Life is a trial. Constantly, it pins us between the devil and the deep blue sea, challenging all of flesh and air to become each other’s shining moonlight in this mysterious test.
I learned this perspective as a 12-year-old boy when civil war erupted in my birth country of Somalia.
Historians argue that many of the recent conflicts in Africa trace their origins to colonial powers drawing arbitrary boundaries across the land in disregard to indigenous people’s way of life and aspirations. Somalia, a country whose people share a common language, culture, religion and geographical area, was among those hurt by European colonialism with each master doing as they pleased with their share of the land and human resources. The land was thus split into: British Somaliland, Italian Somaliland, and French Somaliland. In addition, Britain later transferred a large part of its colonial territories to Ethiopia and Kenya.
In the Somali Republic, which emerged when the British protectorate and Italian Somaliland decided to join following independence, civilian administrations were followed by a military dictatorship (1969-1991). In good Cold War fashion, this dictatorship was supported and armed first by the Soviet Union and then by the U.S., without anyone caring much about the fate of ordinary Somalis. When the Cold War came to an end, and the two superpowers withdrew their support from the undemocratic regimes they had supported and maintained in power, many parts of Africa fell into civil wars.
Struggle for power in Somalia
This also happened in Somalia, where the worst violence came when fellow civilians turned from state victim to anarchic perpetrator in a brutal war of clan cleansing rooted in a struggle for power. This is the background to my own flight from my country of birth.
The civil war has had disastrous impacts for ordinary Somalis, including my family. Mortar shells destroyed our homes, our roads, our schools. But the true horror was not the rubble. It was the undoing of casual reality: the millions of daily unnoticed ways in which we intermingled; the passing of lead pencils at school; father’s laugh at dinner; classmates praying at the beach.
I became aware of our trial after local elders carried out the remains of our neighbors following a shattering explosion. They summoned my peer group to march to the city center and there demand the surrender of the dictator and his generals. We were armed with nothing but picket signs and the bravado of youthful fraternity in the pursuit of justice. We marched past shuttered windows and armed soldiers pleading to us to return home.
Then a swarm of bullets cut down my friends with the sound of a thousand bees. I have never been able to dedicate my friends’ lives to any cause. Their trial is a mystery.
But in a smaller sense, they established my trial as a survivor that every day would be a struggle to secure a better social contract that frees each of its children through education, enterprise, service, and a guiding philosophy that people of uncommon backgrounds and beliefs must dynamically govern in an interdependent society.
A continuity of testing
It is the same trial of mercy toward all of humanity given to many of us who have fled our homelands due to havoc wrought by the dogs of war. I believe this is so because life’s test comes not as a series of isolated incidents but one in continuity with past and future.
Today, the country that adopted me suffers from the fallout and blowback of multiple foreign wars. Public trust in institutions remains at historic lows. Random acts of violence captured by the latest technology populate our social-media feeds. Sometimes the guns kill our acquaintances, our co-workers, or our cousins, in my case (in 2010).
Confidence in U.S. institutions
In my wildest nightmare, I sometimes imagine scenarios where Minneapolis could resemble Mogadishu in the violence committed by one group against another simply because they are different. But I resist such outlandish thoughts only because I have strong faith in my newest home’s checks and balances. With such a confidence in the institutions of the oldest and strongest democracy ever known, I rebuff my pessimistic fears. Knowing that American politics is a retail politics where states, cities and counties can rebuff federal policies that harm their most vulnerable people also comforts me.
More than anything, I rebuff my pessimistic fears because I know now is not the time to be in fear. Hopelessness is the enemy of justice. We must remain optimistic; we must be brave in doing what’s right. Indeed, optimism never dies in America!
Hamse Warfa is an author, leadership trainer and social entrepreneur. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.