For all intents and purposes, this piece centres around an ostensibly un-Somali topic: coffee shops.
I love coffee.
I daydream about coffee.
I audibly squeal with joy when I taste a perfectly brewed cup.
I could spend the equivalent of full working days in cafés and roasteries, relishing in the (expected) moment of returning home to sniff the faint odours of coffee beans that have married into the fabric of my backpack and articles of clothing.
Yet for me, coffee shops have oddly become an entry point of self-reflection—a means to help explore both my Somali-ness and blackness.
I vividly recall being in the second year of my undergrad when overhearing a conversation between two classmates gushing over their favourite cafés, each passive-agressively trying to outdo the other on why their shop was better. It then dawned on me that I was one of those people who didn’t “do coffee”. Now what exactly does that mean? It meant I didn’t spend countless hours in one of the hip(ster) joints on or nearby campus finishing a term paper or studying for a final. It meant I didn’t take ‘important meetings’ with professors to talk about content I was unclear about in lecture or seminar. It meant I was not in-the-know of the latest shop to open or how it would stack up with other competitors in the neighbourhood.
I never “did coffee” because it was a world that I didn’t feel I could ever belong to. But if you were to ask me exactly why I felt this way, I wouldn’t be able to articulate anything substantial. So growing tired of hearing the countless recommendations on where to go by friends and classmates, I began to explore what the fuss was about once I graduated.
I embarrassingly began navigating my way from shop after shop, from the Junction to Leslieville, leaving places with feelings ranging from slight discomfort to awkward as hell.
Mind you, there wasn’t anything specifically wrong with the spaces themselves. Truthfully, many boasted interesting layouts and beautiful décor, impeccable brews and baked goods, all within great surrounding neighbourhoods and other small, local businesses.
But, to put it bluntly, these places felt very white.
Being a first-generation Canadian-born Somali woman, I knew (and know) that certain areas and spaces were (and are) off limits to me. Of course there are no material barricades prohibiting me from enjoying any one of the city’s great coffee establishments. However there were subtle demarcations—ones that materialized in largely white owners, white baristas, and white patrons.
This realization stung. And it stung even more when I noticed that many of these places relied on beans from my continent (usually Ethiopia and/or Kenya).
Thus my adult coffee shop experiences in downtown Toronto were moments that I poignantly felt my difference as both black and Somali; my blackness ossified as the dark speck amidst a sea of white bodies; my Somali-ness concretized when I would get the occasional compliment (???) of, “Oh, I love your hair, its so different from other black people I’ve met!” from a stranger that I happened to make small talk with at an adjacent table.
Growing up however I was exposed to a different kind of coffee culture that was actually hyper-Somali. It included herds of Somali men who poured into (sometimes dilapidated) Coffee Time’s or Country Style’s kilometers away from the busy city-centre I spoke of earlier. They could be seen hovered over a table (always somehow accommodating more bodies than it should), arguing zealously about political matters back in *insert Somali city here*. Aabo (dad) would occasionally attend these gatherings. Yet whenever I asked to join him, hooyo would swiftly step in to inform me that these spaces—and affairs—are simply not for young girls to involve themselves with. In other words, she told me to stay in my lane.
So I (begrudgingly) did.
Reflecting on these seemingly disparate events helped me realize that being a Canadian-born Somali will always markedly shape the way I experience space. Though despite encountering stumbles, it hasn’t stopped me from delighting in an expertly crafted latte in the city, nor has it made me loathe not being able to barge into Coffee Time in a Somali community to join an impassioned debate about Somali politics.
So for someone who never thought twice about my Somali identity growing up, my café escapades have helped unpack the complexities that come with being a Canadian-Somali. The silver lining is that with the maturation of the diaspora in Toronto, the onus is now on myself and other first-generationers to carve out such spaces in our new homelands. Because in all honesty I’m tired of spending my time (and money…lots of money) in spaces that despite frequenting still don’t feel quite right. Though I am confident that they will materialize on street corners of Toronto some day soon.
With all this coffee talk I think it is apt to now pester hooyo to make me a fresh cup of spiced qaxwo….