for the blind and deaf, and ran a hospital in Boroma. Four months before her assassination she was awarded the Nansen Refugee Award by the UNHCR. Now, dead.
The next two bullets came on October 22. The British couple, Richard and Enid Eyeington, had worked at the SOS Sheikh Secondary School for just over a year. Dead and dead.
Tom and I knew nothing. He drove to the University that morning, I prepared tacos for lunch and kept the twins from falling into our cistern. We had no electricity during the day so I couldn’t rely on movies to distract them while I worked. Instead they picked limes, filled their pockets with marble-sized gobe fruits, and tormented the neighbor’s goats that wandered into our yard to munch down the weeds.
Our director, an American based in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, called at around eleven a.m. He said the Eyeingtons were dead. He said our work was finished. No one knew who would be next, if there would be a next. He said to get Tom home from the University now. He said we were booked, along with the few other westerners in the country, on a one p.m. flight to Ethiopia. He said it was a one-way ticket. That gave me two hours. The airport was in Hargeisa, two hours away.
I look back now on that woman in Somali clothes who had finally learned how to keep her scarf from falling, finally learned how to make spaghetti, finally earned invitations to weddings and dinner parties. I look back and see her barely functioning. She moves slowly through the house brushing the tips of her fingers over the objects that must remain. The dollhouse Tom built, the rock-hard couch cushions. The bookshelf with three novels, a Bible, a Quran, and language books waiting to be filled with new vocabulary. She needs to pack but she needs Tom to come home. She tells the twins to find their fleece blankies and their favorite toys, to put them in a shared backpack. Her voice is calm. Her fingers tremble.
She is afraid. She doesn’t acknowledge it. She won’t for years.
What if Tom doesn’t come home? What if the people who killed Annalena and the Eyeingtons are on their way here? What if the guard’s gun isn’t for protection but for aggression? What to pack? What to leave? Will we be back? Will I be able to say goodbye to anyone? What do I tell the kids?
Tom pulled the Land Cruiser close to the house. The University had sent him home, told him they would send guards. The students begged him not to leave and later they would protest our departure in the village and in the city but it was too late. I wanted to cry but didn’t. We had to hurry.
Tom shut down a few things in the house. I threw a small suitcase and twin toddlers into the Land Cruiser and we zoomed off to the airport. I left damp clothes on the line, fresh-squeezed lime juice in a plastic pitcher, and a tray of tortillas and taco meat with the guard. I left an aluminum pan in the sink to rust and bananas on the countertop to rot. I left a houseful of furniture and neighbors I was only beginning to get to know and a life we had planned for and only begun to live. I did not go back. Until June 2014.
Hargeisa — June 2014
Outside the Hargeisa airport I’m not nervous about the AK-47s hanging from black straps over the shoulders of policemen, soldiers, and civilians. I’m not surprised by the dust, the covered women, the heightened awareness of gender, the massive heaps of garbage, or the shoddy roads. Hargeisa reminds me of Westerns, but instead of tumbleweed, scraps of cardboard skitter across the desert. Instead of cowboys, shepherds wander between darkened doorways. Instead of saloons and beer, khat — an amphetamine-like plant — is sold on every corner. Instead of aprons over long prairie dresses, women wear the hijab.
I don’t feel out of place, though it is clear from the stares that almost everyone thinks I should. I had left Somaliland more than a decade ago and spent that decade 471 kilometers away, in Djibouti, where I adjusted to being the odd foreigner, the white face in a sea of black, the expatriate who speaks Somali. What used to be shocking has become my normal. I learned how to form that past perfect sentence, learned how to cook more than spaghetti. I learned how to make a life in the Horn of Africa which is different than simply living in the Horn.
Living is surviving and adapting. In Somaliland I did the best I could and started by absorbing much of what I saw. I dressed local and ate local and talked local, tried to come up with interesting things to say about camels and goats and dust and five times a day prayer commitments. But making a life is creating memories, sending down roots, weathering deadly floods and miraculous childbirths alongside the community that envelops us, and this is what we did in Djibouti. It is what we started to do but didn’t have time to finish in Somaliland.
Making a life in a foreign context means examining the local culture, values, faith system, and turning them over and over, deciding which pieces to adopt and which pieces to let slide past, intriguing but not for me. Making a life as an expatriate is not necessarily about living like a local but rather learning to be authentic and comfortable with the ambiguity of sometimes wearing a headscarf and most times not, of sometimes having an accurate instinctive response and most times not.
