The name Al-Shabaab terrifies many Kenyans. When mentioned, it could recall its relations Al-Qaeda, ISIS and Boko Haram. Many know that the name simply means “the youth”, who fashion themselves as fighting on behalf of God. Quite an innocent phrase, on its own, yet it keeps security officials, governments, families and the public, especially here in East Africa, alert all the time.
The Youth of God (Mawezi House Publishers, 2019) is a recently released novel by Hassan Ghedi Santur. It was launched in Nairobi this month. It is the story of a Canadian-Somali teenager, Nuur, growing up in Canada. It is also the story of Nuur’s teacher, Ilmi. Their lives are intertwined — one an (un)settled high school biology teacher, the other his brilliant protégé.
Santur’s book revolves around the lives of just two families, with the school and the Somali community in the neighbourhood in the background. Nuur comes from a family of four — father, mother, an elder brother and him. At the beginning of the story, Ilmi lives with his wife, who later bears a boy child. Nuur’s mother lives with her two sons alone. Her husband abandoned her and the children and married a younger woman. Nuur’s brother abandons school, spends most of his time partying and gets a girl pregnant.
Nuur spends most of his time in school and at a Somali restaurant where he works part-time. Ilmi likes Nuur because he is brilliant, hardworking and respectful. But Nuur’s school life is a nightmare as he is constantly bullied by other boys. It is this bullying that unravels Nuur’s seemingly predictable and uneventful life. When one of the boys taunts and knocks him down one day, he fights back, hitting the boy on the head with a chair. The boy suffers a serious head injury. Nuur is arrested but bailed out by his parents. Consequently, he has an altercation with his father — who had returned to the family house — which ends in a fight.
Nuur’s father chases his son out of the home. With nowhere to go, Nuur turns to the only place that had offered him a sense of stability — the local mosque. Here he meets Imam Yusuf. Imam preaches to teenagers against the evils of the Western ways, turning their minds not just against that society but against even relatives who hold views that the Imam believes are heretical. Thus Nuur begins his journey into becoming one of the “the youth of God”, young men who are willing to use violence against anyone who doesn’t live by the rules decreed by the likes of Imam Yusuf.
In the end, Nuur is indoctrinated into believing that his most significant task on earth is to serve God — by going back to Somalia to fight against the perceived “infidel” invaders from other countries, the peacekeeping armies of the neighbouring countries. He secretly leaves Canada, causing much anguish to his mother and teacher Ilmi. All their efforts to trace him are fruitless. Eventually the two get information that Nuur’s passport was traced to Kenya. At the end of the story Nuur’s mother and his brother travel from Canada to Kenya and then to Somalia to try to find him.
What is tragic about this family and neighbourhood story is the mix of events and circumstances that lead an intelligent schoolboy into the world of religious extremism. How could Nuur be dismissed so easily from the school for a misdemeanour? How could Nuur’s father be so irresponsible as to reject and chase away his son? How could Nuur’s mother choose the propriety of “respecting” a husband against defending a child against a foolish adult?
Or even more serious, how could Imam Yusuf easily teach such young minds to violently turn against fellow human beings? Isn’t religion supposed to help humankind find spiritual and physical peace and security — what Nuur really needed — in times of great existential crises? Does religion really advocate violent destruction of others in order to “save” them against evil?
These are questions that The Youth of God throws at the reader. The narrator invites the reader to look closely at circumstances that alienate young people from their families and communities, enabling recruiters like Imam Yusuf to offer “easy and sensible” solutions to the youth.
For instance, the family situation in Nuur’s house doesn’t help the young man grow up properly. There is little love there, because the father has deserted the home and the mother is either too busy at work or pining for her husband.
The bullying Nuur suffers at school combined with the school administrator’s unwillingness to listen to his side of the story leave him with very few options in life. Many of the young people joining terror groups cite abandonment, alienation and a sense of meaningless life as some of the reasons they joined the terror cells.
When the family, the school, the church or mosque, the community, or the country cannot offer succour to the growing and troubled minds of the youth, they will look for options from individuals and groups that will not mind exploiting their naivety and insecurity. It is one thing to fight terrorism but it is something more important to address how young women and men from the neighbourhood, schools or colleges find it so easy to join the terror groups. It doesn’t serve the greater interest to arrest, charge and jail terrorists, when more evidence shows that recruitment and indoctrination is easily done in places, spaces and by people that parents, teachers, community leaders and the government know.
Tom Odhiambo teaches at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]