Last year around this time, I was eagerly anticipating my trip to Nairobi. My last visit was in 2008 and I could not wait to be greeted by the warmth of the city and its people, the palm trees, the roundabouts, and that feeling of belonging I missed so dearly. I was beyond enthusiastic. I was heading home!
The flight was peaceful, with traditional but terrible airline food and a long line-up of movies that included my childhood favourite, The Lion King. But I was lost in my thoughts, overcome with the nostalgic feeling of meeting an old friend again. Had the scents and sounds of Nairobi changed? Would I recognise it? Eventually I heard the pilot announce that we would be landing, and felt a rush of emotions.
“Karibu. Welcome to Nairobi,” said the flight attendant. We had made it. My father and I grabbed our belongings and exited the plane. But something was different, unusual. Instead of the expected warm and welcoming smiles, we were confronted by hostile, fear-ridden faces. Not to sound dramatic, but the change of reaction was so drastic and cold that I remember feeling like I had the scarlet letter drawn across my face.
"What is the reason for your trip to Nairobi?" a grumpy customs officer asked me.
"To merely vacation and visit family," I responded, looking at my father who seemed taken aback by her attitude.
"How long are you going to say here?"
"About three weeks," my father said.
He was exhausted and had no patience for the rude customs officer. After posing for immigration pictures and signing a few forms, we were relieved to leave the grim, unwelcoming airport and find the smiles and hugs we had travelled two days for. Our family waved enthusiastically from the other side of the glass. Each of their faces beamed with joy that lit up the dull surroundings of the airport. There were so many family members waiting for us that I couldn’t keep count of all the hands waving our way. I remember feeling appreciated. It felt good to feel welcome and wanted. I was home.
A rude awakening
In between gathering our belongings and attempting to leave the airport, we again faced a cold reception from the employees and locals. The whispers seemed endless and countless inspections of our passports confirmed hostility between us and the officials. “Somalis or Canadians?” they frequently asked. It was clear that being Somali as well as Canadian made me an “other” among Kenyans, an outsider among my own people.
I was relieved to be surrounded by my family. Seeing their friendly faces made everything better. I was expecting just my mother and siblings but my aunts, uncles, cousins, family friends and other distant relatives had all come to meet us. It was a wonderful sight. We decided that we would all separate into different cars and regroup at my mother’s house for dinner. I rode with her and my siblings; my father was whisked away by his siblings.
It had been over a year since I last saw my mother. I missed her dearly. We drove past massive billboards, commercial buildings, and hard-working Kenyans heading home. It was such a drastic change of scenery from what I was used to in Toronto. I appreciated the modest beauty of Nairobi. I could not help but notice the visible progression since my last trip. The roads were smooth, and the city looked groomed. Then, all of sudden, I noticed a flashing light waving up and down in our direction.
"Hoyo, what is that?" I asked my mum. She sighed and responded: “A police officer. We are being pulled over.” The well-dressed officer and his entourage walked towards our car. He fired off some questions: “Where are we coming from?” “Why are you out at this time at night?” “Are you heading home to Eastleigh?” The questions were irrelevant particularly because the officer was attempting to pull us over for a traffic violation. In my mind, it was none of his business why we were out. But I sat in silence and watched. After glancing at my mother’s licence, he let us go. “That’s what happens when you’re a Somali in Nairobi these days. You cannot do anything with being stopped and questioned,” my mum explained in a frustrated voice.
In the news
During the rest of my trip, it became clear that the negative perception and treatment of Somalis was partially the result of news reports that stigmatised Somalis. From headlines in national newspapers to the evening television news, Somalis had become the scapegoat for any and all of the problems in Nairobi. The consequence of the war against Somalia appeared to be a timely justification. Each evening after dinner was served in most households across Nairobi, local news channels documented the successes against the Somali “militants”. We watched as the Kenyan defence forces shot aimlessly into the blanket of darkness above the sea. The selective footage was then drowned out by sounds of heavy breathing and more gunshots. The media depicted a lovely tale of heroism against al-Shabab while vilifying all Somalis and labelling them as sympathisers or supporters. By the end of the news segment, the reporter had convincingly persuaded the viewer that the war against the pirates, al-Shabab extremists and whoever seemed to be threat to Kenya’s security was a) necessary and b) a success.