“There is also the odd knowledge, at once comforting and scary, that whatever is going on outside, you are without a predisposed opinion on it, that you have had a kind of operation, removing your instant reflexive sides-taking instinct…And the slightly amused, removed feeling always breaks down as you realize that you really don’t want to be so lofty and Olympian — or rather, that being lofty and Olympian carries within it, by tradition and precedent, the habit of wishing you could be down there in the plain, taking sides. Even the gods, actually looking down from Olympus in amusement, kept hurtling down to get laid or slug somebody.” Paris to the Moon, by Adam Gopnik
Somaliland no longer glistens with the mysterious draw of the unknown, the dangerously exotic, the wild-West romanticism. Now, Somaliland, Djibouti, the motley Horn of Africa region united by the commonality of Somali culture, simply feels like another piece of home, the land where I have staked my claim, spent my twenties and thirties, raised my children, made my life.
I’m not in Hargeisa to work or as a tourist. I’m here as an accompanying spouse. If it had been an option, I would have marked ‘loneliness’ as the reason for my visit on my immigration forms. Tom had spent three of the past four weeks back in Somaliland while I remained in Djibouti with our youngest, nine-year old Lucy. The twins, fourteen years old now, were at an American boarding school in Kenya.
When faced with the educational options: return to America after elementary school; remain in the French school system in Djibouti; or this English-speaking, college preparatory school in Kenya, they unanimously opted for boarding school. Djibouti was home, America almost unknown. They didn’t want to leave the continent but each sensed the need to experience education in their native tongue. Another reality of expatriate life: Sometimes the choices that are best for our children are the choices that slice like a cleaver through the parents.
Tom had traveled before but this time, in the absence of the twins, the reduction of family members under the same roof from five to two amplified the rawness of my isolation. I didn’t like my family spread thin between three countries, so Lucy and I packed a bag.
After teaching for a few years and investing in students, Tom now saw the need to invest in teachers, and in the educational system itself, and had been pursuing a Ph.D. through the University of Minnesota. The research focused on the experiences of primarily local professors in the Horn of Africa. He spoke with universities in Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Somaliland and included data from each nation in his thesis, but narrowed down the interviews and surveys to focus on three universities in Somaliland. This was his last week, insha Allah, of gathering data. Two were in Hargeisa and one was Amoud. Back to the beginning.
The Amoud University staff joyfully received back their lost professor. Some of the same staff remained, those who had watched the dust from our car as we sped away from Boroma. Now Tom was back and he spoke Somali and understood culture and hadn’t disappeared into America. He had remained in the region. He had kept his word.
Djibouti — May 2014
Tom left on a Friday and that Saturday, May 24, two suicide bombers blew themselves up inside a popular bar and restaurant, le Chaumiére, in downtown Djibouti. People died. How many? Who can know. Initially one photo of the aftermath appeared on Twitter but the image could have been of any random pile of bloody meat. Then came another of the two bombers, deceased, their faces bloated and discolored, and then a photo of the street before the bomb. I had taken the street photo months ago and posted it on my blog, and someone picked it up. School closed for an extra day, guards with metal detectors appeared at grocery stores. Rumors raced through the market of bearded men dressed in the full-face veil of conservative Muslim women. The temperature soared to 118 degrees, weather that earned Djibouti apt nicknames like the Devil’s Lair and Hellhole of Creation. I decided now was the time to see Somaliland again, maybe to spend some time with Tom between his interviews.
I told Lucy about the bomb the next morning, when she woke up and didn’t have to get ready for school. I told her the name of the restaurant and the name of the terror group and that people died. She needed to know but she didn’t need to see photos or know gory details. She said she wasn’t scared but asked about al-Shabaab and terrorists and why people would want to kill other people, or themselves. Since we had long ago eschewed the mirage of guaranteeing safety, I refused to promise it, but she also needed to know Tom and I would do everything we could to keep our family safe, that no matter what happened our family would walk through the valley of darkness together. Her cavalier response made me both proud and intimidated: the same invincible, nothing will happen until it happens, attitude I initially brought to Africa.
Going to Somaliland didn’t bother her, either; Lucy was always ready for an adventure. And she was the only member of our family who had not yet been across the border — time to catch up with her older siblings in the number of stamps in her passport. I didn’t share Lucy’s spirit of adventure. She inherited that from Tom, I simply married into it. Lucy once told her pediatrician in Minneapolis that Djibouti and Minnesota were “pretty much the same.” She felt the same about Somaliland and Djibouti. Nothing much was different, except for wearing the scarf, which made her feel like a princess. She was with mom and dad and in the Horn of Africa. All was well with her world.
The bomb in Djibouti was the first suicide bomb the country had ever experienced. In Kenya, in Beirut, in Somalia, bombs are despicable and tragic. In Djibouti, it was surprising and the surprise demolished the peaceful façade. I used to be able to say Djibouti was a bastion of peace surrounded by violence and chaos. What could I say now?
It didn’t make sense to me that in order to feel release from the strangling anxiety of the two weeks after the bomb in Djibouti, I would go to Somalia. Nor did it make sense that in order to finally be healed from the shock of that emergency evacuation in 2003, I would have to return to that broken place. That moving backward through time, I’m propelled back to Somaliland.
