Part A: letting the heart speak
In January of 2011 I moved to live and work in Puntland State of Somalia as an EU consultant attached to the Gender Unit of the Ministry of Education and Higher Education of Puntland. I went there to help contribute to ongoing efforts in the education sector, in particular gender and girls’s education. Prior to that I’d worked in The Hague, the cultural capital of the Netherlands – a country that has been home to myself and my siblings for over 15 years. A country where I was able to secure two Masters degrees – in Cultural Anthropology and in Advanced Development Studies, respectively. I’d traveled then with my beloved husband and our 7-month old baby Najma-Bilan.
I think we all seek meaning in life. We all seek happiness. We seek belonging. Completion. Fulfillment. Growth. Home. Family. We came to Puntland in search of these values because we could not find them in Europe. We lived like dispersed seeds in Europe. Like lost souls. Running but not reaching. Working but not gaining. Earning but struggling. Its not easy living as a Somali woman in Europe. No matter how many academic degrees you have or how fully naturalized/integrated you are, you remain searching, looking. How do you measure growth? The true sense of spiritual growth cant be calculated quantitatively but qualitatively. And no growth can occur without God by your side. But in many parts of Europe God is not valued. God is a private matter. Below are some of the indicators that were fundamental to my growth as a woman, a Somali woman who is empowered and enlightened by Islam.
Coming to Puntland was and still is by far the best decision we’ve ever made. We’ve since grown together in many ways. We have grown as a family, as a unit, in every way possible: spiritually, socially, economically, professionally, culturally, linguistically, career wise, just to name but a few. I don’t define our growth in monetary gains but in the language of spirituality. I found our true passion in Puntland, the place where we were able to also bring together our dispersed cherished family ties and roots. I don’t think my family and I could’ve ever grown this strong together in Europe.
In Puntland, as elsewhere in Somalia, the family unit is very important. The family is the backbone of our society and it is the responsibility of all to make sure that the family unit stays strong, intact and continues to grow and survive calamity. Neighbors, traditional elders and other extended family members are expected to take part in this preservation. I myself have at times felt compelled to contribute to the establishment of the family unit through support for young couples willing to join hands in holy matrimony or by giving advice to a young married couple in feuds. The benefits of coming home and the value of finding true meaning in both our individual and collective lives remain incalculable. Because, in Puntland, as in other parts of Somalia, full of ambitions, we are rising again.
As a family, we continue to find comfort and joy in the small things that life here offers us. Small, meaningful daily occurrences provide spiritual nourishment such as hearing the call to prayer several times a day from the comfort of our home. In Europe we used to relay on the clock; continuously looking at the time or asking if it was time for prayer. Or we relayed on technology: pre-programmed automated calls for prayer on one of our many devices. More deeper, personal benefits also exist like wearing your hijaab without receiving strange stares of condemnation from others. There are also more humor-filled events like hearing strange noises in our kitchen only to rush to find goats reaping our cooked breakfast of canjeelo apart. How did they get in the yard? Did they perhaps fly in? Goats roam the streets in big numbers in Somalia and they easily open doors and gates or climb over walls! People and animals of all kinds live side by side in harmony in many parts of Somalia – something you will not easily find in Europe or elsewhere in the world.
There are also more spectacular events like hearing the rooster crow too early on a Thursday morning waking up excited children in the neighborhood. It is weekend and that means no school or madrasa. Or about hospitably welcoming unannounced guests who decide to come not only for tea or lunch but also for the night or perhaps for multiple nights. And about discovering how you have slowly given in to the Somali conceptualization of time, even owning the experience. No worries. No stress. Chill. No time issue here.
Home is where the heart is. Home is where your roots are. We found in Puntland a home like no other. A home that will stay with us. Always. And knowing this is very gratifying. Do you know what it is like to experience the sensation of peace and tranquility on a cozy, rainy Friday morning while having breakfast with your family on the floor of your fadhi-carbeed sofa, enjoying pan-fried liver with onion rings and canjeelo? There is so much joy in eating together. There is so much peace in eating on the floor. There is so much peace in eating with your hands and fingers. Preparing food and eating together on the floor as a family is a ceremony in itself. I have never enjoyed eating from high chairs and with metal spoons and knives.
Not forgetting to mention the endless choices of family destination, family holidays and relaxation on a cosy Friday afternoon. A Full package enjoyment at Dhareyle awaits you in Garowe and at the Xeebta/beach of Bosaaso as well or perhaps you want to visit the hot-springs Biyokulule in Bosaaso or the green leafy farms in Qardho or even the Yameyska in Galkayo. To enjoy the freedom of exploring the beautiful nature here, whether by water or by land, it is free and you will find it all here.
I want to continue enjoying this feeling. I want to continue reliving the peace of knowing that my child is safe playing outside, without worrying myself sick about a stranger snatching her away. I want to continue playing my role here because I feel useful. I feel valued and I feel appreciated. I am wanted here. I am needed here. I am loved here. And I love it here. I love my people. I love my land. It is after all my only real home. I want to continue planting seeds of happiness in Somalia. I want to continue working on peace building, on poetry and cultural revival for women and youth.
