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Two Podcasts and an Essay

I’m pumped to share two podcast episodes with y’all and an essay.

Maybe we need a break from COVID-19 news?

Maybe we need to be thankful for things like podcasts and reading essays – things we can do while in isolation or quarantine to pass the time?

I know what it is like to be in isolation and it can be lonely or boring (though I almost never get bored!) and so maybe these things can help pass the time.

Stay safe, stay healthy, stay kind, stay compassionate, stay generous.

Here you go:

Creating Community in Djibouti, with Kristin Schell of The Turquoise Table podcast and book and community. She has such a lovely vision of creating space in our lives and physical areas to build community. I loved talking, she had wonderful questions focused on what it has been like to find and build community while living in a foreign country.

“Rachel’s story takes us on a beautiful journey from a high rise apartment complex in Minneapolis to a school in The Horn of Africa. Rachel’s story of creating community and connection is one of the most inspiring yet. Relationships that started in her own backyard led her family across the globe to Djibouti.

When she was just twenty-two years old and a new mother of twins, Rachel received hospitality from complete strangers, her Somali neighbors. Her immigrant neighbors befriended her — bringing her food and even offering to clean her house while she rested with the twins. Rachel was overwhelmed by their incredible friendship and a curiosity to know more about their home East Africa was born.

What transpires next is remarkable. Rachel and her family move from urban Minneapolis to a rural part of Somalia. Then to Djibouti. Kristin and Rachel talk about what it’s like to be a Christian in a country that is 99% Muslim and the incredible relationships she’s made with her neighbors. Rachel gives us a brief overview of the Muslim religion and piques our curiosity to learn more. After all, loving your Muslim neighbor is the same as loving your non-Muslim neighbor.”

Life at the Crossroads of Faith and Culture, with Amber McCullough at the Grace Enough Podcast. We dug deep into faith and and how I’m learning to love the stranger primarily through being the stranger. Amber was insightful and her questions made me think! Really enjoyed our conversation and I hope you do, too.

Today, Rachel talks about how living as a minority has increased her empathy toward the stranger and has ceased to label someone different as “NON.”

We talk about loving the stranger.

We talk about what she has learned from Muslim practices.

We talk about faith conversations and a deepening faith that is more about being with God and less about right theology and dogma

This conversation is one that will stretch you. It will lead you to ask questions of how and when and where to step into the uncomfortable places and stop assuming.

Pleasure and Pain, in The Smart Set, a magazine of Drexel University. This essay slightly terrifies me. It gets pretty vulnerable and personal. But I’m also kinda proud of it (if writers are allowed to say that). It shows how I’ve changed and grown, things I’ve learned, while living in the Horn of Africa. Specifically, things about the body, embodiment, contentment, strength, and being kind to our bodies. Here’s an excerpt, starting with the easier body parts…

Body: The organized physical substance of an animal or plant either living or dead, fullness and richness of flavor (as of wine), a mass of matter distinct from other masses (a body of water).


I’ve thought a lot about my legs. I pinched the cottage cheesy bulge that oozed out from my shorts on sticky summer evenings when I sat on the pews in my childhood Baptist church sanctuary. I watched my legs swell during pregnancy. I flexed in front of the mirror when I became a runner and double-checked race photos to stare at my muscle definition. I’m slightly knock-kneed and the fourth toe of my right foot is slowly curling beneath my third toe. If I live to 90, they might meld together.

I’ve thought a lot about my nose. It is big and straight with a slight hook on the end. It is my maternal grandfather’s nose. I’ve picked it, pierced it twice, and broken it once. I needed surgery to fix the break and asked the doctor if, while in there, he could give me a cute little upturn at the end or maybe decrease the overall size. He laughed and put me under. I woke with two black eyes and a cast. Yes, a cast on my face. In high school. My friends in Djibouti tell me I have a beautiful, Arab nose, and this is one of my favorite things about being an expatriate. Not the appreciation for what I considered my worst feature, but the way culture offers fresh perspectives. Now that my grandfather has died, I’m thankful the doctor didn’t change my nose. I see my grandfather every time I look in the mirror.

