Moving forward while standing still

Reflecting on the 60th anniversary of Somalia’s Independence with Fouzia Warsame, one of the country's most prominent academics.

Mogadishu. Image credit Mohamed Duale.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Somalia’s independence from Britain and Italy, a milestone that is weighing heavily on the minds of Somali people around the world. Somalia’s descent into civil war and state collapse in the early 1990s dealt a severe blow to the dreams of an independent and unified Somali homeland. This was reinforced by Western hegemonic narratives which have characterized Somalia as the quintessential “failed state.” In the past decade, the “failed state” discourse has somewhat shifted, aided by the “Somalia rising” counter-narrative following the installment of two consecutive internationally recognized governments. Countless diaspora Somalis have since returned from neighboring and Western countries to contribute to national reconstruction.

However, women have been excluded from meaningful participation in rebuilding Somalia. Somali politics is dominated by older men from the Western diaspora and local elders. A festering schism between diaspora (qurbojoog) and “stayees” (qoraxjoog) has evoked anxieties about citizenship and belonging. Stayees, resentful of diaspora efforts to “save” Somalia, have contemptuously labeled returnees as dayuusbora, or “ill-mannered diaspora,” a clever play on words that exacerbates the tension.

Fouzia Warsame is a Somali-Canadian returnee who has played an important role in rebuilding the country’s first and only public university. As Dean of the Faculty of Education and Social Science at the Somali National University, she is one of the most prominent academics in the country. I first met Fouzia in 2018 at a York University workshop on refugee education where she invited me to visit Somalia, the country I had fled and not seen since childhood. I took up the offer and returned “home” in December 2019. In Mogadishu, I was welcomed by Fouzia and her team of dedicated educators and students.

Fouzia notes that the tensions between diaspora and stayees create an added difficulty for professional diaspora women as patriarchal norms seek to maintain “a woman’s place within Somali society.”

Though born in Somalia, Fouzia grew up in Canada where she had to resist “the bitter narrative of Somali dispossession” and held onto the hope of returning “home” one day. Upon returning in 2013, she was faced with the bleak social and political realities of contemporary Somalia. Fouzia sought to contribute to education and got involved with the Ministry of Higher Education, Culture, and Heritage. She was later appointed as the re-founding dean at her faculty in 2013. The university was established in 1954 to facilitate the building of a modern Somali state. It closed in 1990 on the eve of Somalia’s disintegration and was rebuilt 24 years later. Fouzia vividly remembers coming to the site of the main campus in early 2014 when the historic re-construction was to begin. She recollects, “standing in the middle of that rubble and imagining what it would be like and what we could do. I thought, you always needed this country, and now it needs you.”

Fouzia Warsame.

Fouzia faced her fair share of local mistrust and resentment. She had to build trust with her faculty colleagues and students who had misgivings about her presence. Fouzia won over many with her persistence, innovative curricular reforms, and resolute global advocacy for the university. Her critics, often older men, would rebuke her as out of place. This double exclusion, as a woman and diaspora returnee, has left Fouzia exhausted at times, especially as the only woman serving on the university’s governing council. She says, “I have to work ten times harder than the men for my contributions to be valued, to be accepted, and to belong.”

Clan affiliation is an ever-present issue as hiring is usually based on the so called “4.5 formula,” a transitional constitutional settlement which requires government positions be shared between the four major clans and “others.” But, as Fouzia reminded me, “clan is a safety net only for men.” In a country increasingly dominated by its Western diaspora, “what is of value is the knowledge and experience gained abroad.” For women, “education doesn’t afford them the social mobility enjoyed by their male counterparts because it is gender that keeps them standing still.”

In recent years, several high-ranking diaspora women in public service have left their positions after having their work devalued and undermined.

Fouzia recalls a memorable lecture by Professor George Dei, her mentor at the University of Toronto. In the wake of Barack Obama’s election as the first black President of the United States in 2008, Dei cautioned against the rhetoric of a “post-racial society” given the lived realities of racial exclusion in the West. Fouzia remembers Dei saying, “the work you do in anti-racism often feels like you’re moving forward while standing still.” She similarly likens the discourse of a “post-conflict society” in Somalia to the post-racial rhetoric in the West at that time. There is a complacency of sorts in these “posts” as people of African descent, whether on the continent or in the diaspora, still live in an all too real present of marginalization driven by the forces of neocolonialism, racism, patriarchy, and neoliberal capitalism. In Somalia, there is a deepening returnee-stayee divide at all levels of society. She laments that “the problem in Somalia is one of discord. What we need now is dialogue.”

At the end of our conversation, I asked Fouzia, “where do we go from here?” She explained, “this critical juncture of the 60th anniversary is an opportune time for us to abandon uninformed approaches to political disagreements that have not moved us out of this quagmire.” I could not agree with her more. Somalia stands at a crossroads. Next year marks 30 years since the collapse of the pre-war government and the subsequent fragmentation. There is an urgent need for an inclusive process of national reconstruction to enable deep social transformation. However, women, often relegated to “back-stage” roles, suffer one of two fates when attempting to meaningfully participate in this process: either they are completely omitted, or when they are able or “allowed” to take part, are usually undermined and pushed out.

Further Reading

Independence Day

The labor and political organizing of Somali immigrants in the US Midwest should inspire more Americans to join the broader movement for worker rights and racial equality.

Hashtag Somalia

There is considerably less sustained outcry on social media about African life in relation to ongoing forms of structural violence that may be more mundane but just as deadly.

Making Somalia great again

Xenophobia has emerged as a rare consistent and core aspect of President Trump’s foreign policy, directed domestically toward diaspora communities, and outwardly in equal measure. During a campaign speech in Minneapolis, then-candidate Trump disparaged the …

Jeffrey Gettleman in Somalia

By Abdourahman Waberi*

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