The Bookshelf: New(ish) Books about Somalia

A Man of Good Hope by Jonny Steinberg

This is the story of a Somali man who fled the civil war as a child and ended up in South Africa. From the book’s Amazon page:

“Throughout, A Man of Good Hope is a complex, affecting, ultimately hopeful portrait of Asad’s search for salvation, suffused with dreams and desires and a need to leave something permanent on this earth.”

The Mayor of Mogadishu: A Story of Chaos and Redemption in the Ruins of Somalia by Andrew Harding

This is a book about, clearly, the mayor of Mogadishu. I actually met this man at a conference several years ago, while I was working as a translator and sat at his table. I can only imagine what his life looks like in these devastating days after the awful bomb a few weeks ago.

From the Amazon page:

“The Mayor of Mogadishu is a rare an insider’s account of Somalia’s unraveling, and an intimate portrayal of one family’s extraordinary journey.”

Somalis in the Twin Cities and Columbus: Immigrant Incorporation in New Destinations by Stefanie Chambers

This book compares the lives and adjustments of the Somali communities in Minnesota and in Ohio. As a native Minnesotan, I’ll give you a spoiler: they are more integrated in MN than in Ohio. This is most recently evident in the election of Ilhan Omar to legislature. This book is more academic than the others on this list, but it is well-researched and both informative and challenging.

From Somalia to Snow: How Central Minnesota Became Home to Somalis by Hudda Ibrahim

Speaking of Somalis in Minnesota, how did they come to settle here? I remember going out with young Somali girls when we lived in Minneapolis and my friends wore high heels and thin dresses even in the middle of January, while I stomped around in boots and fluffy winter coats.

I have not had the chance to read this book yet, but am glad to see Somali women producing their own works about their experiences and community in the US.

An Olympic Dream: The Story of Samia Yusuf Omar by Reinhard Kleist

This graphic story follows the journey of Somali Olympian Samia Yusuf Omar, from Mogadishu to the London Olympic games, across North Africa, and into the sea as she attempts to cross to Europe. Samia is seeking a better life, where she can run and live free. The book highlights the plight of so many refugees trying to cross into Europe.

I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing Samia for Running Times and Runners World in 2008, both in Ethiopia and in Djibouti.

What have you been reading lately?

If you are living outside your home country, do you read books by and about the people you now live among? If you don’t – you should!

other Bookshelf posts about Somalia:

Me Against My Brother

About Somalia, by Somalis

*photo by Matt Erickson


Famine in Somalia. How to Help. Or Not.

There is a drought in Somalia, growing into famine proportions. Something needs to be done. So, good people are doing something. And I sit here, writing, working, going to the beach, hiding Easter eggs, not really doing anything specifically related to the famine. And, I sit here with a lot of questions about what is being done. It is so hard to articulate them because I really, truly believe the people doing these things are topnotch people. As in, people with deep empathy and compassion, people who love with abandon, who take risks to serve, people who are not after fame or fortune or glory. I don’t want to hurt feelings or to disparage. But I do feel the need to raise some issues, to ask some questions.

And let me just start by saying Somalis are so much more than starving children and people covered in flies. Please. Seriously. Be wise about what images you share.


Research has proven unequivocally that famine is caused by authoritarian regimes, by harmful politics and policies, by corrupt governments, by tyrannical rulers, by war. The root cause of famine is not the lack of rain or a failed growing season. Changing weather patterns contribute to drought but famine, starvation on a mass scale, is a different beast.

Here is an important article about the factors underlying Somalia’s current crisis, by Dr. Mohamud Mohamed Ahmed (Buyow). I wrote to Dr. Mohamud and in his response he stressed the importance of working with local organizations and local authority structures for long term solutions. He wrote, “…short projects and inappropriate responses will not be a long lasting solution to the recurrent droughts. The best way to address the root causes of the famine is  settling with the needy people and identifying the immediate needs and longterm support needs and provide the right intervention that suits the needs of the target people through working with relevant  authorities in that respective area rather than copying projects from other countries  and implementing  them regardless of the outcome and impact.”

He spoke about the historically strong agriculture, livestock, fishery, and business realities in Somalia and that the people need help strengthening those sectors, not just food aid, in order to end long term dependence on outside sources.

The cure for a famine is not a rain shower.

The cure for famine is not to provide meals.

I have seen both scenarios presented on social media as viable solutions.

