Have you noticed that there seem to be more people outraged by the lack of outrage over the bombing in Somalia, than there are people outraged by the bombing itself? Why is that?
More than 300 people were killed and roughly the same number of people injured when two truck bombs went off in the middle of a busy Mogadishu street last Saturday, but it seems we could not care less.
No, let me check that, I will speak for myself; it seems I could not care less. I have been thinking about this, about why the tragedy in Somalia doesn’t seem to move me as much as similar and less tragic events in other places. Following are a few thoughts.
What happens in Mogadishu
“What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” how many times have you heard that mantra? Used it yourself? You don’t have to be an American, or even to have gone to the US to know exactly what that phrase means. We hear it in movies all the time.
Remember the movie The Hangover? What about the Oceans’s Trilogy (Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen) in the early to mid 2000s? Such films have brought the US culture and cultural conversations right into our living rooms. Now, whether the films present an accurate picture of the real US is neither hear nor there. The point is, when I hear about a shooting in Vegas, I have an instant subconscious reaction to the news.
Images of Casinos and lights and fancy hotels mixed with movie scenes and characters flash in my mind. Same goes for France. The first image on my mind at the mention of Paris is the Eiffel Tower — even though I have never been to France.
And in the remote chance that I have not watched any of these movies or never heard about Las Vegas (or San Bernardino), international US-based news channels like the CNN will make sure I know all about it. I can’t help but notice, and care. I’m afraid the same cannot be said about the relationship between TV media and Somalia.
My westernized brain
Death and tragedy and terrorism are not words I associate with many of these “Western” places. The West, as is often marketed to me in my living room, is full of fun places; places I want to scape to and holiday in; not places I want to flee or avoid.
This is why I will care deeply if something even remotely tragic happened in such places, not necessarily because I personally know anyone there, but because I know so much about the place and the people there that I “feel” like I am one of them. It is always in my face.
This is why I care more about an attack in London than an attack in Mogadishu. What do I even know about Mogadishu except for the fact that this is where the Al-Shabaab come from? Okay, this is also where those Somali refugees in Dadaab and the immigrants in Eastleigh come from, but none of these details make Mogadishu any more appealing to me.
I seldom think about visiting Mogadishu except probably on a humanitarian trip or as a war-time journalist. Nothing good can come out of Mogadishu, and what happens in Mogadishu better stay in Mogadishu. Should I blame my negative perception of Somalia on the media? Well, blame is a strong word, I will instead opt for the word “attribute”.
When we say we care about human life and are saddened by the loss of human life, we are usually not referring to the abstraction that is the Homo Sapiens species. To care about human life means to care about my mum and my wife and my best friend. To care about human life means to care about my next door neighbor who is an unemployed single mother of three, because I once had a conversation with her and learnt about her circumstances.
No one cares about anyone without first knowing and appreciating and empathizing with their story. We are storied beings and we cease to exist the moment our stories are censored or go untold. The stories we have access to and pay attention to will ultimately determine which people we care about and strongly react to any tragedy that befalls them. It has little to do with an abstract rule about caring for “humanity.”
This is why the death of a faceless Frenchman thousands of kilometers away is more tragic than the death of a dozen villagers in a mudslide just a few kilometers from my house. My life has been shaped by numerous white faces on the TV screen teaching me about love and money and sex and relationships. My goals have been inspired by the American dream scripted, cast and directed by middle aged haggard bearded pot bellied white men in Hollywood.
This, sadly, is why I care about the death of Michael Jackson than the death of my high school friend. Why, I know more about Michael Jackson’s life than I knew about my friend’s. My emotions have been hijacked and shaped by the Hollywood narrative of privileging the Western culture, Western stories, Western values and Western people as the “normal” or “default” face of humanity.
Human means to political ends
What does all this have to do with the tragedy in Somalia? If it is not yet clear, I will get more explicit shortly. You see, once in a while, I will care about the death of a political protester in my own country; but that will mostly be because I want to make and score a few political points in my own criticism of police brutality. It will seldom be because I cared much that the dead protestor was a father or a son or even a human being. His humanity will largely be a means to an end.
Remember the infant killed by police in Kisumu in the wake of the August 8 Election? Do you know what happened to her family, or even whether they got justice? Me neither. Baby Pendo’s death, as far as I and many were concerned, mostly served as an emotional anecdote in the political rhetoric at the time, then we moved on swiftly.
These and many other realities are the reasons why I find it difficult to be mad or sad that so many people in Mogadishu are dead from the handiwork of terrorist agents. I don’t know any of the names of the dead Somalis.
I can’t picture their faces without an image of a terrorist (sometimes in those very faces) intruding into the frame. I don’t know how to care about a Somali tragedy because I don’t have Somali friends or know any Somali stories and the few Somali people I know seldom speak to me about where they come from.
I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a normal person in Somalia. Do Somalis have schools? What kind of schools? Do they have professions and career paths apart from the life of a dessert wanderer? Are there Somali professors in Somalia? What about Somali journalists and doctors and lawyers and engineers?
You see, every time I hear about professionals in Somalia, it is always in the context of diplomats and expats living and working there. Even in the wake of Saturday bombings, the only doctors and other professionals that were mentioned as victims were the foreigners. The West was desperately trying to remain relevant at the center of a foreign tragedy.
The fact of the matter is that I don’t have insider knowledge of the Somali experience. There are no cultural artifacts shoved in my face every minute to condition me to see Somalis as real people with real families and dreams and goals and relationships and, yes, tragedies.
Je suis Somalia? I am sorry I don’t even know what that means. Does this make me less human? Heartless? A hypocrite? Maybe and maybe not.
May The Lord comfort the families of all those who lost their loved ones in Somalia, even as the rest of us who don’t call the victims “our loved ones” process what is happening in our own twisted ways.