Odede, Kennedy, and Jessica Posner. Find Me Unafraid: Love, Loss, and Hope in an African Slum. N.p.: Ecco, 2015. 13 Oct. 2015. Web.
This is a fascinating memoir from an impressive author. Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia; just a generation before, her family were nomadic herders. She spent her early years in Somalia before her father’s political involvement forced the family to flee; she and her siblings spent their teenage years in Kenya, where the author briefly joined the Muslim Brotherhood while her mother longed for the “pure” Islam of Saudi Arabia. Her family was troubled to say the least, though she doesn’t quite seem to blame either of her parents. As the region became even less stable in the early 90s, her father decided to save her by arranging her an unwanted marriage, at age 22, to a Somali man in Canada seeking a traditional Somali wife. But the author managed to escape and claim asylum in Holland, where she worked, educated herself and went to college for political science. Her intellectual awakening distanced her from Islam, and she eventually became a member of Parliament, promoting rights for Muslim women and a greater integration of immigrants into Dutch society. Proving her point, this outspokenness provoked a violent response.
As a piece of literature, this is quite good. The author writes well; it’s a compelling story and written with the sort of physical and emotional detail that promotes a high level of engagement from the reader. At times it’s downright dramatic. Although the author is political, it never reads like a public relations piece; she’s no angel here, and there are no clear villains. She does portray herself as a victim rather often, but this rarely seems related to any political agenda; her mother is sometimes abusive, but the council of elders convened to determine the legitimacy of her leaving her husband respects her decision. There are some tough scenes in this book – the author and her sister undergo female genital mutilation early on, for instance – but life goes on and people can’t simply suffer all the time; my concern that the book would read as a catalogue of atrocity turned out to be unfounded. The author has a strong viewpoint, yes, but people are complicated and this book shows that, rather than attempting to reduce all of life to a political agenda. You could read this as fiction and come away satisfied.
Nevertheless, the author is a political figure, accounting for much of the polarized reaction to this book; I think much of the negativity comes from information outside its pages, and a brief perusal of her Twitter feed explains why. At the time period covered in this book – when the author is a student and a young politician – she’s wrestling with big questions and fighting for reforms that could make life better for Muslim immigrants in Holland: for instance, by ending funding for religious schools, as Muslim schools tend to focus on memorization and obedience rather than real learning. And she’s frustrated by the way Dutch values of toleration can prevent a response to abuse among Muslim immigrants. She calls for reform in Islam, so that people can question its tenets without being subject to violence.
But the threats she receives (not to mention the brutal murder of a filmmaker with whom she makes a short piece questioning Islam’s demands for submission) and the reluctance of non-Muslims to believe how bad things can get seem to push her toward hatred of Islam as a whole. We see a little of that in the book: her efforts to convince the public of social problems among Muslim immigrants sometimes seem more geared toward proving that Islam is a problem than finding practical solutions. Her public statements now seem even more slanted in that direction (though she is working in the U.S. to increase penalties for FGM, for instance). I respect her strength and dedication, and generally agree with her critiques of the Muslim world. But promoting divisiveness is a terrible idea, and I’m concerned that may be the primary effect of her advocacy. This isn’t a criticism of the book, necessarily; if anything, it shows how honestly the author comes by her opinions.
In summary, then: this is an excellent story, well worth reading. It is not, for the most part, a political book, and I don’t judge it Islamophobic, defining Islamophobia as prejudice toward individual Muslims or a crusade against Islam while knowing little about it. It made me think, and that’s a strength in any book.
It took me quite a while to find the time to start this book, but once I did I had mainlined it in about 1 1/2 days before and after work, staying up till dawn to finish the last third. Not gonna lie: I cried. The story is written by both Kennedy Odede and Jessica Posner in alternating chapters progressing in roughly chronological orders although they both start their narrations at different points, eventually overlapping towards the end. As is mentioned in the ending notes, they wrote everything in hindsight based on their memories and journal accounts. As such, things were elided or perhaps forgotten as tends to be the nature of memory and some of their personal opinions were probably sharpened by maturity.
