The Somalification of James Karangi

by Abdul Adan

One afternoon, three young people were sitting around a table at Khalfan’s restaurant in downtown Mombasa. Their gestures and murmurs were like those of disloyal soldiers plotting a mutiny. The trio was comprised of Khalid Bawazir, his cousin Ayaan and her forbidden fiancé James Karangi, aka Mohamed.

“I told you from the beginning,” Khalid was lamenting, “there’s little hope along the line of religion. You could be the Imam and lead all of the late-night prayers in the month of Ramadan, but the Somali guy who steals shoes from the mosque would still stand a higher chance of taking her hand.”

“This is tribalism! It’s un-Islamic. You should have told them that,” protested James.

“I have told them everything I could, upon Ayaan’s request, knowing that it won’t work,” said Khalid. “But you better understand that what we are dealing with here is way beyond tribalism. They are talking of differences in appearance, hair-types and such nonsense.”

He looked at Ayaan and she nodded, saying, “You’ve certainly done your best, my beloved cousin.”

“That isn’t my best,” corrected Khalid. “I haven’t exhausted all of my resources yet. Like I promised before all this began, I am committed to your happiness, my dear.”

He tenderly squeezed Ayaan’s shoulder and continued: “You have every right to marry the man of your choice. If he happens to be a Kikuyu, a Luo, or a Meru, I will always have your back.”

He smiled upon saying Meru, reached into his pocket and produced a small plastic bag filled with khat. “This is a half-kilo; it’s my fix for the day. Were it not for the Merus,” he shook his head, “would I have this here today?”

James, who was a new Muslim, looked away and laughed modestly. Ayaan held her veil to her lips to suppress her laughter.

“Well, I called you here today,” announced Khalid, “because I believe I have the solution to this mess once and for all.” He spoke in a low pitch, like an ailing old man delivering a farewell speech to his sons.

“I am tired,” he went on. “I can no longer watch our young people being oppressed by unreasonable traditions. All humans are one. So long as their internal components are the same, there’s no point in some assuming superiority over others. It’s ridiculous. I mean seriously, which of the world’s races or tribes are immune to tuberculosis, pneumonia, cholera, or the need for water and sleep? I have tried convincing my people, both on my father’s side and my mother’s, that all humans are the same and that our differences are mostly man-made. I have even asked my mother to divorce my Yemeni father and take back all of the experiences they have had together if indeed she is an honest Somali. But unfortunately I am a result of their marriage, and they’ve named me ‘Khalid’, the immortal.” 

He paused, faced Ayaan and added, sounding furious: “If James can’t marry you, then my father ought not to have married my mother.”

His voice rose to a frenzy which seemed to boil from his throat, and he stood from his chair shaking his head and biting his lips.

“I can’t take this anymore! Can’t you see this ignorance undermining our humanity?” he said, bending forward over the table towards his overwhelmed listeners.

“Can’t you see?” he repeated, louder this time.

“Khalid!” said Ayaan, trying to calm him.

“I’m tired!” he shouted, and then quickly looked about him as if embarrassed.

“Khalid!”

He put his hands in his pockets and walked over to the restaurant window. Then he went to the bathroom, washed his face, dried it and came back to the table, apparently composed.

“Anyway,” he said grimly, “you’re being mistreated because you’re not Somali. What my aunt and Sharmake don’t know is that we can change that.”

Sharmake was Ayaan’s elder brother. A young man of fiery temper who’d sworn to kill the James in question if he ever found him in his sister’s presence.

“How is that possible?” asked James.

“I can see to your Somalification. It’s just a matter of time. All I need is your full cooperation.”

“I have embraced Islam. What more does she need from me?”

“You still don’t understand, do you? Listen to me. Do you love my cousin?”

Ayaan’s eyes lit up and she looked eagerly at James, as though this had been the question she’d anticipated all afternoon. James, for his part, turned his gaze away from Khalid and stared at the table, his hands shaking.

“Do you doubt my feelings for her?” he said.

Khalid brought his fist down hard on the table, nearly knocking over his glass of water. “Give me a yes or no before I declare this over, and side with my aunt and Sharmake.”
James started sweating and his face quivered. Khalid was a key person in his quest to marry the girl of his dreams. The mere thought that he could lose Khalid’s support set his nerves going. He leaned forward trying to say something but words failed him.

