The council estates of London with their sprawling tower blocks were never an easy place to grow up. Many of us can remember climbing the piss stained staircases with the family groceries. In those days, you were just grateful if your block had an elevator otherwise you had the unenviable task of climbing 6 flights of stairs, it was preferable to carry all your shopping in one go because if you left anything behind, you might come back to find that your shopping bags had disappeared.
It was in such environments that many of us grew up, often we adopted multiple lifestyles and identities in order to cope with this reality. Although growing up, it seemed that we endured the toughest of circumstances, our parents couldn’t understand our complaints, they had witnessed horrors that we could never imagine. They were eternally grateful for what Britain had given them, a safe haven, away from the anarchy of the place they called ‘home’. From their perspective, we had a safe home, electricity and running water, these are luxuries that only the middle classes can afford up to this day in many countries.
Our parents were completely oblivious to the dangers that awaited us. Little did they know about mopeds and hoodies waiting in dark corners. What did they know about shotting drugs? What did they know about the grooming that took place in these estates? In this context, grooming doesn’t refer to anything of a sexual nature, but it’s more about the way many of us were exploited by our ‘olders’ in our ‘endz’.
Little did our parents know, that when we went down the road to play ‘football’ that we had a vast array of ‘vultures’ waiting for their prey. We were the prey, the fresh meat, waiting to be consumed by a broken system. The initiation process started step by step, at first ‘Jermaine’ would approach you as you were playing football and ask you to go to the shops for him. If you listened to this request and went to the shops, he would tell you to keep the change. That was always how it started, through simple gains, you would get a jacks here and score over there and before you knew it, you were hooked.
These requests would gradually increase in complexity, next you would be asked to keep something safe, this was usually a small package or some cash. Later you would be told to go and deliver something to someone and if you did it you would be given a bill for your troubles. Imagine this kind of money for a 14-year-old in those days! This was the type of money that hooyo couldn’t afford to give you.
In hindsight, our parents were themselves recovering from their own form of post-traumatic stress disorder. One can only imagine the savagery they must have witnessed in a country self-destructing before their eyes. How equipped were they to deal with such a reality? After all, their perseverance had already been tested to the limit by the conditions of refugee camps and their senses had been tainted by the lingering smell of death.
Our parents had survived their battles and now we simply had to face our own. This was a battle that we had to fight alone, as we got older, we learned to fight together. The irony of the situation is that in the years to come we became closer to the likes of ‘Jermaine’ then we could ever imagine. It could be argued that in the decades that followed, many of us actually became a living representation of the ‘Jermaine’ that we dreaded so much. In fact, many of us surpassed him. The groomers that we initially mentioned slowly evolved, during the early years they were known as ‘Jermaine’ or ‘Marvin’ but as the years progressed the names slowly changed to more recognisable ones such as ‘Abdifatax’ or ‘Libaan’.
Being called ‘a f****** Somalian’ was a common insult in those days. To the extent, we found many of our generation ashamed of their ‘being’, a feeling many passed on to their siblings. Others just grew up extremely defensive, clinging to their identity wherever they found it. They learned to love themselves because that is all they had. Sadly, another group unwittingly submitted to their surroundings, many ended up in prison or mental health institutions, unable to cope with everything they had seen and taken part in.
Looking back the inhabitants of these estates were themselves victims of the system, people who were loathed and looked down upon by the ‘establishment’. White working class, second or third generation Caribbean and African youth, all living in crime-ridden ghettos. They were all suffering in their own ways and as a result, they were naturally wary of ‘us’ newcomers.
It is said that traditionally, pastoral Somali men went through a multi-staged initiation process that prepared them for their harsh environment. This process started soon after birth when the child reached two years old and the weaning process began. The child would wake up one morning and upon suckling on his mother’s breast, would not find milk but the bitter taste of Aloe Vera. The mother would apply Aloe Vera to her nipple and this would abruptly end the child’s love of milk. This was a harsh and abrupt way of bringing to an end the child’s life of ease.
As the child became stronger and reached adolescence he would become what is known as ‘Gaashaanle’ simple the one who can bear or carry a shield. His development into a fully-fledged warrior who could successfully navigate his harsh environment was complete.
