Fighting Darkness

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I was on the move the whole day, going from one LNGO to another, trying to visit and to see what lies beyond those project applications. In a place where legitimacy of LNGO means paying 300,000 shillings ($40) to get that certificate from the Ministry of Planning seeing functioning and committed organizations with self-initiative and do real work on the ground is always a challenge.

We’re not the UN or an International NGO with huge funds, we have a Small Grants Project intended to new and struggling organizations. With very little amount of money, giving it to the wrong organization is tantamount to committing injustice to the poor people of this country.

I entered empty offices and traversed the roads of communities and yes, met a lot of people today.

I reached Fharax Nuur village near the airport at around 8:30am. I purposely did not inform them of my arrival. I saw the signboard (all organizations have them!) it was a house with 5 rooms. Iido the chairperson of the group and the owner of the compound was still trying to get herself fixed when she saw me knocking.

I was led to 2 empty rooms where they hold their literacy classes. Classes are usually held in the afternoons so I didn’t see any women students. In one room which they call their office, I met a petite girl, Amira. She’s 20 years old and works as the secretary of the organization, she also functions as one of their 6 volunteer teachers.
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Aniga Hooyada (My mother)


Hoyo is Somali for mother, the eldest woman in the photo is Amina, Nafissa’s mother. I knew her long before this shoot, she calls me Nafissa’s second mother, because I always ask for her permission everytime Nafissa (who works with Heegan Human Rights Network – an all women network of human rights activists) would spend the night in my house, or when meetings last until late evenings. She always agrees, I appreciate the trust. I was told that in  Somali culture, when a woman entrust her daughter to a female friend they become sisters. For me, Amina is my hoyo, because she always makes me feel welcome in her home. Her eyes are quite welcoming, her touch always comforting.

She doesn’t speak English so I try my broken Somali which always makes her smile. I made her laugh today, as usual we started with Somali women greeting:

(Amina takes my hand and kisses it, I take hers and do the same)

Me: Iskawaran (how are you)
Amina: Nabad (peace)
Me: Adigu ma fiicantahay? (are you alright)
Amina: Ha, Fiicanahay (yes, doing good)
Me: Kawaran ninkagi? (how’s your husband)
Amina: (surprised) wuu fiicanyahay, walaalo (he’s fine sister)
Me: Kawaran shaqadaadi? (how’s work?)
Amina: (surprised) fiican fiican! (fine, fine)
I look at her teashop and see a mental man (how they call the mentally ill) sitting in her shop drinking tea and chewing qat.
Me: kawaran nin waalan? (how’s the mental man)
Amina: (laughing, more surprised because i know nin waalan
I look at the man and said, halkii (there)
Amina: ha ha, nabad nabad (yes, yes, he’s fine)

She continues to explain in Somali that the man used to be a Somali National Movement fighter,and that because of trauma brought by war he became mentally ill, so he just sits at her shop everyday, she gives her tea and food. Afraid that I will get scared of his presence she comforted me saying that the man is harmless.

Me: Miyu seexda gurigaaga isagu? (does he sleep in your house?)

HAN’s Footsteps

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They are the women of HAN, the only organization of physically challenged women in the country. They got together less than a year ago as an informal group when they first assisted a 6 year old young girl in Darul Quran, an Islamic school in Hargeisa. She limps to school everyday determined to attend her classes. Her parents couldn’t afford the required uniform and books and wanted her to stop.

Then they supported another disabled woman who walks every day in Hargeisa’s rough and dusty roads going to Adiam Management School.

Now there are a total of 21 disabled women that rides everyday in a bus rented by HAN. It picks them up in their houses and brings them to Nuradine School that teaches English and Math.

“We want disabled women and children to become educated.” Nura who lost both of her legs in her youth said. “If their families do not want to help them, we will.” she added.

“I know how they feel, because we are the same” Anab said. “Our physical handicap nor lack of financial resources should not be a reason for quitting school or pursuing our dream. We will find ways to help each other” she added.

