I always gravitated towards elders. When mum’s friends would come home to us in throngs, their loud voices would fill the house and the strong scents of perfume so typical of Somali ladies would waft out from the apartment, like an invisible sign that said ‘ Somali women gossiping, proceed at own risk.’
I was very close to my mum as a young girl, so I’d be the silent and unassuming child within earshot listening intently while pretending to play. It was never just small talk, it was ritualized almost like a play. Once seated, mum would take out the pot from the cupboard and fill it with water whilst urging the guests to make themselves comfortable. Oh how I loved the anticipation of hot somali tea being poured in a thermos to keep warm for the lengthy sitting that’d ensue and the clinks of the saucers mum would bring out to fill with sponge cakes and biscuits because no ‘Asariyya was complete without enough sugar to kill a diabetic.
I was always an old soul who never related to her age-mates, and though I couldn’t understand the full scope of the topics the women gossiped about, I was content simply sitting there and revelling in all the storytelling, laughter, and idiosyncratic hand clapping to mark a punch line. It was like they were playing beach volleyball the way words were thrown back and forth with the help of elaborate hand gestures that would jiggle the heavy golden bracelets that adorned each woman’s wrists.
When I moved to Kenya, I got in touch with a community that I had never seen before. Relatives and family friends from Somalia. Unadulterated. Raw. They knew nothing about the West which made the contrast so stark. And did I love it! Finally, the monotony in my life gave way to this novel, vibrant experience and though it was a bit difficult to adapt in the beginning, it taught me to move with life in a deeper way and how to wound my wrists about each other like snakes when I spoke, to make my words come alive, come vivid, just like a snake charmer. I was almost 16 when we moved, so I was old enough to cater to the guests who’d often come to our house in Nairobi, and I started practicing the delicate art of balancing the sugar and spices in the tea to give it the perfect relish. I learnt that if tea boils too long, it actually gets ‘burnt’ and would cause havoc on the tastebuds. I learnt to not put milk in the tea in case someone liked it black, and to get matching cups and saucers. If the cups, thermos, and saucer of milk did not fit one tray, I learnt to take them in two trips with two trays – and I learnt that the hard way ( which involved a lot of cleaning up). I learnt that when you place the tray on the coffee table, you offer to pour it for the guests and likewise, you ask if they’d like milk with it – ma kuu cadeeya mise bigeys baad ku rabta?
And when they’d lament ; oh dear, why did you go through all this effort? You shouldn’t have ! It was my duty to quip; oh this is nothing. I insist. Because I know how they would trash me if they left without refreshments.
And even though I took painstaking effort in perfecting the tea, I had to make self-depreciating remarks in case it wasn’t up to par. Do you need more sugar? My tea is so bland .
It was the same script every time, but I didn’t mind it at all because I felt I was in on an exclusive sorority. I felt visible and important for once. I felt like a woman.
I learnt the art of listening for secret stories in the undertones of a conversation that’d betray the true demeanour under the facade; I learnt to look for signs that the guests were thirsty or hungry, to anticipate their needs before they’d have to voice it.
Under the tutelage of strong Somali aunties, I learnt the etiquettes of speaking to elders and to my peers. I learnt eloquence and wittiness – an important feature in our culture. I learnt how to be delicate yet effective when needed. I learnt to speak up a little louder when needed, and let my silence represent me otherwise. I learnt how to carry myself like a lady, my inherent self-worth and that I should never ever compromise my self-respect, especially for a man.
I learnt to retrace my steps back to their origin; I learnt the birth mother of words and where traditional dishes first hailed from. I wanted to get the picture as complete as possible.
I had always been at a cross-roads with regards to my identity; I was born in Sweden but I wasn’t fully Swedish, and I was born to Somali parents but I wasn’t seen as a ‘real’ Somali. Living in Kenya gave me a chance to carve out a niche for myself and I was quite the eager learner. Somalis are quick-witted and to be accepted, you had to fire back just as quick. So whenever someone took a jab at me, I’d run to one of my aunties and ask them to furnish me with witty come-backs. Soon enough I had amassed a catalogue of one-liners that would do some serious burning ( even worse than over-boiled tea). I felt empowered. People started commenting on my usage of big words and my quick-wittedness. They would actually start laughing at my jokes! I had finally made it in. I recall one time when I first practiced my wittiness outside my circle; My uncle who was notorious for never coming to visit us even though we were guests in his country ( Kenya) and lived in the same neighbourhood said; We don’t see you much, Mulki. You are supposed to keep in touch with your elders. I hesitated a nanosecond before I quipped; well, I learnt from the best. It was a risky move, but they all broke out in laughter and I couldn’t be more prouder of myself.
It was more than just etiquettes that I learnt. Turns out that the same skills you develop from balancing a thermos, 4 cups and a milk saucer are those that teach you self-mastery. Quick-wittedness was resilience. Listening was compassion. Anticipating needs was intuition. Making people laugh was socialization 101. It was a course in life.