An encounter with Somali hospitality

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I wake up wondering where I am. Around me, within reach, are wattle and daub walls. Inches from the foot of the reed bed is a curtain partition from the other side of which I could see shadowy figures.

Then I remember that I’m spending a weekend with a Somali family in Bodhai in Garissa County to find out what life is like in the north eastern Kenya, trying to shake off dubious stereotype of violence and insecurity.

My host, Hamdi Muhumed Ali, and his wife, Zahara, barely a month into their marriage, were performing wudu, an Islamic ritual of cleansing the body in preparation for prayers. They had warned me the night before that they were early birds.

After the dawn prayers Zahara cleared Hamdi’s beddings from the earthen floor, while I slept on their bed on the other side of the partition.

“We insist you sleep on our bed,” Hamdi had said the night before. “You are our guest”.

Zahara had boarded with relatives. I make my way across the homestead yard to the tiny privy in the corner of the yard, just behind the tiny huts. No toilet papers, no leaves. Instead water in a three liter jerrycan came in handy.

A predominantly Muslim region, everything revolves around water, from washing corpses before burial, ablution for prayers and the water serves as the softest toilet paper one can come across.

I use the same to wash my face. Suddenly, I feel a hearty pat on my shoulder: “How about a wash?”

At 25 years old, Hamdi is a spindly, cheery man, with a broad grin. I protest. “No, you can’t wash with cold water,” he says firmly.

He explains the realities of the region’s life. The blistering temperatures and blinding sun makes one sweat. The air is dusty and pores get clogged. Before you know it, you have rashes. You must wash often, he said.

Seeing my embarrassment, Hamdi chuckles and leads me back to a shack near the privy. He brought a five liter jerrycan with steaming water and shampoo. He waits till I am undressing, and leaves.

Plunged into the little known village in Ijara District on the southern point of Garissa County, I had my first lesson in survival. I was spending the weekend in Bodhai to try to demystify religious and cultural stereotypes.

Despite terrorism being a global phenomenon, many in Kenya associate the region with al-Shabaab militants who have carried out numerous attacks in the country. Reports of insecurity have only fueled the region’s alienation from the rest of the country and cries of marginalization have persisted.

As a result, Somalis are held with fear and derogatorily called names ranging from shifta, bandits, al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda and pirates. I wanted to test the tugs. I dropped my journalist identity to reduce any advantage that might come with the name journalist.

I joined a group of about 20 people to wait for the vehicle that was scheduled to depart to Bodhai from Masalani, the headquarters of Ijara District. With a single dim headlight, I felt sure the driver was on a suicide mission. “One eyed jalopy,” passengers wryly called it.

The driver seemed to be able to sense his way in the dark, swerving round potholes and taking sharp unmarked turns. A fellow passenger looked over his shoulder and saw my clenched-teeth alarm.

“Don’t worry,” he shouted. “When your time comes you can die even while preparing to eat.” In the region, people don’t worry about death as much. It is always shrugged off as God’s will and life goes on for the living.

On arrival the driver shouted to those alighting to do so, fast! Since it was approaching 9 p.m. I climbed out and made to the nearest homestead. I spotted a figure moving. I offered greetings. A husky voice replied.

“I am new here and I need a place to rest for the night.”

“Where are you from?”

“From Kisii County”

There was hushed silence. “Where were you heading to?”

‘Here.”

“Huh? Anyone in particular you were coming to visit?”

“No.”

“Hmmm?”

He opened the door revealing two people inside I later learn are his brother and a cousin. They sat cross legged on a mat chatting over steaming cups of tea aided by a lantern for some light.

They stared at each other in searching eyes. They listened. They posed questions. Zahara, 20, who had not uttered anything, served me sugar-laden tea in a cup said proudly “feel at home”.

After tea, Zahara served a meal of rice, milk and goat meat and lemon fruit in one tray.

“We always eat from one plate. It makes one to be more considerate and caring for each other,” Hamdi said, pointing to  a cupboard full of plates received as present during their wedding a few days earlier. Women eat from one plate separately from men.

That night as I pulled up a thin bed cover, I could hear Hamdi boasting how they have a visitor from “down Kenya,” in reference to people from other parts of the country. A hyena chuckled from a distance. Finally, I drifted into sleep.

Sunday morning. Clean and refreshed I join Hamdi on the mat for a breakfast of anjera (fermented pancake), nyirinyiri (traditional preserved meat) and tea.

Hamdi tells me his encounter with non-Somalis. He visited Nairobi for the first time at 22. He schooled locally. Upon reaching 18 years he sought an identity card to be able to move to the city to make money. There are more than ten security checks from his village to Nairobi. Those without the document are detained and prosecuted. Some are serving jail term.

Numerous attempts to get the document failed each time his nationality being grilled until he turned 22 years. By then he had resigned to a life as a herdsman and a farmer.

“Those of us with no ID cards are no different from prisoners because our freedom is curtailed as well,” he said. I am surprised that he is not overly bitter.

“In the long run,” he says, “I hope things will be better.”

He says while in Nairobi, the discrimination against Somalis was evident.

“You would enter a vehicle and the looks from passengers would say you are a suspect and you are not welcome,” he says. “We learn to live with it.”

Some of the villagers make a point of coming to shake my hand. “Glad to have you with us,” they said. There are expressions of amazement, then pleasure. In the evening we drop in one of Hamdi’s relatives. We are not expected and I am embarrassed to take advantage of a family whose meal is obviously overstretched, but Hamdi insists we share what is on offer.

Back “home,” I get ready for bed. I reflect on how a couple just newlywed could leave their matrimonial bed for a total stranger. Someone had said that Somalis are hospitable and will go to the any length to ensure your stay is comfortable as possible. I couldn’t agree more.

During one of the prayers, Hamdi had invited me to join them at a local mosque. At the end of the prayer, Hamdi introduced me to everyone and I am summoned to seat cross legged with the imam and muezzin. The imam asks if I have anything to say.

“Thank you for having me with you,” I mumbled through.

The Somali community is incredibly kind and sensitive to other people’s faith. They made sure I was well fed, consistently had a mug of tea and that I felt at ease.

Where language was a problem to communicate particularly with my smattering of the Somali language and my hosts’ rudimentary knowledge of Swahili and English, we used hand signals to communicate.

We connected easily with the villagers, every one of whom made an impact on me.

I admired their unrelenting work in the farms. They worked themselves off and yet always seemed ready to offer a smile, to chat and to while the evenings away.

For the few days I was literary “adopted” by the village, I had learned to lead a humble way of life and a more tranquil way of interacting with people, lessons that are never taught even in our institutions of high learning.

On Tuesday, I have to leave. The public service vehicle has no scheduled time and Hamdi has placed people on the lookout.

“We have enjoyed having you,” he says. For the first time, I realized we have so much in common than we have to separate us with the north.

When the one eyed jalopy pulled out of Bodhai, the region took a whole new meaning to me; I felt dazed and humbled, but connected with the Somalis in a way I had never felt before.

Boniface Ongeri is a Sahan Journal contributor. 

Image via Shafi / Flickr.

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