An Exclusive Interview with Fadumo Dayib

A former refugee who learned to read and write at age fourteen, Fadumo Dayib has consistently defied the odds throughout her life. Now, she hopes to make history as Somalia’s first female presidential candidate in the country’s September elections. The doctoral candidate at the University of Helsinki and fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University spoke to Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng about her dreams for a better Somalia and the role of women and diaspora in shaping that future.

We’re accustomed to images of Somalia that depict lawlessness and tribalism, chaos and famine. What is Somalia to you and what could it be?
I have an image of Somalia that is probably stuck in time. It’s a Somalia I remember from the 1980s—the Somalia of my experience where people went to work from Monday to Thursday, and Fridays and Saturdays were spent outside Mogadishu where families would relax at the farm or go swimming. I have an image of a vibrant, sophisticated society where women and men went to work and received equal pay. This is the image that is stuck in my mind, and sometimes I get teased that the relationship I have with Somalia is a romantic one whereby you have an image of what a successful partner once looked like and you relive these experiences day-in, day-out.

I know that I’m dealing with a generation that knows nothing other than anarchy and poverty and all the problems associated with Somalia. I try to talk to these first and second-generation Somalis who have not seen what a stable government looks like, and share that image of the Somalia I know with them. I know that this is an image we cannot go back to although I am optimistic that with the right kind of leadership and strong vision we could, perhaps, be able to develop a better country—maybe even better than the image that I have in my mind. I can feel, smell, and touch the potential that Somalia has. I don’t see the Somalia that the media likes to portray. I have a very sacred, private, intimate relationship with the Somalia of my memories, which is what helps me maintain my optimism about its future.

That’s beautiful. Last year, I met Dr. Deqo Mohamed of the Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation and she echoed your sentiments. The Somalia of her childhood is not the Somalia of today, but even in the midst of its current struggles, she also recognizes its potential.
I went back this January after ten years away. When I landed at the airport, I just started crying. As they drove me through Mogadishu, I couldn’t stop crying and they couldn’t understand why. When I closed my eyes, I felt like I was back in the city of my youth, where I spent a significant amount of time, but when I opened my eyes, the people staring back at me and the destroyed buildings that lined the streets, I felt out of place. Until I got out of the car and felt the sand beneath my feet and I knew “yes, I am home.” So for Dr. Hawa and Dr. Deqo, the people who remember that beautiful Somalia but see the state of the country today, it must be a painful experience.

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Earlier, you talked about the young generation of Somalis and how they do not know the Somalia that you once knew. How do you think Al-Shabaab has contributed to today’s environment? Why do you think they’ve been so successful in radicalizing young Somalis?
Al-Shabaab manipulates and distorts Islamic text to justify their actions. On my first day back in Mogadishu, I went around to visit different people while wearing traditional Somali dress. Whenever I got out of the car, the youth around, the first and second-generation Somalis who have known nothing but life in a state of anarchy, kept telling me I was exposed and that the way I was dressed was un-Islamic. I was shocked because I told them, “do you realize these are the clothes your mothers and grandmothers used to wear? I’m not naked—I’m wearing Somali traditional dress.” They didn’t realize that because they’ve just been exposed to a certain way of dressing. If you’re not dressed like that, to them, you’re not a Muslim or a Somali. Al-Shabaab has not only robbed them of an education, economic opportunities, and a stable life, but they’ve also brainwashed these youth to think that being an Arab is equal to being a good Muslim.

What I’ve realized is that Al-Shabaab promotes the Arabization of Somalia like Boko Haram does in Nigeria and others do elsewhere. People are programmed to think that if you dress like an Arab, then and only then are you a true Muslim. Some are even changing their names to Arabic names thinking that this is what the religion dictates.

Al-Shabaab is very good at propaganda and the conflict in Somalia has given them an opportunity to attract young people. Almost 75% of the Somali population is under the age of thirty. Of that, the majority is unemployed. If they have no viable means of livelihood or if they cannot run away to the West or neighboring countries, then they will have only a few options including piracy or joining Al-Shabaab. For people who live on less than a $1 per day, it will become an attractive option because from Al-Shabaab, you can get authority, a salary every month, and kinship (because Al-Shabaab is very good at promoting solidarity and brotherhood). They use young people to recruit other young people, and they’re very tech-savvy—utilizing social media to attract people.

