The Dilemma of Somali Youth: to Stay or not to Stay

An Italian coast guardsman oversees the Aug. 8 arrival of a refugee-packed boat off the island of Lampedusa, where about 300 may have died on Oct. 3 when another overloaded fishing boat caught fire and capsized half a mile offshore. [Guardia Costiera / AFP]

An Italian coast guardsman oversees the Aug. 8 arrival of a refugee-packed boat off the island of Lampedusa, where about 300 may have died on Oct. 3 when another overloaded fishing boat caught fire and capsized half a mile offshore. [Guardia Costiera / AFP]

Joyce Cary, the Irish writer presented the African as little more than a boy, incapable of understanding complex issues, but full of admiration for everything European.

This paternalism of Africa and Africans has continued for generations and is even stark when it comes to Somalia and Somalis, a nation and a people divided by lines in the sand, artificial borders that make no sense except to those who drew them or benefited from them.

It doesn’t help that a few short years after independence, successive autocratic regimes such as Mohamed Siad Barre’s dictatorship seemed to vindicate the colonial paternalism. The rest, as they say, is history – what with the decades of civil strife, mass murder, starvation and the attendant external interventions on humanitarian grounds, the interminable peace conferences and transitional authorities.

For the first time now there is a post-transitional government in place, but the old bugbear of paternalism is not that far behind Somalia in the form of this deal and that deal and various guises and permutations of new solutions for Somalia’s problems from the usual posse of three “M”s, to paraphrase Kenyan journalist Rasna Warah, “missionaries, mercenaries and misfits.”

Given such a backdrop, and the constant threat of al-Shabaab conscription, it is easy to see why Somali youth would despair and want to try their luck elsewhere, away from this benighted land, a land nonetheless much-loved in our most exquisite of poems. If you’ve had occasion to hear the poems of Sayid Mohamed Abdullah Hassan and Abdullahi Suldaan Tima’adde, then you’d know why this land, with all its up and downs, is simply the best!

The need to emigrate, to get away from it all, has become a constant feature of the lives of Somali youth. There is even a term for it, difficult to render in English but a disease of its own. It is called buufis, that dreamy-eyed romanticism of lands far away, lands that will take away the pain and give the youth a feeling of normalcy.

It is hard to persuade Somali youth especially when their minds are made up. This is one of the reasons the issue of illegal migration is becoming more alarming. Somali youth are convinced that their dreams will never be realized in their motherland, so they set sail for Europe, America, Australia or some other place, far from their ancestral land.

Legally immigrating to these “lands of milk and honey and of dreams fulfilled” is a nightmare.

Human traffickers take advantage of this dire situation to lure young men and women with false dreams charging thousands of dollars for a passage to foreign lands.

The journey to the promised lands is perilous, but many take the risk all the same. What choice have the Somali youth got?

You have successive administrations who don’t listen to the needs of the youth, who run things as “business as usual”.

The promises of change and rejuvenation are the same: things will be different this time round; we will adopt a modern approach to youth issues; we will use merit and professionalism to fill positions. The reality is quite the contrary – ineptitude, corruption, and nepotism rules the day.

Feeling rejected and demoralized, Somali youth condemn themselves to death, heading to the empty plains of the Sahara, the bone-dry bleak wilderness of no man’s land. The news of their death is as ubiquitous as the sand dunes of this bleak desert.

The youth are in some sort of a half-way house; going home means a return to hell and violence, sailing the high seas is courting death by the dozens.

Before piling into rickety old boats, those purveyors of death, lately in the prime time news, youth stop over in Libya.

Libya’s revolution, according to its political leaders, aimed to replace the eccentric authoritarianism of Muammar Gaddafi with freedom, democracy and equality. But migrants are arrested on sight and imprisoned by armed residents, rebel fighters and untrained officials who have assumed control of security in the wake of Gaddafi’s dramatic demise.

In Libya, the campaign of human rights violations has grown exponentially.

Modern day brigands, mounted on horseback, kidnap the youth for ransom. These murderous “magafe,” as they are called, are a law unto themselves, merciless mercenaries with nothing but money on their minds.

Poor relatives sell their worldly possessions and even borrow money to buy the freedom of their loved ones. At times Somali youth are forced to even join the brigands to save their lives.

The human traffickers flush with cash from the relatives of Somali youth, don’t make things any easier. Many youths suffer atrocious abuses at the hands of their smugglers: they are robbed, sexually assaulted or simply abandoned in the desert to fend for themselves.

Past the Godforsaken magafes, the Somali youth make a run for fortress Europe via the Mediterranean Sea in small, congested inflatable boats from the Libyan coast into the dark, freezing night. Some drown, as in the Lampedusa case; others make to the other side.

Alas, on arrival in fortress Europe, the truth quickly dawns on the Somali youth.

Ahmed, a friend of mine and among early migrants texted me on his arrival saying I “am fortunate that my fingerprints have not been taken, I don’t want to end up in European Union databank; I don’t want to be identified and returned.”

But the Somali spirit is tenacious.

Those who make it safely to the other side post photos of themselves in social media such as Facebook posing in green meadows or next to gleaming skyscrapers as if tempting others to also make the perilous journey to the second home abroad, qurbaha.

This tenacity of spirit needs to be harnessed more positively by Somali leaders by creating opportunities back home. After all, no country has developed without the hard work and dedication of its youth.

The youth are a catalyst for development, their enthusiasm and energy is a resource that no money can buy.

Abdiwahab M. Ali is a columnist and freelance writer. He can be reached at 

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