On Going Local is a (short) series that I’m running which will attempt to look at my life from an objective perspective as I transition from and NGO worker into an entrepreneur here in the developing world.
Relationships here in Somaliland are odd, to say the least. There are two main identifiable cultural divergences.
The first is that many relationships are deeper here in Somaliland than similar relationships would be back home. Deeper in the sense that they are more utilized, more cherished, and more complicated than a similar set of relationships would be in America. (I will return to these themes, but let me finish my introduction first. Don’t be in such a hurry!)
The second is that many (other) relationships are shallower that similar relationships would be back home. They are more shallow in the sense that they are less utilized, less cherished, and less complicated than a similar set of relationships would be in America.
For a long time this was opaque to me. And then the scenery started to open up, but like with the two stories from an earlier post on decoding the somali mind there was little cultural alignment.
This is what I was seeing after I had been here long enough to scratch the surface coating off of the Somalilanders. On the one hand, I was seeing friends who would actually talk to one another about many different issues. Friends who would gather and sit and discuss, day after day. But on the other hand I was seeing romantic relationships that were either business relationships or almost elementary.
Last week, a woman dumped a jug full of kerosene all over her body and lit herself on fire. Just 30 meters from the gate of our compound. Apparently it was because her boyfriend broke up with her. It was in the early evening and there were many people around. They forced the woman to stop-drop-and-roll.
Apparently she survived the initial situation and was taken to the hospital. Considering the healthcare in this country and her likely third-degree burns I’m unsure whether she survived for very long thereafter. Although my initial reaction was that this was about a passionate, tragic love affair gone wrong – a story which likely any culture can relate to – it was more likely about the stigma which would follow the poor woman after the man refused to marry her after their affair had gone public. I do not know that for certain, but it is my educated guess.
Relationships between the sexes are tremendously strained here in Somaliland. While that comes with the territory in many ways, what I’ve noticed is that in many ways relationships, especially romantic relationships, between the sexes are riven with what I would consider immaturities.
Twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings that are involved in romantic relationships rarely discuss their relationships, creating a situation of insularity stifling development and deepening of many of the relationships. Of course, arranged marriages are still very customary and prevalent. In these cases the romance and the business-politics of clan and diyah-paying groups are conflated forcing individuals into catch-22 situations where they are forced to subordinate their own desires for the benefit of their clan or family.
For me personally, it is fascinating to learn about this situation because it seems such a throw-back. I suspect for much of human history marrying someone for business-political reasons has been more important than many current historians / anthropologists would give credit.
A couple of months ago I was chewing with some people including some American-Somalilander diaspora and they were asking me one of the biggest questions I always get: “how do you find Somaliland”? I like it when diaspora ask me this question because they find themselves in a situation similar to me – somewhere in between the two cultures. Usually when non-diaspora ask me this question I give an white-washed answer. This time, for whatever reason, I was feeling especially honest. I replied that for the most part I have not experienced much culture shock as I read and studied a lot before I even arrived. The thing which has been the biggest cultural shock to me, I told them, has been the cultural response to a widowing. In Somali culture (and I am told but cannot confirm – many Arab cultures) if a husband passes away his brother will be forced to marry the sister-in-law. When I first heard this, I remember shaking my head and furrowing my brow deeply. But I asked why.
The answer, actually, makes semi-sense. It is because if the wife remarries someone outside of the family than the children that she had with her deceased husband will be considered outsiders by the new husband and he will abandon them. So it is a cultural mechanism to ensure that the children were taken care of. That I can see and understand – to the extent that it is simply a support mechanism.
Later, when I became closer to more Somalis, I asked about the reality and the thing that was really creeping me out – does the brother have to have sex with the former sister-in-law or can it be a show marriage. Their answer was that if the brother doesn’t have sex with the sister-in-law then it isn’t a marriage after all. Fair enough, but I must say that I’m pleased my own culture has never adopted this situation as it feels too much like incest based upon my own cultural upbringing and proclivities.
These anecdotes are a simple reflection of why I say that romantic relationships here in Somaliland are very different than the romantic relationships that I’m accustomed to – tending towards much more shallow.
On the other hand, friendly relationships are much deeper than anything that I’m accustomed to. And here is where I get to the reason for why I chose the picture at the top (aside from his magnificent beauty in austerity).
Somalilanders value their friendships so much. It is one of the things that I appreciate most about being here. When you meet someone that you haven’t seen in a while you are guaranteed a big hug, a big smile, a ten minutes of your life you’ll never get back.
The other thing that surprises me is how quickly two people will become friends. In a short time you go from Mister to Friend to Brother.
For men, especially, there is an avenue by which one can almost fully guarantee they will have a friend for life. It is what is called fadhigaa or qayilayaa or cunayaa or chewing or sitting together. Chewing sessions are a great avenue for discussion. They have a major downside which is that it’s a men’s only club, but that is a deeper issue which I will leave for another time. Chewing sessions usually last about six hours – although sometimes more, sometimes less depending on the circumstances. From about 3 pm to 9 pm men will gather in their normal meeting spot. When you arrive in a majlis (the place for sitting) you get yourself all arranged with your cigarettes in one place, your drinks in another place, your qat over here, your laptop and phone over there.
And then you sit back take a few deep breathes, and just sit and talk for the next hours. Like with alcohol or marijuana, qat affects different people differently. It varies with your state of mind when you begin, with the distinct strain that you always buy, and with your own personal reaction to the qat. It makes some people retreat into themselves. You won’t hear from them for hours. I am not among those. The other general trend is that it opens people up and is a decent social lubricator. These people will end up talking and talking and talking much more than when they are sober. I am among those. Men come together and listen to the radio, watch BBC or Al Jazeera or the National TV, read the Somali sites, and talk. This time together in a relaxed environment cements friendships deeply.
~ # ~