Hearing their stories of sheer courage as they try to survive the war years ago travelling from south to north of this region, hiding and seeking refuge would leave you simply in awe.
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Redefining Women with Disabilities

Mogadishu, November 11, 1988. She was 7 months pregnant carrying her fifth child. She was in a hurry to deposit money to send to her children in Burao where war just erupted.

Like any other mother, her main concern was her children. �That�s the only way to safely send money during that time� she said.

She never made it to the bank; she was getting inside the vehicle when their car was hit. The impact was so strong that her right leg was torn open. �I was at Madina Hospital for 16 days. The doctor did not inject any anaesthesia and just hurriedly wrapped my leg with a cast. He didn�t even close the wound. Blood didn�t stop oozing out. I cried and cried in pain.� She narrated.

Her relatives worried that the accident would affect her pregnancy had to bring her to Nairobi in Kenya. �I didn�t sleep for 2 weeks because the pain was unbearable. I couldn�t imagine walking, much more climb the stairs to get into that plane,� she said. �When you reach the tarmac, look at the airplane, then you�d know what to do,� a female relative told her.

In Nairobi, she was greeted by grim news. �Whoever attended to you in that hospital wants you dead,� the Kenyan doctor informed her. By that time, her right leg was already black. Gangrene crept in. Apparently, the medicine given to her in Mogadishu increased the infection. They were left with no choice but to amputate.

In Somaliland, people with disabilities are called names, heckled, teased and seen as an eyesore to society. Children with disabilities are locked inside homes, they do not go to school because family members are afraid to be branded as keeper of bad luck. Having a physically or mentally challenged family member is a bad omen, they said. Women with disabilities suffer the same fate, worse even their fellow women ridicule them for they are perceived as unattractive, infertile and unproductive individuals that are better off kept inside the house never to be seen by the public. They are described simply as�useless.

Deep inside, Anab Hassan Mohamed, knew that she wasn�t unproductive, but it took her 1 � years to muster all the courage to step out of her house. �I still remember the depression, I felt like garbage, I was ashamed to be seen by people whom I know would ridicule me, but I had to step out, I had to do something!� she said.

Anab has a litany of stories and experiences as a woman with disability. But one thing she also has is a long history of courage and determination that made her even stronger. Two months after the accident, she gave birth to Khadra her 5th child, after Khadra, she had 3 more healthy children.

It has been more than a decade after the tragic accident. She speaks with confidence as she narrates her story. She speaks with pride as she explains how together with 10 other women they were able to organize HAN or Somaliland Disabled Women Organization, the ONLY organization in Somaliland composed of women like Anab.

Women and Somali handicrafts

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This is Saleqa, I met her months ago during my visit at Mohamed Mogue village, a resettlement area for returnees. She is one of the leaders of UMMO, a small umbrella organization of women in that village. Women’s groups in Somaliland usually produces Somali traditional products, camel wood carvings, camel bells of different sizes and woven straws originally used for Somali houses.

The photo above was taken at Egal International Airport in Hargeisa, before I left a month ago. I was surprised to see her smiling face as I enter the airport. So I sat down with her for a little while and was told that Airport authorities allowed them to sell their products at the airport vicinity. I hope to see her again when I return a few days from now, inshaallah.

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Camels, camels and camels…

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Somali camel milk jars, drinking cups, spoons and combs.

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The containers at the back wrapped in white cloth are typical Somali wedding gifts. Inside are preserved sweet meat, these are carefully wrapped and tied by women. I was told that tradition dictates that men should struggle to untie these jars because it symbolizes the bride’s virginity.

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The igloo-like structures at the back of the signboard are nomad’s houses. Originally made of dried grass and hand made by Somali women, they weave and build the house, when it’s time to move to another place, women also do the dismantling.

Intifac, is a member organization of UMMO, in one of my visits, they allowed me to join them in weaving. Like stories and tales in this oral society, skills in weaving are passed from one generation to another. So if you happen to see these products somewhere, keep in mind that they were intricately made by women’s hands.