Just as the traditional Somali became a ‘Gaashaanle’ complete with his shield and spear, ready to fend off wild animals and enemies who threatened his life or livelihood. Many of us became ‘Gaashanle’ but in our own realities, except that no one prepared us for life in the ‘endz’. We replaced the traditional spear and shield with many different kinds of knives and daggers. We carried these weapons not because we wanted to, but it became a way of surviving. A way of blending in, a mechanism against becoming a ‘victim’ and in many ways, it was simply a way of camouflaging ourselves within a concrete jungle.
If we look at the verse of Salaan Carrabey below within the context of Somali youth growing up in the diaspora. Especially those who have found themselves growing up in tough economic circumstances. The following verses cover many themes such as contentment, overcoming odds and being self-sufficient. Salaan also addresses the much deeper realities of ‘death’ and ‘life’. Salaan also delves into the much darker side of life when he entertains the idea that in certain situations death is perhaps preferable to a life of discontent.
Hadaad dhimato geeridu marbey nolosha dhaantaaye, Dhaqashiyo mar bay ka yihin dhereggu xaraane
If you were to die! At times death is preferable to life, and at times prosperity and contentment are prohibited from you!
In the first part of this verse, Salaan laments that at times death is better than life itself. When a human being is in a depressed state he or she may feel that life is no longer worth living. life or living ‘nolol’ is relative to the individual, for some, simply having food on the table is a luxury for others it takes much more for them to be satisfied with life.
This brings us to the exploration of the word ‘Dharag’ how does one become satisfied or content? Is this word restricted to the literal meaning of consuming food and quenching one’s appetite or is it more than that?
Just like how the pastoralist Somali may have been content with a fresh bowl of camel’s milk, we find that youth growing up in various council estates, projects and ghettos across the world, have to come to terms with the concept of contentment. What makes one content?
Many of us will recall that while going through our struggles on the roads, we were often reminded by our parents and older siblings that we were actually living in a relative paradise compared to many of our relatives. Although what they were saying was true in most regards, most of us had never experienced the disasters that occurred back ‘home’, for us the struggle in the ‘endz’ meant everything!
When you are really young and in your teens ‘dharag’ simply comes down to material objects. The latest phone, a pair of trainers, but what happens when your parents have to send that money back home. In those days, hundreds of dollars were being sent to family members back home. It could be argued that at one point it was a necessity to provide for people in dire straits but in the years, that followed it become somewhat of a ‘dependency’ culture.
The reality is that our parents simply couldn’t understand the ‘needs’ of their children. Perhaps one of the explanations for this frame of mind is the Islamic element present in Somali culture coupled with a pastoral upbringing. One of the strongest principles in Somali culture is that one should never complain openly about struggles and difficulties. Some academics such Dr Hussein Abdullahi Bulhan argue that traditional Somalis learned to cope with their harsh semi-arid environment by submitting to the will of God, he argues that Islaam teaches an individual to bear patiently with the difficulties of life. These are principles that are inherent in the psyche of most post-colonial Somalis who transitioned from a nomadic lifestyle to modernity.
Dr Bulhan argues that we tend to adopt a fatalist mentality with regards to many things. He argues that there is no word for ‘future’ in the Somali language. The word that is used for future ‘mustaqbal’ is actually borrowed from the Arabic language. This is coupled with the fact that many of our parents come from a pastoral environment which is characterised by a scarcity of resources. This means we often adopt a mentality of ‘coping’ with our reality without actually giving too much thought to the future or even finding solutions. Just as the pastoralist learned to survive, we too learned to survive in our new homes.
The Quranic narrative places importance on displaying patience with the difficulties of life and those who are patient are given glad tidings of a great reward in the afterlife. This is best represented in the following verse from the Holy Quran;
Be sure we shall test you with something of fear and hunger, some loss in goods or lives or the fruits (of your toil), but give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere.
The above Quranic verse is one of the strongest calls to ‘patience’. It is a reminder to the believer to not be disheartened by the trails and tribulations of this world. In fact, you are reminded that you will be tested in this ‘Dunya’ but you are also given divine hope in the sense that if you do manage to persevere, you will be rewarded with eternal bliss in the afterlife.
This prevailing theme of ‘persevering’ is also repeated constantly within Somali oral literature. This mindset perhaps stems from the often-difficult nomadic lifestyle and environment that Somalis found themselves in. It was and still is an environment in which there is little time to feel sorry for oneself or to be overcome by sentimental thoughts. One of the best examples discussing this theme is that of Ismaaciil Miire the famous Dervish warrior and poet and his famous poem recited in a period of extreme drought. The Somali landscape has often been susceptible to environmental dangers such as droughts and famines. The most noteworthy droughts live long in the memory and were often given names such as Xaaraama cune, jiitama and dhuumato.
