Saturday, June 20, 2009


A couple weeks ago, I headed up to a central Kenyan town called Isiolo, about a four-hour drive from the capital, Nairobi. I was going to research a story about insurgents from Somalia's civil war recruiting Kenyans to fight with them. I had been told that a young boy (a Kenyan who is ethnically Somali) from a village near Isiolo had blown himself up in Somalia's war, and I was going to meet the family. It was ... quite an experience.

I was supposed to leave Nairobi with an elder from this village and a Somali civil society activist at 6am. I barely slept the night before and woke up before the break of dawn to be ready on time. I arranged to rent a car and they were to meet me and the car downtown at 6am so we could get on the road early and possibly come back the same day. At 6am, I called them from downtown to see if they knew the exact corner we were meeting at. The village elder was still sleeping. They arrived at 7am, with another pleasant surprise. We still had to go back to the elder's home in Nairobi to pick up his wife and son. (Apparently he couldn't go back to the village without his wife because she's the only one that can cook for him). That took two more hours. I should have known that Somalis are worse than Egyptians when it comes to timing.

The ride there was in and of itself interesting. Along the way, huge trucks raced by carrying kilograms and kilograms of a stimulating plant called khat. It is illegal in many countries, but a staple among Somalis. Thew chew it daily - no, hourly - and I guess it gets them kind of high, but in a natural way. I was once told any interview past noon with a Somali would always be "lacking in details"... but I was also told by someone else, the best way to get information from a Somali is to chew with them.

The khat export business has become quite something. The plant, grown in central Kenya, is sold in Somalia and as far as the UK. Apparently, the trucks carrying the stuff don't stop until they reach their destination. Because of the "sensitive" nature of their orders, they cannot afford to be a minute late. So when a truck is flying down the highway and it flashes its lights - that means get out of the way or you'll be killed, cuz this thing ain't stopping. In an effort to combat that, it looks like local government officials have tried to make speedbumps. Only, in some of these places, money is a little lacking for the cement. So instead, they dig out a little strip of the road, like a small trench, and that forces people to slow down in the same way. They say the trucks are so heavy that when they are going downhill, they have to travel at a ridiculously low speed, because if they relied on the brakes to slow them down, the brakes would just burn into flames.

We drove across the equator, where an improvised tourist attraction had been set up. A bowl of water with an egg on each side of the equtor - to demonstrate that gravity pulls the water in different directions (which explains why toilets flush in different directions) on either side.

It was interesting seeing the different landscapes as we travelled north. At first it was extremely fertile, with red clay, trees, plants, and plenty of growth. Then the closer we got to Isiolo, the more arid the landscape became. First it was ranches - acres and acres of land, owned almost exclusively by foreigners. "If Jews had all this land, they would have commcercialized it," the villager elderly said. Ultimately, we found ourselves driving through dust so strong that we couldn't see through the windshield.

At times, we'd be driving in seemingly the middle of nowhere only to find people walking on the side of the road. This is normal in Africa. You find people herding their cattle in the middle of nowhere, because they sleep out in the bush with their animals. But this time, it was a man in a suit. What is a man in a suit doing walking kilometres and kilometres in the middle of nowhere? Had he just finished a business meeting in one village and was trekking back home to another? It always fascinates me. He just looked so out of place in the midst of the wind, sand, and cows.

We finally arrived in the afternoon, to a small village where homes were made of timber and iron sheets and camels casually walk through the sandy alleyways, grazing on the homes' fences! I was almost instantly renamed Hebo, a Somali name with the same meaning as Heba (gift from God). I was also taught how to say "How are you?" in Somali. The term is "Makag Sheig Tee", which litterally means "tell me something". I was told it comes from the time when Somalis were all warriors. When they met someone along the way, they would ask about the situation in the village the passerby had come from. "How is it there? Tell me something". So the best response to "How are you?" in Somali is "Nabat"... "peace".

We ate traditional Somali/Kenyan food - meat/potato stew with ugali, a maize-based (I think!) thick, dry dough that is piled in mountains on your plate! I soon discovered that everything in the house was covered in aunts - food, if you leave it out, the toilet, even, eventually, my purse (where I discovered I had left a piece of chocolate, which the aunts found instanteneously).

I spoke with a bunch of the deceased young man's friends, who were shocked at the whole story. He was born in Kenya and had no connection to the war back home in Somaila. His friends were clearly unimpressed, and gave different explanations for why he would do go: religious brainwashing, money, the feeling of doing something with your life - when you have nothing and your life has no meaning and you see no future, suddenly - the argument goes - committing suicide seems like something of an accomplishment. Many others from Kenya have left their homes to go fight in Somalia, along with people from Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Afganistan, Pakistan, even the United States and the UK (usually, Americans or Brits of Somali origin, but caucasians have also been part of the fighting). People worry that on top of all its own problems (civil war, poverty, humanitarian crisis, piracy), Somalia is becoming a new safe-haven for al-Qaeda. And Somalis fear that this new trend is causing a disgenuine interest in their country by the international community. "The White man is not interested in Somalia," says the village elder with whom I was staying. "He just wants to fight al-Qaeda."

In the end, I was gone three days. As you can imagine, the departure time was just as casual and unimportant to my hosts as the arrival. So I spent some time with members of the family - the mom, who you can see in this picture making breakfast on a charcoal-heated pan. I also got a good crash-course on the Somali clan system. Somalia has been at war with itself since 1991, when warlords overthrew a dictator and then turned on each other. Clan has been the defining factor in Somalia's war for a long time, with different clans fighting against each other and members of the same clan sticking together. What is a clan? Basically the lineage of a family. For example, members of the Issak clan are descendants of Sheikh Issak, an Iraqi who came to Somalia 17 generations ago. He had 8 children. Each of them had children. Every Issak can trace his lineage back to Sheikh Issak, naming every father, grandfather, greatgrandfather, etc. along the way. When a Somali boy is born, he is taught his lineage immediately. No matter where in the world an Issak is, he knows where he's from. "We don't get lost. We're just like the Jews," the village elder told me. What's interesting is that the mother's heritage doesn't matter. As long as your father was an Issak, you are an Issak, even if your mother is an Ethiopian or a Caucasian or whatever. The woman is just a tool the man uses to spread his clan. "She's a box - put your things and move it. She's an industry." ha.

The other interesting thing about these guys was their relationship with their country. I was with two Issaks from Somaliland, an autonomous area that is technically part of Somalia, but has unilaterally declared its independence - which no one in the world recognizes. But while Somalia is tearing itself apart, Somaliland is actually relatively safe. And amazingly, instead of being concerned about what was happening in Somalia, this was the elder's opinion: "Somalia? Let them go to hell. Our country is Somaliland - and there, we are at peace." And then they complain that the international community doesn't care about Somalia. Amazing.


Asif said...

That is pretty fascinating stuff. I didn't know much about Somalia other than what K'naan rapped about. Now I know there is a Somaliland with senile old grandpas there :)

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