My sister, Nadifa, collected beautiful scarves. She had Mogadishu scarves. Tawila scarves. Badham scarves. Daagari scarves. Docol scarves. And many others. When she saw a new type of scarf in the market, she told Mother, “I must get that scarf.” But her love for scarves brought her into trouble. This was how it happened.
At the beginning, we were living in Tawila. It was a village, but it was home, where we were meant to be. It was surrounded by Janjaweed rebels and soldiers and sorghum farms, with a single road winding through it. This was in 1991, in the early days of the war in Somalia. Nadifa was sixteen, I was eight.
I barely remember that life. That is, I recall a little part of it, but not much, so I cannot make proper links. One of the things I recall was that Nadifa and I slept on the same bed that smelled of urine, no matter how often it was put out in the sun to dry.
However, when we escaped to Dadaab, which was really a refugee camp, Nadifa and I slept on mats placed beside each other. When we first moved to the camp, Nadifa talked to me a lot about Tawila, especially at night, before she startled me with her snores.
It was in January when we escaped from Tawila. Nadifa lost her precious scarf, the one Father bought her from Mogadishu. “Only Allah knows where it is now,” my mother said, and she was right. It must have been lost when Janjaweeds surrounded us amidst the pounding of hooves and the sounds of gunfire. At first, Nadifa was quite upset about the loss of the scarf, and Gitahi would have to talk to her, explaining the nature of war and the chain of confusion in which people and scarves found themselves. “Why my scarf?” Nadifa argued. “But why my scarf?” Gitahi told her, “You must be happy you’re alive. Other people died.” Gitahi always spoke about the Janjaweed, djinns riding on horses, but Mother didn’t like it, saying we had seen enough sorrow.
At Tawila, Father didn’t like to talk to us about the Janjaweed. He was a farmer. His farm was just outside the village. Mother helped him plant sorghum and other crops before the rebels began to trample on them with their horses. There was a big farm twenty miles from the village, a new thing then, but many people disliked it, fearing it would attract the Janjaweeds. My father was among them, having seen the activities of the rebels at close quarters. He told my mother his fear, but she told him not to panic.
Next came a situation that everyone thought of with dread. I do know many people thought it could happen. I do know they spoke about it, though I didn’t remember how. My father wept the night they came. They shouted and the hooves of their horses pounded the only street in Tawila. They came with horses that emitted fire from their eyes. Balls of fire flew out of guns, and everywhere they faced caught fire. Our house, our farm, our goats, our sheep, our camel, and our donkey caught fire. What happened after this?
My father stood in front of the house, confused. He had given up weeping. As he grabbed a Janjaweed, another smashed a rifle on his head. Father soon became the color of fire. Mother grabbed Nadifa and I, and we began to run out the village. We followed others, screaming and running. Mother took us to live in Dadaab Refugee camp, where we met Gitahi. Mother wept for Father in the night. But she also said she had to run to protect us. Maybe we would have become the color of fire if we waited to save Father. She left Tawila without her cooking pots and her clothes and her sandals and her precious suitcase and her Koran.
We got to Dadaab after many days. We trekked through the desert to the border of Somalia and Kenya, passing a landscape of rolling sand and stones, with tough desert grass on the soil all the way to the camp. “Dadaab,” said Gitahi, when we got there. The camp contained hundreds of tents made with rags tied together, old plastic bags, or tarpaulin. At the entrance, a balding dark-complexioned man sat before a stove, cooking food. A few feet away, a lady with a T-shirt that said RENO was bathing her daughter with pond water, shouting at her to keep quiet. Now was the time for someone to say “Welcome” or “How are you?” but no one said so. No one said “Hello.” I had never met people like that before. Back home at Tawila, everyone knew everyone, and people said “Good morning,” “How are you doing?” and “Good evening” to one another. No one helped us set up our tent. It took me a month before I knew a sand pit was behind it.