In one particular period of difficulty and drought, Ismaaciil was walking with a friend when they heard the cries of a hoopoe bird. As they approached the bird, Ismaaciil became emotional at the sight of a bird crying out for rain and felt the need to convey a message. He recited a long poem reminding the bird that it was not alone in its suffering and that all of God’s creatures were in immense pain. The following are a few verses from this momentous poem:
Haddaad mooddey keligaa inuu gubayo jilaalku – Do you imagine that you, and you alone are schored by this dry season of jilaal?
Abaar gaag mareebaa dhacdiyo gaatamoo kale e – A drought has come that leaves nothing in its wake, just like the one that men called the stalker.
The overarching theme in the above verses is that of patience and perseverance. Ismaacil is instructing the hoopoe bird to always remember that ‘others’ exist who are in the worst predicament. The poem has another interesting dynamic as some narrators of the poem indicate that Ismaaciil was in fact not just addressing the bird but he was actually providing a veiled advice to his travel companion, who had been complaining about the impact of the drought on his livestock.Salaan leaves us with a powerful statement when he says that at times death is preferable to life. What is interesting to remember is that while growing up in the endz, our parents would always discuss issues related to ‘dhimasho’ death. The death that our parents spoke of was not a physical one, it was always referred to within the context of honour or integrity. We can all recall situations that our parents said to us ‘Dhimasho aya dhaanta’ literally ‘death is preferable’ then to commit certain acts. At the time, we could not understand what they meant but looking back it all makes sense.
Somalis have a saying that goes ‘dhimasho ta ugu daran wa dhimashada caqliga’ which is roughly translated as ‘the worst type of death is the death of the mind/intellect’. This type of death occurs frequently in endz and was perhaps the biggest struggle that many of us went through. Yet Despite this trauma many of us prevailed, survived and kept on going. We persisted despite the threats that sometimes jeopardised our lives, despite getting chased to our blocks, despite the bullying and harassment, despite the taunts of many of our teachers, despite the claims that we would amount to nothing. In many ways, we survived despite being that ‘f******* Somalian’.
As many of us grew out of the ‘endz’ to pursue other dreams, did we ever look back? how many of us died both physically and mentally in the endz? Did we give anything back? When we look at the stab wounds, both mental and physical, do we remember all those we left behind? All those fallen soldiers? All those that didn’t make? Do we cry for them? Do we even care?
 Drug dealing. Specifically, at the lowest level. Young teenagers are given money and a small amount of the drug in return for running errands.
 Senior members of a local estate – often youth who had established their reputation
 Slang word for an area- possibly outdated but was common in the late nineties.
 A generic name for a local drug dealer. It is not meant to be offensive but a lot of the drug dealers in those days were of Caribbean origin.
 £5 –Jacks- originally Cockney slang
 £20- Score- originally Cockney slang
 £100 bill- originally Cockney slang
 Salaan Carrabey – Famous Somali poet lived between 1870-1940
 Losing the art of survival and dignity – Transition from self-reliance to dependence and indignity in Somali Society – Hussein Abdullahi Bulhan
 Quran – 2:155
 Worldly life – as opposed to the hereafter.
 Ismaaciil Mire – Leading Dervish general and poet – lived between 1884-1950
 Literally means to ‘eat what is prohibited’- The severity of this drought which occurred in 1914 is said to have been so severe that people resorted to consuming things that are prohibited in the Islamic faith.
 Hoopoe bird
 Gu’ – The spring rains which come in March or April in most parts of Somalia.
 Ooy – To weep, to shed tears.
 Gub – to burn or destroy something.
 Gabooye – Sadness in the stomach that made the cuckoo bird sleepless.
 Gama’ – being in a state of asleep.
 Addoon – human beings, mankind.
 Nabar weyn: Dhibaato weyn
 Gaatamoo: Gaaddaamo – The name given to a severe drought that place in the country when people and livestock perished.
 Gar – right, proper.
 Cabo- To complain; to lament.
 Ismaaciil Mire – Axmed F. Cali ‘Idaajaa’