Women and the English Language

I just got back from Borama, and spent 3 days in that town 2 hours from Hargeisa. I had a meeting with a dozen or so local-NGOs trying to resolve their organizational problems. I’ve met Yassin, the lone man in an organization called Awdal Women Solidarity Group (AWSG), he acts as the Executive Director in that all women organization. What amazes me is his dynamism and sense of organization. “Unfortunately,I’m the only one who could speak English” he answered when asked his role in the NGO. Indeed he is the only person who has the facility of the English language, funny as it may seem but its true, that’s the only reason why he remains in that organization. Because of that, he is able to relate with donors and networks that assist the women in AWSG in their projects.

I have encountered NGOs who have been giving literacy classes to mothers and children, with barely nothing, all they have are benches and mats, dilapidated boards and posters passed on to them by UN agencies and other international orgnazations. They can’t write good project proposals since the proposals are suppose to be in English, they can’t write profiles that would help boost their chances of getting funds. It takes a visit to their communities to really see what they have been doing.

Yassin and his fellow male colleagues in AAIN (Awdal Association of Indigenous NGOs) umbrella, in which AWSG is a member, have tried to allow women to speak. In the middle of the discussion however, I always catch them dominating. I had to break the group according to sex in order to hear women’s views. They (the men, well Yassin that is) mean well, speaking for women seem to have grown as a habit.

In a country where women are less appreciated and recognized, where phrases like “they are women, they don’t know anything” are always said, the concept of gender needs to be carefully studied. Gender as an issue in Somali context is no joke. It has a deeply rooted cultural values that needs to be discussed by Somali women and men themselves.

For so many times, I’ve said I will learn Somali, I’ve been trying and bought Somali-English and English-Somali dictionaries. I can say a couple or two phrases which I use in breaking the ice whenever I meet shy women or converse with assertive Somali men. It’s not enough though.

Refusing to die

I always try to get information and orient myself on Somaliland’s history. I have read quite a few wonderful books written by Somalilanders, Women without Crowns for example, was my first taste of Somaliland literature, an inquisitive read on Somaliland’s changing gender dynamics. Written by a very dynamic woman Amina Mohamoud Warsame.

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I’ve read Search for a New Somali identity written by Hussein Ali Dualeh, Somalia’s former ambassador to Uganda and who is Somaliland’s current Minister of Finance.

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At this point I am reading, A note on my Teacher’s group, written by Jama Musse Jama, a Somalilander who is now based in Italy.

I have worked with people who were instrumental in changing this country’s history. Individuals like, Mohamed Baroud Ali who is active in one of the Human Rights groups, Dr. Aden Yusuf Abokor who is my boss at present, I am honored to have met Amina the author of Queens without Crowns. In my course of work in this country I will be meeting more and more individuals whose passion for rebuilding this country simply refuse to die.

Somali Pancakes

Shamis is our Somali cook. At exactly 6:30 am,  she enters the house and goes straight to the kitchen to prepare breakfast. She moves fast, always in her typical Somali dress, gold earings and bracelet she strides inside the house with a very commanding presence.  She speaks very little English, and say: finish ! eat ?  small and says Ciao before she leaves the house.

She was mumbling alone in the kitchen this morning. “No Bet?!” (no eggs), annoyed and extremely disappointed she continued to mix the batter of our daily breakfast concoction – pancakes.

I felt guilty, I cooked the last 2 eggs yesterday. She was quick, thinking that she had no choice but to make do with what she had, our pancakes were ready by 7:oo o’ clock.  She will not fail the second time, breakfast should be ready and finished by 7:30 before the car arrives to pick us up. Inside Shamis must be like a horse track, finishing everything on time is her priority.

I wanted to say “shh its ok, we will not die if we miss a meal.” For Shamis, a pancake without eggs is a disaster. She likes everything to be cooked perfectly. She has served dozens of development workers in our organization for years. People in our London office  always look forward to her cooking when they visit Hargeisa. 

We had a meeting in the house one time, when we were called for another lunch meeting to be held at the MinSing, the country’s sole Chinese restaurant. Shamis was already in the middle of cooking for 3 people. Again, an upset Shamis moves to and fro our kitchen space, she babbled something in Somali to Hudow (our Somali colleague). Hudow requested us to just at least take a bite of Shamis’ dish. We complied hurriedly.

