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On Hodan Nalayeh’s brave legacy, and what it means to be Somali

Dear Hodan,

The way you left this world was unthinkable. Some days, I still wonder if it is really true. I remember being in Mogadishu that night unable to sleep, wondering if it was really true; that you were really gone. It was so difficult for my mind to reconcile that with the fact that just two weeks previously you had encouraged me to come to Somalia after I had been away for so long. I had just arrived the day before, and that night, a terrorist attack in Kismayo took your life. I felt a great sense of loss, twofold —f or my homecoming and for the loss of you. 

There was so much more that you were supposed to do. Watching your later videos shows that you were just getting the fire under your feet. You were in your creative zone, and in search of those positive Somali stories that you knew you were destined to tell.

Hodan, I know we all die, but when I saw the picture of your grave, I became undone. I just couldn’t believe it. I thought to myself, “Ma meeshaas baa noo dambeyso? Is that where we all end up?” In a grave, gone from this world. 

Then I remembered listening to a speech you gave about finding your purpose. When you reflected on your life, and how you were so busy that you didn’t stop to take a look at your community, you asked yourself: “Is this what education got me? To live a life in another country and not think about the people I came from?” 

I was so proud of my education. In 2019 I had completed my master’s degree. And I had fought so hard for it, but here you were challenging me to think beyond that. “Okay, what now? What really is my purpose?”

Purpose is something much more meaningful than degrees and money. Purpose really makes a difference in the world; makes a difference in people’s lives. Your purpose in telling positive Somali stories has left a mark on this world. I have never met you in person and have only interacted with you online, but you were one of the first people I contacted when I contemplated on travelling back to Somalia for the first time in 26 years. I will never forget what you said to me about having faith and taking chances. 

Your absence in this world is felt deeply. We are so angry at losing you. I know there was so much more that you were going to do. There were so many more stories you were going to tell, so many more hugs you were going to give, so much more hope you were going to give. There is so much that the world will miss out on with your absence. 

In watching your videos, I marvel at how you struggled with the Somali language and how that didn’t stop you from trying to speak it, no matter how it sounded; no matter how it was evident that you struggled with it. You were brave. Many of us can’t do that. We don’t want to risk looking bad. But you made it look courageous, daring to speak your mother tongue, forcing the words through the Canadian accent you acquired when you were six years old. 

There are so many of us Somalis who have been displaced from our home country, who have had to start over, who have had to learn other languages just to survive. You understood that, Hodan, and that’s why you wanted to forge a connection between us, and our homeland. You were that connection. You volunteered as tribute with your broken Somali. 

How many of our parents speak broken English, broken other languages? They had to start over, try to adjust to new environments, raise children in other countries. I think of their braveness because starting over in a new country is terrifying to me. You understood that. 

You went back home and connected with the beautiful, resilient Somali people your parents told you about. Your purpose was to connect Somalis in the diaspora to their motherland.  

And Hodan, your efforts were not in vain. So many of us have learned more about our motherland through you. We have seen the beauty of Somalia and Somali people through your eyes. 

In nearly every video it is like you are marvelling at the beauty around you: “Look at this, guys! Look at this beauty! This is our country, this is Somalia!” And we see the beauty along with you. You have opened many of our eyes. You have shown us that we are from a beautiful place, so far from the images the Western media has sold us. 

Yes, we have been welcomed as immigrants, and many of us have been raised here. Some are born citizens, and many others are naturalized citizens at this point. Yes, there is that sense of gratitude for a second chance at life. 

But I can’t help but always ask: At what cost? When you search Somalia on Google, words and phrases like “piracy”, “terrorism”, “civil war”, “warlords”, “violence”, and “failed state” show up. That has been devastating to our collective psyche, because that is not the full story. We are more than that, and we have more history than these 30 years of civil war. More history than colonialism. 

We are an ancient people with a long history since the earliest human civilisations. We are known for being the Nation of Poets, for frankincense, for the longest coastline in Africa, for being some of the first people to accept Islam and the earliest Muslim scholars, for being proud defenders of our land, and our people. And so much more. That is who we really are.

Hodan, thank you for reminding us. Thank you for reminding me, someone like you who grew up in the West, what being Somali actually means.

When you said: “What does it mean to be Somali? Does it mean if you don’t speak the Somali language, well, you’re not Somali?No, that’s not what it means,” you were speaking to so many of us; you were answering our questions of identity. 

I have often thought about what it means to be Somali. Being Somali is very important to me. It is my way of being in this world. I’ve wrestled all through my youth and my 20s with reconciling my way of being Somali with what was expected of me from the greater Somali community, along with fighting the box that the world put me in.  

And there you were Hodan, someone like me — like many other Somalis who grew up in the diaspora — saying that my way of being Somali is good enough, that I am Somali because I am. 

Yes. I am. 

This feature first appeared in The Continent, the new pan-African weekly newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Get your free copy here.

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Ifrah Udgoon
Ifrah Udgoon is a high school science teacher based in Columbus, Ohio in the United States. Originally from Somalia, but raised in the US since age 12, she navigates the duality of being both an American and a perpetual foreigner while raising a teenage son in what is not a post-racial America. She’s passionate about arts and education and uses both in the practice of freedom by continuously advocating for higher education within her immigrant community, as well as educating the American public on immigration and multiculturalism

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