Hargeisa — June 2014
To the tourist’s eye, there is not much to see in Hargeisa. Mounds of trash, blue and yellow plastic bags snagged on cacti, goats and black-headed fatty-butt sheep followed by shepherds with their arms draped over rifles or walking sticks worn smooth by wind and time. There are two monuments. One is a MiG fighter jet like the ones used by the Somali dictator Siad Barre in 1988 to slaughter thousands in northern Somalia. Somaliland had been home to a rebel movement united against Barre’s regime, and he aimed to crush it. The other monument is a large hand gripping a map of Somaliland.
When outsiders speak of the violence in Somalia, most often they are referring to the clan conflict between the Hawiye and the Darood that engulfed southern Somalia in the 90’s and destroyed the central government. But this lesser-known war, south against north, raged in the late 1980s and devastated Hargeisa, leading the northern region to declare itself autonomous in 1991. This first monument, the fighter jet, commemorates the reason many want the second monument, the map, to represent an actual sovereign nation. They say there can be no true peace or reconciliation between north and south. The United Nations isn’t in the business of dividing nations, but Somaliland doesn’t give a damn. Let the UN dispute lines on paper maps, Somaliland is moving on and has held several elections for government offices, including a presidential election with a peaceful turnover between political parties and clan leaders. Somaliland has its own independence day, flag, national anthem, currency, educational system, and capital city — Hargeisa, population 1.2 million, by far the largest city.
Tourists in the capital can go to the Hargeisa Zoo with seven lions in cramped, rickety cages made of rusted barbed wire with gaping holes. The lions have escaped in the past. They may, or may not, have killed a young girl. Tourists can visit the two mountains known as Nasaha Hablood, or girls’ breasts. There is Edna Aden’s hospital, featured in the book Half the Sky. When hospitals are on the list of tourist sites, there aren’t many tourist sites.
But I am not here as a tourist, I’m here to remember. I’m here to see life, the daily routines, the average. I want to see the market, the exercise facilities, the hiking trails, the expatriate homes. I want to see the things that I would experience if I still lived in Somaliland. I want to know if they have changed. If I have changed.
Djibouti — 2004–2014
Djibouti sent me to Somaliland. Strange, how a decade ago it was Somaliland that sent me to Djibouti.
I am not in Djibouti as a tourist either. It was an accident. A flight from Somaliland to Ethiopia. Then a flight from Ethiopia to Kenya. A phone call from a former fellow professor at Amoud, inviting Tom to now come and teach in Djibouti. A flight from Kenya to Djibouti. And there we stayed. Ten months is longer than it takes for some babies to learn to sleep through the night and ten months had been long enough for Tom and I to know that we were not designed to be short-term laborers in the development world. We wanted to stay longer, dig deeper into culture and language, understand better what it means to be a global person and what it takes to help develop a nation in partnership with locals, or at least one sector of a nation. And we were not returning to Minnesota after less than a year with our tails between our legs.
But ten years? Ten years is long enough to turn twin toddlers into twin teenagers. Long enough to add another child, Lucy. This one born in Djibouti on September 11, to a Christian family in a Muslim country with a Somali midwife. And so we can celebrate on 9/11, celebrate that there can be peace and community across valleys of division. We gave our 9/11 baby a Somali middle name.
The oppressive heat that smothers the city like a damp quilt and the vicious dust that obscures blue sky for months at a time conspire against most expatriates enjoying their years in Djibouti. One expat described the city as where a sewer and a dump made a baby. Another said, in comparison with North Korea, Sudan, and Afghanistan, Djibouti was, “Pretty fucked up.”
“It is a large city with a great bazaar, but it is the dirtiest, most disagreeable and most stinking town in the world.” Ibn Battuta, 1331
“Djibouti is this city at the lower end of the Red Sea, just before you go into the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. It’s a terrible-looking town. I haven’t been there, but I’ve got an awful lot of material on it.” Elmore Leonard
Ellen DeGeneres made a pair of sweatpants with Djibouti stamped across the ass. Camp Lemonier, the American military base in Djibouti and the only American military base on the continent, sells fitted women’s T-shirts that say Djiboutilicious.
Djibouti the nation is slightly smaller than the state of Massachusetts and has a population of 875,000, over half of that crammed into the capital, Djibouti City. Independent since June 27, 1977, Djibouti is one of the youngest countries in Africa and only one year older than me. Pronounced Jabooti, Jabooti, Djibouti, Djibouti makes anyone who hears it laugh. Unless they live in Djibouti, Djibouti, where temperatures pass 120 Fahrenheit.
When we evacuated from Somaliland it was hard to imagine returning to the U.S. because we hadn’t accomplished much, hadn’t experienced a culture for long. Now it is hard to imagine returning to the U.S., because we’ve changed too much.
Or maybe we became more fully, authentically, who we always were, maybe that is the difference between the tourist and the expatriate, even the more reflective traveler and the expatriate. The expatriate doesn’t just experience a new country; they become part of it.