“C’mon, give me an answer,” insisted Khalid. When James didn’t reply at once, Khalid crossed his arms and looked away, far through the restaurant door.

“If you ever thought,” he said, “that you could sneak your way into my cousin’s heart without loving her truly, then you’re fooling yourself and only yourself because I am here for her. My interest in this is for her to be happy. I don’t care whether she’s fallen for a lion in the bush. If I have to ensnare him and remove all his canines and claws to ensure her comfort I would. Break her heart, and you have yourself an adversary in me.

“If you don’t love her, tell me now and we shall close this chapter. But once it goes beyond this point, then you’re in it for good. And I will Somalify you for her. Her mother will have no case against you. If she tries anything to jeopardise an eligible Somali man’s marriage to her daughter, then she will have to answer to the elders. Just be clear and honest with me and I will help you.”

“Somalify me?” asked James uncertainly.

“That’s beside the point! Do you love her?”

“Of course I do!” said James. His voice was loud, firm and impatient.

“Now we are talking,” said Khalid pleasantly. “You will be Somalified Inshallah. I will call HassanZuu right away. He’s had the entire house to himself since his parents moved to Zanzibar. That’s where most of your Somalification will take place.”

*****

The Somalification of James Karangi was to begin, according to Khalid, with a demonstration of loyalty. James must use his physical resources to help a member of the community in an endeavour. If he dared question his role it would indicate disloyalty, and so he agreed to help a Somali, in this case Khalid, retrieve some money from a khat seller. Khalid claimed that he had overpaid the man earlier that morning. The two young men walked into the khat store at sunset. It was Khalid who addressed the shopkeeper.

“I’m here for my money,” he said.

“What money?” asked the khat seller, a middle-aged man with a round belly and a red cap on his head.

“I overpaid you this morning. You owe me 150 shillings. Let’s not waste time. C’mon, hand it over.”
“You are crazy!”

“Okay, James,” said Khalid. “Use your Kikuyu muscles; you won’t be having them for long.”

James jumped over the counter that separated the seller and his customers. He took hold of the man’s right arm and twisted it behind his back. Khalid grabbed the man’s head and pushed it down against the khat leaves on the counter. As it was a humid evening and as the man was sweating, some of the khat leaves attached themselves to his face, making it look like a collage. He gave little resistance, only shouting repeatedly, “Are you crazy?” It had never occurred to him that one of his trusted customers would turn on him.

Khalid reached into the cash-drawer and retrieved 200 shillings. He searched for smaller bills but there were none, just coins. Then he reached into the man’s back pocket and found a number of 20-shilling bills. He replaced the 200 and counted the smaller bills until he had 140, before putting the rest back in the man’s pocket. He opened the drawer again and added a 10-shillings coin. When he had 150 shillings he showed it to James and ordered him to release the man.

“A Somali man must take only what’s his. You understand?”

 They left the shop and headed for HassanZuu’s home. HassanZuu was waiting for them when they arrived. Khalid asked James to sit down and took HassanZuu aside for what he called ‘a brief high-level consultation’.

“This is the project I have been waiting for, brother,” he whispered to HassanZuu. “We now have a chance to help someone get married to his love. There isn’t a more noble undertaking. I will need your full support. It shouldn’t take more than two weeks.”

“Anything you say, my brother,” said HassanZuu. Of all the friends of Khalid, he was the most loyal and practical.  “I have the rope ready for you and all. I have also secured the door. Everything is as you’ve requested.”

Khalid hugged HassanZuu and returned to the back room where James was waiting. HassanZuu followed him a short while later, carrying a small, narrow bed. James sat crouched in a corner. Khalid tapped his shoulders and smiled at him, tight-lipped.

“Do you trust me?” 

******

James spent the night in HassanZuu’s back room by himself. The rules were that he should have as little human contact as possible for a week and that he should not leave his room except for the calls of nature, and then under the strictest supervision. The next morning HassanZuu brought him black tea for breakfast. For lunch he received no food.  When he asked HassanZuu later in the afternoon, he was met with a short, cold answer: “It’s the rules.”

HassanZuu didn’t even look at him directly. He wasn’t a Somali and therefore was to keep himself as distant as possible from James, by Khalid’s directive. 