What did Gitahi think of all this? His belief, as he said a week after we arrived, was that people should make the best of any situation. Things happened for a reason, and we must give thanks to Allah. True, it wasn’t our fault we escaped to Dadaab, but we should accept what we couldn’t change. I hated people who talked like this, but I didn’t know why and couldn’t say I had the right to be. Tall and big, Gitahi was one of the guards who rode on camelback around the camp. Sometimes they met bad people, sometimes they didn’t. When they did, they needed strong men to confront them, and Gitahi fitted the bill. He was not really a refugee. He came to Dadaab, according to him, by mistake. He had been thinking of giving up the job, until he met my mother coming to the camp. She was beautiful and young. She wore a long skirt and her hair fell to her shoulders. He liked what he saw and decided to wait till next year before he left. This was as far as he wanted to think.
Nadifa scorned the scarves worn by other girls in Dadaab, but she still played with them. This was necessary because there was no water. The wells had dried up. She had to join other girls her age to wait for the tankers to bring water. They would watch the road for dust rising in the air, a sign the tanker was coming, and they would form a line. It would soon scatter due to the rush of the girls, and they would start fighting. People were always fighting here. Nadifa needed an ally to pull through the fracas. If she had any problem with her friends, she never told me or Mother.
I didn’t like the camp. Too many people made too many troubles, and the tents stretched everywhere. Nothing scared me back at Tawila, and I always knew what others were thinking. You could guess what people would say, and who was coming to the house. Now I was in the midst of strangers. I never knew what others were thinking or planning, who was a friend or an enemy, what should be said or not said, the meaning behind what someone said. In Tawila, there was always plenty of laughter. There was at Dadaab, but not as much. But children get used to changes. Sometimes I wondered about our burnt house in Tawila. I missed it, and wanted to go home. I wondered what happened to it. Those days must have seemed strange to me.
Then something happened, but I didn’t try to make sense of it at the time. Nadifa announced that she and a few friends wanted to go outside the camp to search for firewood. This was after firewood ran out in the camp; everything ran out there.
“It’s not far,” Nadifa said. “Maybe I should go.”
My mother said no, but Gitahi said (quietly, like he didn’t want to intrude), “Let her go. Rebels are far away.”
My mother stared at him. “A girl should not go out the camp,” she said.
But Nadifa insisted she would be fine, that nothing dangerous would happen, that she was going with people. “Please, let me go,” she said. “We should be ashamed of borrowing firewood from others.” When no one answered, she went to the front of our tent and looked out. “Tell me why I shouldn’t go,” she said. She looked like she might cry.
Gitahi told Nadifa to sit down. She did, folding her arms across her chest. I put my hand on her thigh to comfort her, but now I was wondering. When did she meet her friends? Did I fall asleep and not know it? Gitahi told her he would convince Mother to allow her to look for firewood.
The next day she went to search for firewood. She wore a ragged blouse, a dirty wrapper, and slippers. But when she came back, she said they were not so lucky. The wood around the camp was almost all gone. They couldn’t go further because some men on camels were seen in the area. They seemed to be bad men. Someone said they caught women, took them to the bush, and did bad things to them. We heard this everyday.
There must have been some probing questions about why she wanted to gather firewood outside the camp. “It’s because I’m ashamed of begging,” Nadifa said.
“Is it because you’re restless?” Mother asked. “You miss Tawila?”
But Nadifa said she was not restless. I didn’t ask her anything. What she had done seemed normal to me. All girls her age did the same thing. That’s probably how it is with younger children – what the older child does seems normal.
Our food was brought by trucks that parked at the center of the camp in the afternoon. Mother and Nadifa would dash toward them to see what they could get. They did this while I stayed at the tent, running after the little dog of our neighbor. Sometimes it was Mother and I that sprinted to the trucks. On the way, we saw children fighting outside their tents. They hadn’t eaten anything all day, staying in their tents and lying on their mat. Hunger drove them wild.
