As the call to save the kidnapped Nigerian girls bounces through the echo chamber of sympathetic social media followers and reaches the highest offices of the U.S. government, the atrocious abstraction of this crime has taken many, very vivid shapes.
I am amazed, always, by the writers of the world who can also religiously update blogs as they are both writing for a living and, well, living! I am not as yet so skilled, though each new year—with its extra reflection and extra time inside—gives me new motivation to try. Last year was perhaps the most monumental one of my adult life, with both the release of my first book, Keeping Hope Alive, in April, and then the birth of my first child, Mila, in September. (Here I am above with Keeping Hope Alive’s incredible co-author and subject, Dr. Hawa Abdi, at the American Refugee Commission’s Minneapolis headquarters. Mila is with us too, as I’m four months pregnant!)
After a three-week book tour and a three-month maternity leave, I’m back at my desk and engaged by new projects that range from daily reporting to years-long book proposals. I’m focusing more on women’s entrepreneurship and the incredibly exciting synergies between the for-profit and non-profit worlds—and the increasing value placed on storytelling at that intersection. I hope to write more about that—and more—in this space in the days, weeks, and months to come.
The year is slowly coming to an end, taking the most halting steps as it does, and as I find myself looking ahead to 2013, I can’t help but linger on some of the stories that I sit with now. I blog so infrequently that I am resisting temptation to do a year-end wrap-up so much better suited to other outlets and starting instead where I left off this summer, in India, and try to look out from there. Continue reading “The End of 2012 and Looking Forward: Keeping Hope Alive”
This week I had the impossibly good fortune of spending a seemingly impossible three days in India, in Delhi, with the Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network. While I will write more on the very impressive conference later, I’m up early, jet-lagged and thinking about the range of my experience, from a stay at the extraordinary Leela Palace to two brief but rich visits with Save the Children India. It’s the time I spent with them, in a slum near the Okhla Industrial Area, that I’m thinking of now.
In the Nairobi apartment I shared with Dr. Abdi and her family lived two women who helped with the cooking, the cleaning, and the caring for Dr. Abdi’s grandson, Ahmed.
Anabey, 18, is the veteran—she grew up in Dr. Abdi’s camp and had been living with the family, in Nairobi, for more than a year. In 1994 Dr. Abdi delivered Anab in a procedure so complicated that her grateful mother promised that her daughter would come to Dr. Abdi’s aid if the need ever arose. When Dr. Abdi and her family was forced into exile following a 2010 attack on the camp, Anab left the camp for a new life in Kenya. In exchange for her help, Dr. Abdi and her daughters have promised to put Anab through school—beginning in the first grade, with homeschooling—until she achieves her goal of becoming a qualified nurse. She is now in the fourth grade; her English has improved astoundingly since I first met her one year ago. (Here she is, last year, with her teacher.) As the situation in the camp worsens, and the threat of airstrikes loom, her face and her gait grow heavy.
“Oh, Sarah, I don’t know,” she said with a wan smile, as she poured batter for anjara, or pancakes, onto the stove. “One minute you’re talking with your mother, and the next minute, BOOOM, she’s dead.” Continue reading “Amen: Nairobi, Kenya”
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. Continue reading “Witness: Nairobi, Kenya”
On Monday night I was in Detroit, visiting my grandparents, who have lived in the area, on and off, since forever. These days are hard for my grandfather, who is sharp enough to know that he’s been sharper. He is railing against old age, sometimes cursing it and sometimes ignoring it. He mistakenly subtracted two decades when he told my husband that he is 66, and more than once he stared meaningfully into my eyes as though he were counting seconds.
We walked out of the Middle Eastern restaurant and into the unseasonably warm night. I carried the leftovers, and my grandmother had a tight grip on my grandfather’s arm. After helping her into the car, he reached in and handed me an envelope, which had my name, first and last, sketched out in perfect, vibrant all caps. In the movies, I think, this would have been a last will and testament. “Read it when you’re by yourself,” he told me. “I want to know what you think.”
The Detroit suburbs are a sprawl of strip malls and planned communities ribboning out past miles of abandoned and unloved property, much of which is too defaced or neglected to show any sign of the life my grandfather remembers. He is resistant to visiting those areas now, but still, he wants to remember. “Too Old, Too Soon, Too Late, Too Bad,” is the title of the one-page essay I hold on the flight back to New York.
The words and the sketches inside are the story of his need, quite simply to tell his story. It’s the story of Paint-by-Numbers – a 1950s leisure phenomenon born in Detroit when my grandfather sketched out a prototype that’s now my Twitter avatar. Abstract #1, he called it. (It’s pictured above.)
“Does anyone care?” he had wondered aloud, over piles of chicken shawarma. Yes, we insisted, but his unspoken questions about his legacy hung in the silence and now in the distance between us. Sitting there, in the middle of a city that has, in his lifetime, risen and fallen with the American car, I didn’t know what to say. I still don’t, though I know there is a story there, about one man’s desire to create an image and a nation’s interest in putting their own stamp on it.
This past April, while I was working in Kenya on a book project, my husband and I were looking forward to a vacation in the Lamu archipelago. The sudden death of his father sent me back to New York early, shattering our plans.
“Unspoiled” and “idyllic” were the words we heard used to describe the islands, which include the oldest Swahili settlement in East Africa. Since, they’ve been hit by the violence that has long plagued neighboring Somalia; the U.S. and the UK have issued strident travel warnings.
Just this morning I read about a tragic boat collision in the area and remembered all that was lost last year. Next month I’ll return to Kenya, to finish the project; we won’t retrace our steps. Someday, I hope we will. As 2012 finally comes into focus, I wish for peace.
In this week’s Newsweek magazine is a piece that I co-wrote with Somali obstetrician and gynecologist Dr. Hawa Abdi, who is pictured below. It’s adapted from the forthcoming Human Rights Watch anthology The Unfinished Revolution: Voices From the Frontline in the Global Fight for Women’s Rights (Seven Stories Press, March 2012), which focuses on the impact that women’s leadership has on one of the world’s most devastated conflict zones.
Somalia is now facing the worst drought and famine it’s seen in a generation. But man is most to blame for the bloody conflict that has laid waste to the country for the past 20-plus years: Tribalism and fundamentalism destroyed Dr. Abdi’s hospital during a May 2010 invasion by an Islamist militant group and is now robbing more than 2 million starving Somali people of the lifesaving aid they need.
Amazingly, Dr. Abdi and her daughters, both doctors, are able to work inside this war zone. Although they are cut off from the resources of the United Nations and the Red Cross, which are now beginning to reach southern Somalia, they have established their own feeding centers, serving close to 12,000 people a day. The phenomenal NGO Vital Voices is raising money for their essential work. Support them here.