In Washington D.C., I was preparing for my first ever book tour event. I felt nervous, out of place, uncertain of what to expect, and a little bit like a fraud – who would actually come out to hear me talk?! And then…friends, strangers, and even a family member showed up. Friends from my church in Minnesota, a young woman who had spent her entire life in Djibouti and whose mother helped me translate throughout my second pregnancy, David Brown journalist with the Washington Post, and my brother-in-law who came bearing gifts of snacks, a plant, and skull socks (don’t ask, I’m not sure!). At the second event, the former ambassador to Djibouti came and we took a selfie together. She lived in Djibouti before I had even heard it existed, but we know and love some of the same people.
In Colorado Springs I got to meet Dimity McDowell of Another Mother Runner. I totally had my own little fan girl moment when she came to my book event! I wanted her to sign my book, what a treat. Also Amy Young, author of so many wonderful books and whom I had not yet met in person. Internet people are real people, internet friends are real friends, go figure!
In Chicago worlds collided as I met for the first time the editor of some of my very earliest published work, in EthnoTraveler, and friends came from Indonesia, many friends from Djibouti showed up, and more internet people turned real.
In Minneapolis. Ah, Minneapolis. Afro Deli hosted the most wonderful book launch party ever. We packed out the place. I had hoped a few loyal friends and family would come and almost 100 people turned out. Chef Musa and Kahin were incredibly generous and joyful and it was such an honor and privilege to be welcomed into that space, for this book.
White Minnesotans told me at many events, how much they appreciated this book for how it opened up the world of their Somali coworkers, neighbors, and friends in a new way. They said it helped them think of conversational questions and topics, and that they hoped it could be a bridge to deeper relationships. Somali Minnesotans told me the exact same thing, in reverse.
At one event, two Somali Americans sat in the back, and we enjoyed a question and answer period so much that afterwards, they took my phone number, then called that night and said, “We have to keep talking!” I was leaving the country in two days so we had a quick breakfast in the morning and have stayed in touch. What I loved about our conversations is that we understand so much about each other – the American and the Somali parts – and barely needed extra explanations.
I was invited to speak to a class at St. Olaf University in southern Minnesota. When we lived in Somaliland, my kids played with a neighbor girl. When we fled, my daughter cried, specifically about not seeing this girl ever again. In 2018, this girl turned up at St. Olaf University in Minnesota as an exchange student. I invited her to come to my event and we had the most incredible conversation, as both of us heard stories from the other that we had never heard before about the aftermath of Annalena’s murder and our sudden departure. She said something I will never forget, and I loosely quote it, “We used to think foreigners were dangerous and shouldn’t live in our town. But because of Annalena, even though she was a white Christian, we now are open to letting other foreigners, even Christians, Americans, white people, anyone, live among us, because we have seen her love.” What a testimony to the power of how Annalena’s practical service has opened the way for ongoing partnerships and relationships.
At my last in-person book event, a Somali man arrived early and we started chatting. He said he grew up in Wajir, Kenya, where Annalena had initially worked. He knew her, and Maria Teresa, and others quite well. He remembered the Wagalla Massacre, after which he had fled the region and eventually the continent, to settle in Minnesota. Then he said, “You know how Annalena smuggled the list of names of the dead out of Wajir during the massacre? The person who carried those names out, that was me.” I almost fell over. He started to tell the story of getting that piece of paper that would expose the government’s crimes, from the town to the capital.
Through all these conversations, one thing stood out. I had the immense privilege of writing this story. But writing it wasn’t about earning Annalena glory (she would turn over in her grave) and certainly not for earning me glory.
It was for these stories, for honoring these memories, for forging these new connections, for moving into dialogue and conversation and relationship.