Pain of being a Kenyan Somali

Thursday November 3 2011

The loyalty of Kenyan Somalis is questioned by many, and it does not help that such terms as ‘the enemy within’ are used with abandon. Reptilian analogies — with long anaconda-like tails buried hundreds of miles away in Somalia and heads in Eastleigh — are particularly unnerving

The loyalty of Kenyan Somalis is questioned by many, and it does not help that such terms as ‘the enemy within’ are used with abandon. Reptilian analogies — with long anaconda-like tails buried hundreds of miles away in Somalia and heads in Eastleigh — are particularly unnerving 

By ABNASIR AMIN [email protected]

Ethnic stereotypes are not necessarily a bad thing — it is one thing to be stereotyped as liking the good life, dressing well, wearing the latest Armani suit and scent, driving the latest BMW, having a penchant for speaking the Queen’s English, or indulging in kuku porno.

This is the stuff of bar-room banter, oiling the wheels of social discourse. I have no quarrel with that. I can see the coy smile on my friend Oti’s lips.

I doubt Shtan would take offence at the ingokho joke as well (I will stop it, I swear). The message is usually “come on, don’t take yourself too seriously. Lighten up”.

But it is different to be stereotyped as being guilty of all manner of ills, from spitting on the side walk, being “Osama’s buddy”, speaking in a harsh incomprehensible language (a silly hand-me-down from that colonialist Richard Burton), sitting around all day eating miraa with a kikoi tied around your torso, and having huge amounts of “unexplained” money.

I would rather be guilty of eating too much ingokho any time. The gurgling noises Marete makes as he imitates my Somali speech, then asking me “what did I say in Somali? and my witty rejoinder “my aunt is a cow” — that also I can take. It is good fun, we all laugh and that is it.

However, there is nothing to lighten up about being “Osama’s buddy”. At the height of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, a lecturer in an oral examination had the cheek to ask me if I knew the Al-Qaeda leader.

For those who have been through the University of Nairobi’s medical school, oral examinations are traumatic.

There are usually three categories of students; those whose performance is outstanding and the examiners are trying to make up their minds whether to give them a distinction or not; those who are in the middle and the oral examination is just a confirmation that you are indeed C material — a middling; the third, and most-dreaded category and every med-schooler’s nightmare is those who are borderline and are a whisker away from failure.

For this hapless lot, the oral examination is either a kiss of death or life — one mark helps you proceed to the next class and the lack of that one mark can consign you to another year with your juniors or a supplementary examination (a “sup”) — something to be avoided at all costs by any self-respecting, “trans-nighting” (means zero sleep) med-schooler.

The elephant in the room

I recently wrote an article for the Daily Nation’s sister publication The EastAfrican on being a Kenyan Somali at a time of war.

The article was in a very jocular tone and touched on issues of identity and negative ethnic profiling of Kenyan Somalis at such a difficult time in our country’s history.

I have since talked to a number of people and have been in a number of situations to gauge different points of view and experiences.

For many Kenyan Somalis, the elephant in the room is that of questioned loyalty.

This is not something new among minority communities whose kin or co-religionists are seen as aggressors against the mainstream society they reside in.

When the US was at war with Japan following the attacks on Pearl Harbour, the loyalty of Japanese Americans was questioned and many of them had a very rough time to the point that some were incarcerated in concentration camps.

Similarly, the loyalty of Kenyan Somalis is questioned by many. It does not help that such terms as the “enemy within”, the “fifth column”, and, worse still, analogies of odious reptiles are used with abandon.

Reptilian analogies — with long anaconda-like tails buried hundreds of miles away in Somalia and heads in “little Mogadishu” (Eastleigh) — are particularly unnerving.

As Edward Said observed in his seminal work Orientalism and Covering Islam, the leap from dehumanising a people to committing all manner of crimes against them is a very short one. Once you have dehumanised someone, anything goes.

Just think of the term “cockroach” and how it was effectively used to dehumanise the Tutsis in Rwanda. We all know what happened next.

Idi Amin’s Uganda

Many Kenyan Somalis draw parallels between the fate of Asians in Idi Amin’s Uganda — where the Asian community was blamed for all manner of ills and eventually ended up being booted out of their homes and their businesses — and the increasingly strident tone against Somalis in Kenya, whether Kenyan Somali, Somali Somalis, or Somalis from the Diaspora who have come to invest in Kenya.

One businessman wondered aloud: “Why aren’t our brothers and sisters allowed to invest in Kenya like other human beings?

Does money have colour, creed, or religion? Many people come to Kenya to invest — white, black, Indian — but when it comes to Somali investments, they and even us Kenyan Somalis are looked at with a lot of ill will and suspicion.

“Our brothers from the Diaspora work very hard in North America and Europe, toiling three different jobs, sleeping little, slaving for years and saving every dollar they can.

“Obviously, they cannot invest in a lawless country like Somalia. The closest to home for them is Nairobi, and when they invest in Kenya, they are not appreciated as advancing our economy. Instead, they are called pirates and whatnot. Why? Isn’t this intolerance?”

Calm before the storm

The common theme among many is that of anxiety — the calm before the storm. There are terms in the English language and in popular parlance which are reassuring, if not benign, to many Kenyans.

To most Kenyan Somalis, however, they have a completely different meaning. “Security” and “operation” are terrible words to the eyes and ears of a Kenyan Somali. They are akin to shouting “Fire!” in a crowded cinema hall.

