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- Cristina Ali Farah’s Little Mother: Capturing the ripple effects of the Somali Civil War
Cristina Ali Farah’s Little Mother shows that war leaves indelible marks on its victims, even generations unborn, Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy writes
My dear daughters and sons
Our ancestors have made gabay and murambur
Hidden within the designs of deeley
Within the nuts of guntino
Gabay and murambur filled with wisdom
Just for us to thrive in our world
But we were tested
And in the end, we fled only with our precious.
“So, we brought you into this new world
That has built timeless barriers and fortresses
To keep you from accessing our ancestor’s wisdom.
“You’re made to feel lost, forsaken, and dispersed
Before you can even pronounce your Somali name
You’re kept apart and dehumanized
When you come together.
“My dear daughters and sons
I know there’ll be many days where you’d not understand
What I came from
Or what I gave up to see you live another day, another year
And there will be many moments
Where I would not understand the languages you speak
The ways you feel and the things you care for.
“My dear daughters and sons
I am sorry for we have failed to show you how precious you just are.
“My dear daughters and sons
You are not lost
But in search of a new connection to our ancestors
Wisdom that works for you
And you are not forsaken
For many years ago
I have picked up rocks to chase away the enemy
Because I know a precious being like you was coming.
“But I know you dream in a different language
Love in a different world
And wear colours that I cannot name
But that does not make you less of my kin
It makes you a surviver
A fierce being that I am proud to have in my lineage.
So for the nights you are without light
I am here with a faynuus
And for the days you can’t find the Somali word
To speak your truth
I am here still listening, still rooting for you
Because you’ve always been my precious
And you’ll be my pride the day you learn to pronounce your Somali name
And you’ll be my joy
The day you extend a hand to another Somali
That is very different from you.
And you’ll be my beating heart
The day you bring peace in all places
That our ancestors have called home once.
“My precious, I still hear you
Listen for you, and call for you.
– A spoken poem by Ifrah Monsur
Forgive me for I mentioned in the title of this review that we shall be discussing Christina Ali Farah‘s Little Mother but I began with Ifrah Monsur’s poem. Well, this is because the poem captures similar issues as that portrayed in Cristina Ali Farah’s Little Mother. We hope to see how true this is as we walk our way through the novel in this review.
Reading Cristina Ali Farah’s Little Mother is like digging a hole, it gets wider or deeper as you go on digging. I have followed stories related to the Somali Civil War and I must tell you that each new one I read leaves me sadder than afore. I saw the events leading to the war in the poetry of Hadraawi and Gaarriye, I saw the war itself in Nadifa Mohamed’s The Orchard of Lost Souls and now have I seen the aftermath and ripple effects of that most unfortunate war in Cristina Ali Farah’s Little Mother.
Cristina Ali Farah’s tale is one of fragmentation cum disintegration, the search for home and family, nostalgia, depression, and the lives of diaspora Somalis as refugees, all occasioned by the civil war.
The events in the novel are related using the dramatic monologue technique through three characters; Domenica Axad, Barni and Taageere; who narrate their ordeals, as well as those of other characters.
Domenica Axad was born to a Muslim Somali father and a Christian Italian mother. Her formative years were spent in Mogadishu (capital city of Somalia) until the war which made the place unsafe for her. She grows up estranged from her mother (who abandons her in Somalia and returns to Italy) and her patriot father who refused to vacate Somalia because he believed that it was but a matter of time before things get settled. She ends up depending on her cousin Libeen for survival and would bumble from one place and relationship to another in search of roots, family, and a place of belonging.
Barni is Domenica’s cousin and confidante who also had to flee Mogadishu to seek sanctuary in Italy in the wake of the civil war. Her father was eliminated by the military regime for being a dissident voice and this engenders the depression and eventual death of her mother. She has been a victim of the clannish hatred caused by the civil war and her greatest wish is to be able to reconnect with her cousin, Axad.
Taageere, like the other two characters, has lost a dear friend to the war. He has sired a son that he has never been able to physically meet as fate has vehemently denied him this one opportunity he so yearned for. His sister has arrived Italy not too long on a boat and is now with a child born under mysterious circumstance. He yearns to reunite with his son, wife, and sister who he tries in vain to bring to America and this leaves him frustrated. In search of roots and family, he marries Domenica after his ex-wife Shukri demands an Islamic dissolution of their marriage.
The story in this novel is not just one story, it is the story of many individuals intrinsically linked by a thread which is perhaps the Somali Civil War. The characters all have tragic tales and experiences behind them and their stories are somehow linked to each other. Telling their stories to a listening ear becomes a way of seeking healing for that past which they have all tried to blot out. The bodies of these characters are vessels carrying anguished souls seeking escape.
