To “Hippiedom” and Back

“Aress, how did you become this?” My friend asked the other day.

“Become what?”

“Like this. You know. Like you are?”

“You gonna have to be more specific here. I am a lot of things.”

“A hippie.”

“What? I am not a hippie! Warrayoutalkingabout? Warris that even? Are you ok?” The last question was obviously a diversionary tactic. I wasn’t really concerned. Not at all. I hope she does not think I am genuinely concerned.

“Awwwww. I am ok, thanks for asking. So sweet of you.” It is working. Or may be she is playing me at my own game. “But yes you are dear.” She continued. I could sense the sarcasm in that “dear.” I am guilty of using it many times. She is definitely playing me. “But what happened to you?” She asked.

“Ok. Ok. Maybe I am. But are you implying I went through something?”

“No. I’m not implying that. Hmm, I mean, maybe. I guess. I don’t get it. From your background, someone who is from a remote village in North Eastern Kenya, who had a semi-nomadic upbringing, to the way you have become, how did that happen? Did something break you?”

“I am not broken dammit!! Wait, did you just call Bulla Adhaan a remote village in North Eastern Kenya?”  😳😳😳😏😏😏

“But it is my dear. Isn’t it? But that’s an argument for another time. The question is how did you become a hippie?” Aaah, that insincere “dear” again.

I didn’t know the answer to that question. But it made me think. I mean, how does one become a hippie? Do you just go to sleep one night with a patterned kikoi at knee length, after brushing your teeth with a wooden toothbrush, a normal Somali for all intents and purposes, and wake up the following morning in tattered jeans and a Radiohead t-shirt written “CREEP”? Does one go overnight from having a decent hair cut to something that only looks like a less pale Macklemore? It would seem “hippieness” is a very slow process. It is a malignant disease that takes over your identity slowly, spreading like a cancer, consuming every minute cell of your entire organism that is your identity.. One does not notice they are turning into one. One only realises it when it’s too late.

First though, a little back story. You see, I have not always been like this. Nobody is born a hippie. And like every child, I was born normal, and cute.

For all intents and purposes, I have had a fairly normal childhood; I kid you not.

I had an ultra-conservative upbringing, perhaps a little more conservative than you folks from this side of Kenya. My folks made sure I always looked sharp and well groomed. You see, my mum, God bless her sweet soul, made it her mission in life, to ensure that there was not a strand of hair left on my scalp. Not when she could help it. It made her fingers itch as soon as the tiniest of hairs started growing. So there was a mandatory weekly shaving (read: scalp scathing) exercise every Saturday evening, as the sun disappeared into the horizon. Right on the stone next to the latrine. That was her office. The lady fancied herself quite the remarkable barber.

I had an ultra-conservative upbringing, perhaps a little more conservative than you folks from this side of Kenya. My folks made sure I always looked sharp and well groomed. You see, my mum, God bless her sweet soul, made it her mission in life, to ensure that there was not a strand of hair left on my scalp. Not when she could help it. It made her fingers itch as soon as the tiniest of hairs started growing. So there was a mandatory weekly shaving (read: scalp scathing) exercise every Saturday evening, as the sun disappeared into the horizon. Right on the stone next to the latrine. That was her office. The lady fancied herself quite the remarkable barber.

The razor blade was called Topaz. You folks remember Topaz? The expression “sharp as a razor” was coined after this bad boy. She had you face away from her, looking to the direction of Mecca— the direction the animals are made to face when they are being slaughtered. I am not suggesting anything but keeping in mind that she had a sharp tool in her hand, it is rather disturbing in hindsight. She would apply water, then soap. She would then make her routine side comment about how shaggy and scruffy you look. This would be followed by some not so clean strokes, from the forehead going backwards. You weren’t allowed to move a muscle, or God forbid, cry. You would risk losing a chunk of your skin. And it would be your fault completely. The whole ordeal would take two minutes, tops. It would be over. You would stand up scratching your bald head. You’d be bleeding from a few places where you had lost skin. Then there’d be a few random spots with hair all over your head. You would turn around to ask her to finish the job but by then she would already be halfway through making supper. So you continue standing there, seeing off the setting sun and scratching your itchy head.

Every morning she would, of course, be caring enough to apply cooking fat (yes cooking fat) on your bald head and face. There would be no difference really, between your head and face. You would hate it but you couldn’t resist. You zip it.

She is the boss. She would not hesitate to put sanctions on you; like starve your skinny ass or worse. She would do it without even blinking.

So your big bald head would shine against the morning sun, reflecting like a mirror as you headed to school, looking like an idiot. Aaaah..it is funny now but it was not back then. I still want to sue for serious violations of children’s rights.

When it came to fashion, my folks prided themselves as always keeping with the latest trends. They never disappointed, my folks. They had indoctrinated into my bald, shiny (also empty) head that those beige Punjabi kanzus, complete with a tiny white kofia, were the coolest thing ever. They beamed as they told you how trendy you looked….never mind the fact that you could easily pass for a slightly darker Pakistani. But still, they were the happiest when you had this outfit on.