That evening Khalid came to see James in his room, carrying a tightly-folded plastic bag. James could see the opening of the bag, from which green and reddish leaves of khat stuck out.

“Ever tried these blessed twigs?”

Khalid asked. James shook his head. Khalid called aloud to HassanZuu to bring in the dinner of rice, mixed with spaghetti. James took to his meal. Khalid ate little, saying: “I am only helping you along.”

A white carpet was spread before them and Khalid brought out the contents of the plastic bag. He handed a bunch of the twigs tied together by a small string to James and they began the chewing session. James chewed reluctantly and was amused by Khalid’s creativity in the first chewing minutes. He spoke continuously, with such energy and analytical abilities James had never seen before. Khalid’s left cheek protruded gradually till it stretched to the full and shone as though carefully polished. Meanwhile, James was undergoing an ordeal. His jaws ached and his inner cheeks were getting bruised, but he kept chewing nevertheless; he had agreed to the Somalification, he reminded himself.

The first practical lessons began an hour into the chewing. Khalid had ordered a bottle of Coca-Cola to be brought in from outside. He drilled a small hole in the top. There wasn’t a need for a bottle-opener. All one needed to do, he said, was suck at the hole and swallow whatever came through. That way the drink would last two people through the entire chewing period, and any khat pieces that might escape the cheeks and get trapped in the throat would be washed down.

“As a Somali man,” said Khalid, “you must always order for your friend what you order for yourself. If your friend is broke, simply pay the bill without hesitation. And do not ask the money of him in future or remind him of it. Your money is yours, but it’s also for your relatives and then for your Somali brother. If you want to extend your love beyond the confines of the community, it’s your choice. But never let a non-Somali pay your bill at a restaurant. You do the honours, always. We are free people and therefore we are generous.”

“Maybe you should begin to teach him the language,” suggested HassanZuu, who had been drinking coconut juice in a corner of the room.

“Thanks for reminding me, brother Zuu,” said Khalid. “We might as well begin the language lessons right away. We don’t have the whole year.”

James was pleased at the prospect of learning Somali. He had heard Somali language being spoken many times, but hadn’t been able to make out a single word. As a matter of fact, to him the sound of Somali words was similar to the sound of broken glass mixed with water and poured down a zinc roof. He had never been able to conceive how a fellow human being could articulate such sounds.

“We shall begin with the hardest words and gradually move towards the easiest,” said Khalid.

“Ok, let’s try,” said James.

“Say, ‘Dhicis.’ It means ‘premature baby’.”

James attempted to say the word: ‘Dees.’

“Dhicis!” repeated Khalid.

James tried again: ‘Dees.’

“Okay, that’s enough,” said Khalid. “You realise I am dedicated to your service, don’t you?”

“Of course,” said James.

“Well then, you have to cooperate with me by all means. I will have you drink a glass of bitter lemon for your throat and try the word again.”

HassanZuu handed him the preserved bitter lemon in a steel glass and went out.

“Take it down in one gulp,” said Khalid. “Good boy. Let’s try again: “Dhicis.”

Khalid listened as James said the word, asking him to repeat it twice and a third time before standing up to call in HassanZuu from outside. The latter came in with two ropes folded in his right hand. He was accompanied by another young man, a short, muscular fellow, whom he introduced to James as Othis. He handed Khalid one of the ropes, about four feet in length, and quietly took his position next to Othis. Khalid ordered that all khat twigs be cleared away.

“Brother James,” he said, twisting and stretching the rope. “We are about to conduct a simple procedure that has the potential to work miracles. The bitter lemon hasn’t been successful in getting your throat flexible enough for your Somali articulation. I am certain this little rope here will work.”

James looked at Khalid, then at the other two men. He stood up, ready to defend himself.

“Don’t get all worked up,” said HassanZuu. “It’s just a simple procedure. There’s the hard way and the easy way.”

“Fellows, get to work!” Khalid ordered.

They seized James by the arms. James, who was stronger than both of them, could have fought himself loose, but he was dizzy from the poor diet and the strange twigs he’d chewed. He fell flat on his chest, and both of his hands were tied behind his back. Khalid made a little knot in the rope he was holding and, when he had the perfect noose, slid it deftly around James’s neck. He tightened it, gradually and slowly, until he could hear a certain agitation in James’s voice.