The wounds sustained in war most often never heals and even if they do, the scars are bound to remain. Today, Somalis are found in virtually every part of the world with the younger generations unable to trace their way back home. Many fled their homes and loved ones to escape the war. Like pearls from a broken thread, everyone went wherever they could find solace. Some went through land, others by air, and others via a dangerous sea route to get to Italy, they just had to get out of their country before it was too late, anywhere seems better than a place they had grown to know as home. This forced migration led to disintegration in the family who were often separated or for whom some members never eventually make it to the other side. Many, like Aunt Xalima in the novel, were eaten up by the sea as they tried to cross. Taageere’s sister, Luul, also had a terrible experience trying to escape via the sea route and Barni tells us about a shipwreck which caused the death of nine Somalis aboard the ship who were also trying to find a better life outside the shores of their country. The disintegration of society is perhaps best captured in Taageere’s words where he rues and mourns the fall of Xamar (a local name for Mogadishu):
“Xamar was lagu xumeeyay. Xamar, they have ruined you. Who will pay for the sins committed? City of mine, city where they buried my umbilical cord. City where everyone lived in peace and harmony, in safety and in freedom. Magnificent city on the Africa Coast. My brother, parents, and cousins all lived there. But because of the blood and strife these same brothers are fighting among themselves.
“Xamar was lagu xumeeyay. Xamar, they have defiled you. Filled you with bullets, destroyed and burned you, devastated your neighbourhoods, sacked your treasures. The respected families fled across the borders. The just and hones people liberated the country from criminals and from foreigners. Today all of them lie buried. Nobody cares anymore about the wisdom of the elders.” (127)
Faced with family and societal fragmentation, most of the characters become nostalgic and yearn for a past that is fast fading away or may never return because it is already consumed by the grim reality of the present.
After finding their way to what they believe is a safe haven, they are confronted with hostilities from the host communities; they become the first suspect in any crime event. Barni mentions also the story of two Egyptian refugees wrongly accused of terrorism because they were found with a map of Rome with locations of Caritas food distribution centers circled in red ball points. Barni also mentioned the story of Maxamed X who became a major suspect in a case of arson. Also, the movement of refugees is restricted as their fingerprints were taken to keep them confined to one community.
There is also the trauma and mental instability caused by the war, most of the characters seems to be oscillating between two separate worlds of sanity and insanity. Domenica and Mariam, for instance, experience several bouts of schizophrenia which leads Domenica to cutting herself with blades on many occasions and edge Mariam towards suicidal thoughts. Perhaps, this mental instability is most reflected in the way and manner the characters relate their stories in a circuitous way; they seem to be plagued by nervousness when speaking and are unable to cut to the chase as they are often caught drifting from their mark at every slight opportunity. The characters realise this problem and this is why Barni begs her unheard interlocutor to pull her back on track anytime she strays from the topic at hand. Domenica also points out this problem in herself in a letter written to her psychiatrist where she mentions that her way of speaking is not unrelated with her history of migration, readjustments and estrangements:
“It is much easier for me to narrate the events in writing since my relationship with words is still an emotional and fragmented one. It’s not unusual for me to digress or to follow the thread of a though that ends up folding back on itself.
“As you have helped me understand, this is not unusual people who come from a history of migration. Even if I am not—technically—an immigrant, I fully understand your remarks about Domenica having lived through estrangements and readjustments that are typical of immigrants.” (193-4)
Finding themselves in an alien world, the refugees begin seeking home, seeking reunification with whichever family members that have survived the war and are still alive. Taageere’s sister spent several years saving money made from making small chops so she could bring her husband to be with her in Germany. Taageere himself is at the verge of insanity for being unable to play the role of father in his son’s life and being unable to leave America to reunite with his sister and family. It is this need for reunification and establishing family ties that make Barni become ‘Little Mother’ to Domenica’s son. And at the end of the novel, Barni tells us of the reunification with their father’s brother, Uncle Foodcadde, Domenica’s mother and even a meeting with Gandi in Italy (their fathers’ friends and doctor).
The narrative style of the novel is quite unique; not just because of the fragmented style of narration which is also a reflection of the disintegration in the lives of the characters and their society and makes the story appear as a puzzle that approaches completeness as you go on reading it. The uniqueness of the story is in the use of the dramatic monologue to tell the story; a technique that operates easily with the drama and poetry genres; this technique was quite popular in the English Victorian poetry. And now, it has been dragged into prose by Cristina Ali Farah.
Although, listening to the characters relate their own stories can be a bit tiring and confusing for a casual reader, you begin to enjoy the tale once you are able to put two plus two together to make four for Cristina leaves us to connect the dots from listening to the characters themselves relate the past through flashbacks, this might not also be unconnected with her choice of the first person narrative point of view which limits the perspective of each of her characters.
Originally written in Italian language, this English translation of Cristina Ali Farah’s Little Mother by Giovanna Bellesia-Contuzzi and Victoria Offredi Poletto manages to however retain the Somali words and the poetry infused into the work giving it a stamp of originality and local colour.
All in all, I love the idea of rejuvenation and hope captured at the end of Cristina Ali Farah’s Little Mother. We know from the story in the novel that war does not just end when a truce is attained or at the point of cessation of fire, there are always ripple effects with displacement, estrangement, fragmentation, trauma, depression, and hostility among prominent issues affecting victims of wars. More saddening, is the fact that these issues may go on to affect even the second, third, and fourth generations of the war victims. It is always better to thread the path of peace than that of war laced on both sides with human skulls and blood that leaves us with future regrets. This is an important lesson we must take from Cristina Ali Farah’s Little Mother.
© Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy 2019