People of a Half-Way House

Nuruddin Farah writes about his family and other Somalis who fled their country

I remember the renegade tears running down the cheeks of my younger sister, who had been among the first boat-loads to arrive in Mombasa.

‘We just escaped,’ she said when I met her in Utange refugee camp, ‘leaving our beds unmade, the chairs in our dining-rooms upturned, our kitchens unswept, our dishes in the sinks, our future undone. We ran as fast as we could, not bothering where we might end up, in the country and among the displaced, or out of it and among the stateless. We locked up our house as though we were going away for a weekend trip into the country. Afraid of what might happen to us if we stayed on, we didn’t question the wisdom of leaving.’

My sister was dejected and emaciated after an arduous sea journey in an overcrowded dhow, emptied of wise thoughts by the perils, first of joining the displaced, then of leaving Somalia and going into exile. She and my father told me what I understood then to be upmarket tales of horror. Most of them sounded incredible, a great many boasting of apocryphal qualities, spoken meanly, I thought, in order to dishonour the good name of the other clan. I asked my father, then in his eighties, why he fled, and he answered: ‘We fled on the say-so of our clanspeople.’

‘Why didn’t you inquire into the matter before upping and leaving?’ I wondered. ‘You might have found your Kenyan papers if you had the calm to look for them. You wouldn’t be a refugee then, would you? You were once entitled to Kenyan nationality, weren’t you?’

‘We were like a horde of ants fleeing ahead of a hurricane,’ he said. ‘The trouble is we were fleeing in the very direction from which the tempest would eventually roar. Every one of our clanspeople caught the virus of fleeing, and for those in the clans who remained, staying on was also contagious.’ I was reminded of a formidable riddle often put to children, perhaps to ascertain how alert they are. Coming upon twenty deer, a hunter aims and shoots, killing none. ‘How many deer remain?’ a youngster would be asked. The correct response was ‘None,’ only you seldom encountered a child who got it right first time.

I asked my father why he thought he would be killed, simply because he was from another clan. Before I met him in a hospital in Mombasa, recovering from an injury to his spine, my father and I hadn’t set eyes on each other for a little over seventeen years. Not that absence had brought us any closer: he and I continued our habit of disagreeing on every topic. In her effort to make peace between us, my sister tried to change the course of our conversation, saying that it wasn’t who you were or what clan you belonged to that made you leave, but the helplessness. ‘I know many of the other clans who fled,’ she told me, ‘though not necessarily in the same direction as ourselves.’

I could see that my father was displeased with my sister’s intervention. Angrier with those who had made him flee than he was with either of us, he said: ‘I am old enough not to care less about what you think, so let me tell you that we fled because we met the beasts in us, face to face.’

‘You’ve just admitted that you left on the say-so of someone else,’ I reminded him. ‘And besides, you know how people like to make up stories.’

‘Mogadiscio has fallen into the clutches of thugs,’ my father went on, ‘no better than hyenas. Now, could you depend on a hyena to know what honour is, what trust is, what political responsibility means?’

I said: ‘For all we know, Somalia’s warring clans may be fewer in number than its peace-loving nationals, many of whom pursue sedentary vocations. It is those of us of the nomadic stock who are more vocal, and who claim to be the prototype Somali. To my mind, we’re bellicose beasts, forever at each other’s throats.’

My sister remarked: ‘To flee is not an admission of guilt on our part. As for your question, why run? What would you want us to do, buy guns instead of running?’ People might flee, she seemed to say, in the same way that, on seeing other deer run, a frightened deer may run, too.

‘We heard fear in the footsteps of those running,’ my father continued, ‘and sensed fright in the faster pace of our hearts. I reckon it is wiser to join the masses of people fleeing, and then ask why they are escaping, than to be robbed, or raped, or left dead by the wayside, unburied. What’s the point of remaining in a Mogadiscio emptied of all one’s people?’

I said: ‘I don’t see this as a war between the clans, and I hope that history will prove me right. I think that what’s afoot is a battle between men so charged with power-greed that the friction between them will light a great fire which will engulf us all.’

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