Interview
26 Apr 2019

There’s a new type of family in Somalia

Paula Szewczyk interviews author Paweł Smoleński on the cultural changes taking place in Somalia and the evolving role of its women.

Wysokie Obcasy
Paula Szewczyk Wysokie Obcasy, Global
There’s a new type of family in Somalia  - NewsMavens
Somali women and girls wait to see a Burundian medical officer serving with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) Wikimedia Commons

The following selections from Paula Szewczyk’s May 2018 interview with Paweł Smoleński originally appeared in the Polish weekly Wysokie Obcasy.

Paula Szewczyk: Unemployment, aggression, intoxication. The image of men that emerges from The Queens of Mogadishu (KróloweMogadiszu), is not very flattering.

Paweł Smoleński: The war in Somalia has lasted for two decades. The social order has been completely destroyed. It is no surprise that men have given up in so many cases. How can they live after surviving on the edge for so long? What can they do in a place where their traditions, family, authority, and social position have been shattered?

90 percent of Somali men are high all day chewing khat, which is addictive and intoxicating. These guys sit from morning until night in no condition to do anything and not having anything to do. They hang out in the camps staring off into space, not even talking to each other. They are helpless. There is no work for them, and they have ceased to fulfill their traditional function as the head of the family. Some don’t even care anymore. They don’t bring home any money, so they no longer have authority.

On the other hand, these men, like other fathers around the world, can sit with sick children, rock them, put them on the potty, wash plastic covered mattresses, and not give up. That’s what they did, for instance, in the hospital for cholera patients.

The image of Somali men is not so one-sided, though there is no doubt that whatever order exists there relies on women.

PS: What does it look like?

Women used to stay home, take care of the children, cooking, animals, and the garden or household farm. Activity outside the home, fell into the hands of the men. But now there is no such space as “outside the home.” There are no homes. There are camps, terribly cramped, from which there is no reason to leave because either there is no work, or there is nothing that the men are suited for. That is why something completely atypical is happening there. A new type of family is forming in which the women are working, and the men keep house.

PS: Where do women get the strength, when the picture of war and destruction have taken it away from the men?

The women simply have no way out, because, after all, they have children. Having a family for them is sufficient motivation to act. Usually there are several children in a family. The first appears when a woman is in her teens, and then she gives birth every year. They have to find a bowl of rice for the kids, to make some money, wash them, wipe their noses, hug them, resolve conflicts, and take them to the doctor or daycare, if there is one. All responsibility for the offspring falls on the women, and that’s an insane amount of work. It’s hard enough to feed a few and even harder to feed more than a dozen mouths.

You have to keep running and work solidly to get food or water. The water is always carried by women. I did not see any men in Somalia who would do it. Perhaps this is an activity regarded as inappropriate for a man. A boy might do it up to 10 or 12 years of age, and then they stop.

Girls in Somalia do various kinds of work. They go town, beg, and gather wood from the forest and build tents. If it rains and they don’t have a tightly sealed tent, they have to work something out, so it doesn’t drip. If a child is crying due to illness, they take the child in their arms and march to the medical station in the camp.

Life does not give women a choice. A man can do what he wants.

PS: Are there Somali feminists?

From our point of view, there are, though they don’t speak of themselves in that way. The majority are unable to read or write and have never even heard such a word as “feminism.” Though I met a few women who were actually familiar with feminism, they never spoke of themselves as such. These are women who have decided to do something, and not depend on men who are in no condition to take care of them.

PS: Are women taking their destinies into their own hands elsewhere in Africa?

Looking at the other countries in Africa, it seems that it’s not only happening there. Rwanda is an example of a country that has the largest number of women in parliament in the world. Unfortunately, participation of women in the political life is just on the surface.

Rwanda, similarly to Somalia, continues to remain a country very much tied to tradition. Men don’t want that to change. They think, as the rest of the women do, that there’s no arguing with fate, saying "inshalla" --“as God wills it.” And God by their reckoning is omnipotent and powerful; his judgments cannot be changed; and you take what you get. So they accept the conditions that fate has dealt, and live according to the ancient traditions.

PS: Is it possible to speak of women’s solidarity in Somalia?

It is possible to speak of solidarity among people in general. If they didn’t work together -- though it is actually most often organized by women -- Somalia would be an even more desperate place than it is.

People look around at how women have begun to manage for themselves, and gained confidence in themselves, and they go to them for shelter, advice, and assistance. It is not without reason that women are in charge of the refugee camps. They distribute space, tents, materials, and give out food. This cooperation and solidarity even leaps over clan divisions.

PS: Maybe the trend that we have already observed in Europe is reaching Africa, where women are encouraged to play a greater role in politics, and employers are more and more willing to bet on our “soft” skills?

It could be, but Somalia still has decades ahead, if not centuries, to change. It is an unspeakably poor country. The annual budget of the Ministry of Health approaches zero. Hospitals function there mainly thanks to feminine stubbornness and charity. In one that I found, the Director was a woman --educated in Europe, hard-working, and managing the place and the people well. She was an example that can be followed by local communities, which are slowly recognizing that a woman can fulfill such a function.

Though the division of social roles was previously clearly defined, Somalians are learning new ones. And more and more exceptions are emerging. Maybe there are still women weaving mats or baskets, but sometimes they are able to become electricians. The latest news is that girls are joining the police and even the army, though that is still a small number.

***

Paweł Smoleński’s book "Królowe Mogadiszu" (The Queens of Mogadishu), was published in Poland by Czarne in May 2018.

Translated from Polish by David A. Goldfarb

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