I’ve thought a lot about my hair. Curly and blond. Perfect in the 1980s when I merely had to run a round brush through my bangs and voila, the frizzy poof my sisters spent hours trying to achieve. Not so perfect when I lived in Somalia and my hair was too slippery to hold a headscarf in place. When the scarf slipped, my curls sprang out, unruly and bold. My hair is neither perfect nor imperfect for Djibouti, next door to Somalia and where I live now. I’ve learned how to tie it up and I’ve learned to be comfortable with it flowing down. The trouble with hair in Djibouti is that mine falls out in handfuls, from the salty water in the shower, from the stress, from the extreme temperatures, constant sweat and sun, and from cancer.

I’ve thought about my breasts. I tried to hide them, tried to accentuate them, used them to feed children, wondered if they will eventually develop cancer and kill me. I was wrong about my breasts. It was my thyroid that got the cancer. It hasn’t killed me, yet.

The body as I saw it, called into question the premise I was raised to believe; that God saw what he had created and called it very good.

The body is weak, prone to breakdown and damage. It is vulnerable. It smells weird and makes awkward noises and doesn’t always look the way I want it to in skinny jeans, or any jeans. The body is infinitely varied among humans and all of us have hair and moles, sometimes hairy moles. We have crooked teeth and lopsided earlobes and butts that sag, jiggle, or form shelves behind us. Is this breakable vessel truly something sacred? Can this thing, capable of murder, theft, lying, abuse, lust, greed, pride, and cruelty be good?

There are other body parts I never gave much thought to until I lived in the Horn of Africa. Parts I earned, ignored, damaged, lost, and neglected. Parts I couldn’t imagine having a role in the deep, creative, beautiful goodness of being human.

But life here, in community with Muslim friends, in the steamy desert, in a world upside down from the world of my childhood, changed the way I look at and think about my body parts. It changed the way I thought about goodness, about the intricate handiwork implicit in the way we live and move and have our being…

The essay goes on to cover everything from hemorrhoids to uvulas, thyroids to skin, and even more personal parts, all of them good. Enjoy!

A Djiboutian Restaurant

Quick link: All Beans, No Tomatoes: a week in the life of a food vendor in Djibouti

Today I am excited to share an article published by The Smart Set. I have spent a long time on this particular piece and am happy to see it published. Its my first attempt at longform journalism.



All the years we’ve lived here I see women working tea stalls and restaurants on the side of the road and near construction sites. I’ve always wondered what their lives were like. Did they earn much money? How did they decide where to set up? How did people choose which stall to frequent? The women worked hard, desperately hard, but didn’t seem to make much progress in upward mobility.

I decided to find a restaurant that might welcome me for a while and be willing to let me write about them. I drove to the most upperclass neighborhood of the city and pulled up beside a stall, chosen at random. I climbed out of the car and approached the woman who had already clearly been working for hours and it was still early morning.

I told her my intentions and who I was. She said, “Sit. Take out your pencil and notebook.”

So I did. Every day for a week, starting at dawn. I watched and listened and asked questions and learned. I loved it. I highly respect these women and am thankful for how they opened their work and lives to me.

An excerpt:

Amina sits idle in the shade of her makeshift restaurant. A pot of boiling kidney beans near her toes and a cardboard case of fifteen brown eggs remind her of the work to be done, the work she can’t do yet. She counts the eggs again, tapping her henna-orange fingernail on the shit-and-feather encrusted shells, one by one. She arrived in the upper-class Hara Mus neighborhood of Djibouti City in the gray dawn haze before the construction workers appeared, before the first call to prayer, before the sun slinked through low clouds over the Gulf of Tadjourah.

