“It was hope. It was a sort of a misunderstanding of what to expect. Or actually, the idea of the unknown, but we thought we knew.”
It is early afternoon by the time Rageh picks me at a coffee shop in South B—one of Nairobi’s southern (and poorer) suburbs. Quickly knocking back a shot of espresso, we head back into the parking lot where his taxi driver sits waiting. He wants to take me back to his ‘hood, Rageh tells me.
What should be a 20 minute drive turns into an hour and a half ordeal in Nairobi’s infamous traffic. A virtuous lesson in patience. We sit in the back of the car, catching up on past lives, current affairs and at some point reminding our driver that turning off the engine, is not optional when filling up your car with highly flammable liquids (yes). At any rate, we make it to the restaurant in the Westlands neighborhood, a stone’s throw away from the (now) infamous Westgate mall that had been the scene of a bloody terrorist attack that wore on for four days in 2013. The mall, a bloody specter with three collapsed floors and a raging fire, by the time Kenya’s Defense Forces took control, was reopened in 2015.
Westlands is a different world from South B and the entire neighborhood surprised me. It was shiny, with that pretense of orderliness of the West. Our restaurant was fancy in that way I still hadn’t understood Nairobi had become. Waiters snapped napkins into our laps as soft latin music and large wine glasses clinked overhead. I felt heady surrounded by important looking men in business suits and thought of the complicatedness of Kenyanness as Rageh and I sat down to talk. I felt even more desperate to understand our identities as they were now. I hit play on the recorder as Rageh said “You can ask me anything.”
Can you tell me where you currently live and how long you have lived here?
I’m I living somewhere? It is very weird, I make jokes sometimes with my wife. We just look at each other [when people ask], “where do you guys live?” For the first time we’ve actually signed a contract in an apartment. For three years now, we haven’t had a place. We’ve lived in hotels, when we were in London, we lived with my wife’s relatives. When we were in Somalia, we lived in my parents’ house and we’re always traveling because of work. Now we’re officially living in Nairobi but we both work in Somalia.
What do you do?
The vague title is consultant or contractor. Working on development issues in Somalia but based in Nairobi.
One of the reasons I wanted to include you in the project was because you have lived overseas and you’re still currently living overseas even as you’re in Kenya, but I’m particularly interested about your experience living in America as long as you did. How do you explain your diaspora experience or sum it up?
No one ever asked me to tell my story, so this is great! We migrated to the US as refugees from Somalia in January 1995 and I left in 2013, so that was 23 years. I basically grew up there. When I went there as a young man, I was 18, and that refugee experience, the displacement that immigrants in general feel, refugees feel even more. That’s my personal opinion, it’s a much more destructive displacement.
We left Somali in 1991, came here [Kenya] and everything I’ve known disappeared. I had to learn a new language, new people. With that background, we migrated to Alexandria, Virginia, having nothing as refugees. My uncles and aunties were there, so we had roots, so to speak, and were much more privileged than your typical refugee, but it was still a struggle. I had to start working early. I became the head of the house basically at 19.
At the time my dad and older brother were in Ethiopia, he [father] joined us in ’97 in North Carolina. For those two years, I basically supported the entire family. Not only my brothers and sisters, but my cousins. We were 11 [of us] and I was the head of them so I grew, I became very resilient. My family then relocated to Minnesota in ’99, which is the home of the Somalis now. But I stayed behind and went one year at University of North Carolina. Then I left university and didn’t go to school for two years. I went from temporary job to temporary job until 2003 when I moved to Minnesota to join my family.
The reason I am mentioning this journey is because the idea of home disappeared. I could take any identity you wanted me to. I could move right now to Kampala if you gave me a three month job there. I will go there, no problem, make my money and come back. The idea is, it doesn’t mean anything to me, the idea of home. We lost that idea.
What is your context or definition of it?
It’s one of those things that you think you know but you really don’t know. Okay, I have a cultural home, no one can change that. My cultural home is always going to be Mogadishu. The idea of home, I don’t know… there’s no home.
I was thinking yesterday, perhaps that’s why people get married and have babies, so you can create a home? Does that family unit that you now have help define home for you [Rageh is married with a son]?
Yes! In fact, we’ve thought about this with my wife. We’ve decided that home is where the family is.
Which is so cheesy. It’s incredibly cheesy.
It may be cheesy, but it’s much more complex because my family is in many different places. My parents have lived that sort of trans-national existence as well. My mum will call me and ask for a ticket because she’s bored. They’re very comfortable moving around.
Going back to my earlier question, how do you sum up what it means to live in the diaspora? How do you surmise what that was like?
It was cool. It was hope. It was a sort of a misunderstanding of what to expect. Or actually, the idea of the unknown, but we thought we knew. It was sort of a highly idealized world. The first month or two, you immediately understand where you are located within that structure you find. I remember my community ESL [English as a Second Language] classes, there were like 10 other people from different countries. I remember it was my favorite place, the only place where there were other people who understood me. Not in a deep way or anything, but someone I could laugh about with something and they would not judge.
Tell me about your decision to come back? Suddenly you were gone. I remember being on Facebook and seeing you were in Mogadishu.
I came here [Nairobi] for vacation in the summer. I had spent two summers here before and loved it. I was just chilling, but kept meeting people who worked in Somalia. There was a new government and Mogadishu was opening up. Al-Shabaab had left the city and everyone wanted to [go back to] see their house. I did too and I was among that first wave.
Did you find your old house?
Yeah, it was fine. Going back to the place, it's completely changed. The infrastructure changes, some destroyed, some new things came up. I wasn’t sentimental or anything about it. Shit happens so, you don’t want to remember. Because your neighbors were killed and all of that, you’d rather see that neighbor’s house disappear because you don’t want to remember what happened.
When did you decide to stay?
I stayed there [Mogadishu] and got a job, writing. I was supposed to stay three weeks and I got assignments while I was there because of lack of skills [among the general population]. Simple reports. People were giving me $1,000 to write one report! I talked to my wife and said, “things are happening here.” I sent her a ticket, she came reluctantly, stayed three days then she got a job as an advisor to the Prime Minister, handling communications. We had an apartment in Minneapolis, but I never went back. I never went back to my jackets, my books, never.
I like that it was seamless, “this is happening, let’s go for it.” You and your wife sound like a perfect match for each other. Congratulations!
Yeah, she’s too fantastic.
Since moving back, have the things that keep you up at night changed? Do you find yourself giving less fucks or more fucks?
Less fucks. I was teaching at a local university in Mogadishu, I learned a lot from that. But one thing that has been solidified, is the idea of privilege, the idea of class. I understood that is the problem. I get mad when I see a lot of people saying, Somalis are “clanish.” We don’t have clan issues, it’s a class issue and everyone avoids that. I see it. People who come back also get a lot more privilege. You live right next to each other, you’re getting the same pay or even more. I’ve become very cynical.
Yeah. When someone wants to tell me, ‘I want to change the world.’ All of this? Really?
Anything else you wanna add?
One more wine! [to the waitress]
Bio: Born in Mogadishu, Somalia, Rageh currently works as a development consultant for a consuling firm in Somalia. He is passionate about education and sees the future of Somalia depends on repatriation of skilled professionals and knowledge transfer into important institutions.
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