“Please don’t take this the wrong way,” he apologised to James. “This is all for your sake. Your throat must get flexible enough, or you won’t learn a single word of this language, not to mention marry my cousin. I am positive this will work. You will be the first Kikuyu ever to pronounce Somali words without an accent.”

“This is abuse,” moaned James.

“Say that again,” said Khalid. James moaned again. Khalid thought he had heard a raspy sound in James’s voice. He looked at Othis and HassanZuu, nodded, and said to James, “So far that’s the closest thing to a Somali word that you’ve uttered. I told you it can work miracles.”

“You might want to loosen the rope, brother Khalid,” warned Othis. “You don’t want to make any mistakes.”

“Well, so far now,” considered Khalid, “I have choked him about 80 percent. If I loosen the rope it may not be as effective unless I extend the timing. We would have to prolong the exercise to produce the same results as by two days of this tightness level.”

James changed his moans into a series of gasping sounds until Othis, possibly noticing an impending tragedy, hastened to loosen the noose.

“That’s it. No looser or it won’t work.” Khalid stopped him lest his heart get in the way of his work.

For 13 days James was locked in, neck-tied except during meals and khat chewing sessions. He was allowed one meal a day. Every other night Khalid would visit him with a kilo of khat, from which he had to chew for at least three hours and listen to the language and cultural lessons. When the chewing was done, Khalid would tighten the strap around his neck and leave. James resisted the daily and nightly procedures at first; however, as time wore on, he became weak and emaciated. On many occasions he tied the rope around his own neck when it was time, making it clear that he preferred ‘the easy way’.

To his surprise, the procedure worked. He pronounced many difficult words that required a thorough working of his throat. However, when he repeated complete sentences after Khalid, he perceived an extraordinary change in his own mood. Each time he said a Somali sentence with correctness he felt his temper rise, and lost patience for repetitive lessons. Subsequently he demanded, with a marked urgency, to be taught new words and sentences by the minute and maintained a choleric, intolerant disposition.

Once HassanZuu sent him his breakfast through Othis and he rejected it.

“I don’t eat from the hands of one who smells of lake fishes. I am not even sure you are circumcised.”

He took a long time putting the words together but spoke them with the right pitch and emotion. He raised himself on his knees, wagging his index finger violently at Othis. But unaccustomed to the strain of Somali words, his heart beat too fast, and he placed his right hand on his chest and fell back, out of breath.

******

On the last day of the programme, Khalid gave him a summary of the cultural lessons. 

“Your throat will no longer be an obstacle to your learning,” he told him. “We will give you skin applications for your neck bruises. Ultimately you will be a man without regrets. The benefits you’ve gained from this programme surpass by far any difficulties you’ve gone through… One thing you should never forget is that a fellow Somali’s interest is always your interest. Never hesitate to help a Somali man who is at war with others.”

Khalid continued his farewell lesson late into the night. He gave clear directions as to how James should live his Somali life. Thanks to the diet, James’s body, according to Khalid, had come to resemble that of the average Somali male. He had lost at least thirty per cent of his weight and his cheeks had gotten hollow. True strength, he was told, is in one’s soul. Only slaves seek all strength in their muscles. If one’s fury is intense enough, he can defeat anyone. Khalid also taught him how to live an outgoing, flexible, yet conservative life.

“Do not ever imprison your mind with rules,” he was told. “All land belongs to Allah. No government should ever limit or dictate where you can or can’t go. Budgets and financial records are a nuisance, created to make lives hard. You will find in being a Somali that money stops being a serious issue. You will learn to spend it even before making it. Money is like women. It comes and goes. You must never for a second think about how much you got left when you want to help a brother; such attitude can only invite poverty into your life. Never hesitate to share what you have with your fellow Somali.

“Lastly and most importantly, you live for yourself and the community. If you get hungry in a foreign land, join any Somalis who are dining. They should be welcoming unless they have something else in their blood.”

“So emotions are good, huh?”

