Excerpt from Stars upside down
by Jennie Goutet
We were befriended by some of our Somali neighbors, and they introduced us to the experience of drinking camel’s milk, which was supposed to have all sorts of health benefits. But it was such a salty, horrifying thing to drink I couldn’t bear to take more than a sip. I much preferred the home-cooked, stone-ground coffee ritual that our Ethiopian cook treated us to.
The neighbors also invited us to share in their ritual of perfuming. Our hair was heavily laced with cologne, and we stood over a smoking clay pot with our long cotton dresses, while delightfully scented incense permeated our bodies and the fabric of our dresses. A later attempt to replicate the ritual, when I was back in New York, resulted in a singularly embarrassing experience as I cleared a wide berth around me in the subway car with overly strong cologne in stifling quarters.
The servants at the hospital often made spiced samosas for us—fried dough stuffed with flavored, ground goat meat, which we ate along with our hot, sweet chai tea. At night, we gathered around the small television to watch an eclectic stash of DVDs, some of which we borrowed from the Danish De-Miners, the non-governmental organization responsible for removing all the remaining mines in the desert, leftover from the civil war. On a few evenings, we women applied a green facemask made of a local plant called Qasil, mixed with water to form a thick paste. It was the local ritual for beautiful skin, and it left ours soft and glowing.
The cleaners swept the wet rag over the tile floor every day to clean the persistent accumulation of sand, and negotiated among themselves who was going to make the heavily sugared Somali tea that was for their own consumption. They took our laundry and washed it in shallow buckets, pounding the clothes clean and hanging them to dry.
The guards were mostly a formality, I suppose, but they were a necessary one. We asked them to refrain from chewing khat—the leaves that local people chewed to get a buzz, and that could become dangerous with long-term usage. But apart from chewing, they didn’t have a whole lot to do other than sit there, and it was a challenge for them to resist this small pleasure.
We weren’t in much danger in our compound, and if we had been, there was very little they could do about it without weapons. One late night, an irate person with a grudge, set off a bomb on our neighbor’s compound, and it shook the foundations of our own. Fortunately no one was hurt from the incident, although everyone on our team ran out to the guard to see what had happened. I slept soundly through the whole thing.
We could not have done without a driver, as there was no insurance for an accident in Somaliland. If someone got hurt or a car got totaled, the elders of the two clans got together and hashed out what the proper recompense was. If you didn’t belong to a clan, you had no one to take up your side.
That was what hurt some of the orphans the most, this lack of knowing which clan they belonged to. Orphans had a place in Muslim culture, and especially in Somaliland. They were nearly as likely as anyone else to succeed in their ambition if they could survive the poor sanitary conditions of the orphanage. But some orphans were left at the gate with no trace of their heritage, and those unnamed orphans had so little hope.
Dowood was one such orphan who didn’t know which clan he belonged to. As if his lack of identity was not enough, the orphanage director lost his mind during the civil war and started shooting randomly at the orphans, hitting Dowood in the leg when he was just two years old. Dowood felt his perceived lack of worth desperately, and had already tried to commit suicide at least once by the time I met him at the age of twelve.
Our electricity went on every day from eight to eleven at night, and any other electricity we needed would have to be gotten through a generator. The lights were so dim when we finally did have electricity I could barely read. They were so dim I couldn’t even get a number to appear on my solar powered calculator when I held it towards the light. And all of our food had to be eaten daily because the refrigerator wasn’t on long enough to keep things cold.
The water was not drinkable, so we relied on boiling large pots, or we drank bottled water. And when we took a shower, it was frigid (the desert is not hot in the mornings, only in the afternoons), and we jumped in squealing and hyperventilating, taking our hygienic standards to a new low. “Oh, I washed my hair four days ago. I can go another day.”
However, there was a simplistic joy in crawling into the rough-hewn beds covered with a tent of mosquito netting, the fresh desert night air pouring in through the open windows, the guard sitting in the compound making quiet movements as he settled down for the night. There was simple pleasure in rubbing oneself off vigorously after a freezing cold shower, and dressing in a clean cotton shift before sitting down with a steaming cup of tea.
There was this feeling of wonder, climbing up the ladder outdoors to the flat roof of the compound, and sitting there, staring at a sky full of stars like you’ve never seen—a view somewhat spoiled when they installed a neon light at a gas station a few roads over. Still, if you lay down, you couldn’t see the light—just the blackness of the night, the plethora of stars showering the night sky with white glitter and a frequent shooting star silently cutting across the expanse.
Very early in the morning came the call to prayer over the loudspeakers. And that set off the sound of a rooster crowing in the kitchen, if that’s what our cook decided we would be eating for lunch.
I planted myself in this place, the dry air brushing my face and bracing my limbs, as I waited to see what would come. I was getting my bearings, numbly pushing roots into the desert soil in search of something stronger to attach myself to—in search of my source of water. How little I imagined that these two months were just a breathing period, and I was going to need it.
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