There was a comical moment during last Friday’s sermon when the very wise and affable Hon Billow Kerrow — a man after my own heart — had to explain what he meant by “security” in many languages.

He had stood up to make a number of announcements at Jamia Mosque and one of the announcements was the need for all worshippers coming to the mosque to cooperate with guards who had been stationed at the main entrances to the mosque to ensure enhanced “security”.

He started in Kiswahili and English, then quickly, realising the negative connotations of the word “security” for most Somalis, switched to Somali and explained that it simply meant “…checking for anything suspicious so none of us is in trouble since we are living in tense times”.

The sigh of relief was palpable. The roots of such mistrust of the terms “security” and “operation” are buried deep in the annals of history — history that many Kenyans are unaware of, at least until recently through the auspices of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Things have been made worse by the war on terrorism and recent events, such as the stone-throwing antiques between Muslim youth and other Kenyans in front of Jamia Mosque following the arrest of Jamaican Islamic preacher Sheikh Faisal.

For me, the words “security operation” conjure up many unpleasant images burnt into a child’s mind forever.

Four images from the Wagalla Massacre of 1984 suffice to make the point about the negative connotations of “security operation” for the Kenyan Somali.

Men stripped of dignity

At the height of that infamous security operation, I was in primary school in Tarbaj village, 48 kilometres North of Wajir town, Wajir County.

First, I see images of grown men in Tarbaj in broad daylight, stripped of all dignity, of all their clothing, in front of women and children, being whipped and herded like animals to the centre of the town.

The naked men beg for mercy as the nyahunyos cut into their flesh in the blistering sun. By dusk, the askaris would congregate at the nearby dam, the only source of water, to cook and clean, having successfully rounded up many men from the nearby towns and “dropped them off” in Wagalla — a euphemism for teaching them a lesson.

The askaris gave us ugali, fruit jam, and army-issue biscuits. After all, we were students, and the old man said education was the key to Kenya’s future.

The second image is my mother recounting how a much-loved uncle was whisked away from our “restaurant” and bundled into the back of an army truck, never to be seen again.

The third image is that of my old, hypertensive, and diabetic father contemplating dangerously lowering himself to the bottom of the family well to hide from the marauding askaris.

Luckily for him, he was very light skinned — he claimed that he was an Arab, a descendant of one of the Arab families in Wajir town. They bought that canard and left him alone.

The fourth is that of another uncle wheezing and unable to breathe. He was one of those who were imprisoned in Wagalla without food or water for days in the scorching sun.

He was beaten many times on the chest with rifle butts, was taken for dead, thrown into the back of a tip truck together with the dead, and thrown into some bush in Dhela, Wajir County.

He crawled out of the mass of bodies and was brought back to Wajir by good Samaritans.

There are similar stories from many Kenyan Somalis on so-called “security operations” — the Bulla Karatasi Massacre of 1980 in Garissa County, arbitrary arrests and beatings on baseless charges of being shifta sympathisers, communal punishment for a son or relative gone shifta by torching the family house or entire neighbourhoods, arresting all known relatives and being asked to “produce your bad apple plus his gun”.

Similar extrajudicial killings have occurred in Malka Mari, Takaba, and other places in Mandera County, and they are well documented, thanks to Ahmed Issack Hassan and other unsung heroes and heroines, such as the indefatigable Annalena Tonneli, a Catholic nun.

In taking a straw poll — nothing scientific here — there are those who say they have not been affected in any way by the current state of war.

Abdi and his friend, both of whom work in peace building and conflict resolution, say “everything is normal; we have not seen anything unusual, nothing untoward has happened to us or our relatives”.

Others speak of a general anxiety and unease. They are waiting and watching, particularly on the soon-to-come security operations in Eastleigh and South C.

There are worries that, as has happened before, gold and other valuables for sale in Garissa Lodge and other malls in Eastleigh will be confiscated, never to be returned.

Some women have started wearing the niqab, the all-covering face-cloth. One such woman remarks: “I don’t want people staring at me like I am a criminal, at least now they can’t see me. I feel safer this way.”

Cambara, a Bachelor of Commerce graduate from India, is amazed at the vitriol on social media sites such as Facebook.

She cannot believe how former friends, some of whom she has personally helped in kind and financially as struggling students in India, have joined the fray and started calling her and all Somalis “skinny, smelly wariyahes”.

She says “this is simply unbelievable. Ordinary people, people I considered friends, have taken leave of their senses and are calling me names. This is crazy. I have done nothing but I feel besieged”.

I have personally witnessed two incidents of ethnic profiling. I went to the environs of Kenyatta Avenue last week to condole with a friend of mine who had lost his mother.

Smack in the middle of the CBD, a young Somali man was being led away by what appeared to be plainclothes policemen. His poor, mournful sister was trudging along.

A lethal lunchbox

Everyone was gawking at him and some watchmen by the ATM at Barclays Plaza (where I was) were snickering behind me “hawa watu, hii wariyahe hii”.

The poor chap stood no chance. The following day, as I crossed the road opposite my workplace, I swear three fellow Kenyans were staring at my lunch-box like it was the most lethal of weapons.

I nearly ditched the damned thing but thought (wisely in retrospect) that pandemonium would have ensued.

Clearly, these observations are indicative and not generalisable to all and sundry — what is clear is that there is a lot of anxiety and we need measures to reassure citizens who have done no wrong and who are going about their daily business that all will be well and that they will not be treated unfairly because of their ethnicity.

Let justice be our shield and defender.