As the Somali Independence Day yesterday marked 52 years of independence, I started thinking about what that meant and how it feels to celebrate victory and hope so far from home at a time when it feels as though there is little to rejoice. It may only have been half a century since the Italians and the British left but we’ve certainly been roaming for hundreds of years in the land we came to know and love as Soomaaliya.
The last time I was on Somali soil, I was four and a half years old, making my way to the Kenyan border, literally by foot (or sandal) for a part of the way. It was 1990 and by then the civil war in Somalia had already taken the lives of numerous family members and distant relatives. At that age, I had very little concept of war but I was already well aware of the sound of a weapon when it is being charged or in full use or what a body blown away to pieces looks like on the ground next to you. It was almost a decade later, at around age thirteen, that I started to recollect (or rather make myself recollect) my earliest childhood memories and talk about them to my family as an elimination process of some sort in order to know what was real and what was just anxiety filled visions and dreams. I’ll always remember the look of surprise on my mother’s face when I told her that I remembered our bright red front door, certain people who worked in the household and even the neighbourhood; the mosque up the hill and the shops down the street. Memory is a curious thing, for every little thing that you hold on to, you eventually feel as though you have to let something else go. The few precious memories that I have from my early childhood (aged 2 onwards) are still in parts vivid to me, a warm comfort that I turn to in my time of need (and who doesn’t need warm comfort every chance they get?) So there I was, 24 years young in 2010, finally traveling to that place I had evoked in arguments and in passion that was now something tangible to me, something real, something I would soon be able to smell, touch, feel. Those who have experienced forced migration know all too well that lingering feeling of restlessness that never quite goes away.
Boarding that plane home I see so many faces that resemble mine. What an overwhelming feeling to be able to eavesdrop into every conversation around me, to be spoilt with common and rare dialects as if listening to a symphony on the radio. They’re all trying to outdo each other’s high notes. I board that first plane tired and sleepy, having hardly closed my eyes long enough to dream the following night. It’s dawn and the sun comes up as we board but inside that airport tunnel, it’s hard to know if it is day or night. The plane is full and I sit in the middle (I wanted to sit by the window) but instead there is an older woman sat there and who seems determined not to move. Her voice is particularly quiet for a Somali and it is as if her feeble frame matches that of her enervated voice. I lean in several times to listen closely to her replies – yes she wants water as well, no I don’t have to move my arm from the shared armrest.
Up in the clouds, I don’t know what to expect, what it’ll look like from up here. Will it be green and fruitful or a mirror image of the desert I left behind? Will I be able to recognise it? Will it be able to recognise me? Flying over the Yemeni desert, I realise how ironic it is that I feel so far and yet so close to home. All the notions I ever had about home suddenly flash before me in a surprisingly overwhelming way as if lined up to be judged, mocked, cast aside. I’ve always considered home, conventionally, where my mother is, as if the world and its continents revolve around her bosom. But now I’m on my way to the real home, the one I didn’t have to play nice to get invited to, the one where I can kiss the ground upon landing and greet like a long lost cousin.
As the plane starts to descend, the ocean stretches so wide before me, a deep blue with shades of turquoise that seems to flow into eternity takes my breath away. This is it. This is the land that my mother has so desperately attempted to recreate in our home for decades, the land that was cursed in anger and cried for in despair, the mythical land used in late night stories and shoved deep in every suitcase. The land tormented on the television and conjured up in schoolyard fights, the land my grandmother made me fall in love with as an adult and whose memories I have of as a child I sacrificed many others to retain.You are so beautiful and I’m sorry that it took me this long to say and see that.