We never really knew what she told Hudow that day, until Hudow couldn’t keep it a secret no more. That day Shamis said,  “Tell those 2 women to sit down and eat that dish!” We couldn’t stop laughing. I love the fact that Shamis is a good cook, I love the fact that she knows that everybody recognizes her skills, I love the fact that she takes pride in that. She’s a hardworker and a serious one at that, this in itself makes me love her more. I don’t only love Shamis’ pancakes, I love Shamis herself.

Halimo’s Spirit

�You better get them out of this country fast if you want him to live� Halimo was told. Four of her nephews had an accident on their way to Addis Ababa, their car overturned, the driver and the immigration officer who was escorting them died instantly. They were brought back to Hargeisa. One of the children had a broken membrane,a portion of his skull was dented. He became blind. He needed neuro surgery but there was no doctor of that kind in Hargeisa at that time.

Taking the child out of the country is not an option, she didn�t have the money for that. With a brave heart she gathered 7 doctors from various hospitals and convinced them to do the operation. Some were orthopedic surgeons, none of them was a specialist in neuro surgery. �If he dies while being operated on so be it, I just couldn�t accept the fact that we will not do anything and just watch him die slowly.� Halimo said. Halimo is one of our development workers, she works training the Maternal Health Clinic staff to give low cost health services to refugee resettlement areas.

The 7 brave doctors took Halimo�s challenge and operated the child. After a few medical facilities and medicines, it also lacks human resource. It is this kind of strength that keeps this country and its people alive.

I took their pictures yesterday so we could send it to the International Red you should have seen their smiling faces and excitement upon seeing their photos in the digicam. I was glad to see those smiles, images of their suffering and raw injuries flashed in my mind. On my way out of the house, one of the boys came running after me, waving and in his smart english he said “thank you very much” I smiled and said “No, I should thank YOU.”

Women of Berbera

We arrived Berbera at 7:30 from Burao. We went straight to a plaza called June 26th. There was a stage, beside it were women all colorfully lined up, in their long white Somali dresses, with orange and red striped shalmas. There was a traditional drum held by one woman, they clapped and aired out a cry to greet us.
The plaza was fully packed; the police who were manning the crowd had quite a difficult time. I saw Khadra on stage, talking like an expert politician. �We have worked long enough to help this country rise from war, yet we as women are not recognized. We work day and night to feed our children while men while around, yet you do not give us the proper attention due to us. Today is our day, our day of celebration, our day of liberation� she said.
Muruk and Masrax was the first to perform, about 20 of their members were on stage with their colorful Somali dresses and gold. After Khadra�s speech, one of their members started to sing, the drum started beating, and then they clapped. The wild cry of tongue intervened every time they agree with the message, it did not only come from the stage, the crowd of women joined the contagious cry. They sang about mothers, who gave birth to politicians, elders and even sheikhs, mothers who have suffered pain to rear them, to feed them yet eventually turned against them. They sang about women who have felt the heat of the sun just to work and return home to feed their children. They sang about March 8, the only day they could rejoice and celebrate.
�You cannot read you cannot write how can you contribute to this country� a male character in their drama accuses his wife. �I put food on the table, I work to earn a living I can learn to read and write, I can learn.� The wife replied. We don�t wish to take your place we just want to be treated as equals� the wife contested.
Songs and dramas play a vital role in Somali society. Being an oral society messages like these are best put forward with the rhythm of music and dialogue of actors on stage. The public was glued to the stage intently listening to every word the performers uttered.
After their last presentation, leaders of Muruk and Masrax came to us, the guests of the ceremony carrying the traditional Somali milk vase and mugs. The woman poured camel�s milk to the mug of Berbera�s vice-mayor, then passed mug-full of the same milk to us.( It was my first time to drink camel�s milk.)
When asked about the significance of the milk offering Hudow explained �it is the highest form of offering a Somali could give to someone of importance, that gesture symbolizes that what the women want, recognition and power does not go against the tradition and culture of Somaliland. Its like saying, we just want what is already ours. We are not against you (government officials and Somali men) We want what is ours, we want it back.”

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