Who is the Somali?
I talk about this a lot lately. There’s few things we acknowledge in our ideas of what it means to be Somali and who is often restricted from that category. It is precisely the displacement of Somalis across the globe that places us in the position to have to think about clarifying identity more broadly. Somalis in the diaspora are clamouring to understand themselves the context of diaspora which forces us to begin to think about the stories we have taken as truth for so long. If we have to figure out between us what makes us similar, we begin to have to understand what connects us all across lines of difference, similarity or what it means to operate in these places of tension.
What does it mean to return?
First we have to acknowledge that all return isn’t the same return. More precisely not all people have the ability to return. So when we think about what it means to return we have to also unpack our assumptions that return guarantees that you are welcome in the first place, and that return doesn’t come with years of social stratified baggage.
Im interested in the term diaspora privilege lately: the blanket assumption that returning to Somalia with a Western passport, education and language gives you unprecedented access. Let me be clear I’m not contesting the vast amount of privilege associated with these things. But I am questioning the assumption that returning with all of those things means you are 100% of the time granted a spatial and class based mobility.
All return is not the same return.
I’m disputing diaspora privilege as a universal way to describe Somalis that have returned because of its inherent assumption that to be of the diaspora and to be a local are two separate identities. One of which is more authentic than the other. I reject this because of what it allows to be hidden under fancy jargon and what it refuses to unpack.
The point of return is a concept that will have to be unpacked for Somalis with more quickness than before particularly in light of the increasing stability of the Somali region (despite what is said by international media). Across the Somali territories there is more and more talk of “returnees”. The point of return must be theorized on and therefore it’s connection to identity must be understood.
But in order to understand return we must understand departure. How do people come to leave a place and why?
These ideas of diaspora and locals within Somalia and the Somali territories isn’t new. From the Somali sailors now settled in Cardiff, to students who went off to Italy for pharmaceutical post secondary schools to promising religious scholars who learned at Islamic schools offered in the Arab peninsulas Somalis have been leaving the Somali territories for generations. The departure of Somalis is as much a part of the region as is their subsequent return. And yet something is different: their departure didn’t result in the disavowal of their Somalinimo. So why in the context of drought and civil war and trauma do we choose now to differentiate between who becomes more or less authentically Somalis with little nuance or understanding of geopolitics? Does war legitimize the policing of identity identity? Does class decide who belongs? These are difficult questions to answer, and I want to be clear that the raising of these questions are critical to understanding ourselves as functional parts of these ideas.
This is a way to begin to examine what it means to leave and then return to a place. To never leave, and to challenge the motion of diaspora privilege as a carte blanche ticket to power. Who leaves? Who returns? Who is allowed to return? And how do terms like diaspora privilege for those of us who CANNOT return suddenly create inadvertent division?
As a young Madhibaan-Somali woman, what do I return to? A 4.5 system that gives me limited to no political power? If my family fled because that very Madhibaan identity posed incalculable risk, where do I go when I return? Where do young Somali women who aren’t connected to high ranking political families return to? When Somali male journalists are jailed for highlighting women’s experiences of rape, where are other places of recourse for Somali women? What do we return to? And why must we return?
I ask all this to have us think more seriously about we are attempting to get at and to perhaps engage more constructively in dialogue about home, homeland and place. Who goes and who comes, and who has ability to do is complex to think through. I prefer the complexity, it leads us to multiple sites of solidarity. The simple understandings only pit us further against one another.