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.
I generally prefer to point out the similarities between disparate people. I enjoy very much the common humanity aspects about my life. But I equally enjoy learning about the differences. This post contains more of the latter than the former.
I’m American and we are taught from a young age that a major part of being an American means that you are individualistic. Our pop culture and education system celebrate individuality and the human against the odds above many other cultural memes. Most of the people that have immigrated to America over the years have come to chase something that was related to individual efforts. Those of us who descend from those who immigrated we have it both from nature and from nurture.
Somalilanders are taught precisely the opposite. They celebrate communal victories above individual victories in their poetry and dramas and songs. They rely on communal networks for insurance when things get tough. Collective responsibility is bred into them as deeply as individual responsibility has been bred into me.
Two months ago my Ethiopian watchman stole an SUV that I was borrowing from a friend and he drove it so fast (likely enjoying his own sense of individuality and freedom of the road – something that isn’t a big leap for me to empathize with) that when he had to swerve to hit someone he hit a bump and jumped the SUV, and I mean jumped it, on top of other cars. Two other cars that were sitting in a used car dealership beside the road.
When I was told about it I was pretty crushed because I knew instantly that I would have to pay for the damage. Even though he had stolen from me. Even though his job description involved neither driving nor speeding. Even though I had not the slightest to do with the situation. Because that is the way that things work. Everyone is responsible for everyone else.
If the Ethiopian kid had been Somali and the employer was not responsible then the clan would provide the necessary insurance. If I as the employer had been Somali and I was unable to cover the costs then my clan would have been called upon to provide the insurance. But neither of us fit into that system. I paid. I had no other choice. I could reason through very easily that in my system I wasn’t liable. But I wasn’t living in my system. I gain the consequences of the system but not the benefits. I guess that is life though and how many minorities throughout history have had that exact thought?
Another thing that is fairly prevalent is that senior Somalis working for organizations get held personally liable for all of the actions or non-actions of the organization. My number two with my old NGO recently had his power shut off because of a dispute between the power company the organization signed a services contract with and the party responsible for paying the final two months electricity bill. Sure his name isn’t on the invoices, but his name is there in the computer as the responsible party.
This can be very annoying when you are held responsible for the actions of another that you “normally” would not have to be responsible for. But when you understand the system and you understand that there is a system, although maybe facially foreign. Then you can at least navigate it. But if you’re new to Somalis these are key because how you treat your staff and the pressures that especially your senior staff will face need to be understood.
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