Tom’s work evolved from teaching sciences to teaching English and that evolved into his Ph.D. in comparative international development education. He advises professors at the University of Djibouti, consults on curriculum projects, teaches courses and workshops both in Djibouti and in Somaliland, counsels the Ministry for Foreign Affairs as they open a new language institute, started and sold an English teaching company, sponsored an English night school in the Balbala slum, all of it alongside local coworkers and partners. I ask him if it feels good to look back on his career path from mechanical engineering to educational development through the refining furnace of the region, and he laughs. “Does it feel good to be doing what I set out to do? Yeah.”
I still keep people fed, clean, and alive, though this is easier in Djibouti than it was in Somaliland. Water comes from the faucet. Sometimes in a trickle so slow I leave pots under the showerhead and chop onions while waiting for it to fill so I can boil noodles. Sometimes the water splatters out brown and stinking of sewage. Water is never temperature controlled and always tastes like salt. But we have water. We also have electricity all day long, except during power cuts, which can be as rare as one hour a month or as frequent as fourteen hours a day. There are grocery stores with pre-ground meat and frozen green vegetables and once I found cheddar cheese. We have pharmacies and a playground and beaches and dolphins and wild parrots.
And there is a school. We didn’t have a plan for educating our kids and I imagine we would have left Somaliland by the time they were in first grade. As a former French colony, Djibouti retains vestiges of French language, culture, and education systems. There are still active French military branches present and an international school, partly funded by France. School starts with petite section at age three. One sultry morning shortly after moving to Djibouti, I took the twins for their first day of moyenne section, for four-year olds. They didn’t speak any French but they had gone to school for a week in Somaliland, donning the blue and white uniform, which included a hijab for my daughter, a white scarf that covered her head, hung down over her shoulders to her elbows, and squeezed tight around her pudgy cheeks. They didn’t speak French but they were fearless and they were together.
“They will be fine. They will be fine. They will be fine,” I whispered on the bus ride home. A prayer and a promise.
At fourteen years old they are fine. Fluent in French and English, fluent in important Somali words like candy and popcorn and How-are-you-I’m-fine, fluent in international travel without an accompanying adult, fluent in multi-ethnic friendships, fluent in visiting homes without electricity or running water and visiting the air conditioned mansions of U.S. State Department diplomats. They love Minnesota summer visits and they call Djibouti home.
We settled. I put up curtains. I taught English and went to parties with my students where I stood in high heels so long my toes became sausages, and where I met the First Lady of Djibouti.
But: I looked at the curtains. I hated them. My husband picked them out at IKEA in Dubai. They were white, cotton, bland. They looked like the death shroud Somali women wrapped around bodies of loved ones. I wanted golden and shiny, the obnoxious bling of Somali style. I looked at my English class. I hated teaching English and quickly tired of the late night parties and sausage toes. But what could I do? My children were in school half the day. I didn’t want to apply for jobs in town and take a position a Djiboutian could fill.
I started to write. Clumsy. Halting. Straining to understand this strange between-worlds place by mapping it on paper. The heft of words, the press of the definition combined with a judgment. Like Fear. Most of it tossed in the trash, including three complete novels — each of them an experiment to see if I could go from first word to last word. I made it to the end, but my real world innately contained more story than my imagination ever could, and I turned to nonfiction.
Writing is done in a cave, in isolation, and my stories are limited to what this country will show me, will allow me to see and to write about. When we evacuated I was mad at Somaliland for being Somali, for providing that expected story. Mad at it for succumbing to violence and taking me down with it. In many ways Somaliland was exactly what I expected. Hard, lonely, cruel, violent. And in many ways it wasn’t, it was warm and colorful and took a risk on letting us in, and the contradiction is hard to accept.
I watched the 2013 attack on Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya unfold and wept because the attackers were Somali and the rescuers were Somali and the victims were Somali and they were all true. I read A House in the Sky about Amanda Lindhout’s 460 days in captivity and violent abuse and cried because her kidnappers and those who showed compassion were all true. But isn’t that true of all of us? Western media wants us to think Somalis are pirates. And some of them are. But some of them are surgeons performing fistula surgeries. Some of them are al-Shabaab and some of them teach sign language to deaf students.
There is no single story, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie says, and this is the lesson of being an expatriate: the removal of expectation, the slashing of the conviction that my way is the right way, my normal is the world’s normal, my interpretation of an event is the only interpretation.
In other ways, writing from Djibouti feels impossible. I have been publishing for six years, worked with the Djibouti English newspaper to transition them from relying on French newspapers and Google Translate to producing intelligible articles; even wrote a French article for a Djiboutian women’s magazine. And I still cannot find a community of other writers. I am still, forever, an outsider. There are issues of security and politics and cultural nuances that I doubt I will ever be able to grasp.
