Previously in Refuge#32 Price of Oil: Otholi describes how the discovery of oil in his home state of Gambella, Ethiopia, led to a massacre of his people, the Anuak. In the following passage, I think back to my time teaching at TAFE, before returning to continue with Otholi’s story.
I once knew two Somalis. They were both my students at TAFE.
The woman was a single mother with an emotional inner life that matched the bright swirling colours of the hijabs she wore – some orange and fiery red, others bright yellow with streaks of green and blue.
Depending on her mood, she either applied herself to the basic sums I put before her, or moaned, ‘Teacher, headache’ and asked to be allowed to go home early. Sometimes I believed her head was perfectly fine but she had had enough math and would rather be home than in our cream coloured classroom with aluminium window frames and identical grey computers. At other times I could almost see the two-digit addition clamping her head in a vice so that her bad eye wept, the eye disfigured by a deep gash across her face – was it a knife? Was it a machete?
Once, I presented my class with an icebreaker: ‘If you could be an animal, which animal would you be and why? Draw your answers.’ The mother sat in a corner, her shoulders slumped. But when others started talking about their pictures – fish, swim all day, no need to work; bird, fly free – she began to understand the exercise. This understanding awakened her from her indifference. She drew her small frame upright, and announced, ‘I want to be a lion.’
I saw her dance, once. During morning tea break, a student had pulled up a video of a famous Somali singer. It was as if the music peeled off a layer of muting gel and transformed her before our eyes. She twirled and clapped and laughed. Then she started singing and dancing, vivaciously.
She went through a period of being particularly distracted, unable to learn. She confided to me that she was worried her teenage daughter was falling in with the wrong crowd. I sympathized with her; parenting is not easy, but the difficulties are multiplied manyfold when your child speaks, reads and writes the local language better than you do.
She eventually stopped attending class. I heard that she was trying to study to open her own family day care centre at home. Wherever she is now, I like to think that she is surviving, a lioness watching over her cubs.
The Somali man I knew was an easy-going father who started out quite trim but whose potbelly grew as the months passed. I do not think it was the happiness of home that caused this; rather I suspect it was that he ate the same fifteen-dollar pub dinner every night after he had troubles with his wife.
He used to love watching YouTube videos of lions on the computer and when I scolded him – ‘Adele’s English as a Second Language website, please!’ – he would say, ‘Yes, yes, but Teacher, look at this lion,’ trying to persuade me to watch yet another video of a lion stalking and catching its prey.
Once, at the mention of Al-Shabaab, he sucked in a sharp intake of air through his very white teeth, shook his head ever so slightly and said, ‘Sheesh!’ Then he told me about some of the very bad crazy, crazy things they did in Mogadishu.
Otholi tells me that two Anuak men were killed by Al-Shabaab during his time in Dadaab. He tells me the history of one of the men.
In the aftermath of the Gambella massacre, this man found a gun and, at great personal risk, returned to prevent government soldiers from hunting down Anuak civilians in the bush. When he was murdered in Dadaab, people became angry and frustrated at the grievous futility of this brave man, having fought the enemy, having fled to apparent safety, dying at the hands of men who had no reason to kill him.
‘The other person they killed was an ordinary person. It was really tough. We felt that our area is not safe but because there were no other options, we just tried to live in the community.’
Otholi describes how each family unit in Dadaab was assigned a house with a plot of land. The houses were lined up in rows. Two opposing rows facing a dirt track constituted a block. Blocks were separated by main roads wide enough for UNHCR trucks to pass through.
He estimates that there were perhaps four hundred Anuak in Dadaab and they occupied one block. They were sandwiched by blocks of Somali refugees. People of faith build places of worship and mosque after mosque dotted the landscape, with the occasional church bearing a cross instead of a crescent.
‘I became a Christian when I was almost twenty something, that is the time I accepted Jesus as my Saviour. And then, for some reason, I just kept running out and coming back. There was a time when I started the life I had before: if you want to happy you have to go and get some drink and feel happy with your friends, dance, yeah. But I realized that there is another way that you can be happy and happier with Christian sisters and brothers. Maybe from 1996 up to now, that is the time my life became real Christian life.’