One campaign promotes their efforts to ‘stop the famine’ by providing millions of meals, boxed in the US and shipped to Somalia. This will not stop the famine. This will give people food for a while. It will effectively delay their starvation, it will not stop it. And, based on history and current threats coming from al-Shabaab in Somalia, it is unlikely that all the meals will actually feed the hungry. So, if you must box meals, at least do so knowing that you are not ending a famine and that you might be feeding a terrorist. Truth in advertising seems important here.

Also, rain…

Rain in a land denuded of forests and trees, either due to systematic stripping or because people, desperate for food and shelter because of conflict and poverty, have been forced to cut their own trees down, can be catastrophic. Floods. Cholera. Typhoid. Malaria. Dengue fever. Diseases which, were they diseases that plagued western countries, might have had vaccinations or effective medicines developed to fight them by now. These diseases descend on the dry land and on weakened people with a vengeance when there is a little rain. And a bit of rain won’t make the agricultural industry boom again. Especially not when that industry has been destroyed by bad management and violence.

Yes, rain is needed so that crops can begin to grow again. But if all the farmers are gathered in feeding centers and it rains for a while one afternoon, that does not mean corn will spring from the ground around them and the people will now be satiated. A rain shower is not going to end a famine.

Some of the bad management and bad control that are contributing to this famine are, in fact, remnants of previous famine relief efforts. Western nations, goodhearted people, bring in food and seed and grain. This undermines what the local economy and farmers had been able to provide, cuts prices, leaves farms fallow, pulls people away from working the land and into feeding centers. Once they land there, it is almost impossible to return to a farm. It may be taken over by a neighbor or by a warlord. The ground might be destroyed. The herd animals die so a nomadic family has nothing to go back to. They are stuck. Perpetually.

So sure, box up your meal and stop the famine.

Sure, pray for rain and stop the famine.

What will you do tomorrow?

And the next day?

And the next day?

What will you do when the millions of boxed up meals ends? When another famine strikes because the underlying causes have not been addressed?

You’ll develop compassion fatigue.

Okay, pack the box of food. And then go to Somalia, make sure a hungry person eats it, make sure that hungry person is repatriated, along with their entire community, to their agricultural region or to their flocks (which have died so must be donated), so that they can become self-sustaining again, they way they once were. Make sure that person doesn’t spend the rest of their life dependent on meals that you box up in the US. Make sure gangs don’t rob, rape, or kill the people. Make sure violence doesn’t force them to abandon their land in the future. Make sure just and good governance is instituted.

People may have walked hundreds of kilometers to get to the food. Now what? They are effectively stuck in the feeding camp until you, who brought them there with your meal, help them go home. Will you do that? Will you stay involved and engaged for that long? Will you fund organizations who will do those things?

Sorry to say, but in the case of the outsider, the answer is most likely no. No, you will not stick it out for decades, a commitment some compare to a marriage. That long, that much effort. Nope. You will move on to the next crisis or to the next Netflix show.

Who will stay?


Somalis in Somalia and Somalis in the diaspora around the world, most whom still have relatives living in Somalia. These are the people who have proven track records of caring for Somalia. Remittances from abroad make up almost a quarter of Somalia’s GDP. Money transfer is keeping people from starving, is helping them set up small businesses or reestablish farms. Somalis who care about good governance and sustainable food security need to be supported.

Somalis who know the culture, region, and people intimately. There are Somalis leading aid work. Get behind them, support them.

This means you might not get your face on a brochure. You might not get a great selfie opportunity. You might not get the praise for risking your life to go to Somalia to see what people are already telling you, if you would just believe them. You might not get the glory of praying for rain and seeing it fall and tweeting about it.

But you might be able to make a difference, just without your left hand knowing what your right hand is doing.

If you are willing to support Somalis helping Somalia, then here are some ways you can get involved.

*There are loads of Go Fund me campaigns being run by Somalis: Somalia Famine Relief, they are partnering with the American Refugee Committee and the International Refugee Committee. And Somalia Famine Relief 2017, run by a group of Somali youth in Minneapolis (go Minnesota!), they are partnering with a Somali-run NGO Read Horn of Africa.

*Technology and social media are both playing large parts in responding to this crisis. Here is how some Somalis are using both to help.

*Abaaraha has developed a crisis mapping system to help aid providers see the big picture and know where there are urgent needs.

*If you have Somalis in your community, talk to their community leaders. Maybe at a mosque, maybe restaurant owners or shopkeepers. Find out what they are doing and ask how you can participate. I know Minneapolis restaurants recently had a Dine Out for Somalia evening, with the goal of raising $150,000 for famine relief. The list included almost 50 restaurants, most of them Somali, Horn of Africa, or Arab cuisine. You can still donate: Dine Out for Somalia.

