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 not. This series explores those differences.
[![want need syrup by thebrianmeyer @ flickr]]
Every development worker I’ve ever met, and I can say with confidence, without exception, hates the following phrase with a passion: “What we really need is….” Hearing that phrase pretty much ruins your entire day. Usually, but not always, it is accompanied by a veiled threat of what will happen if the particular worker does not comply. Well, that happens when one is dealing with governmental clients.
As a preliminary (and because despite my non-traditional path I am still a trained lawyer), let me define what I’m talking about when I say “wants” and “needs.” I would define (for the purposes of this piece only, see supra) “needs” as those things which are required to perform a given task, whereas I would define “wants” as those things which are not required but would be beneficial to accomplish a given task.
Do I “need” internet to survive? No. Do I “need” internet to do my job? Yes (reasons for this answer will be detailed in a forthcoming post). I say this almost flippantly, but in any culture it is incredibly easy to conflate these concepts and trying to differentiate between the two will depend largely upon an individual’s perspective.
Especially when it comes to legislative action, determining whether a mechanism or a “thing” is needed or wanted is incredibly difficult to determine with accuracy. One of the arts of political action is convincing others of one’s perspective as to whether something is a needed requirement or a wanted luxury. This is one of the many reasons why so many politicians are trained lawyers – as we get paid to use words to twist concepts to convince individuals.
Yet, when it comes to Somali society figuring out such a differential is complicated by the Somali language. In Somali, to say “I want X” one would say “X waan doonayaa,” whereas to say “I need X” one would say “X waan doonayaa.” The root of the verb (“doon”) means both of the concepts expressed in the English words “want” and “need.” It isn’t a far leap to see that this makes it even more difficult to differentiate.
The first time I was running a workshop here in Hargeisa talking to legislators about the differences in these concepts my translator was struggling and I was having a hard time understanding why it was difficult to pose the question to the participants. At the break I pulled my translator aside and tried to figure out why he was having such trouble getting across what I was trying to say. He was also extremely frustrated but didn’t say much other than he would do his best.
Months later, when I was learning Somali, it became clear to me that the difficulty my translator had experienced much earlier was a function of the Somali language. After I had learned a modicum of Somali than I changed some of the curriculum of the workshop from wants and needs to requirements and luxuries. After that it was much easier for my translator to get the preliminary concepts across so that the participants could have a good discussion.
One of my favorite all time stories during my years here in Somaliland falls (loosely) under this concept of wants v. needs. In October, 2008, there were three suicide bombs detonated in different places here in Hargeisa: the Ethiopian Embassy, the UNDP compound, and the Presidential mansion. After these bombings there were probably four of us expatriates who stuck around while everyone else ran away to Nairobi.
My team and I worked day and night for the two weeks after the bombings preparing a series of documents to help the government and parliament understand the legal mechanisms for reacting to terrorism that have been emplaced under (1) international law; and (2) national laws within the region. The government told me very early on that they were looking to emplace something like the Somaliland Patriot Act and so we had done tons of research on the topic for the government.
We broke up the delivery of the work product among the different affected clients: namely the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Justice. I was in with the Minister of Justice briefing him on the current problems that they would have if they wanted to prosecute suspected terrorists under their current penal code. I had included in my briefing a bunch on due process as well as the international human rights mechanisms, which had been imputed into the Somaliland Constitution, that currently limited their ability to move forward with prosecutions prior to further legislative action. About 2/3d’s of the way through my presentation the Vice Minister of Justice barged into the briefing and sat down. He waited for about thirty seconds before he turned to me and said the following:
This is all well and good, but what Somaliland really *needs *is you to call up the CIA and brief them on what is happening here.
Seriously, Mr. Vice Minister, do you really think that I have the CIA’s number on my speed dial? My sarcastic side said. For once, I controlled that and tried my best to explain in a temperate tone that I had no contacts with the CIA and that even if I did they wouldn’t listen to me. I caught the Minister’s eyes rolling slightly while the Vice Minister was on his tirade after my response so I knew I was on OK ground and I just moved along with my briefing.
After we finished, and we were leaving the Vice Minister (who I had never spoken to once prior to this exchange) walked out to our vehicle with us. He told me that he knew exactly who I was and that he was going to hold me personally liable for informing the CIA of what was happening here in Somaliland. I assured him in the most even tones I could conjure at that moment that there was nothing I could do for him on this issue and that he should use the Minister of Foreign Affairs rather than some external NGO worker. He was never convinced. And I wasn’t convinced that he was mentally stable enough to be a Vice Minister. I left completely flabbergasted. To this day, there is no Somaliland Patriot Act.
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