Iska warran? “How are you?” he said as I entered the cafe.
Nabad! Maxaad sheegtay? “Good! How are you?” I responded.
This was the first time a Somali person initiated a conversation with me in Somali. I was shocked. Did I know this man? Had I chatted with him before at the cafe?
Since he was on his way out, I didn’t have a chance to chat further with him, but it made me think, Did my reputation precede me? Am I starting to become a part of something? Maybe I’m “that white guy who comes here speaking Somali.” I’m becoming someone in this part of the Somali world—but who am I becoming?
Meeting people (Do they already know me?)
An old man serves at this cafe. He looks typically Somali with a white cap and small, hennaed goatee. I’ve talked to him several times, naturally, and he must surely recognize me by now. I brighten his day. We only speak in Somali, and he loves the sound of his language in my mouth. When I ask for hal sambuusa kallunna “one fish sambusa,” he goes to get my order, smiling, chuckling, and repeating my words over and over, as if the sound tickles his ears. Often I make mistakes, and he’s delighted to correct me, and then repeat my corrected sentences. (Maybe I’m as cute like a baby to him.)
I decided today I would help my karma by talking about what I like. “I like sambusas.” “I like Somali tea.” “I like speaking Somali.” I figured that saying so many nice things that I like about being there, I would send positive vibes to folks who might chat with me and help me with my language.
I think it worked.
The surrounding gentlemen told me to sit, and I came to a table with a man who appeared more interested in soccer than conversation. Fortunately, the younger man at the next table started chatting with me.
We started talking languages, and he told me he speaks Swedish. He told me that a large Somali population lives in Sweden, where he was for many years. He came to Minnesota for his wife, but his parents still live in Somalia. While he likes life here in Minnesota for the past four years, he still prefers Sweden. (Some would say there’s not much difference between Minnesota and Sweden!)
Down to language-learning business
I made it an explicit rule in my head that I am not allowed to leave a Somali exchange like this without learning something new, a word, a phrase, a proverb, anything. I hadn’t prepared what I was going to ask, so I started with his family.
Is it a problem that you don’t have family in Minnesota? Dhib miyaa tahay inaa qoyska aan joogiin Minnesota?
Then I asked the most practical things for my life.
My daughter is at her friend’s house. Gabadhayda waxay joogta guriga saaxiibteet.
I have to drive (her) home. Waxaan rabaa inaan soo wado.
I excused myself to start my suburban father’s duties that I had just outlined. The gentlemen said good-bye to me, and I left.
Language leading to community
When I left, many of the men were watching the soccer game and didn’t look at me. (Somalis love Arsenal.) I don’t fault folks for focusing on the game.
Surprisingly, I felt a nice warmth from several of the men as they said good-bye to me. The kindness and generosity I experienced from the men I chatted with surpassed what I normally experience in public.
Moreover, I feel that with a reputation I have a personality, and with a personality, people engage more. People are starting to get to know me, and it’s becoming less of passing strangers and more of fellow-community members.
Post-script: On the light rail
That evening, I was riding the light rail, and I saw a young Somali family. The father was speaking in accented English to his 3- or 4-year-old. I was surprised, so I started talking to the boy in Somali. We can only preserve this language in our community when people see that the community considers the language important.
The father was pleasantly surprised. “How did you learn how to do that?” he asked me. I gave him my standard, “I live in Minnesota.” My answer next time will be, “Because this language is important to me to preserve.”
He got off the train with his family. Habeen wanaagsan “Have a good evening!” he said to me. I hope his son will be able to do the same when he gets older.