I struggle with which stories to tell and how to tell them well. I told a story of sexual harassment and people said, oh in Djibouti everyone sexually harasses women. I told a story of a successful businesswoman and people said, oh in Djibouti women earn plenty of money. Both assumptions, false.
I feel a burden of being one of a handful of voices telling Djibouti’s stories and shudder that I might fail to honor my host nation. The isolation and the cave loom dark and desolate. I crawl in when the kids leave for school and spend many mornings clawing my way back to the light. I come to understand what Annie Dillard meant in The Writing Life: “You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.”
Hargeisa — June 2014
In Somaliland, security for expatriates underlies almost every outing and interaction. This has not changed. The gun still lies on the mantle. Foreigners are supposed to be inside their homes or hotels by dark and if out past nine o’clock, receive sharp reprimands in Somali from guards at numerous checkpoints.
Somalilanders look out for expats; they don’t want anything to happen to them that would destroy their precarious peace or the slowly budding chance the region has at being named a nation. But Somalilanders don’t exactly welcome expats either. Security inhibits forming relationships because the priorities are to keep the white folks alive and safe and to keep the curtain pulled tight around local customs, culture, language, and religion.
The majority population in Djibouti is also Somali and I naively assume the common language will be enough to unify the two Somali regions, even as I know well that language has not been strong enough to forge peace over the past two decades. And, to unfairly generalize, Djiboutians, who have been influenced by years of French colonial rule, steady peace, and an influx of expatriates, are comparatively cosmopolitan. They view Somalilanders as overly strict, backward, and fundamentalist. A Somali secretary whom Tom spoke with in Djibouti said, about his trip to Hargeisa, “Be careful. They’re all terrorists over there.” Somaliland women cover, even young girls. A Djiboutian Somali told me after a visit, with anger, that she wondered which perverts would lust after her four-year old daughter if she refused to cover. En revanche, Somalilanders view Djiboutians as arrogant, immoral, and as losing their culture, since few Djiboutians can read and write Somali or quote the proverbs and poems that are a vibrant aspect of traditional nomadic life.
The two differed in their reception of foreigners as well. In Djibouti, shopkeepers have perfected the wide-eyed, drop-jawed glee at hearing me speak Somali. They pull up chairs, bring out glasses for tea, beg me to recite a proverb, and demand to know how I learned. Chests puff when I emphasize how hard Somali is; they are proud of the difficulty as though it is evidence of their virility and individuality in the world. Somalilanders stare, silent, cold. They aren’t curious, interested, or impressed.
Somalilanders I encounter in homes are much friendlier, though encountering a local in an actual home borders on impossible due to suspicion and security. At Edna Aden Hospital, where several expatriate doctors work and some live, patients were temporarily forbidden from developing personal friendships with the outsiders. Ostensibly, this was for everyone’s protection.
Somaliland security relates directly to the presence of weapons and clan conflict. Terrorism is a factor — the Ethiopian embassy in Hargeisa was bombed in October 2008 — though this is less a risk than simply being caught in a dispute over land or animals or money.
On my second morning I count one, two, three, four gunshots. There are two more later and the guard’s response is, “Everything fine. Everything fine.” Everything shouldn’t be fine, I want to say. It shouldn’t be ‘fine’ for people to use guns to solve a bus route dispute, even if they are just shooting into the air. In Somaliland before, I felt confident that nothing would happen, until something happened, which I suppose is the height of the illusion of immunity and ignorance. Even as we drove out of Boroma to the airport, even as Tom stopped to change a flat tire on the way and God-only-knows-who was maybe chasing us, I didn’t feel afraid.
Somaliland wasn’t supposed to be like that and yet, this is what Somaliland was. The country revealed itself that day, a flash. But not really. The country had revealed itself all along those ten months. Somaliland is more than piracy and anarchy and genital cutting and it is more than weddings and university classes, more than smoking hookah pipes with neighbors and private tours of bread factories.
Leaving, I felt anger. I felt grief. I felt violated. Now I know that what I also felt was fear. I know that violent things do happen both in Djibouti and in Somaliland and when I hear the guns, I am afraid and I say it, finally. The fear feels belated and heavy, it carries with it all the fears I hadn’t felt before and all the fears I’ve tamped down through the years.
Some expatriates felt I overreacted to the bomb in Djibouti. I cried, couldn’t sleep, and when I did sleep, nightmares plagued me. I imagined terrifying scenarios and created escape routes in my mind from every public place I frequented with Lucy. I was, for once, glad the twins were away, safe at boarding school. I avoided Western grocery stores and hotels. I left the house only when necessary. My heart raced and my body trembled after dark. I packed an evacuation bag, something I should have done years ago, something I knew how to do since I had relied on it in Somaliland. The bag I used was our old evacuation bag and it still had diapers in it. Lucy is nine-years old and was born two years after we fled Somaliland, which meant the diapers had been for her fourteen-year old siblings.
