This is a new series containing a few stories which have stood out in my time here in Somaliland and have helped me to understand a bit more a culture that in many ways is very different from my own, but in many ways is now. This series explores those differences.
[![BraiNut 1.0 via sath.es @flickr]] via sath.es @flickr
I have lived & worked with Somalis here in Somaliland for over two years now.
I have, like many expats before me, sat in rooms on the floor with rugs underneath us cushions behind our backs, mauis’s (skirts) on sporting wife-beaters drinking the sweetest teas one has ever drank and (as my wife likes to say) sticking green leaves up our noses.
Equally I have sat many nights, like many expats before me, on a veranda, a glass of wine in hand, cool breezes of Hargeisa swirling around, dressed in jeans and semi-glamorous (but always purposively casual) shirts, some ipod attached to portable speakers, listening to music that is on the verge of being hip back home and talking about the deep cultural differences between us and those that fill our daily lives (our clients, our friends, our colleagues, people we meet around).
We have had a steady turnover in Hargeisa of expatriates lately. And over that time there seems to be an increasing amount of tension between the expatriates and the Somalilanders. I am not sure exactly why this seems to be happening (because this is Somaliland it is spoken of in metaphors and resides fully in the subtextual zone), but it has become increasingly tangible to me.
Over the course of the past year there has been this tit-for-tat between the powerful voices for the expatriates and the powerful voices for the Somalilanders. The problem is that those of us who aren’t given powerful voices become batted around as the game is played by others.
Something happened to me recently which I would like to use (again cloaked in metaphor and subtext, because this is how to communicate in Somaliland) as a tuusaale (example). One of my best expat friends here in Hargeisa (who is a development worker) recently had some professional dealings with one of my best Somali friends (who is a mid-level government employee). Due to forces above and beyond either’s control the dealings did not turn out well and both became frustrated by the situation (for very different reasons but that is beside the point).
For a while I was caught in the middle of everything but the biggest problem was that I was getting completely different stories as to what happened from either “side” (so to say). There was so little alignment between the stories that for a while I wondered if these were two completely different situations involving different people completely.
Later I started to piece it together, to connect the people that were being referenced by one story with how I organize those relationships when I’m talking to the other side, to connect the things that I knew were more important to one side with those that had little emphasis in the other’s side of the story. I don’t know much about mediation, but I was trying to see these events through each side’s cultural lens and come to some sort of objective understanding of what likely transpired.
It was only after spending literally hours trying to dig through and cross-check and re-examine and then start all over again that I was able to ferret out what may have actually happened. And only after that did I realize that the actualities of the situation were out of the control of either party. That happens in development work and it is one of the occupational hazards of this work. However, the relational aspects of the situation were very much aggravated by the cultural differences between the parties. It is this part – the cultural misunderstandings and their attendant relational aspects which causes (in my mind) undue hardships in development work.
This is why I wanted to write a few words over the course of the next little while trying to tell a few stories that have taught me a ton about humanity and culture (and which is which). A few stories which I think of and use when I’m trying to analyze things through a foreign cultural lens.
If I had to pick one of the most intellectually satisfying aspects of working here in Somaliland, it has been the opportunity to dig deep into a culture and a way of thinking and seeing the world that is very different than my own. Each of the cultural differences, while stark at times, belies evidence of our common humanity. Every time I become frustrated with the cultural differences then something will happen to me which will reinforce the common humanity which is always there. The tenderness of a father’s reprimand, or a shared joke, or an extraordinarily kind act. These things accompany each and every one of the cultural differences. So I hope to share a few of these stories along the way as well.
~ # ~