Spirit of the west

ADRIENNE WEBB February 28 1994

Spirit of the west

ADRIENNE WEBB February 28 1994

Out of Africa


A Somali woman chronicles her harsh youth and a decision to go into exile

Although it will not be released until May, the story is already generating the kind of buzz that booksellers love. On the parched plains of Somalia in 1952, a girl is born to a family of nomads. Like most young females in the Somali countryside, she must contend with circumcision and a lack of power in society. The child, who later tells her tale under the name “Aman,” grows up feeling like an outcast, because of physical weakness from childhood tuberculosis and the poverty she suffers after her parents separate. At 13, she marries a middle-aged man for money, but soon regrets her decision and tries to escape. Then, Aman begins a two-decade odyssey in Kenya. She later travels to Tanzania and Italy before ending up in the United States with her fourth husband (Somali women typically marry and divorce more than once). There, she meets anthropologist Virginia Lee Barnes through friends. The researcher listens to Aman’s story and, intrigued by the rich plot, decides to record her tale. After Barnes sud-

denly dies in 1990, the transcript is passed on to Toronto anthropologist Janice Boddy. She shows it to publisher Louise Dennys, who asks for worldwide rights to distribute the tale.

When Dennys, who heads Torontobased Knopf Canada, took nine unedited chapters of the transcript—less than halito the Frankfurt Book Fair last fall, she became a star of the event.

“People were running up to me, asking for a copy to read,” says Dennys. “I have never seen anything like it” Within months of the gathering, she had sold subsidiary rights to nine publishers working in the United States and Europe.

For a woman who has barely learned to read, the prospect of becoming a publishing celebrity is daunting. “It’s so

crazy,” Aman, now 41, giggled during a recent trip to Toronto to have the edited manuscript read back to her. But that giddiness is tinged with fear about how the book will be received in war-torn Somalia, where many members of her family still live. The book chronicles the lives of her grandmother and mother but focuses mainly on Aman herself, tracing her life up to her escape to Kenya in 1970, when she was 17. And Aman says she is nervous about damaging her tribe’s reputation. For that reason, she chose the pseudonym (which means “trustworthy”) and will not disclose any details about her life in the United States, except to say that she is divorced from her fourth husband, an American. “My story is about truth,” she says. “Some people in Somalia might not like to hear truth.”

But, after reading Aman’s story, many people might wonder if her fears are well based. The book’s main focus is Aman’s life as a girl and young woman. And even in reciting the most traumatic events of her k life, she displays almost no resentment ^ or attempt to analyse her culture. In^k stead, she simply describes traditions that have remained unchanged for I ^generations, from the husband’s A I simple need to repeat “I divorce you” three times to end a Muslim marriage Ws? to the gruesome ritual of female cirW § cumcision (she herself had the radical V æ version, in which the clitoris is re-

moved and the outer labia are sewn together).

Despite her age and the hardships she has undergone, Aman—in the book and in person—seems surprisingly girlish. When asked about the reasons for female circumcision, a ritual her two daughters endured in a much milder form (Aman also has three sons), she says that “it protects you from disease and pregnancy.” And her decision to remain anonymous seems naïve given the book’s extensive details.

Most of the text, meanwhile, is almost breathless storytelling, punctuated with hyperbole and such phrases as “honest to God.” Aman, who lived with her mother and older sister after her parents separated, was stricken with tuberculosis at about the age of 5 and, two years later, treated for seven months in a Mogadishu hospital. There, along with white nurses, she discovered such modem amenities as toothpaste, dining tables and beds with mattresses. But back home, poverty remained a constant because Aman’s father refused to provide any support. Along with her grandmother, mother and sister, Aman grew up in a village near the city of Mogadishu. There, she scrubbed floors, picked crops and worked in a local hotel. Aman fell in love with a white boy whose family lived in a foreigners’ compound, only to be kept away from him by angry relatives and neighbors. Then, at 13, she agreed to marry a local businessman, but was with him for less than a month before she ran away to

live on the streets. A few years later, the divorced teen married a musician from what is now Yemen. However, he was deported with other foreigners after Somalia’s 1969 revolution. Later, she snuck into Kenya, leaving her home for good.

To fully understand the society that Aman fled, readers must turn to the afterword written by Boddy, a University of Toronto professor. For the anthropologist, whose 1989 book Wombs and Alien Spirits: Women, Men and the Zar Cult in Northern Sudan was short-listed for a Governor General’s Award, the challenge was to fit Aman’s saga into the context of Somali society and explain what drove her as a young girl. “Aman’s whole motivation was to get money for her mother,” says Boddy. “She was trying to fill the void left by her father.” In many ways, Aman was typical of the many runaway girls in Somalia. What sets Aman apart is her ability to cope outside the system, Boddy adds. “The resiliency of this girl in the face of those odds was remarkable.”

While documenting Aman’s personal struggle—and ultimate triumph—the book is itself a rare feat: a glimpse of traditional and modern Africa from a female point of view. “I am just telling people my story,” Aman says. In a world that has overlooked or misunderstood African society, it is a voice that is seldom heard.