One day, when Mother and I were rushing to the truck for food, some kids were chasing each other with sticks, while others threw sand and ran around the place. One, two kids walking beside a hungry dog stopped not far from us, and just as I was about to wave, they shouted, “Mogadishu people eat donkey!” I yelled back, “We’re Tawila people. We don’t eat donkey.” Looking away from them, I continued to run alongside my mother.
When we got to the truck, many people waved cards with a barcode, which means no one gets more than their fair share. Even so, a big fight broke out among the men, and the women, despite their burkas, joined in too. Mother and I stood at the end of the line, watching the people fighting.
“Why are they fighting?” I asked her.
“Don’t talk,” she said, even though I was not speaking loud. My mother said the fight broke out because the food couldn’t go around. People had to fight and push and shout and rush to get a share.
Minutes passed, and I waited for someone to call out, “Come and take your wheat, Come and take your wheat.” But no one said so to us, even as the afternoon faded and the camp darkened. Mother said we would be quicker the next time so that we could stay in front of the line when the truck came.
My mother’s good times with Gitahi went on in the evenings. If I wanted to stay in the tent, she would stand up and come toward me, not in haste. She would tell me to go and get firewood from neighbors. When I came back, she would be smiling happily at me. I would then smell a scent that I associated with sorghum and love.
The second time Nadifa wanted to go and look for firewood, I found her at the back of the tent, wearing a mustard-colored blouse. She moved her shoulders forward, then back, shifting her waist to the right, to the left.
“What do you think?” she asked me. “Do I look beautiful?”
“You look like a Tawila bitch,” I told her. She chased me, but I was outside the tent before she could catch me.
Just as Nadifa left the tent, Mother grabbed hold of her wrist. “Be careful,” she told her. “Stay with other people.”
Gitahi was of the opinion there was nothing to be afraid of. And if there was, it would be no danger to Nadifa, since men carrying guns patrolled the area outside the camp.
Before dark, I watched Nadifa come to the tent with some firewood. She looked tired, getting the firewood was tough for her. Everything was tough in Dadaab. I was standing some meters from the tent. She passed me and walked away, not saying anything, not even to ask me how I was, or what happened after she left. “Is Mother in the tent?” was all she asked. Dropping the firewood to the ground, she walked to the tent. She stayed ahead of me, her strides so long that I couldn’t keep up. When I almost did, I caught a glimpse of the look on her face. “Why is your face so hard, Nadifa?” I wanted to ask her. “Did they cheat you?” But I couldn’t ask the question.
At the beginning, we didn’t talk about Father at all. Then after a few months, Hassan, who lived on our street in Tawila, came to the camp. He said after the Janjaweed attack Father survived. I said it was a lie because I saw fire burning Father, and that meant he died. Nadifa said I was right, but she sounded doubtful. Hassan said the Janjaweed captured Father and that he was now working in a farm in Mogadishu as a slave. Nadifa burst into tears.
Then another thing happened: one afternoon, Nadifa said her friends had discovered a bush to get firewood outside the camp. She could get double, maybe triple, the amount she got, and maybe make some money, but my mother said no.
“I don’t want bad people to catch you,” she said, doom and threat in her voice.
“I’ll be with her,” I said. I told her I also heard the story from my friends. “Plenty, plenty, firewood,” I said. It was as though we rehearsed the story; and as I lied, I was picturing Nadifa looking for firewood outside the camp, her hair blown by the desert wind, singing any song her friends sang, while I had the freedom to play with my friends in the pit.
Gitahi nodded to Mother, and she said yes, Nadifa could go, but she should be careful.
“Thank you,” Nadifa said, but she was really thanking me. She squeezed my hand to tell me “Good sister.”
When we got outside, Nadifa asked me where I wanted to go and I pointed in the direction of the pit behind our tent. The pit was maybe ten to twenty feet in the sand. It was about a hundred, maybe a hundred and fifty meters, from our tent. My friends and I played in it, throwing sand at each other.