The more I followed the news and political issues in Kenya, the more evident it seemed that there was a marginalisation of Somalis within the Kenyan community. This was evident not only through the mistreatment of my own family members by police and other law enforcements but also through the anti-al-Shabab, anti-Somali propaganda spread throughout the media. I heard first-hand stories about the Kenyan police harassing Somalis in areas heavily populated with Somali refugees or citizens. Police officers would randomly assemble anyone who they thought to be al-Shabab supporters and lock them up for undetermined amounts of time.
It was clear that the actions of the Kenyan police widened any pre-existing rifts between Somalis and the Kenyan government. Somalis became walking targets for ill-treatment. It seems that we were viewed by Kenyan natives as delinquents responsible for the economic issues and inequality, and the overcrowding of schools, streets and neighbourhoods.
In mid-November, a few days into my vacation, Kenya declared war on Somalia, resulting in the closure of borders between the nations, as well as the abandonment of any refugees fleeing the conflict. The War on Terror against al-Shabab created the opportunity for a sort of justified mistreatment of Somalis in Kenya. Simple errands like going to the grocery store or grabbing a meal with friends became a hassle as they entailed being stopped by police, a thorough inspection of our car and/or a barrage of questions. Operation Linda Nchi (Protect the Country) essentially allowed officials to target any al-Shabab sympathisers or suspected members of al-Shabab. The operation increased tensions between Somali-Kenyans and Kenyans due to the unfair targeting, arresting and harassment faced by Somalis, including myself.
After three weeks in Nairobi, I was on my way home to Toronto and I was sad to leave. At the airport, officials forced me to remove my headscarf, glasses and jacket. They asked tedious questions about my life in Toronto as if I was an impersonation of myself. They asked me what school I went to, where exactly in Toronto I lived and why I came to Nairobi, all while double-checking my visa. I understood the suspensions harboured by Somalis about the Kenyan government. They really did not like us.
Human rights abuse
When I arrived back in Toronto, I was pleased to find that Human Rights Watch had released a report, "Criminal Reprisals: Kenyan Police and Military Abuses against Ethnic Somalis", addressing human rights abuses towards Somalis by Kenyan defence forces and police in the north-eastern province. Finally, I thought, a sort of justice. The report detailed the accounts of Kenyan forces arbitrarily detaining people, undiscerning beatingly and abusing Somali inhabitants. I could not understand the lack of media attention and international reaction.
Why was this vital report being ignored? Was the pain and sorrow of the Somali diaspora community in Kenya meaningless to the international community? It was apparent that the lack of visible ribs or crying babies with flies on their faces could not garner the slightest bit of attention from Western media. The unsympathetic attack of Somalis in Kenya would be drowned out by the over-played images and stories about Somali pirates. It was – and remains - clear that only a genocide is worthy of Western news coverage.
A part of me gave up. It was absolutely disheartening. This country I associated with home had let me down. Growing up in Canada, I never felt like I belonged since I was not a product of parents with ocean-blue eyes and Barbie’s blond hair. I was visibly minority with black kinky hair to prove it. So, when my father brought me to Kenya for the first time at the age of 10, I discovered what home was supposed to mean. I belonged. I was a Somali-Kenyan and proud. Eleven years later, how could I explain to myself that my home was responsible for killing my cousins, raping my aunts and arresting my uncles? My heart was broken.
Iman Hassan is a Pan-Africanist who hopes to play a vital role in the redevelopment of Somalia/Somaliland. She is currently in her last year at York University in Toronto, specialising in political science. She writes passionately about the East African community in the hope of giving them a voice.