My father chose Kenya because it was practical, a relatively wealthy country; people said it was the safest place in Africa. In Kenya, my father had official refugee status: we could receive an education grant and living allowance from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Abeh planned to live with us as much as he could; that’s what he told my mother. But my mother felt that my father had already given enough of his life to Somalia’s destiny as a free nation—that’s what meant most to him. Throughout his life, Ma told us, we, his family, never came first.
We found a flat near Juja Road, on the edge of Eastleigh, where fewer Somalis lived. Our apartment was three flights up in a besser-block building, across the road from an empty field. My father enrolled us in an English-language school. It was he who took us there on our first day. A few days later, he left for Ethiopia.
Each of us children had a different school uniform; mine was a grey pinafore with a white shirt underneath and a grey sweater. School was totally foreign. Our lessons were in English, but everything that went on in the playground was in Swahili. I spoke neither. The first few weeks were a nightmare of loneliness and bullying, but I never told Ma. I feared she’d take us out of school altogether, and I wanted more than anything to be with other children, out of the house.
Juja Road Primary School was clearly modelled on British colonial schools. We had assembly every morning, saluting the flag and chanting the Kenyan national pledge. Prefects checked our nails and school uniforms. The schoolwork was difficult, and if we didn’t understand, we were made to kneel in the sun outside our classroom.
Once I had learned to read English, I discovered the school library. I remember the Best-Loved Tales of the Brothers Grimm and a collection of Hans Christian Andersen. Most seductive of all were the ragged paperbacks the other girls passed each other. My sister Haweya and I devoured these books. We began with the Nancy Drew adventures, stories of pluck and independence. There was Enid Blyton, the Secret Seven, the Famous Five: tales of freedom, adventure, of equality between girls and boys, trust, and friendship. These were not like the stark tales of the clan, with their messages of danger and suspicion. These stories were fun, they seemed real, and they spoke to me as the old legends never had.
When my father returned from Ethiopia, my parents fought all the time. Ma stopped eating and fell ill, moaning and swearing she would die. Abeh took her to the hospital, where they diagnosed anaemia and prescribed vitamins. Abeh found us a larger, nicer place to live: a house on Racecourse Road, in a neighbourhood called Kariokor. But Ma wanted us all to go back to Mecca. I don’t know what their final fight was about, but I overheard the last of it. He was on his way to the airport again. Ma told Abeh, ‘If you leave now, don’t come back.’
He didn’t—not for a very long time.
Ma never told us that our father wasn’t coming back, but if I woke up in the middle of the night, I often heard her crying. One night I walked in and put my hand on her cheek. Ma began to scream at me for sneaking up on her, and she hit me, yelling that I should go back to bed. After that I would just crouch at the door of her room, listening, wishing that in some way I could take away her pain.
When I turned fourteen, my mother enrolled me in Muslim Girls’ Secondary School on Park Road. The school was clean and white, with a big metal gate and beautifully kept grass. But the atmosphere at our house was heavy with reproach. My mother developed great whirlwinds of sudden, random anger. She smashed furniture and plates. She began to beat us for the slightest misdemeanour, grabbing our hair, hitting us until she couldn’t lift her hand any more. She was tyrannical, unreasonable; she screamed a lifetime of frustration in our faces.
Many Somali women in her position would have worked, would have taken control of their lives, but my mother, having absorbed the Arab attitude that pious women should not work outside the home, felt that this would not be proper. It never occurred to her to create a new life for herself, although she can’t have been older than thirty-five or forty when my father left. Instead she remained completely dependent. She nursed grievances; she was often violent; and she was always depressed.
At Muslim Girls’, a dainty woman called Mrs Kataka taught us literature. We read 1984, Huckleberry Finn, The Thirty-Nine Steps. Later we read English translations of Russian novels, with their strange patronymics and snowy vistas. We imagined the British moors in Wuthering Heights and the fight for racial equality in South Africa in Cry, the Beloved Country. An entire world of Western ideas began to take shape. Haweya and I read all the time. Our brother Mahad used to read, too; if we did him favours, he would pass us the Robert Ludlum thrillers he picked up from his friends. Later on there were sexy books: Valley of the Dolls, Barbara Cartland, Danielle Steele. All these books, even the trashy ones, carried with them ideas—races were equal, women were equal to men—and concepts of freedom, struggle, and adventure that were new to me. Even our plain old biology and science textbooks seemed to follow a powerful narrative: you went out with knowledge and sought to advance humanity.