Nadifa held me by the shoulder and told me to be careful, that I shouldn’t allow sand to get into my eyes, that she didn’t want a blind sister. She left me, walked toward a row of tents on the way to the reception of the camp, and disappeared.
After she left, I saw Ayan, the daughter of our neighbor, crawling out of her tent. She tried to stand up, but she fell down, again and again. She lay down, her face to the sand. I looked at her gnarled bare feet, like the feet of an old woman, and turned away. Mother said her mother could no longer breastfeed her, so she gave her water. She now had an illness, but I couldn’t remember its name because I couldn’t pronounce it.
I started walking toward the pit, counting off the tents. I walked past a rag somebody had thrown to the sand and stopped. I picked up the rag, thinking it might be useful. But I saw it couldn’t be, so I threw it away. I ran in a zigzag line from tent to tent, breathing hard as I sprinted, and no one spoke or shouted at me. I heard music from a radio in one of the tents, but didn’t stop to listen to it. I had been to the pit many times before, so I knew my way. I felt so free that I shouted, “Come and take wheat” at one old woman standing in front of her tent. I stopped at the edge of the pit. It stretched on for some distance, and I could see my friends throwing sand at each other and shouting at the top of their voices. I raced towards them.
I don’t know how much time we spent just throwing sand, fighting with sticks, and shouting in the pit. I do know Mother wasn’t aware I was there. After a while, I realized my friends said we should go to our tents. That Djinns could be near the pit, waiting to catch us. Djinns? Djinns? But Djinns were in Tawila, not Dadaab. I believe I put up some argument, along the lines of “They’re not here, they couldn’t be here, they mustn’t be here.” I also remembered that Gitahi said men holding guns patrolled the perimeter fence of the camp, ready to kill people, including Djinns.
I got to the tent to shouting and panic, to Gitahi’s face in mine. My mother stood behind him, a wild look in her eyes. “Where’s Nadifa?” Gitahi asked me. “Why is she not with you?” He was shaking me, harder and harder. “Where’s your elder sister?” But I couldn’t tell him anything. All I knew was that Nadifa went to gather firewood, nothing more. I couldn’t say anything more even if he shook me till the following morning.
The answers come the next day. Some men and women were gathered in front of our tent. They said Nadifa and her friends went outside the camp to gather firewood. On coming back, men on horses attacked them. Many of the girls were raped. Nadifa was kidnapped by one of the men. I listened to this, hiding by the side of the tent so that Mother wouldn’t see me and drive me away. My mother put her hands to her head and cried. Gitahi didn’t look at her; his face was turned to the sand, his sandals digging holes in it.
Nadifa is gone, and the next thing is trouble. My mother started yelling at Gitahi, trying to make him understand something. He is holding her by the arm, consoling her with a soothing voice. But this is not satisfying Mother at all, and she tears her arm from him and runs toward the camp’s reception area. Gitahi shakes his head and looks down at his sandals.
Now the tent is too small. No matter the time, I can hear mother and Gitahi quarrelling, saying things I didn’t know – that Mother was over one month pregnant; that Gitahi wishes he had gone back to Nairobi, free from our trouble; that Gitahi was the one who encouraged Nadifa to search for firewood outside the camp; and that Mother regretted taking other things from Gitahi. I didn’t know the other things she took from him. I do know he stood still while they quarreled, tucking his hands into his pockets as though he could leave for Nairobi at any moment.
Mother didn’t go out of the camp to look for Nadifa. Gitahi didn’t go to Nairobi. Days felt sadder than they ever were; and after the evening meal, when everyone was weary from the troubles in the camp, we gathered outside the tent, men listening to the radio and laughing at the news coming in from Mogadishu. We couldn’t be truly happy, but we somehow endured, as though we weren’t living through great problems. The days rolled by, no one fought or cried over Nadifa, and I didn’t understand why.
