By: Tom Odhiambo
A Man of Good Hope, is a story that many Somalis can take as a lesson in thinking about how to reclaim, reconstruct and re-live the dream of the ‘homeland.’
How does one tell the story of a country which is no longer a ‘country’ in the conventional sense of the word? Is it possible to talk about Somalia as a place, a country, a space, a people and a culture (or peoples/cultures) coherently? Where should an outsider – or even insider – start to look from for him or her to ‘see’ Somalia? What should an outsider seek to know about Somalia before they can begin talking about Somalia? Maybe the question to really ask is: Can one still get an ordered narrative today of who Somalis have been, through history, considering the tragedy of life after the collapse of the postcolonial Siad Barre state?
Well, there are no satisfactory answers to these questions. These are mere rhetorical queries, which are meant to raise more questions, hopefully with the end result being some kind of an agreement or agreements that the Somalia of the past is gone and that a new Somalia can rise from the ashes of the botched postcolonial experiment. This, I think, is the main lesson one gets in Jonny Steinberg’s book, A Man of Good Hope (Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2014). This is a book that affirms the ability of determined men (and women) of Somalia to ride the camel of hope and reconstruct their, and possibly the country’s, lives.
A Man of Good Hope traces the life and times of Asad Abdullahi. Asad is born and raised in Somalia till the age of eight years when civil war envelopes Mogadishu in 1991. This is the beginning of his life as a refugee and migrant. Asad ends up in Liboi refugee camp in Kenya. Life is harsh for him but he survives there before ending up in Islii (Eastleigh), Nairobi, among his countrymen who have escaped the war. But it isn’t long before Asad realizes that life in Islii is just as complicated as it was in Liboi and probably back home. So, he decides to go to Dire Dawa, in Ethiopia, via Addis Ababa to seek his relatives.
Although he survives and thrives on the streets of Addis, as a fixer, Asad doesn’t feel at home at all. Even though he gets married and one would expect him to settle down, he doesn’t. He decides to try his luck in South Africa, Mandela’s ‘rainbow nation’, where, Asad imagines, like many other Africans then, that he would be out of the reach of the ghosts of clanism and war that haunted his country and its neighbours. At the time it is “eight years after he had left Nairobi for Addis Ababa”, according to Jonny Steinberg. Steinberg writes further, “He had walked into Ethiopia carrying a Koran, a pile of photographs and a couple of changes for clothes. Now, he left with the possessions he had gathered in the intervening years.”
From Addis Ababa, Dolo; Mandera, Garissa, Nairobi, Namanga – on the border between Kenya and Tanzania; Arusha, in Tanzania; Lusaka, in Zambia; Harare, in Zimbabwe; Beit Bridge, the border point between Zimbabwe and South Africa; Johannesburg, Cape Town; and eventually to Texas, in America. This is where Asad is deposited by the currents of human activities and transactions involving and including war, displacement, refugeeship, (illegal) migrancy, international humanitarian programs
What were these possessions? Steinberg elaborates, “He divided them into two groups: The expendable and the precious. The first were his daily clothes – T-shirts, jeans, sweaters, a down jacket – which he stuffed into a large duffel bag. The second bundle he carried in a small Samsonite briefcase, not a counterfeit, but the real McCoy, which he had bought from a trader in Bole Mikhael. He had selected it with care: it had to be big enough to carry its cargo but sufficiently portable to be always at hand.” Like all travelers, Asad would discover that these earthly belongings count for nothing compared to one’s spirit, name and affiliations.
It is those three elements that carry him from Addis Ababa, Dolo; Mandera, Garissa, Nairobi, Namanga – on the border between Kenya and Tanzania; Arusha, in Tanzania; Lusaka, in Zambia; Harare, in Zimbabwe; Beit Bridge, the border point between Zimbabwe and South Africa; Johannesburg, Cape Town; and eventually to Texas, in America. This is where Asad is deposited by the currents of human activities and transactions involving and including war, displacement, refugeeship, (illegal) migrancy, international humanitarian programs etc. I choose not to talk about Asad’s life in all the places that he is deposited in and leaves in this review. You can read it for yourself in the book. But I think it is important to remember three things that deliver Asad and his story to readers: The story itself; the hope and determination; and humanity.
First, the story: Asad survives the tragedy of the war simply because wherever he goes, people understand and sympathize with him because he has a story to tell. His is the story of seeking to live for another day. Whether he is at the refugee camp in Liboi or Islii with his relatives or in Addis with strangers and friends or in Johannesburg with clansmen and countrymen or in Kansas, America, among strangers, what keeps Asad alive is the story of belonging to the AliYusuf clan or community; or being a Somali; or a human being, like the rest of the people he encounters. This story can be recognized all over the world.
Second; belonging to humanity. Wherever Asad goes, he knows that whatever differences – racial, cultural, religious, social, political etc – he may have with those he meets, the fundamental rule of the encounter is the recognition of shared humanity. Asad discovers that even in the foreigners-hating townships of South Africa, there are individuals who ‘understand’ the tragedy of those who have been displaced by the inhumanity of others like him. This case applies in Ethiopia, Kenya, America; it is the spirit of belonging to the same animal kingdom. Asad ends up in America because there are people who recognize the inviolability of the human spirit and are ready to welcome him in their community.
Which is why the third and most important of the elements that keep Asad alive is hope. Asad, like most people facing the pain, displacement and destruction of war, lives every day hoping that the next will be better. It is this force of hope that powers his travels, encounters, transactions, relationships and decisions to move to the next place/country or adventure. Although difficult to understand, beyond the individual’s own testimony, and especially in such a case as this where the story is told to us by Jonny Steinberg, one is left in no doubt that when Asad eventually settles in America, it is hope that had replenished his journeys from the war ravaged Somalia to the, hopefully, peaceful America. A Man of Good Hope, is a story that many Somalis can take as a lesson in thinking about how to reclaim, reconstruct and re-live the dream of the ‘homeland.’
The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. Tom.firstname.lastname@example.org