Maybe I did overreact.
Maybe I was finally reacting.
I didn’t want to call it fear. Fear felt like weakness. I had lived in Somaliland. I am not afraid. But here I was, trembling and crying and running across the border to be with my husband where I felt safer, even if the other side of that border was Somalia. But now as I hear the guns and feel my throat constrict, I call it ‘fear.’
I don’t want the guard to call it fine and I don’t want to call my reaction fine. I want to start telling the truth, naming emotions without adding judgments of weakness or courage. Feeling it is a release, and in the simple naming of it as ‘fear,’ it fades.
There are fewer guns out in the open than in the past, but weapons remain inexpensive and easy to purchase and just because we don’t see them doesn’t mean they aren’t there. An American bought an AK-47 for hunting dikdik (a small East African antelope) in a field near the airport but authorities became uncomfortable because, while there are laws permitting locals to own guns and though he purchased the gun through legal means, including a license, there is no specific law regarding foreigners and weapons. The law was established in order to keep track of who had what weapons, like a registry, not to allow for pleasure hunting. They confiscated it.
Another expatriate is shocked to hear we arrived on Jubba Airways.
“Do you want to know what happened?” he says.
I don’t but he continues. Expatriates love to demonstrate insider knowledge and we love to pass on shocking bits of information. We also love to tell airplane stories and I sense a good one coming.
“Jubba is owned by al-Shabaab,” he says. “There was a raid two days ago, their office was shut down, five men arrested.” Al-Shabaab is the Somalia-based terrorist group responsible for the Westgate Mall attack in Kenya in October 2013 and the attack in Djibouti. (Both Djiboutians and Somalilanders claim al-Shabaab is comprised of southern Somalis, the part of the Somali region some would like to shake off, like a snake shedding dead skin. But at least one of the suicide bombers in Djibouti entered the country through a Djiboutian border security guard and on Somaliland travel documents.)
“I guess if al-Shabaab owns the airline, they’ll be less likely to bomb it,” I say, relying on the dark humor people turn to who live in violent regions. “Safest way to fly.”
But: He heard about the raid from a friend who heard it from a friend who read it in a Hargeisa newspaper. The expatriate is right about everything in the story except the second ‘b’ in Jubba — and the airline part. Juba money transfer had been the target and the guilty party. I’m not sure if I feel relief or not.
The largest and most western grocery store, National, is directly across the street from the main market. Here, the security concerns feel vaguely personal. Ten years ago, Martin Juuti, a European businessman, was shot seven times in front of his toddler son outside The Star, what was then the largest and most western grocery store, meaning they sold yogurt and generic Corn Flakes. His death came a few weeks before we landed in Africa, my experience of Somaliland bloodstained before I even arrived. We drive by The Star to get to National and I look at it, turn away, turn back to look again, transplanting a bloody memory over the present calm scene: Women sell hardboiled eggs and samosas, men in prayer caps tap walking sticks against the dirt. But it isn’t actually a memory. I never saw Martin, alive or dead. By the time we landed in Somaliland, the authorities assured us everything was safe and under control.
The rotating glass doors of National open to a gas station and the store is roughly the size of a small-town Texaco. I find myself checking over my shoulder, hyper alert of where each man with a gun over his shoulder is looking. I suppose this too, is fear. Or is it being aware, alert, smart? I am starting to feel like life in Hargeisa is lived at a constant level of heightened sensitivity and stress. I am starting to miss Djibouti.
Imitation Barbie dolls with garish orange skin, sacks of dried beans, and trays of brown eggs cover the shelves, which are so overstocked that items roll into the aisles and I nudge them out of the way with my toes. While my American host pays for her purchases in dollars, a local woman wearing a niqaam, the full black face veil, plays with my host’s infant, making him giggle and reach for her veil with chubby white hands.
We leave the car parked at National and enter the market across the street. The market is shaded, cool, and clean compared to outside. Bolts of brilliantly colored cloth made in Bangladesh or Thailand are sewn into cotton or silk dresses in Hargeisa. There are racks of shoes. Scarves hang like trapped butterflies from the ceiling. Once it becomes known we are searching for boys’ black dress shoes, every shoe vendor approaches, his hands cupping a pair of shoes. Some are pink with furry cats, some sandals, some high-heeled, sparkly, and sized for an adult. After a forty-minute hunt, my host purchases the first pair her son had tried on and we move to the food market for limes and spinach. The vegetable seller, deaf and with a cleft palate, slips Lucy a handful of free limes.
We don’t linger long in the market and after I speak Somali with everyone I interact with, I learn that foreigners are discouraged from practicing Somali in the market or among strangers for mysterious reasons, though again, related to security. I ignore gnawing feelings of anxiety and the dismay that I may have caused issues for my host by telling myself that I wasn’t practicing Somali. I was speaking it, as I have done for eleven years, a linguistic twist irrelevant to anyone else. But we hadn’t been shot, kidnapped, robbed, or even snubbed: I stop worrying.