She claimed a wooden plank stool. Emptied yellow oil jugs, turned on their sides and indented from hours of serving as chairs, are harder to balance on and Amina will work here until early afternoon. The stool sits lower to the ground than the jugs and provides easier access to her knives, pots, vegetables, and fire, and her back needs the sturdy support.

Little known outside the Horn of Africa, Djibouti is strategically positioned at the crux of shipping lanes linking the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean via the Red Sea and is in the throes of rapid development. Amina has taken advantage of the masses of construction workers and used diligent entrepreneurialism to carve out a niche for herself. Thirty-five years of independence from France and a consistent peace, other than minor skirmishes with Somaliland to the east and Eritrea to the north and a brief civil war in Afar territory in the early 1990s, has allowed Djibouti a steady momentum, though opportunities for employment remain limited. The CIA World Factbook quotes, as of September 2014 but based on a static estimate from 2007, a 59% urban unemployment rate and an 83% rural unemployment rate. Amina, with her tea and eggs and beans, is one of these officially unemployed people and the nature of her work ensures that she will be, year after year. Scraping for franc and earning barely enough to cover daily expenses leave little room for paying down her debts and no room for advancement.

The 2014 Misery Index lists Djibouti as one of five countries with ‘extremely high estimated Misery Indices’ but is unable to give it an updated ranking due to Djibouti’s lack of updated statistics. For Amina, the only numbers that matter are how many men will she feed today? How many will pay? How much will her supplies cost? How many people in her family will she be able to feed tonight?

I would be honored if you’d visit The Smart Set to read: All Beans, No Tomatoes

What I Learned When I Failed to Learn Somali

Today I am sharing an article I had published yesterday at The Smart Set: What I Learned When I Failed to Learn Somali.

Its about, well, read the title. Yeah, that.

I’m so happy with the feedback I’ve already received from the Somali and Djiboutian community about the piece – Waad mahadsan tihiin! It is a deep honor to be welcomed into your culture and language and to be received with warmth and encouragement.

The Smart Set published Big Knife Thursdays back in late July. As a follow-up, guess what Henry got for his thirteenth birthday? A big knife. A big, machete-style knife. Maggie already had one. Oh boy.

Here’s a clip from the piece about learning Somali.


There are 16 ways to form a sentence using the same six words in Somali. The man cuts his beard with a razor. His beard with a razor the man cuts. With a razor the man his beard cuts. With a razor cuts the man his beard. And on and on.

It doesn’t work in English.

Somali uses small changes, a ‘u’ at the end of a word instead of an ‘i.’ Waa, or waxaainstead of baa which affects the placement and stress and subject and object of words in the sentence but which means nothing by itself.

This makes Somali a challenging language to learn for non-native speakers.

Somali also has words specific to the life of camel-herding nomads, words with no direct translation into English. Words for the Ethiopian women who carry bundles of sticks on their hunched-over backs. Different words for different genders of camels, different ages, whether or not a camel has given birth.

This makes Somali a challenging language to learn for non-native, non-nomadic, non-camel-herding speakers.

Click here to read the rest of What I Learned When I Failed to Learn Somali.

Bring a Big Knife to School

*re-posting this on September 8, 2014, in celebration of the essay being named a Notable Essay by Best American Travel Writing, the story was originally published in July, 2013.

Today I am sending you to The Smart Set by Drexel University to read Bring a Big Knife to School Thursdays about when Maggie asked for a knife for Christmas, when I teased my way out of purchasing an ashtray made of a naked couple copulating, and one of the times when I felt like though I will always be foreign maybe I belong in Djibouti, maybe I’ve learned some things.


This is the street in the market on which the story takes place, a little further up. In fact, this is the very day. That’s me in the black dress.

Read the full essay here Bring a Big Knife to School Thursdays.

p.s. My apologies for using, in the views of some, rather crude language in the last few essays. You will find yet another penis in this essay. I guess I say it like I see it.

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