The feeling of being part and parcel of a bigger entity. The feeling of being part of a bigger, greater whole is immense. That feeling is very useful for the soul of the Somali professional. That feeling of knowing that you are contributing to a larger activity, a bigger goal, an end result with a defined objective with reachable results. Knowing that it is a collective mission that requires collective effort. Teamwork. You are only playing your part. Playing your role. Somalia is the only place where I can harmoniously play multiple roles all at the same time. A wife. A mother. A daughter. A sister. An aunt. A neighbor. A niece. A friend. A humanitarian worker. An educationalist. A gender adviser. Even a grandmother. A place where I feel responsible for the well-being of my extended family knowing that they are counting on me and that they are making lots of duas for me, even from afar, deep in the rural miyii bushes.
But most important of all, I think is the feeling of finding home. The feeling of being at home. That feeling I can not fully describe. The closest I can get is finding completion. Here, I can drop off my daughter at an aunt’s or uncle’s house. I dont have to call before hand to make an appointment. I will be welcomed with such warmth and affection. I only have to choose which relative and I am reassured that my daughter will be well taken care of and deeply loved. Unlike the daycare in Europe where I worried alot. Blood is thicker than water.
Somalis ask me how did you do it? It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living or how much money you have. I want to know if you ache for home, for Somalia the way I did and if you also dream big for her. It doesn’t interest me which clan you are from or region in Somalia you are from. I want to know if you will risk your life in order to assist another Somali. I want to know if you have touched the hearts of vulnerable Somali mothers and children. Tell me how many Somali causes have you initiated? How many young people’s futures have you shaped? How many of those were not from your own clan? Tell me do you feel pain and cry when you see a Somali person suffering? I want to know what sustains you from the inside. How would you define your home? Your identity? Your Somaliness?
Of course there is stress here too. For example that you are not seen as a real Somali because you are from abroad, you are diaspora. There is stress from all the commotion and what have you. But its a different kind of stress. I have a way of coping with it. Sometimes, when the stress of the town gets to me I run to the mountains. I then take my mat, book and favorite pen with me. I sit under an acacia tree and enjoy the blessed view. I hear the winds hitting against the faces of the mountains. I hear them hissing, as if seductively calling me, singing to me. So special. And then a camel and its herder majestically come galloping. They always offer fresh, frothy camel milk and sometimes honey. Its all free and they never, ever ask for money. In return, i sometimes read my poetry to them as a token of my gratitude! Here I go I say as I read my favorite poem depicting the strength of Somali women in Somalia ‘I Am A Somali Woman’ to them. And they always respond with ‘waan gartay’, ‘haye’ ‘waa sidaase’, ‘ka soco’!.
The feeling of relief when I pull into the driveway of our home after a long day at work and the kids (I am raising my cousins kids) joyfully come running to me calling “hooyo, hooyo”! It is priceless. The warmth of family. I don’t want to let go. I hold on with all my might. Alhamdulilah. I did not own a car in Europe. No I did not. Because I paid off numerous debts.
Home has been many places for us in Europe the past years. But home in Puntland for us is defined by simple, blissful moments like these. To me home is a place you can feel comfortable enjoying your freshly cleaned uunsi-scented living room filled with Somali decorations. A place where you can walk barefoot. A home where you can deeply breathe in and out. With plenty of sunshine, blue skies and warmth. I did not own a house in Europe. No I did not. I could not afford it. We have built ourselves a beautiful house here.
Home is also the place where I enjoy teaching my daughter about the art of storytelling. It is the place where I enjoy nurturing baby goats and cats with my little daughter and teaching her about animal welfare in Puntland. As well as talking about Somali identity and about Somaliness with her. At almost 5 years old my daughter speaks better Somali than I do. Masha Allah. The other day she said “hooyo waan shuxayaa”. I thought she had diarrhea. I am able to take her with me to lectures and trainings i conduct and 1 day, as i was giving a training, she came to the front and loudly said to me “mummy I want to do/be like you”. Or the time she took to the stage, took the mic in her hands and announced how proud a Somali she is.
Home for me means gaining a few extra kilos and still feeling loved and beautiful. Its a place that evokes a sigh of relief in me as I walk in the door. It’s about hearing my neighbor’s kal hit against the moyo grinding spices for fresh Somali tea. Knowing that I can walk in her home unannounced for a cup of tea or more without much ado. A place where I can wear my worn out batty bacweeyne and flipflops and still feel pretty to my husband. The only place where I feel like a complete marwadii guriga.
In Part B: Letting the mind speak, I will talk about the rewards of my professional work in Puntland and how it has significantly shaped my life. I will talk about why girls education is so important to me and so close to my heart and why I decided to come to Puntland to do this work. This story shall therefore be continued. Until then enjoy these pictures of Puntland which in many ways than one reflect my story.