I am in bed today, in Nairobi, with BBC on the television and Dr. Hawa Abdi, a 65-year-old Somali ob-gyn and humanitarian, on the cell phone in the next bedroom. I have been living in this apartment for more than three weeks now, with a goal of getting the last of the material I need to write Dr. Abdi’s memoir. It has been rough going, but over time I have learned that any sort of progress in the face of so much chaos—personal, political—is a victory.
Last night I came home from an evening out with a group of expats, discussing their contracts with UNICEF or their jobs at the World Bank. We sat in a beautiful garden, and I drank a beer, soaking in their faces and their words. Some asked me about our book. It is tricky to explain, this living and writing someone else’s life, but the more I discuss my project, the more real it seems. How flattering, to speak with these people who have been on the ground in Somalia, and to feel as if I’m understood. I ate delicious samosas, played with their children, and said goodnight.
Back in the compound, I met Amina, Dr. Abdi’s youngest daughter, at the foot of the stairs. She was on her way home from work at her women’s health clinic in the Somali neighborhood of Eastleigh. I greeted her, still glowing from my day off, showing off the chocolates I brought back as a treat for her four-year-old son. As we walked up the four flights of stairs together, Amina told me in an even tone that the kangaroo court of the fundamentalist militia Al-Shabaab, which recently merged with Al Qaeda, had that afternoon ruled that they would take a portion of Dr. Abdi’s land, which she’s owned since 1978. “Mama Hawa is going crazy!” said Amina, a serene smile on her face showing either disbelief or a polite gesture on my behalf.
In the apartment we found Dr. Abdi’s elder daughter, Deqo, and Amina’s son camped out with the curtains drawn. We joined them, each perched on overstuffed armchairs and couches, surrounded by at least five cell phones. Dr. Abdi was juggling two, writing neatly in a leather-bound notebook—phone numbers, plans, who knows? While she talked, her grandson grabbed the book and began scribbling letters and numbers all over it. On the one empty love seat I sat facing them, my eyes darting back and forth between the daughters and then resting squarely on Dr. Abdi’s face.
I should not have been there. I tried in a passive way to be both invisible and helpful; I decided it would seem disrespectful to walk out of the room at a moment of such stress and confusion. If this militant group takes over the land, what will they do to the hundreds of internally displaced people living on it? Should mother and daughters keep the hospital and the school open under such dangerous conditions? Should Dr. Abdi speak with the media? If so, what should she say? The family argued over all of this and who knows what else in Somali, as old Japanese cartoons, badly dubbed into English, blared on the television.
During a lull between phone calls, we watched together as a cartoon tiger attempted to maul a prince. The tiger’s defeat at the hand of the prince’s sword was swift and bloody. We adults all watched for awhile, while Ahmed systematically ripped apart his grandmother’s notebook.
I fidgeted and scratched. I had been bitten by something that afternoon, in that beautiful garden, perhaps. My body broke out into terrible welts that I tried to hide as Deqo came over to me to discuss the logistics of issuing a press release. There were so many unanswered questions; still, I wanted to help.
“What would you like to say?” I asked.
“I don’t know, what do you think?” asked Deqo.
The story of Dr. Abdi’s land—like the story of the way she came to own a farm, a hospital, a school and, eventually, a 90,000-person camp for those displaced by civil war—is so convoluted, it is hard to know where to begin. There was the news, yes, that Dr. Abdi’s managers were taken to Al Qaeda’s court, where they received a so-called official document that stripped Dr. Abdi of a chunk of land. There was also another instance worth mentioning, perhaps—a similar action, a different person, six months earlier. And then, of course, there is all the rest, the story of our book, the shards of memory and a long history of inhumanity pieced together in a mosaic-like object formed from so many shattered lives.
This was not the time for such reflection. “What sort of help do you want from the international community?” I asked. There is no easy answer. Dr. Abdi and her daughters are too disillusioned, and understandably so, to anticipate that a country like mine, the U.S.—or even the African Union Mission for Somalia, which is planning airstrikes in the area—can do anything to stop these terrorists. The question they’re balancing is whether it is productive or mortally dangerous to speak out. It is a question that is not mine to answer.
I scratched and scratched as I tried to write the release they dictated, joking about bug bites until Deqo looked closer at my skin and pronounced it an allergic reaction. Still I joked—how could a skin rash be a serious issue at a moment like this? After concluding that we would finish the release in the morning, with the consultation of one of their dear friends who works for the United Nations, I stood up, slathered myself with Calamine lotion, and went to bed.
At two in the morning, I sat upright, my thoughts delirious and searching. This itching, why had it come? Was it caused by stress, my body’s way of protesting the umpteenth derailment of my hosts’ work and, selfishly, of my own work to bring their story to light?
Deqo shook me awake two-and-a-half hours later. Somehow, I had passed out, face-down on the hallway floor, on the way to the bathroom. Alarmed, I staggered to my feet and back under my mosquito net, where Deqo brought me hot water and lemon juice. She suggested we go to the emergency room; I shook my head, insisting that I could sleep it off.
Today both the hives and the bruises—a knot on my forehead, a black eye—are unmistakable; fierce is my desire to get up, to help them somehow, if only to witness the press conference Dr. Abdi has decided to give to local a local Somali television station. Dr. Abdi’s daughters, both doctors, insist I stay in bed; feeling better, but a bit dizzy still, I accept.
This is not the first news of crushing injustice that I’ve witnessed during my month of living here, or during my 18 months of knowing this family. To be a part of the problem—another aching body to tend to, another worry—is excruciating. It’s hard to know, now, what will come today or tomorrow. Will Al-Shabaab shut down her hospital? Or worse, will they threaten or kill some of the tens of thousands of internally displaced people now living on the land that was once Deqo and Amina’s childhood playground?
“What can I do?” I ask over and over, although no answer is possible. I know this. In this apartment, as in Somalia, there is often no possibility but to wait and pray and hope—the latter a motto of Dr. Abdi’s, “Keeping Hope Alive,” which she repeats often, and which she doubts so much in moments like this.
Last night, in the sitting room, I found myself repeating back to her some of the earlier conversations we’ve had together, in the moments when she has felt strong and confident. “Hope,” I said. “Strength,” I said. She smiled and nodded, and while I have no idea whether she was humoring me, we all relaxed for a moment and turned back to the cartoon.