What if there weren’t only Somali restaurants participating? What if they weren’t primarily Somali diners? Do you, non-Somali American, really need to start your own organization, project, or fund? Get behind what Somalis are already doing, join with them. I suspect you’ll find your donation of time, resources, or money will go further and you’ll be able to see more long-term impact both in your own life and in the lives of people you hope to serve.

*There are so many Somalis helping Somalis, unrelated to famine relief. But all development is positive and can move the entire region in the right direction. Saada Moumin is one such woman, with her school for low-income and special needs children in Djibouti.

*And, sure, I’ll encourage you to pray for Somalia. But keep in mind that you are not the only one praying. Millions of Somalis are praying, both in Somalia and in the diaspora. There are Somali Muslims praying and Christians who care about Somalis praying and I even know some Buddhist Somalis who pray. Don’t fool yourself that when God provides an answer to prayer, it was solely your powerful and effective righteousness that brought it. You are not standing alone in your hope and faith. You are not the hero.

*Read When Helping Hurts. Seriously. If you haven’t read this yet, read it now.

Now, with humility and generosity and critical thoughtfulness, go out and try to do something wise and good.









Dadaab Refugee Camp

I just finished reading City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp by Ben Rawlence.

It is a really sad, vivid, frustrating book. Frustrating not because the book is badly written but because you finish reading it and feel helpless and angry and overwhelmed by all the injustice in the world.

dadaab refugee camp

I know I haven’t been blogging much lately and this post certainly doesn’t do much to fill that hole. I just wanted to take my small corner of the internet to recommend City of Thorns. In my nit-picky way, I was bothered by what came to feel like the author’s rather annoying style of writing. Many sentences could have been clearer and he should have used much more active tense. I got weary of gerunds and commas. His Somali words needed someone else to help with spelling and I remain endlessly curious (even after perusing in detail the end notes and looking some of them up) about where he got some of this information. But – don’t let that all turn you away, most people won’t even notice these things.

If you want to understand even a teensy bit of what refugees go through in today’s world, read this book. Somali, Ethiopian, Sudanese, Syrian, Yemeni, it doesn’t matter. The specifics of course will differ for each individual story and region, but broad issues are the same the world over. If you’re curious about the Westgate shopping mall attack in Kenya, if you don’t understand why Somalis and Kenyans have such deep hatred for each other, read this book.

I know others are reviewing the book and will give much more thoughtful responses. All I can do is suggest that you read it.

City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp.

The Bookshelf: Somalia, Afghanistan, Savannah, Study Habits, and the Body

The Bookshelf Image

A few weeks ago I sat down with a friend and we each scanned our Kindle libraries on our iPhones. Every time we came to a book we either loved or hated, we called out, “Oh, you’ve got to read this one, you’ll love it.” Or, “You’ll hate this one. Some parts were okay, but you’ll still hate it.”

I left with a list of about fifteen new books to look up.

Now that my family is back in Djibouti after five weeks in Minnesota, I wanted to get back into talking about books and recommending books or un-recommending books.

So, here’s what I’m reading this week:

Me Against My Brother by Scott Peterson

I’ve read this before, read it when we lived in Kenya after evacuating from Somaliland. The tagline is: At war in Somalia, Sudan, and Rwanda. I’m reading this time as research for another project and probably won’t read the Sudan and Rwanda parts again. It isn’t by any means a happy book, as you can probably guess by the skulls on the cover. But it is an immensely important book, relevant both to the countries and times it is specifically about but also to our current age of ongoing war and conflict. Peterson pinpoints some of the major US policy errors and calls for the value of understanding the local contexts before storming in with weapons and big ideas. For anyone interested in American foreign policy or in the historical events of war in these three countries, I highly recommend this book.

Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown

I’m reading this as a recommendation by a high school teacher who is a good friend of our family. I’m only on chapter three right now but so far it is excellent. A well-researched look at what kinds of study habits work well and what kind don’t. Unfortunately, the ones that don’t work as well are the most commonly employed by students, teachers, and parents. Learning is supposed to be hard work, when it is hard, we learn better. But many of us take the easy way out and fool ourselves into thinking we’ve learned something. With two teenagers studying far away from me and as I’m trying to figure out how to motivate them and help them develop good, quality study habits, this book is really helpful.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story by John Berendt

I hate to say it but I am not loving this book. I feel like I’m ‘supposed’ to love it but I’m not even sure I will finish it. One friend said she hated it because she just doesn’t enjoy books about the south. I don’t think that’s my issue with it and I’m trying to figure out what really is bugging me. There is kind of a murder story but it doesn’t show up until the middle of the book. It reads more like a series of New Yorker profiles, pasted together in chapter after chapter, linked only because the people live in the same town of Savannah. The writing is, of course, beautiful, the characters richly drawn. But even after the murder, I’m just not convinced of why I’m supposed to care about these people or be interested in their personal foibles.

