Getting to know me: Entering the Somali community

How do I become one of the guys? Is it even possible?
How do I become one of the guys? Is it even possible?

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.

How has learning your language made you part of a new community?

9 thoughts on “Getting to know me: Entering the Somali community

  1. “How has learning your language made you part of a new community?”

    Can’t recall if I shared this with you before, but when I was in college in Fairbanks, AK I fell into the Chinese community because of my Mandarin proficiency. I spent time with other college students and went to church with them once a week (a Chinese service held in the basement of a local English-speaking church). I talked with the other moms about their studies and their jobs and their lives and their babies. This was when I learned that it’s not uncommon in China for older, retired relatives to raise the children so that the parents (young adults) can focus on school or work.

    “… as if the sound tickles his ears.”

    I used to get that, too! Whenever I would be introduced to someone or reply to their English with Chinese, they would get this look of delight after it sunk in that they actually heard Chinese come out of my mouth. It’s so fun to brighten someone’s day that way – to tell them “I understand you in the way you are most comfortable communicating.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As always, your stories are super inspirational! 😀 Keep it up!

    And really I like the “can’t leave without learning something new” rule. Sorry if you explained this before somewhere and I missed it, but how do you remember a new word/phrase? Do you carry a notebook and write it down immediately? Or try to use it back to the person you’re talking to?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. I’m happy it’s inspiring.

      I have a couple ways of making sure I learn something new. I had to buy a new phone, so I bought a Samsung Note 5. That way I can easily write, record, or video whatever I need.

      The only time I wasn’t able to use it was when I learned a new Amharic word from the parking garage attendant. There was a line behind me, so after I paid I felt too rushed and flustered to write or record.

      I repeat the word back a bunch of times, also, but that method has never worked well to stick the word in my head. I forget in 10 minutes.

      Liked by 1 person

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