I started going to school at this time. It was located at a part of the camp called Hagadera. One little boy in class wore a football shirt as dress, with the word MARADONA across his tiny back. I wondered who Maradona was. A little girl with tawny highlights sat close to me in class, hands on jutting hips, giving me a toothy smile. I wondered what she smiled about.
My mother recovered from Nadifa’s kidnap. She had to. She had to look after me and herself. After school, walking home, I daydreamed of Nadifa. She stands in the camp of the kidnappers, her eyes red from weeping, her lips pressed together as though she were angry. She is thinking about me, angry I don’t cry or ask for her. I try to tell her, “I’m crying everyday, I’m crying everyday.” It appeared she didn’t believe me.
Gitahi believed he could find her, so he was always on the lookout when he patrolled around the camp. He said he held himself responsible. He also said he shouldn’t have encouraged her to look for firewood, even though we needed it.
One day after fetching water from the well, it had water now, I entered the tent and put the plastic bucket to the floor. Gitahi called me. “Nadifa is back,” he told me. Beside him, I saw Nadifa sitting on her old mat. She was crying and wiping the corners of her eyes with her shawl.
“Easy,” my mother told her over and over. “It’s Allah’s will.”
I dashed to Nadifa, wrapping my arms around her neck and hugging her. She continued to cry, rubbing her hands over my head. Then I noticed two things: her belly was far bigger than it was when I last saw her, and she had a finely embroidered scarf in her hand. It looked expensive and not from the camp.
Nadifa, through tears, told us how kidnappers took her to a faraway farm. She was Mugo’s wife at night and his laborer during daytime. After he got her pregnant and she fell ill, he said he didn’t want to be a father or a husband, as though a captive woman could be a wife. He put Nadifa on his horse and rode to the spot where he kidnapped her, telling her to find her way.
I do not remember Nadifa’s explanation about how she came to be in possession of the scarf. I do know that she told us. Mother once told me Nadifa stole it from Mugo to spite him. But I no longer think that was true. I don’t think Nadifa could steal because I know once she saw Gitahi’s money on the floor and returned it. Did I think Mugo could have given her the scarf as a present to pacify her? No kidnapper could do that, but then I don’t know much about kidnappers.
My mother said her own baby would be a boy, but Gitahi said it would be a girl, that his family prided girls more than boys.
“Why?” Mother asked.
“They’re mothers of the tribe,” he told her, and even Nadifa was forced to smile, clutching her stomach.
“What are boys then?” I asked Gitahi.
“Troublemakers,” he replied.
All of us laughed. But I quickly stopped, thinking of my sister. I wanted her baby to be a boy so she could beat the boys who harassed me at school. And I wondered what would happen when the child was born. Do I carry it when it’s lying alone on the mat? What name do I call it?Do I call it just Nadifa’s baby? I didn’t know how I’m to relate to it. So I asked Nadifa, but she didn’t reply, having withdrawn from everybody since she returned to the camp. I asked the same questions about mother’s baby. Both babies were like coming to Dadaab. Their coming just happened, no plan had been made for them.
As the days rolled by, a sandstorm swept through the camp and whirlwinds whipped up the sand in the pit. Brown clouds hung over the tents, blocking the sun. Nadifa asked, with not much hope, if she could fetch water from the well. Our mother said no.
“The wind will blow you to the sand pit,” she said. “You’ll be buried alive.”
Gitahi, who came early to the tent, said Nadifa should obey Mother. He was lying on the mattress, listening to the music from the radio.
Still, Nadifa and I went outside, standing by the entrance to the tent. Nadifa held her embroidered scarf with one hand and clutched her stomach with the other. I held a broom in my hand. Now was the first time we could talk since she returned from the den of kidnappers, and I had many questions for her. “Where did the kidnappers keep her? How did they look like? Were they as tall and big as Gitahi? What did they plant in their farm?”