In 2006, in Dadaab, Otholi hosted Christian meetings at his home. He says, ‘Sometimes people insult us saying, “Oh, you are black”, “You are Christian” or “Jesus, you guys worshipping God” and other things like that but we always say, “No, forget about that. Keep going to where you want to go, bring what you want to bring, then you will be safely home but if you get upset and try to respond to them, the problem will be there.” So we tend to ignore most of the talk,’
In 2008, the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), working with the Kenyan police, selected Otholi to be trained as a guard for community security. He tells me that the LWF provided him with boots, a big torch and a walkie-talkie. I wonder how such basic gear can protect people from guns and bullets.
‘During the night, I patrolled the block where we lived. If I see something suspicious and something wrong, immediately I will report to the police on the walkie-talkie’ – he laughs and I laugh with him –‘and I just walk voluntarily to protect my community, women and the vulnerable children.’
Then I understand that boots protect feet prepared to walk alongside others; torches shine light in dark places; walkie-talkies connect individuals to a greater force.
Driven out from traditional homelands by conflict, various tribes became neighbours. Each tribe arrived with their own religion and culture, traditional ways developed over centuries. In the refugee camp, they lived in identical physical houses, but their ideas of home were vastly different. Even if you could translate a welcome sign by the front door, the doorway led to houses of thought so different that although essential items were the same – a place to cook, to eat, to sleep; a person who cooks your food and bears your children – the effect was almost unrecognizable. And the new neighbour stands in the doorway, blinking, uncomprehending.
This is woman, mother, wife, yes, but why is she secluded, swathed, hidden from sight? This is woman, mother, wife, yes, but why does she work in the sun and laugh in the rain? Why does she walk alone, unaccompanied, head and arms uncovered?
‘There are some people who want to do some bad thing with the women. Muslim people don’t want to see women the way our women dress. The men say, “Ah, she’s a prostitute, so we have to ask her for something” and then they will start to do that and that they did that to some other refugees.
‘But it didn’t happen a lot to our women because wherever they go, to the market for shopping, or to the bush to collect firewood, we have to make sure that men are there with them to protect them,’ says Otholi.
Traditionally, Anuak men worked outside the home, hunting, cultivating, while Anuak women worked within the home, fetching water, gathering firewood. It was a shameful thing for a man to collect firewood, or for a woman to cultivate crops.
‘We started to know, from the refugee camp, that we all can do everything. What men can do, women can do. What women can do, men can do, and I started even helping my wife in refugee camp, walking together with her, going to collect firewood.’
‘Did Jackson go to school?’ I ask.
‘Yeah, he went to school and school is not easy in refugee camp. Somali children are always very aggressive and violent so we have to take our children to school. When they are at school, they are safe. On the way back from school, we have to walk with them because the school is almost thirty to forty minutes walk from where we live. At school, they try to teach Somali language and they force our girls to wear the hijab for class. If they don’t wear it, they will not be accepted in the school.
‘Because of the close border here, two of the guys whom I know have been shot. But they didn’t die. They got insecurity and the UN just took their case because when you get insecurity in the refugee camp, the UN agency speeds up your case.
‘But for those who are living peacefully with the community, the Somali community, you will have to wait for your time to come. We waited, yeah, many years. I would say that God did a very amazing thing. Some people had already been in the camp five or six years when we arrived and within six years we got this process to go to Australia.’
To be continued next Friday in Refuge#34 Bus Stop Trail. This is part of the serial online release of Refuge, a collection of true stories of refugees from Vietnam, Romania, China, Sri Lanka, Iran and Ethiopia who have resettled in Australia. Subscribe for free to receive links to new instalments in your inbox.
Feature Image An aerial view of the world’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab taken October 2011 by Oxfam International, Creative Commons, on Flikr.