Celebrating My Mother: Fatuma Hassan Nuur Jellow
“So how was it like hooyo, tell me,” I ask my mother, Fatuma Hassan Nuur Jellow, as I put down the tape recorder. I was asking about her life and Mother’s Day was on my mind. Of course I knew, or I thought I knew her life, for I was her son and I lived with her through a good part of it.
But as the tape recorder rolled, I was struck by how little I knew about my mother’s life. There were awkward moments of silences, but I am a trained epidemiologist and have done many a key informant interview. I was trained to be patient during the silences, and sure enough, the silence would yield some gem, some gold nugget.
And the nuggets came, in torrents, as did my tears.
“Markii aan deegaanka ka sii baxayay, aabahay matag ayuu jilbaha goostay” – as I left the homestead, my father vomited copiously, she told me. The old man was overcome with grief; he did not want to lose one of the only two daughters he had to his in-laws, but he had no way of stopping it. Saying no to one’s in-laws was culturally inappropriate.
My grandmother, Ruqiya, was undeterred. Grandmother Ruqiya was “like the military” – she didn’t have much sympathy for sentimentality. Her mother had sent for someone to help her around the house, and young Fatuma was the perfect fit.
In my grandmother Ruqiya’s logic, nothing was too precious for her own mother, Alassey Sanba’or. After all, Alassey had parted with her own precious Ruqiya when she was being married off to Hassan. And so, at the tender age of four, my mother left her mother and father and went to live with her maternal uncles.
Life at the new homestead was hard for my mother.
First, if you’ve lived in any of the Somali-inhabited areas of Kenya, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Somalia, life, for the most part, is bleak.
Infant, child and maternal mortality are probably some of the highest anywhere in the world owing to the vast distances and the lack of access to basic health care, so death is never far away.
Second, as bad luck would have it, when mother was 13, the wives of two of her maternal uncles died. Mother was left to take care of nine children left behind by the deceased women, plus her own grandmother, Alassey, who was by then losing her eyesight.
The two youngest children under mother’s care were barely a few months old. One child was a little over 40 days old and the other barely 6 months.
So my mother had to make frequent trips at night to milk the camels for the two youngest kids who could take nothing but milk.
On top of looking after the nine children, “I would look for water for the entire homestead; I would go into town to buy foodstuff; I would take care of the goats; and at times even the camels because there was no one else to do so,” my mother recalled.
Third, when mother was all of 15 years, disaster struck again: two of her young charges, a 13-year-old girl and a 7-year-old boy, were eaten by lions as they were looking after the family camels.
Mother was looking after the goats and the men had gone off to run errands such as looking for salt-lick for the camels and buying provisions. Only the womenfolk were left at home. They had by now increased by two since both of mother’s uncles who had earlier lost their wives had remarried.
At the age of 17, my mother was married off to a much older man and into a large, cacophonous, polygamous family. My father owned a small shop in Wajir town and saw mother, who was a frequent client at his shop, in her numerous trips to buy foodstuff for the family.
“Your father sent three of his male relatives to ask for my hand in marriage,” she said. “I was betrothed to him by my maternal uncles and stayed with my uncles for one year as was customary.”
My hooyo did not have an easy married life by any stretch of the imagination and my earliest memories are of her selling traditional mats, homemade incense, embroidered hats and bed linen, samosas and pancakes to supplement what father got from the small restaurant and shop we owned.
It certainly did not help matters that we were, for the most part, naughty children, to the point we were sent to boarding school early to straighten us out and help us “get a good education.”
In one mental still-shot, I see an Arab man with only a towel wrapped around his torso coming at me with a babbis, a traditional fan made of sisal, with a wooden handle, kept nearby to fan oneself when the midday heat struck.
As we walked home one day from the restaurant, fancifully named Wananchi Hotel, the People’s Hotel, we heard the slosh of water from a short distance. Someone was taking a shower in a bathroom whose little Moorish ventilation window high up the wall was facing the road we were on.
As if on cue, my older brothers started collecting pebbles and dared me to throw them into the little window, the dare being “who can most accurately hit the person showering.”
And so I took up the challenge, and before I knew it, they had seen what I had not seen. The man came at me and gave me a few knocks on the head with the babbis before instinct kicked in and I too took off after them.
I was too focused on the little window to see the alley from where the Arab man charged out like a furious rhino, all soapy and without a care as to whether his little towel would fall off or not.
So you see the sort of kids mother had to deal with.
On this Mother’s Day, years later, mother has raised five boys and two girls, without counting the various cousins and relations who sojourned in our house at one time or another. She has managed to raise an army major, an epidemiologist, a human resource specialist, a pilot, an award-winning entrepreneur, an accountant and many other professionals.
As I end the interview, I ask mother, “So how is it now, hooyo?”
She looks into the middle distance. A smile plays on both sides of her mouth and she says: “Adduunka dhib waa la soo maray, laakiin waa laga baxay” — many were the worldly troubles we went through, but it is now over and done with.
And I hope it stays that way.