The effect of a cultural bomb is to annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves. It makes them see their past as one wasteland of non-achievement and it makes them want to distance themselves from that wasteland. It makes them want to identify with that which is furthest removed from themselves; for instance, with other peoples’ languages rather than their own.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind
Growing up outside of Somalia has, for me, engendered a sense of alienation from my true self. I am Somali and yet I am not quite sure what that means. I am luckier than most in that throughout my life I have been coming back to Mogadishu on an almost yearly basis. My two-month yearly pilgrimages have only served to reinforce my identity crisis: how can I be Somali when, forget my gaja’ gaja’ Somali, even simple cultural things or ways of understanding the world do not come to me naturally? I am happy to learn something new everyday, but learning something new also serves to reminds me that I have missed out on so much.
There are many ways to deal with this sense of foreignness—of unbelonging—in what is meant to be the place where you are no longer the other. I have met some fellow returnees who have reacted to this by shedding any and all ties to their former lives. This group is a minority. The few people I know who have done this have realized how hard it is to blend in; you could be in a niqab on a bus and someone will be able to pick you out of the crowd. They say it is because of the way you walk, sit, and breathe. Locals can always tell. Some who have realized this have eventually left and others keep trying their best to fit in.
There are others who react to the sense of un-belonging by wearing it as a flag and transforming whatever insecurities that come with that into a hostile response to their environment. They stick with fellow returnees from the diaspora, speak English or other foreign languages as much as they can, spend their days reminiscing about their former lives in other countries and complain incessantly about the smallest things. Rather than finding the resilience of Somalis, despite decades of hardship and war, to be an admirable trait, they choose to mock or ridicule locals at every turn. It is not unusual to find people who have come back to live in the country for years who reject the prospect of any assimilation into local culture. They call women’s jilbaab’s “curtains,” laugh at Somali accents in English, and in general, revile the local way of being.
I cannot explain away this behavior as mere reactions to their sense of unbelonging. It is also a manifestation of the internalization of the denigration of Somalis and our culture. It comes after years of being exposed to images and ideas of Somalis depicted as anarchic savages and brutes, pirates and terrorists. It becomes part of one’s repertoire of tropes about other Somalis, easy to repeat without thinking twice.
What is doubly worrying about this, in Frantz Fanon’s words, epidermalization of the inferiority of Somalis is that it comes from those who have come to Somalia with the intention of saving* it from other Somalis and who have genuinely good, if not misguided, intentions. Still, there is a cognitive dissonance between being proud to be a returnee who has supposedly sacrificed so much to come save Somalia and hating the country or at least the people in it. You see these people in NGOs, at the highest levels of government, and in the private sector. They are in positions of power where their beliefs and ideas can inflict great harm.
To hold the West as your barometer for civilization is to be forever disappointed (and blinded to how those societies were built and are sustained through exploitation and injustice). It is a futile endeavor that will only result in the lowering of your own self-worth for you too are Somali. Further, one must be reflective of one’s place in Somali society and one’s own complicity in the problems facing our country. It is only as a fully active and aware member of the society that you be part of a meaningful and lasting reconciliation and rebuilding of our country. Criticism is healthy and necessary for any community. However, do not limit your critique to banal observations about food and dress. Make sure to think deeply about structural injustices that have allowed you to live relatively comfortably while the majority of the country cannot.
My hope is that we can one day live in an equitable Somalia where there is a place for all Somalis. Unbelonging is an uncomfortable and painful experience, particularly when it is in dhulka hooyo.
*I am not advocating savior mentality, merely describing the intentions of some.
Dispatches is a regular series of posts from Collective members traveling or living in East Africa.