SHOFCO is the abbreviation for Shining Hope for Communities, the name of the organization started by Kennedy to instigate change in the slum he lived in, called Kibera, in Kenya. (Linked to the official website if interested.)
The introduction provides a concise summary of the book and tells you ahead of time that Kennedy and Jessica will eventually develop a romantic relationship, but be warned this is not exactly a fairy tale. See below:
"SHOFCO is a love story, but it’s also a lesson in development. The organization succeeded in part because it had someone with local knowledge and charisma to lead the way, and in part because it had a policy wonk foreigner who could help open overseas wallets. That’s a potent partnership. If it’s just foreigners, there’s a risk that locals will see them as cows to be milked, or that a project won’t have the necessary buy-in from local people. Indeed, SHOFCO is successful partly because it didn’t begin as an aid program at all but as a local empowerment movement, with Kennedy and his buddies organizing soccer games and street performances decrying rape. Only after it was well established did it take on a more structured dimension, building effective partnerships."
One of the things I really liked was how brutally honest the accounts were. There is no hiding or holding back of the horrible endings some people faced, many of the persons mentioned, especially in Kennedy's narration, ultimately die. The matter of fact way it is related is sobering and reminds you that this a real life story, and yes, it really is that bad outside of our Western bubble. That brings me to the other thing I liked about this book - Jessica's narration is bluntly relatable, acknowledging how privilege is like a lottery we don't choose to be born into and how difficult it is to find a "right" way to react to that realization.
-- "“Do NOT get married while you are here. There is always a student who ends up married. Don’t be that student,” warns Donna. I roll my eyes." I love this quote in connection with this later one which shows how young and impetuous Jessica was, a key part of her personality that bore fruit to her and Kennedy's later joint efforts. "I am always willing to sacrifice convenience for fashion. My mother couldn’t understand why I so desperately needed to bring my new sundress. How could she be so dense? I. Just. Needed. It. In that dress, I felt ready for anything. In the end, her sense had won out."
-- "I realize how wedded we are in America to knowing all the details." The insightful realizations about her own culture is very interesting each time it is brought up.
-- "I realize I came here in part to prove my openness, to be able to say that I survived it, but that is not what Alice needs. She needs to get her husband out of jail, and to bring her kids home. It’s not altogether unreasonable that she hopes I might be a pathway to that. I feel a faint disappointment—in us both."
-- "And I can’t help but think how unfair and utterly random it is that I was born into a place that gave me so much; to be so blessed that I was concerned mainly with finding happiness, not consumed by the daily drudgery of survival. No matter what I feel for Kennedy and he for me, we are from two different worlds: mine of plenty and his of want."
-- "I think of what it means to be a teenager in America, necessarily pushing boundaries, making expected mistakes. Here there is no margin for error: a mistake, no matter how insignificant, dashes any small hopes to break the cycle of poverty. Here in Kibera the world is relentless and unforgiving." I remember reading somewhere that teenager culture in America was the first of its kind back in the 50s due to the unique set of socioeconomic and political circumstances at the time, and it has just developed since then. A good reminder that things are not the same everywhere.
-- "None of these life events are unfolding as we’d imagined. When I left Kenya, I was sure that our romance was over. Now we’ve resuscitated “us”—in response to extreme circumstances. A life-changing love has been reduced overnight to a practicality, boxes checked off on a marriage application." This, and other events that happen in their personal relationship, make one question the nature of it. Is it truly romantic? Was it romantic, ended, and then became a partnership built upon mutual trust and admiration and fueled by their passion to change the world via the girls' school? It is never actually quite explained, and maybe it doesn't have to be.
-- “I could have had it before. I just never needed it. You know the problem with Americans? You always think the rest of the world is just waiting for your money.”