Poverty isn’t the only excuse for why Al-Shabaab is steadily growing. They’re not only good at recruiting youth in Somalia, but also recruiting youth in the diaspora. Even though youth in the diaspora might have abundant opportunities, many still feel marginalized and are attracted by the hyper-masculine image that Al-Shabaab portrays. Al-Shabaab can walk into any family’s home and demand that a fourteen-year-old girl become a fighter’s wife. You see images of them in fancy cars or with fancy houses. This image also attracts disenfranchised youth in the diaspora to join. In Somalia, I think recruitment is successful because of bad governance and poverty, but in the diaspora it’s really marginalization and a distorted view of religion, especially the desire to find a faster route to heaven.

Across Africa, diaspora plays a powerful role in shaping the future of nations. I’m curious about how you have defined your Somali identity over the years after spending significant portions of your life in Kenya and Finland.
I was born in Kenya and lived between Kenya and Somalia. I was constantly shuttled back and forth between the two countries. When I was very young, I didn’t feel that my identity was that of a Somali. It was only when the Kenyan government deported my family in 1988 back to Somali and we landed in Mogadishu as refugees that I actually realized that Somalia was home. Even though I had felt like a Kenyan all those years, I realized that I was truly Somali.

With my family came thousands of first- and second-generation Kenyan-Somalis, some of whom couldn’t speak a word of Somali and who were deported because of their ethnicity. A few years ago, someone asked me if I felt bitter about the deportation and I said no. That was the best gift the Kenyan government could have ever given me—to direct me to where I belong. From that time onwards, I’ve never looked back. Since then, I have always known that wherever I go, I will never truly fit in. It will never be home. Home will always be Somalia. I’ve lived in Finland over twenty-six years, and my suitcase is always by the door. I know that I will never be a Finn. Whenever I go, I will always be a Somali.

As the years go by and I grow, the more intense this feeling of home and belonging becomes. I don’t want to become old and die in a country that isn’t mine where I feel like an outsider. I hope that one day it will be possible, but if it is not Somalia, then at least I would like to go back to the continent and be back in Africa.

I was really touched by the story you told of being deported from Kenya. As a Kenyan myself, conscious of that history, I am interested in hearing your thoughts about the state of affairs of Somalis in Kenya, especially those in refugee camps.
Those in refugee camps are in the process of being repatriated and sent back. The Kenyan government has signed an agreement with the UNHCR to deport back the majority of the Somali refugees. They’re currently giving $100 to whoever voluntarily leaves Kenya. I can’t speak for the refugees because I don’t know most of them, but I think that the majority know that they will be sent home and that even though they have children who were born in and have grown up in Dadaab, they will always be Somalis.

I might be even bold enough to say that even Kenyan-Somalis know that they are not true Kenyans. It has been made abundantly clear in many different ways—through the Wagalla Massacre. As a child, I remember people being round up, arrested off the streets, and taken to police stations. It’s a complex relationship and it’s getting better, but it will take a long time before Kenyan-Somalis will be seen as just Kenyans and not judged based on their ethnicity.

Moving slightly to focus on you and your story—you didn’t learn to read or write until age fourteen. What changed then?
I think I always wanted education, but my parents didn’t have the means. Both of them were illiterate, so perhaps they didn’t initially understand the importance of education. I was brought up by a single mother who was constantly fending for her children by any means necessary. Around fourteen, we came back from Somalia because my mother was sick and house-bound during her recovery, so for the first time in my life, we were stable and in a place for five or six years. That’s when I started going regularly to school. I used to watch Dallas, Dynasty, and other American shows, and I thought, “I’d like to have that kind of life.” There was a comic called Kalulu. I would read the pictures and imagine what was happening, but I always wanted to understand the words. When I told my mother, I wanted to lead that kind of life and learn, she said, “why not” and enrolled me in school. She even hired a tutor to help me excel. All in all, I had five or six years of primary and secondary schooling. Just when I started to feel like I finally understood what it was like to have a stable life, my family was deported. When we landed in Somalia, we were considered refugees and so there was no way of going to school because I wasn’t able to read or write in Somali. Then the war broke out and we had to leave.

It’s amazing that despite all of that disruption and such a late start to formal schooling that you have amassed such an impressive list of educational accomplishments. My next question is perhaps inevitable: why did you decide to run for president? What is your greatest challenge and strength as a candidate?
I wanted to run because I felt I had something better to offer than what has been the norm in Somalia. I felt that I am an alternative that should be brought to the knowledge of Somalis.

