When I arrived in Kenya to study and document Somali culture, I had read books about pastoral nomadism and the clan system, about traditional law and oral literature. I had this image in my mind of what a Somali is like: A camel herder, a desert warrior, a wandering sheikh.
So I was quite surprised when I met Abdullahi. He's a young Somali in his mid twenties, with the stereo-typical tall, gaunt frame and soft, curly hair. I first met him at a party, and he was holding either a camera or a guitar (I can't quite remember which). He doesn't know how to use either, but he dreams of becoming a journalist or a musician, and his dreams are full of optimism and enthusiasm.
He came up to me and we talked for a bit. Then he invited me to come visit him at home and he'd show me around his part of town. So a few days later I stood in the middle of a bustling Somali neighborhood trying to reach Abdullahi on my phone. Sure enough, he showed up within a few minutes and took me to his "house": A small room with one bed, which he shared with three other young men.
Abdullahi is a refugee. He came from Mogadishu several years ago, spent some time in a refugee camp, and then moved on to live in Nairobi. Technically, he's not supposed to leave the camp. And he's not allowed to work. He's supposed to sit around and receive handouts and wait for the day that some western donor country will grant him asylum.
But as I said, Abdullahi is full of optimism and enthusiasm. There is no way he's going to become apathetic enough to live off of handouts. So he managed to get some false paperwork while still in the refugee camp and apply for a job as a translator with the organization that runs the camp. He already spoke decent English, but now he would actually get to meet westerners and work with them, and that really changed his world.
Before becoming a refugee, Abdullahi lived in the old part of Mogadishu. His family is prestigious and religious, and known for remaining peaceful during the war. His father was an important religious figure in Mogadishu, and his mother delved deep into mystical Islam. Abdullahi grew up with a solid Islamic education, and he can still easily quote a verse of the Quran or the Hadith in Arabic, translate the quote into English, and then discuss different interpretations of its meaning.
But Abdullahi was also a modern young boy in a city that is well connected to the outside world. He learned how to use a computer and navigate the internet. He actually learned how to bypass the strict filters set up by Islamic internet providers to access western websites. And he found a place in war-torn Mogadishu that teaches young Somalis ballroom dancing.
When Abdullahi came to Kenya, he was ready to explore the world. So after some time in the refugee camp, he moved to Nairobi, where there are more job opportunities, and a sizable international community. He now has friends from different ethnic communities as well as a number of other countries. He is very active on social media and connects with people all around the world. He wears fashionable clothes and pointed-toe Ethiopian-style shoes, carries his laptop to work in a briefcase, and even has a UK internet phone number that connects to a phone plugged into his computer. All of that in his little one-room apartment, shared with a bunch of other guys.
After Abdullahi showed me his home, he then took me to his uncle's house a couple of blocks down the road. On the way, we constantly stopped to greet his friends or relatives. And I realized: Even though Abdullahi is such a modern and global young man, he is still very much connected with his community. He knows his place within the clan system. He attends family events, and respects the clan elders. He calls his mother in Mogadishu on a regular basis, and helps her out when she is sick. And he takes care of his cousin who just recently made the journey from Somalia to Nairobi.
Abdullahi lives - and thrives - in two worlds.
Written by Daniel Rossbach
Illustration by Manal Fashi