I’ve seen many odd things in my 14 years of existence. But seeing a untethered goat roaming the streets and not one soul blinking? A truly bizarre sight.
As an American-born Somali youngster, my life consisted of eating pasta with bananas (are you even Somali if you haven’t had this?), running around in the woods, and tentatively tasting questionable berries in my hometown, Lewiston, Maine.
But when I was 9, my father bought the two of us plane tickets to Somalia and didn’t mention they were one-way tickets. As I wondered what Somalia would be like, I pictured mounds of sand swirling around like a Harry Potter movie, and goats blaa-ing everywhere.
When we arrived in the town of Ceelbuur, I saw animals I’ve never seen before kicking in the beige sands; the sight was exquisite. The shops on the main road were made of worn bricks and painted with pictures and calligraphy. Our house had a view of the starry night sky. I often found myself wondering if my sister was looking into the same sky back home, missing her partner in crime.
Life in Somalia wasn’t a smooth transition from the U.S. Most small villages and towns didn’t have a water system and relied on wells. I could no longer place my cup under a tap and expect cool, refreshing water. Getting water became even more difficult when drought season rolled around and water prices skyrocketed. I also encountered my first squat toilet in Somalia, and my beating heart was too much to handle the first few times I used it. What if it didn’t flush? What if I fell in and no one knew? Would I become the bathroom ghoul?
I was soon enrolled into Arabic school. It was tough; I had terrible Arabic handwriting and I didn’t know a single word of Somali besides “mother” and “father.” I wanted to tell stories of a small town with mounds of snow in the winter, and flowers that bloomed in a myriad of red, yellow and blue, but every time I met someone new, I couldn’t say anything besides “hi” without feeling like I had cotton stuffed down my throat. I was the standout foreigner in my own motherland.
Eventually, my father brought me to my aunt and her family in a city named Badhan. I felt like my aunt’s 11 children, nieces and nephews were staring as if I were a classroom pet. I hadn’t interacted with any of them, and was often hiding in my father’s shadow.
But then, in the beginning of the new year, monsoon season came around. The rain droplets didn’t faze me, but my cousins lit up like children being given candy before bedtime. Rain poured. I stood in the doorway, watching my cousins frolic in the pouring rain, hesitant to join them. But then, my cousin lunged for my hand and tossed me playfully into the wheelbarrow, driving me into the rain. This gesture of familiarity made me giddy.
Over the next few months, I realized my cousins were not as scary as I originally thought. They taught me how to speed jump rope, and in return I taught them inappropriate English words. I was one of them now, and I was content to have a set of friends to eat, laugh and play with. Although I was still looked at in an odd manner, it had simmered down, and I was treated the same as my peers.
A couple months following my 11th birthday, my mother wanted me to come home and continue middle school in the U.S. I felt torn. After two years in Somalia, I had learned this was a place I could call home, with my relatives always on the lookout for me. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, Somalia had wormed its way into my heart, and the familiarity of Somalia is one I still yearn for.
I returned to the U.S. in May 2015. While my cousin was driving me home from the airport, I kept repeating “Is this America?” I spoke like this was a dreamland, filled with lush greenery and rough pavement. I had grown accustomed to flying, warm-toned sand and the swishing of willowy trees. Learning in Somalia was a unique experience, but I longed for the comfort of my mother's embrace and the foolishness with my siblings.
Most of all, I was happy to be reunited with my younger sister. She had grown so tall, taller than me. She bombarded me with questions, and I retold all the stories of my time in Somalia. With her, I knew I was home at last.