Jul 18, 2012

Will the real Somali please stand up?

Before my grandmother came to live with us when I was 7 years old, I had forgotten a lot of my spoken Somali. We were still refugees in Sweden and I had just started school, eager to keep up with the Swedish kids and my mother, who was struggling to learn this new language, encouraged me to speak Swedish at home so that we could both practise it with each other. At my pre-school, a year or so earlier, it was obvious that I was learning Swedish at a faster pace than the other refugee kids and so was placed in a Swedish kindergarten where I thrived but at the cost of losing my Somali. Looking back now, I think the other foreign children struggled to keep up because their parents were speaking their native language to them, perhaps realising that we were at a key age where the language you speak at home is the one you will grow up to speak fluently. But then came my grandmother who had been in Kenya with my aunts during the two years since we all fled from Somalia and it was immediately clear that she had no intention of speaking anything but Somali and if I wanted to be a part of our home life, I had to re-learn my mother’s tongue. You want to know the best way to learn a language? Share a room with someone who can’t understand anything else.

So over the years I learned to not only speak proper Somali but ended up speaking exactly like her; imitating her phrases and older generation words which, at times, made me sound like an old lady in a child’s body. It became an unspoken rule that we would all speak Somali at home at all times. Even though I had my own room, I continued to share my grandmother’s and we became much closer than I was to my mother. I think that whilst my mother was doing her best to balance Swedish lessons and work (not to mention setting up charities for Somali women and newer refugees), my grandmother and I remained in our own imagined Somali bubble of folktale, stories and recollections of a lost life. She raised me on stories of our people, our land; the entire nation captured in each hero and villain. She was my Somalia.

As I got older I started to realise that my cousins and peers hardly spoke Somali and when I did, they looked at me as if I was weird for speaking a language that only the adults did. I had cracked the code on how to understand the big people. When I was 8 or 9, a group of Somali girls around my age one day jumped out of nowhere after school and started to beat me. I’ll never forget how one of them, the elder, slapped me right across my face and said that I should stop pretending to be Somali because I’m not due of my lighter skin tone and lack of hijab. There was a rumour circulating that I was of mixed race, which apparently took away from my claim of being Somali because I wasn’t ‘pure’ enough. Within a year or two, I grew taller and bigger than all of them and made sure that no one ever pushed me around after that but it really stuck for a long time how someone can try to take your nationality away from you when you don’t tick all their boxes. Are you the right shade of black? Do you speak Somali fluently? Are you veiled? What’s your tribe? Are you enough of yourself?

Those of us born in the 80’s of Somali origin are now a part of a generation uprooted and scattered, a worldwide diaspora of a people either trying hard to shove their identity down or emphasise it in misguided ways by trying to take it away from others. As a generation with either very little or no memory of Somalia - what will we pass on to our children or each other when our parents pass away? One of my post-colonial heroes Frantz Fanon once said that to speak a language is to take on a world, a culture and I think that rings most true to the millions of refugees around the world who will never be able to return to their country. So how do you keep Somalia alive? Share her by embracing the fact that all of us can claim her, love her and have the right to be with her and deserve her. Talk to her, talk with her and talk about her in her own tongue and you might end up keeping the best part of yourself alive in the process. 


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