I encounter yet another security concern, this one of the modesty variety, at an exercise gym at the Safari Hotel. In Djibouti I participate in local races and helped start a running club for girls. I want to learn if I would have ever become a runner had we stayed in Somaliland. Running in the street is not an option. My husband watched a World Cup game at the home of the expat who once owned the AK-47. The house is less than two blocks from where we are staying, but the expat drives him back after the game so that even he, a man but a foreigner, will be safe.
I hear there are two gyms that cater to women during specific hours but also hear a rumor that one is filled with the stench of urine. I go to the other. The Safari Hotel gym is not inside the hotel. Past an armed guard, past tables filled with men in skullcaps and the sarongs known in Somali as macwiis. Walking sticks with rounded bulbs smoothed from years of use balance against the white plastic tables. The bearded men sip their morning shaah, cardamom and cinnamon-flavored tea thick with sweetened condensed milk. I ask the man at the reception desk where the gym is. With his chin and a grunt, he directs another man to show me.
Without a word and in such a hurry I wonder if my presence is indecent, dangerous, or if he simply resents being bothered, the man leads me back outside past the tea-drinking guests, around the corner of the hotel, and through a labyrinthine maze of turns and points with his chin at a closed door with a darkened window.
I don’t thank him, don’t look him in the eye, and he doesn’t wait to see if I need any more assistance. He can come no closer anyway. I push open the door and three women look at me with surprise. “I’d like to use the gym,” I say. “Is it women’s hours?”
Their stares are slightly warmer than those of the men outside. “Yes, women’s hours,” one of them says. “Ten dollars.”
I don’t have a ten-dollar bill, only a twenty. I open my wallet and reveal no Somaliland shillings and no more American dollars, just a wrinkled wad of Djiboutian franc. Their unyielding faces break into cautious smiles, I’m not an outsider from outside Africa, I am a close outsider, from across the border. I know their language and their money but not in a suspicious what kind of tourist comes to Somaliland way. In an I live here, too, way. The woman who had spoken is wearing a Sponge Bob T-shirt and says to give her my twenty-dollar bill and she will find change by the time I finish.
She takes me to the locker room where movement sensor lights flicker on as we enter. She points at a locker for my purse.
“Can I take this off?” I pull at my clothing layers — two scarves and an abaya, a black robe common in the Middle East and popular among Somalis who want to cover skinny jeans or who want an extra layer of modesty. These airy layers cover my sports pants and T-shirt. In Somaliland I appreciate them because they mean I can wear comfortable pants and a T-shirt yet remain modest. In Djibouti I rarely wear all these layers but when I do, I understand the paradoxical appeal of wearing more clothing in sweltering heat. My underneath layers soak with sweat and stick to my body, turning me into a walking wet T-shirt contest contestant. The abaya, or a scarf around my shoulders, hides the sweat and when the wind blows, a constant in Djiboutian summers, the dampness works like a natural air conditioner.
“Take it all off,” the employee says. “There are no men here.”
So, for the first time in public since arriving in Hargeisa, I remove my black abaya (the long black robe), my shalmad (the tablecloth-like scarf), and my masar (the smaller scarf wound tightly around my head). I roll them into a ball and shove them in the locker.
I hate treadmills but in Somaliland, I run on a treadmill. Sweat soaks through my shirt and sprays onto the darkly tinted window in front of me. All that effort and expenditure and I go nowhere. I stare for an hour into the parking lot-garbage dump at a defunct Pepto-Bismol-pink generator with the engine door cracked open.
As I run and spew drops of sweat everywhere, an obese Somali woman climbs onto the treadmill to my right.
“Can you show me how to lose weight?” she says.
I suggest she put the machine on a slight incline, maybe two or three, and walk briskly. I explain that she needs to get her heart rate up.
“Wadnaha kacayaa, baruurta ka dhacayaa,” I say, inordinately pleased with my impromptu Somali rhyme. Your heart goes up, the fat goes off.
She doesn’t feel challenged enough by level two and pumps her treadmill up to an eleven. Within seconds her breathing is so labored I think she is going to collapse and I can instead write an article about Somaliland’s emergency healthcare providers. She lowers it all the way to zero, turns it off, and says losing weight is too hard. When she leaves, she covers her face, wears a thick navy blue hijab, and doesn’t say goodbye.
Tom comes to pick me up and waits outside, barred by the men with guns, while one of them hollers across the parking lot, from out of sight of the women and with the women out of his line of sight, that the white lady needs to leave.
“Did you run?” Tom asks.
“Did you talk to anyone?”
“Success,” he says. He knows I wanted to experience a run in Somaliland. I don’t see the success in it though, I hadn’t discovered changing scenery while running on a winding path leading who-knows-where. I hadn’t interacted with people as they went about their daily routines, like in Djibouti when I wave at the rotisserie chicken vendor and greet the homeless woman weaving baskets and argue with the guard at the entrance to a restricted upper class neighborhood. I had stared out the window at a pink generator. I had talked briefly with a university student.
