5 things a foreigner learned from Cigaal Shidaad

Cigaal Shidaad

Once upon a time there was a man called Cigaal Shiidaad. It was night and Cigaal Shiidaad was traveling in the countryside. He saw what looked like a lion sitting in the middle of the path. He was a coward. He thought, “Oh, this is a lion.” Cigaal Shiidaad stood where he was. He took his shield and spear, and got ready to fight the lion. He yelled loudly, trying to scare the lion away. But he was not able to scare it away. It just stood there. Cigaal Shiidaad was too scared to pass.

In the morning he saw the tree stump. He went closer to the stump, and he said, “Stump, you are one thing, and what I saw was something very different. What will I do? I thought you were a lion about to attack me, but you are only a stump. I will never travel at night again.” 

This is the first folktale I learned about Cigaal Shidaad, the Somali coward. I read it while living in Minneapolis, home to thousands of Somalis, many of them my neighbors at the time, in Cedar Riverside Plaza.

In 2003 my husband, two-year-old twins, and I moved to Borama, Somaliland. My husband taught at Amoud University and I focused on managing these toddler twins and life in a strange, new world. One of my favorite things about living in Somaliland was the discovery of local folktales and folk heroes. I begged neighbors to tell me stories and they talked about Dheg Dheer, Caraweelo, the Diin iyo Dawaco (Turtle and the Fox) and, of course, Cigaal Shidaad.

I couldn’t relate with the cannibal woman or the queen who castrated all the men but I could relate with a coward. I understood his perspective, the fear that paralyzed him in the middle of the road in front of a tree stump/lion. But while I empathized with Cigaal Shidaad, I didn’t want to be like him. So I had to learn from him.

What could Cigaal Shidaad teach this foreign woman about how to live and thrive in the Horn of Africa?

1. Don’t rely on first impressions

Cigaal Shidaad walked in physical darkness, at night, and he failed to see beyond his initial idea about what he thought the tree stump was. Despite the fact that the lion-shaped form never growled and never moved all night long, he couldn’t imagine it as anything else.

I walked in cultural darkness. I still remember one of my first walks to the village market. Small stones struck the backs of my legs as I tripped over rocks and cacti, following a woman hired to help me. The stones were thrown by young children who stood in the doorway of their home. My first reaction was that they were being cruel, that the stones were intended to insult or injure me. But when I looked up at the children’s faces, I saw wide smiles, bright eyes, and hands eagerly waving. They had simply wanted my attention, to greet me.

When surrounded by a foreign language and by a culture we don’t understand, the human tendency is to feel defensive, to assume people are against us. This reaction is related to fear and insecurity, to feeling vulnerable as an outsider. Is reality the lions, those people we fear or the stones we assume are an insult?

They are harmless tree stumps, they are welcoming gestures. I now know I can’t trust my first impressions.

2. Naming things accurately matters

In order to name things accurately, we have to discover what they truly are. This requires investigation, curiosity, an open mind, and a willingness to adjust assumptions. It took Cigaal Shidaad all night to finally see the stump for what it was. Some versions of the story have him traveling to find lost camels. He wasted all these hours and the camels wandered even further away, because of his fear.

News reports stir up fear and Islamophobia by perpetuating the lie that Muslim equals terrorist. Or Somali equals al-Shabaab. When I told people we were moving to Somaliland, some asked about this. What about all those scary people and all that violence?

What I discovered in Somaliland was that, yes, there were some scary people and there was some violence. But that was the miniscule minority. There were also mothers. Students. Teachers. Neighbors. Doctors. Musicians. Shepherds.

I’m not going to be like Cigaal Shidaad.

I’m not going to waste time being afraid because of a failure to accurately name the people I encounter.

3. Being brave means engaging with what I am afraid of

In order to discover what things truly are, in order to accurately name them, I have to engage with them.

If Cigaal Shidaad had approached the stump, he would have quickly discovered his error and moved on. Armed with a spear and shield, he did try to frighten the “lion” away by shouting but he didn’t try to fight it. Had he launched his spear and started a fight, he would have discovered his mistake and continued along his way.

It is scary to be the outsider.

Sometimes it is uncomfortable to be the American, the white skin, the non-Muslim. I stick out, the only goat in a camel herd. But if I stand outside and only ever look in at my host culture from a distance, I won’t be able to see it for what it is – a world rich with relationships and tradition and a worldview that provides a sharpening challenge against my own.

And so I engage, ask questions, learn.

4. Be prepared for the unexpected

Cigaal Shidaad didn’t expect a tree stump to be in the middle of his path. He expected danger, a lion. So that was what he was prepared for. And that’s what he found, or thought he found.

Especially when living in a foreign country, we have to be ready to see and experience things that we don’t expect. When asking for directions a man climbs into the car. Instead of explaining the way, he prefers to show the way. He isn’t a thief, he is trying to help. When buying xalwo candy in the market and the vendor loads a baggie with far more than I asked for, he isn’t trying to wrangle the foreigner out of more money, he is communicating pride in his handiwork and wants me to enjoy it, it is a gift.

5. Once a coward, always a coward

Even though in the morning Cigaal Shidaad discovered his error, he still swore he would never again travel at night.

I think that by following the first four ideas, Cigaal Shidaad could overcome his cowardice, but he seemed to sink deeper into it and continued to do cowardly things, like trying to hide inside a rolled up rug and pretending he was dead to hide from soldiers. It is as though by acting like a coward, he became a coward and couldn’t shake the reputation.

I have done cowardly things, like making wrong assumptions and judging situations inaccurately. Sometimes I feel like a coward, afraid of silly or not-so-silly things, but I haven’t yet entirely embraced the term coward as my identity.

* * *

“You are one thing and what I saw was very different. What will I do?” Cigaal Shidaad said and then decided he would never travel at night again.

Me, an alien in a foreign land, what will I do?

I will question my first impressions, name things accurately, engage with what I fear, try to be prepared for the unexpected, and, for as long as possible, fight to not label myself a coward.

Rachel Pieh Jones is an American writer who lives is Djibouti. Follow her on Twitter @RachelPiehJones.

Image courtesy of Rachel.

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