“When Mother discovered you were gone, she stopped speaking about you,” I told her with agony. “For days. Even when I asked.” I stared at the sand, digging my big toe into it. “We didn’t know where to look for you. I dreamt they took you to Tawila.” Ahead of us, a whirlwind was building up, whipping sand into the air, and I dug my toe deeper and deeper in the sand. “No one could tell me anything. Both at home and in school.” I was letting out my anger, and kept talking, telling her about the boy with the MARADONA jersey, about the little girl always smiling at me, and said once again, “No one could tell me anything.”
“I’ll tell you everything,” she said, staring at the whirlwind as it whipped the sand into little clouds. “Every single thing that happened.”
And then something went wrong. All I recall was telling Nadifa we should go back into the tent because the whirlwind was building up at an alarming rate. That we could be in trouble. That the wind may blow sand into our eyes and we’ll become blind. She may have agreed with me, or she may have stood there watching the wind until it blew the embroidered scarf out of her hand. In my mind, I can see the whirlwind taking the precious scarf toward the sand pit. Not wanting to part with the scarf, Nadifa snatched her hand from mine, staring at the scarf as it went flying away. She wore a funny look, then I heard her say, “Not again!” She took a run at the scarf, sprinting like a dog, beating sand from her face.
I recall a little bit more about what happened. I’m shouting as I run after her, “Come back! Come back!” I can see the whirlwind taking the scarf directly toward the sand pit and Nadifa closing in on it. I cannot recall whether we got to the sand pit, but I recall crashing into something hard, a tent, a small tree. Next thing I recall is seeing Mother crying, throwing herself to the ground. Gitahi is bending down to grab her hand, trying to console her. But my mother is rolling on the sand, scattering the mats, pots, and other things in the tent. After this, I cannot recall what happened again that day.
Mother never found Nadifa’s body. Gitahi said it was probably buried deep in the sand pit. Or it was blown out of the camp by the whirlwind, as it did to many tents. But Mother was somehow pacified when she gave birth to my half brother, Jomo, many months later. I don’t know how she gave birth to the baby. But I do recall I saw her one day look between her legs at the spots of blood on her wrapper. She put her hand there, and then I heard her say, “Baby is coming.” She stood up, moved toward the front of the tent, missed her step, and fell to the ground, shouting. Gitahi and a few other people rushed into the tent. I was told to go out and play.
One day, when Mother was less busy with Jomo, I recall asking her about Nadifa. I couldn’t figure out why she ran toward the sand pit when she knew the whirlwind could bury her in it. “Why?” I asked Mother.
“She hated Dadaab,” she told me, “She wanted to die rather than call here home.”
When I asked Gitahi the question, he didn’t bark at me as he sometimes did now. “Maybe she didn’t want to give birth to her child,” he said. “Maybe she wanted to die with it. Maybe she was tired of living here.” He put his hand on my shoulder, wearing a faraway look. “Don’t feel guilty about it. You were not strong enough to stop her. This place did things to her. It was never her home. And never love anything too much. Scarves. Shoes. Anything. Pray. And things will turn around.”
I couldn’t understand what he meant, but I nodded my head as though I could, staring out the tent. Night was starting and the air was hot. The other tents blinked with yellow light. Soon Mother would put fire in the wick of the lamp, and our tent would look like others too.
I’m still at Dadaab, but I’m now an unemployed high school graduate. They won’t employ those of us from Somalia. Mother is now an old woman. Gitahi has gone to Nairobi. We never heard from Father. Lately, I can’t stop thinking about my sister. I shake my head as I usually do when I remember her. In my dream, she keeps running after the whirlwind, stretching out her hands to the scarf as though it were an egg. I see her in my mind, running after the scarf, running after the whirlwind, straight into the sand pit. I want to tell her, “Nadifa, where are you? Nadifa, where are you? Nadifa, where are you?”