“Well, positive emotions are,” answered Khalid. “The kind that you need when saving a brother who is in danger. If you try to be reasonable in such a case you will waste precious time in which you could have served the community. One who defends his own is never at fault. A Somali man must always know his rights. That’s why our ancestors, in all their wisdom, said: ‘Give a Somali man his right or your head.’ You see! You’ve got to walk away with something: your rights, your Somali brother’s rights, or the oppressor’s head. Haven’t you noticed that oppressive people are happier when their victims are cool and reasonable? Beware! Pacifism is a sanctuary for cowards, the un-revolutionary.”

******

Early the next morning James was freed from the bed and the rope around his neck was permanently removed. Ayaan was brought in to see his new, Somalified form.

“Oh Allah!” she gasped. “What have they done to you? Why did you let them do this to you, my love? I hardly recognised you when I walked in. You look like a refugee who’s fled on foot for months without food. Allah! Allah!”

“But isn’t that the whole idea?” said Khalid. “How else would he lose his Kikuyu muscles, gained by centuries of vegetable farming? You should be glad we didn’t take him to the desert to look after camels.”

But Ayaan’s rage was not to be easily quelled. She leaped up and slapped him numerous times, scratching him with her nails and clawing at his shirt.

“You sick brute with a worm-filled head!” she cried. “I thought you were going to teach him the language and the culture. How much of that does he know now? Huh? You sick torturer!”

Khalid gently pulled her hands off him and tried to explain himself.
“Teachings, by themselves, are not successful assimilation tools; the individual must change,” he said, “physically and psychologically.”

Ayaan, now suddenly composed, bent over James and shook his thinned biceps. She touched him about the chest, laid him on his back and shook his kneecaps. Soon, her lips tensed and she stopped the inspection. Her eyes constricted in renewed rage and she opened her mouth like someone in pain, gritted her teeth, and, clasping her neck-beads, let out such a squeal that HassanZuu and Othis cowered on the floor, terrified. Khalid tried to console her but she shook him off and paced across the room, back and forth, before falling on top of James. She gathered him into her arms and rocked, sobbing.

“My darling,” she stammered in Swahili, “what do I do? I can’t… I don’t…”

Behind her the door creaked, and it didn’t take long before everyone saw the intruder. It was the dreaded Sharmake, Ayaan’s elder brother. He had followed Ayaan when she suspiciously absconded from the breakfast cooking duties earlier that morning, and from the Somali traditional dagger he carried, his intentions couldn’t be clearer. He leaped across the room and seized Ayaan by the hair, throwing her to one side, away from the frail, gaunt figure on the floor. Then he kicked James in the mouth and prodded him twice in the back with the dagger.

HassanZuu and Othis, at first frozen with fright and wonder, ran to James’s aid and, just in time, wrestled away the assailant.

“Bloody Kikuyu fool,” said Sharmake, amid rapid gasps. “You never get it, do you?”

He tried to kick James again but Khalid blocked him. Ayaan launched at her brother, tearing at him with her henna-coloured nails and biting his hands. She called him names and then said a few rude things about his mother, who was her mother too, and then his sister, who was herself.

“I wish James was in a position to listen,” thought Khalid. “These would have been useful notes to take.”

******

Two days later James woke up in a hospital bed. Khalid and Ayaan were at his side.

“Thank God you’re back,” said Ayaan.

“You’re lucky to be alive,” added Khalid. “He hit your spine, you know?”

“My dear,” said Ayaan, leaning closer to James, “I must end our relationship. I don’t want to risk your life anymore. I am sorry.” She kissed James on the forehead and went out.

“What did she just say?” murmured James.

“Don’t worry. You don’t need her,” said Khalid. “Women, like money, come and go. Now, my brother in Somaliness, I am here for a most important thing.”

Khalid bent over James and turned him gently sideways. He inspected the bandaged stab-wounds and pouted his lips in grave contentment. Having confirmed the adequate extent of the Somalification, Khalid lifted his right hand in the air like one taking an oath and declared in a solemn, formal voice:

“Brother James, on behalf of the Somali community, I congratulate you on a successful Somalification.”
Then he lowered his eyes, waved, and left the room in haste.

About the Writer:

Abdul Adan’s work has appeared in Kwani?, Scarfmag, Gambit; an anthology of newer African writing, The Caine Prize anthologies of 2014 & 2016, African Roar, Jungle Jim, and elsewhere. He is a 2016 Caine Prize shortlistee and a Miles Morland Scholarship winner.

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