I want to demystify leadership not only in Somalia, but across the continent. You don’t have to be a male, to come from a certain family or have a certain name, to be over the age of fifty to step forward and say, “I think I’m a better leader than what we have. I want to break the image of leadership across the continent. I think I am more capable than what is out there. Somalia is very precious and should not be left to people who don’t understand its worth. It should not be left to people who aren’t thinking of people or doing a service for their people. I believe that with the strong vision I have and the capability and capacity I possesses that I can make Somalia a better place for all of us—including those who are displaced and in the diaspora.

I think a weakness that other people think I might have, but I view as a strength, is my gender. A lot of people will say that “she’s a woman, so she can’t run.” I’m not going to give up. If it’s not in 2016, then it will be in 2020. If not in 2020, it will be after that. I won’t give up as long as we don’t have capable leadership or we are not doing well. I will always stand up for what I believe in.

You mentioned that some might perceive your gender as a weakness. Somalia has a 30% percent quota requirement in Parliament. Quotas clearly aren’t enough to solve the worldwide gender gap in politics. What do you think Somalia can do to improve the participation of women in government?
I’ll tell you why I am where I am today: education and economic agency. Without these two things, I couldn’t do what I am attempting to do. I wouldn’t have gotten this far in life. Women in Somalia and across the continent need education to be economically independent. When you have these two things, nobody can force you to do anything. You are free to use your critical thinking skills to determine what you want from your life. Once women have access to these two things, I think everything falls into place. The quota is just a token approach to women in leadership and public service. In 2012, we had a similar quota but only 14% of that quota was filled, and people continued to squabble over it. Men won’t take it seriously until it’s put in the Constitution or enshrined in other laws that solidify it. Otherwise, it’ll just be hot air.

If you were to give advice to any young woman, what would you say?
Get an education. It’s the key to your freedom. Once you get education, pursue economic empowerment so that you only have to depend on yourself. Believe in yourself and your capabilities. Never believe in anyone who tells you that you can’t—those people often speak based on their own failures. But their failures are not yours. Trust your instinct and you can fulfill your dreams. You only have one life and you’re responsible to yourself.

As a result of my education and me learning to read and write, when my mother came to Finland as a refugee, she taught herself how to read and write at the age of sixty-eight. She was literate when she died. She showed me that whatever you set your mind to, you can do it. She used to tell me, “Fadumo, you are your greatest enemy. Once you have you on your side, then everything is fine.”

If you had a mother like that, it is no surprise that you turned out to be the person you are.
I would not be who I am without my mother. My mother instilled in me from a very young age that you can do whatever you set your mind to. She would actually take me around so that I could visualize that future for myself. When I started interacting with my mother as a mature young woman was when I was able to negotiate with her about my education. Every Saturday, my mother and I would get in a taxi and she would ask me, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” I would say, “I want to work for the UN.” At the time, everyone wanted to be a Secretariat staff member at the UN complex in Gigiri. We would go there and she would say, “Do you see these gates, Fadumo? One day, you will walk through these gates. Keep that in your mind.” And I would respond, “no I can’t—I can’t even write.” She said, “Nonsense, you will. Keep this image in your mind.”

Then she’d say, “You’re working in the UN complex. Now, where do you want to live?” I’d respond, “I want to live in Spring Valley, where all the mzungu live.” We would go there and I’d point to the house in the compound where I wanted to live and she’d say, “keep it in your mind, and you will.” Then she’d say, “you work in the Gigiri complex and you live in this house, where do you want to shop?” I’d say, “Nakumatt.” We’d go there and she’d say, “ok, where next?” and I would say Sarit Center. We’d go there next.

Every Saturday, we would literally drive through my dreams and my vision for myself. You know, Akinyi, I walked through those gates in the UN complex, I lived in that compound in Spring Valley, and I shopped at Nakumatt and Sarit Center. I went everywhere my mother said I would go. Including to three universities in Finland and one in America. Everything she said to me, I’ve done.

Those people who doubt women are foolish. The world is running and functioning because of women. I am where I am today because of a very strong woman. All those men in high offices are where they are today because of strong women. It’s time for women to understand that we are the backbone of our continent and our countries. We need to formalize this leadership. We’ve carried these countries, these people on our backs for so long, and it’s time to have it recognized. Women are much stronger than many people would like us to believe or like us to know. People think my biggest challenge is my gender, but it’s also my biggest strength.