-- "Being tied to Catholic doctrines meant contradicting goals for our group. The church was adamantly against family planning and the use of condoms. This made no sense. I had watched too many teenage girls become mothers and lost too many dear friends to HIV/AIDS. Using protection seemed the only option." An opinion and truth that is not commonly expressed in Western literary sources due to the popularity of the Catholic church.
-- "For too long my community had been told that we could not do anything by ourselves without money from the outside, without the financial support and wisdom from the Western world. But since we were the ones who understood all the challenges we faced, we also had the best shot at finding the solutions." This feeds back to an earlier bit about how being told one is poor and good for nothing fuels poverty and poor decision making, perpetuating the cycle for generations; and how Kennedy's determination eventually snowballed into something greater.
-- "African problems would never be solved as long as advantaged people from the Western world thought that they could save our communities by starting organizations, or volunteering in Africa, without the actual and deep engagement of the communities they sought to improve. Without mutual understanding and real community leadership, foreign-led interventions ultimately do not succeed..." Self-sustaining movements, ideological.
-- “American men are so funny,” I tell her. “I don’t understand why they like women who are so thin they have to search the bed to find them.” LOL, in tribute to Rosemary who once told me the exact same thing. ;)
This is a good book on an important topic. Dadaab is an enormous refugee camp with several hundred thousand residents, located in a desert area of Kenya near the border with Somalia. For nearly 25 years, Somalis fleeing civil war and famine at home have come to the camp – at this point, an entire generation has grown up there (and roughly 60% of the residents are children). Dadaab is mostly funded through foreign aid, but Kenya has always wanted rid of the refugees and made repeated attempts to repatriate them to the still war-torn Somalia. Refugees are not allowed to hold official jobs, for fear they’ll take them from Kenyans – the exception being “incentive” work, for tiny stipends – nor can they legally enter Kenya proper, so many spend their lives dreaming of being selected for resettlement abroad.
Rawlence followed a dozen or so camp residents for about five years, from 2010 to 2015, giving readers a window on how people make their lives in the camp and the impact of major events. Those we see the most of are young people who grew up there – Nisho, who works as a porter in the marketplace; Tawane, a youth leader aiming for a political future; and Kheyro, one of the few young people in Dadaab to pursue education – as well as Guled, who flees Somalia as a teenager after being briefly conscripted into al-Shabaab. Through their stories and others, the book provides a real sense of life in the camps, from the initial arrival to those who marry and start a family. (Which sounds like a terrible idea, but these are people whose lives have always been precarious.) One young man does make it to Nairobi, only to find life there no more secure than in Dadaab; meanwhile, a young couple faces death threats from both communities because she’s Somali and he’s a member of the camp’s tiny Sudanese minority.
This sort of material is almost guaranteed to keep readers’ interest, and though it’s certainly heavy I did not find it overwhelming; the individuals followed meet with successes as well as difficulties. For the most part it’s quite a readable book, written in a journalistic style, though the author could do with brushing up on his comma placement, which makes some sentences difficult to understand. And the story occasionally bogs down; over the course of several years, at times major events provide a common thread in everyone’s lives, while at other times the stories are quite disparate and the author focuses in on mundane events (presumably those he happened to witness). But he does a good job of weaving facts and statistics into the stories, and occasionally steps away from his subjects' experiences to document major events impacting the camps (such as the mass shooting at a Nairobi mall, which was wrongly blamed on refugees). Finally, while the author renders his subjects’ circumstances vividly, they aren’t completely fleshed-out as individuals, and I wondered how much language and cultural barriers (the author does not speak Somali) interfered. Rawlence also does not discuss how he selected his subjects; most of the book is spent with men, which does not reflect the camps as a whole, and I wondered what role Somali culture played in that choice.
Overall though, this is an important subject, and reading this book is a great way for those of us who live worlds away from Dadaab to get a sense of the human stories behind the headlines. I recommend it.