The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan by Jenny Norberg

A journalists stumbles upon the hidden (to the outside world) world of girls who have been dressed up and passed off as boys by their families in Afghanistan. This means the girls can go to school, play football (soccer), and that families who maybe only had daughters now have the honor of being the parents of ‘sons.’ Fascinating. So far, I love this book. Of course, it hits on several topics that I already am interested in like girls in Muslim countries, Afghanistan, gender topics, a journalist learning about a world long unknown to outsiders…There are huge topics raised in here of human rights, women’s rights, gender appropriation…I highly recommend this.

The 4 Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat Loss, Incredible Sex and Becoming Superhuman by Tim Ferriss

Is this really a mega best seller? Why, oh why? I heard a Longform podcast interview with Ferriss and thought I’d at least check out one of his books. Hated it. Sorry to say, but he sounds kind of pompous. The writing isn’t great, the suggestions quite ridiculous. He says he poo-poos gluten free diets or any kind of ‘diet’ and then essentially lists out a gluten free and carb free diet. Sure, he says he only exercises four hours per month but he spends hours organizing his sleep, food, ice baths…it seems like a life of obsessive compulsive disorder ramped up like ten notches. He seems to think he can cover exercise, diet, and sex in one book and has all the solutions to everything, including how to reach a 15-minute female orgasm. I pretty much tossed the book aside after a few chapters. Though, I will say that he has me wanting to buy a kettle ball. So. There’s that.

What are you reading?

Modern Nomads Journal

modern nomads1

I love artists. I love when people living abroad use their authentic talents to delve into their host cultures and I love when they do it in collaboration with local artists who can teach the foreigner, provide insight, and give broader perspectives, like how does this event fit into the historical realities of this location…

That’s why I love this project: Modern Nomads Journal. It doesn’t hurt that it is beautiful and expertly crafted. It also doesn’t hurt that writers I’ve worked with at EthnoTraveler, like Abdi Latif Dahir, are featured in interviews or that a female Somali playwright tells her story and her dream inside the pages of this 88-page journal.

Last week they launched a kickstarter campaign to fund the first printing of the journal, to which I happily contributed. This week they are busy launching their Somali-language magazine Dhugasho and I am happily promoting the English-language journal to Djibouti Jones readers. Head over to their kickstarter page, donate if you feel so inclined, and look forward to getting a copy of this lovely journal in your mail box (actual mail box).

Journal Introduction

There are few nomadic societies that have been catapulted into the 21st century as dramatically as the Somali. 20 years of war have scattered hundreds of thousands of Somalis all over the world. People who were born in little desert villages and grew up herding camels are now young professionals in London, Toronto, or Minneapolis. And as their large families often live in a dozen different countries, many Somalis live uniquely international lives as modern nomads.

But while most of those who have left their country as refugees keep up their connections with home, and try to preserve their rich cultural heritage and history, a new generation of diaspora Somalis is growing up that has never seen the Horn of Africa. Raised in Western or Middle Eastern cities and surrounded by American, European, or Arab friends, they are more interested in pop culture than camel culture, and often barely speak their mother-tongue or know their place in the clan system.

As new catastrophes force new refugees into the West, and old diaspora members return to their home country, the clash of cultures within Somali society is being fought wherever Somalis live. Whether a family in the Netherlands, trying to teach their children the old traditions and values, or a family in Mogadishu, struggling with an influx of “Westerners”, every Somali is confronted with cultural change, and everybody has to ask themselves what it really means to be Somali.

We want to capture a cultural heritage that is in the process of being lost forever, and help the Somali people to remember and treasure their past. At the same time, we are hoping to document the amazing changes that are happening within Somali culture, and to catch a glimpse of the new rich and diverse society that is emerging out of the ashes of a long civil war.

Follow Modern Nomads Journal on Instagram and be sure to check out their Kickstarter campaign, less then three weeks to go!

And a personal side note, Djiboutian artists (story-tellers, photographers, poets, writers, painters…) I would love to connect with you and to hear how you are sharing your story and art with the world…please leave a comment or contact me.

Don’t forget to sign up for Stories from the Horn, Djibouti Jones’s monthly newsletter coming to your inbox on April 1

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