Hargeisa — June 13, 2014
As soon as the Jubba Airways plane lands I fold in on myself. I tug on my black scarf with fringes and a maroon hem, settle it over the masar that already tightly conceals my curly blond hair. I defer to my husband. I disembark behind him. I keep my eyes on the ground. I don’t smile at the immigration officer, make small talk, or even look at the Somali man with the power to deny me entry. I’ve been here before, to Somaliland, done these things before.
So when the woman behind me presses her large purse with the gaudy gold buckle and her massive breasts into my back in a futile attempt at moving forward in line, I press back. I speak in a voice even more hushed than my normally quiet voice. I notice the color of my ankles, peachy beige, and the way they flash, scandalously, if the wind blows just so and lifts my long black dress.
The first time I landed in Hargeisa was in 2003. Less than a year later my family was part of an evacuation of all foreigners, after three expatriates were murdered.
Annalena was shot in the head in the dirt lot outside her tuberculosis/HIV clinic in Boroma, a ten-minute walk from our house in the village that we referred to as the end of the earth. Her murder is still unsolved. Richard and Enid were English teachers in an even more remote village. Drive to Boroma and keep on driving, over the edge of the end of the earth, and you will find yourself in Sheikh. The couple was shot through the windows of their home there while watching television in the evening. Their murderer was put on death row, where he remains. I sometimes wonder who died first, if they knew what was happening, if they tried to grasp hands in the space between the living and the dying. Their maid found their bodies the next morning. The television was still on.
I never met the Eyeingtons but their death has shaped the past ten years of my life. I never met them but I attended their memorial service in Nairobi, Kenya. I wanted to memorialize what they had given to Somalia and what we all had lost. A life. A dream. Educating leaders in a country awkwardly and painfully pulling itself out of hell. I never met the Eyeingtons but I will never forget them.
Minnesota — 1999-2002
My husband and I spent three years forming that dream, ten months living it in East Africa, and a decade redefining it in Djibouti. We came from stable, middle class families and met at the University of Minnesota. He was a farm boy, I a city girl. Tom earned a masters in mechanical engineering; I had a degree in linguistics. We dated, married, and celebrated our thirteen-month anniversary with the birth of twins, Henry and Magdalene. We were on the cusp of the American Dream: solid jobs, the suburbs, and a life of comfortable security looming. But that version of the Dream wasn’t for everyone.
We lived in Cedar Riverside Plaza in downtown Minneapolis, low-income housing where the hallways and elevators reeked of whatever spices were used to cook in the countries undergoing the crisis of the moment. When we lived there it was cumin, fried onions, boiled goat, cardamom, smoky frankincense — the smells of Somalia.
We rented the single-bedroom apartment on the twenty-second floor because it was cheap and close to the university campus, and in that choice our lives began intersecting with global tragedy and hope, which simmered down into the personal tragedies and hopes of people who were no longer nameless refugees but newly minted citizens. Ubah and Fadouma and Asli. And our career trajectory radically and forever changed.
I asked my neighbors if life in Minnesota was an improvement over life in Somalia. They shook their heads, no. They nodded, yes. They mentioned the misery of snow and ice, of long, dark, slippery winters. They talked about strange food and being foreigners at school. But they had survived civil war and the ensuing anarchy, the rule of warlords. So they also talked about hunger and violence, how, if they had stayed, they wouldn’t have been able to go to school at all, how far they had to walk in the refugee camps to get water. The shadow of memories they didn’t share hung over their eyes.
I asked if they had received help from international aid organizations. Maybe the Red Cross or Red Crescent. Maybe the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Maybe Doctors Without Borders. “There were foreigners around,” one woman said. “They came to the refugee camps with cameras and bags of food. But they stayed a week or a month. No one stayed long.”
I understood. They stayed long enough to create videos of starving children and rape victims. Long enough to drop off bags of rice and sugar. Long enough to treat a few cases of malaria or to make plans to build a high school, but not long enough to see that the building was staffed and classes opened. Not long enough to create sustainable solutions, indigenous ownership, or transformational, long-term development.
The more Tom studied, the more he realized he didn’t want to be an engineer. He wanted to be a professor. The more our life gleamed of privilege and abundance, the more compelled we felt to give out of the much we’d received. The more we heard about the chaos and interminable violence in Somalia of a civil war that began in 1988, morphed into a clan war in 1991, and continued to plague the nation, the more surprised we were to hear a different story from inside the borders of that same country, one of persevering hope.