The Politics of Belonging

11 Min Read

A policeman escorts Somali families to evacuate after their homes were broken into during the second day of skirmishes in Nairobi, Source:REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

Last year around this time, I was anticipating my trip to Nairobi, Kenya. It was my first time heading back since 2008 and I was looking forward to seeing all the changes Kenya had undergone since my last visit. I could not wait to be greeted by the warmth, palm trees, roundabouts, and the feeling of belonging, which I missed dearly. I was beyond ecstatic. I was heading home.

The flight journey was peaceful. There was the traditional, yet terrible excuse of meals provided by the airline along with an abundance of films, which included my favourite, Lion King. Yet, I was lost in my thoughts, wondering if the scents or sounds of the nation had changed drastically to the point of being unrecognisable. It was the nostalgic feeling of meeting an old friend again. “Karibu. Welcome to Nairobi,” the flight attendant said. But as my father and I, with our belongings in tow, proceeded towards the exit of the plane, I remember feeling something was a bit unusual about this trip. Instead of the expected warm and welcoming smiles, hostile, fear-ridden faces confronted us. Not to sound dramatic, but the change of reaction was so drastic and cold I remember feeling like I had the scarlet letter drawn across my face.

“What is the reason for your trip to Nairobi?” asked the grumpy customs officer. “To merely vacation and visit family,” I replied, while looking at my father who seemed taken aback by her attitude. “How long are you staying here?” she impatiently asked. “About three weeks”, my father interjected.

He was exhausted by the long flight and had no patience for the bad-mannered customs officer. The whispers from airport employees and locals seemed endless and the prolonged inspection of our passports confirmed the suspicion and hostility we felt.

“Somalis or Canadians?” was the frequent revisited question. It was clear from the questioning that being Somali as well as Canadian made me an “other” among the Kenyans. I was made to feel like an outsider among my own people.

There were so many family members waiting for us: aunts, uncles, cousins in the midst of family friends and other distant relatives. I could not keep count of all the hands enthusiastically waving to us from outside the glass partition, each of their faces beaming with joy that lit up our current grim surroundings. I felt appreciated, welcome and wanted. I was home.

But in between collecting our luggage and attempting to leave the airport, the hostile undertone I had felt persisted.

The xenophobia began. As my father and I exited the airport, I was relieved to be surrounded by my family. We all piled into different cars, with plans to regroup at my mother’s house for dinner. It had been over a year since I had last seen my mother, so I drove with her, while my father was whisked away by his own siblings. I missed her dearly. As we drove past massive billboards, commercial buildings, and hard-working Kenyans heading home, I couldn’t help but notice the visible progress of the city since my last trip, with its smooth roads and vibrant atmosphere. Then, suddenly, I noticed the headlights of a car quickly approaching us. “Hoyo, what is that?” I asked curiously. My mother sighed and responded, “A police officer. We are being pulled over.” I looked on as a well-dressed officer and his entourage walked towards our car. Without wasting any time, he proceeded to ask my mom several inapt questions: “Where are you coming from,” “Why are you out at this time of the night,” and “Are you heading home to Eastleigh.” The questions seemed irrelevant, particularly because the officer was attempting to pull us over for a traffic violation. After a quick glance at my mother’s license, we were let go. I asked my mother what was the point of pulling us over, especially since we weren’t even given a ticket or given an explanation. In a frustrated tone she told me, ” That’s what happens when you’re a Somali in Nairobi nowadays. There is nothing you can do about being stopped and questioned.”

For the duration of my stay, it became apparent the negative perception and treatment of Somalis was partially the result of stigmatised news reports about Somalis. From headlines on national newspapers to the evening news, Somalis had become the scapegoat for any or all of the problems in Nairobi. We would witness the Kenyan Defense Forces aimlessly shoot into the blanket of darkness above the sea while the selective footage would be drowned out by sounds of heavy breathing and gunshots. By the end of the news segment, the reporter convincingly manages to persuade the viewer that the war against the Pirates, Al-Shabaab extremists and whoever seemed to be a threat to Kenya’s security was a success and is necessary. The more and more I followed the news and political issues in Kenya, the more it became evident that there was a growing marginalisation of Somalis within the Kenyan community.
It was clear that the actions of the Kenyan police widened any pre-existing rifts between Somalis and the Kenyan government. It seems that we, Somalis, were now viewed by natives as the delinquents responsible for the economic issues, inequality, and overcrowding of schools, streets and neighborhoods.  The further along the unrest progressed the more the sense of home and the feeling of belonging to Kenya I had always had started to change.

A simple errand such as heading to the grocery store or grabbing a meal with friends became a hassle as it entailed a thorough inspection of our car or a string of questions. “Operation Linda Nchi,” [Operation Protect the Country], which allowed officials to target any Al-Shabaab sympathisers or suspected members of Al-Shabaab, increased tensions between Somali Kenyans and Kenyans exponentially.

After 3 weeks in Nairobi, I was sad to leave. At the airport I was forced to remove my headscarf and glasses, then asked to mimic my motionless passport photo along with being asked tedious questions about my life in Toronto as if I was an impersonation of myself. I understood the sentiments harboured by Somalis about the Kenyan government: They really did not like us.

Upon arriving in Toronto, I was pleased to find out that Human Rights Watch had released a report entitled Criminal Reprisals: Kenyan Police and Military Abuses against Ethnic Somalis which details accounts of Kenyan forces arbitrarily detaining people, conducting beatings and abusing Somali inhabitants. I could not understand the lack of media attention and international reaction on this issue. Was the pain and sorrow of the Somali Diaspora community in Kenya meaningless to the international community? It was apparent that the lack of visible ribs or crying babies with flies on their faces could not garner the slightest bit of attention from Western media. The unsympathetic attack of Somalis in Kenya was drowned out by the over-played images and stories about Somali Pirates, and it would seem only a genocide is worthy of Western news coverage.

A part of me gave up. It was absolutely disheartening. This country I associated with home had let me down. Growing up in Canada, I never felt like I belonged since I was not a product of parents with ocean blue eyes and Barbie blond hair. I was a visible minority. So, when my father brought me to Kenya for the first time at the age of 10, I felt what home was supposed to mean. I belonged. I was a Somali Kenyan and proud. Eleven years later, how could I explain to myself that my home was responsible for killing my cousins, raping my aunts and arresting my uncles? My heart was broken.

Guest post by Iman

Born in Toronto, Canada. Iman is a pan-Africanist who hopes that one day she could play a vital role in the re-development of Somalia/Somaliland. She is currently in her last year at York University in Toronto where she is specializing in Political Science. She passionately writes primarily on the East African community and discourses in hopes of providing the marginalized community with a voice.

Share your own experiences below…

Did you enjoy this article?

Have these posts delivered directly to your inbox

Never miss another post! Join 20,000 other smart readers and have content delivered on a weekly basis.

Share This Article