“You didn’t get kidnapped or killed,” he says, and we both laugh. This is the barely concealed worry of most people who knew we spent the week in Somaliland. This is the fear of those who have seen Captain Philips or read A House in the Sky or pay attention to news coming out of the region.
This is not the kind of fear I battle. I still don’t feel afraid of being killed here, or kidnapped. That would be like feeling afraid of being killed or kidnapped while walking in the shade of oak trees in my childhood suburban Minneapolis neighborhood. It could happen but it doesn’t feel like it could happen because this is my home, this is where I belong. The fear I battle is the fear of losing life as I know it now and as I picture it a few years down the road. I fear losing my present. I fear losing the plan I hold for the future. I fear the disruption, the loss of control.
We laugh because it didn’t happen and because it could happen. We laugh because I had, in fact, experienced Somaliland while running. This was Somaliland in all her complexity and contradictions. A university student in spandex and in full niqaam. A receptionist in a Sponge Bob T-shirt. An American woman speaking Somali and using Djiboutian money. A trash dump parking lot and pristine workout equipment. Loaded guns outside and girls in spandex inside.
Hargeisa seems peaceful, the tenuous peace enforced with automatic weapons and restrictions, and for now, this is what Hargeisa needs. Somaliland is outside the jurisdiction of aid and development organizations or international governing bodies. Everything accomplished by Somalis here has been done virtually on their own and they have a right to feel both proud and protective.
As a grand finale, on my fifteenth wedding anniversary, I hike to the nipple tip of what is referred to as the younger of the Two Girls’ Breasts hills, ‘younger’ because it is slightly perkier than her twin to the west. I tell Tom later — he was stuck at the University of Hargeisa collecting surveys — that from the top, the breast looks more like a circumcised penis.
The Somali man in our hiking group explains that where we are driving, off road and in between termite mounds and wild tortoises and jackals, is where officials put landmines.
“They buried them here?” I ask, suddenly aware of every jolt and rattle.
“No,” he says. “They found them in the city and took them here to detonate.”
Again I’m not sure if I feel relief or not.
We fly out of Hargeisa on a Friday and once in the air, I unwind my scarf and let it fall to my shoulders. Now I know I feel relief. Not relief that I survived; I hadn’t really doubted that. Relief that I could return to Somaliland, the nonexistent country that sent me fleeing ten years ago, and feel a cautious nostalgia replace a cold fear. Relief that I have, indeed, changed. I know how to point with my chin and avoid eye contact with men while maintaining my dignity and his, and to be profoundly grateful for a gift of limes to make juice. I know how to hold the handles of a Land Cruiser over rocky roads. How to look past the billowing plastic bags so evocative of landlocked jellyfish, past the bombed out car skeletons and bullet-pocked walls still standing and recognize the strength in those who remain. I know that behind a niqaam is a science student with dreams of seeing the world; inside a shop is a woman who loves making children laugh.
Suspicion of outsiders and concerns over expatriate safety still reign in Hargeisa but with ingenuity and dogged determination, the city will continue to change and progress. I will too, and we will move on without one another. I thought visiting Somaliland might feel like a return to my past, might somehow bring closure to the loss of a sudden and violent departure. But I can’t go back, not really. And the closure happened on its own, over time and distance and through rooting myself in Djibouti.
I don’t know what the future holds. I can only see until the end of the next year, until Tom earns his Ph.D. Beyond that, the journey is murky. Stay. Move somewhere else in the region, or outside the region. Go back to the United Sates. Go back now, or go back when the twins start at an American university in four years. Go back temporarily. Go back permanently. But I can’t really go back there, either. Not any more. I don’t know how to make a life in Minnesota. Then again, I could figure it out. My family has taken that kind of risk in the past. We could do it again. We will do it again.
I got sweaty palms on our first flight into Somaliland in 2003 but I am not frightened this time when a flight attendant says, “Allahu Akbar,” over the intercom. This time, I join in the sentiment that God is great. God is so great he is bringing me back to Djibouti. Somaliland was rustic and interesting and inimitable, with idyllic weather. It was a week of headscarves, stares, potholed roads, gunshots, phallic mountains, and curfews. I drank lime juice. I ate tacos, finally finishing the meal I had abandoned. I felt afraid and called it fear and I laid to rest the ghosts.
And now I look out the airplane window as we cross from Somaliland to Djibouti and feel blond curls tickle my forehead. I am at home in this place, between worlds, under a headscarf or not under a headscarf. Between peace and fear, between moving forward and looking back. And even though the temperature is still over 115 and even though Djibouti is still reeling from the aftermath of horror, I’m thankful to return to the hellhole of creation. I’m thankful to be going home.