Sunday, April 13, 2008

All Somalis ... ?

I’ve had the opportunity lately to give workshops on Somali culture to a local hospital. The rapidly-growing Somali population here (estimated at 45,000 and growing) has caused a heavy load on the local health-care system -- in part because many of them are poor, but mostly because there is a serious language barrier, and, to a lesser extent, a cultural barrier.

Interpreters can tell each party what the other one is saying, but to have the words make sense requires a different kind of interpretation. And that’s where we come in.

We tailor the presentation details to the specific group to which we’re presenting, but overall I’ve found it’s very important to ensure the audience hears the answers to these two questions:

(1) What are Somalis like?
In the big ways, they are like everyone else. People are people. They love, they laugh, they cry. Some are wonderful, kind and gentle. Others are mean. People are people everywhere.

(2) But aren’t there some things that are true of all Somalis?
Good question.
Let’s take the most common cultural stereotypes:

- All Somalis are Muslim.
No. It’s estimated that 98-99% are, however. And within the label of “Muslim” is a wide range of beliefs and behaviors, from extremely conservative to very liberal. As I said above, people are people. No cookie cutters were used to make the Somalis any more than any other people on Earth.

- All Somali women cover their heads.
No. Many do; some, particularly some of the younger ones here in the U.S., choose not to. It is largely a matter of religious feeling - and it is a choice. As it says in the Qur’an. “There is no compulsion in religion.”

- Somalis don’t smoke.
Actually tobacco use is a major problem, particularly among men.

- Somalis never drink alcohol.
Nope, not so. It is definitely not common but there are a few Somalis of my acquaintance who will occasionally indulge, and I find it hard to imagine I’ve met all of them, so there are likely a couple others out there somewhere.

- Somalis don’t eat pork.
Pork is one of the items forbidden in the Qur’an. I have no statistics, but in eight years of working with Somalis, I have met Somalis who smoked, some who drank, some who used other drugs, but I have yet to meet a Somali who would admit to having ever tasted pork.
Then, all Somalis avoid pork?
Pork is forbidden for Muslims and Jews, and there are some Somali Christians. I have no idea what their dietary habits are; I’ve never looked into that.

So...eating, drinking, behavior, personality, dressing -- these will vary. Is there one single thing that can be said to be true of all Somalis living in the world today?
Sure. All Somalis breathe.