They took me to both Quranic and secular schools to get a balanced education. And over the school holidays, I would be shipped to the countryside to spend time with the grandparents so that I could learn and appreciate the culture― an idea which I would later come to find out was a euphemism for: living in a super harsh environment without sufficient basic human needs like water, food, shelter and even clothing. I would spend a few months every year herding camels all day in an unwashed kikoi and a supposedly white vest― that looks anything but white― and spend all night being devoured by mosquitoes under the open skies. While here, I learnt the culture. I drank large quantities of tea; tea that that had way too much sugar (otherwise it wouldn’t be fun, would it? ) and was made in metallic kettle that has seen better days… I listened to the Somali music that was played in cassettes. It is nice and slow, for those readers who have never listened to it. And very romantic. So romantic that it is not just the heart that aches with love, but the liver too. Also the pancreas.

As you can see I had a fairly normal upbringing. Totally normal.

Now that you see I was quite the quintessential Somali child, let’s continue shall we? At this point, I should explain who a hippie is. Hippie. noun. (especially in the 1960s) a person of unconventional appearance, typically having long hair and wearing sandals and beads, associated with a subculture involving a rejection of conventional values. Synonyms include flower child, Bohemian, beatnik, long-hair, free spirit, non-conformist, drop out (ouch right?!). Hippies felt alienated from middle-class society, which they saw as dominated by materialism and repression, and they developed their own distinctive lifestyle. They favoured long hair and casual, often unconventional, dress, sometimes in “psychedelic” colours. Although by the mid-1970s the movement had waned, nonetheless, hippies continued to have an influence on the wider culture, seen, for example, in a widespread lessening of formality.

Hippies are still there even today.

And as I mentioned earlier, “hippieness” is not something that happens overnight. It is that disease that takes over your identity slowly.

First, you get exposed to the outside world, the world outside Bulla Adhaan. A world where people didn’t apply cooking oil on their heads and faces. A world where there weren’t a lot of people wearing Punjabi kanzus in funny colours. A world where it was normal for people to keep long shaggy hair, and put on tattered clothes. At first you thought perhaps these people were poor and homeless and couldn’t afford a decent haircut or shampoo. You felt sorry for them. Poor things. You said a little prayer for them. But it would turn out that even those who drove nice cars and wore fancy suits had shaggy hair… This, you’d be told, was normal. How now? It would be a culture shock.

But what is more shocking is that you liked it! You saw the jeans and you instantly knew that it was one of the greatest inventions of mankind— before you would discover sweatpants of course. Something that is cool, comfortable and versatile, that doesn’t need to be washed that often. And by that often you mean almost never. Such genius. But you are not a hippie yet. Everyone loves the jeans. You are a normal kid. It’s fine. But what is not fine is that your folks would not be receptive to the idea of their kid wearing jeans. Of course. You aren’t surprised.

You become furious. So you start to listen to music that expresses anger and frustration. You do it ironically. You listen to music that is countercultural, that is antiestablishment. You instantly love the legendary tracks of The Beatles, the gentle revolutionary melody of John Lennon, the critical and poetic verses of Bob Dylan, the deafening croon of Jim Morrison and The Doors and the passionate cry of Janis Joplin. You become more and more enchanted by the freedom and history associated with the 1960s counterculture as a whole— not only was the music insanely good, but everything about the time period left you awestruck and riveted. But you are still a normal kid. You buy a Dylan CD. So what. A lot of other people do it. You are a normal child, maybe not a normal Somali kid.

After that, you start doing everything ironically. Like the second part of the title of this story. You start to find the simplest situations highly ironic. Your sense of irony would act like a metal detector – the only difference being that you detect irony and not metal. It would be physically impossible for you to give somebody an answer without a cliché or hint towards the irony of life itself. The way you express yourself will continue to change. You will pair your sense of irony with sarcasm. You find yourself unable to answer to direct questions and end up in situations where you have to pour out sarcasm. At this point, you have become a hippie, although you might not be aware that you actually are. But it has not taken over your whole identity.

You have never been able to resist over-priced coffee on a restaurant menu. You know at least twenty bean flavours from any coffee shop. You hang out in coffee shops doing nothing but downing gallons of coffee. You feel at home here. In fact, wherever coffee is brewed is your home. You really think deeply about buying a record player. You actually buy a record player. You build a vinyl collection in your head. You often find yourself resisting the overwhelming temptation to say “their older albums were better” when people ask you if you’ve heard a cool new song. You buy an iPhone but when it comes to buying basic groceries, you have no money.

When you read articles about things like gentrification, you get a little knot in your stomach because you know, on some level, it’s referring to you. You avoid your parents because they would feel like they have failed terribly in raising you. And when you finally can’t avoid them anymore, like when a relative passes on and you have to give them a decent send off, they would see you and ask God: why? Ya Allah, why? Why us? We tried our best. What have we done wrong?

Thing is, our parents measure their success in life by how well and upright their kids turn out. This is their number one source of pride in life.

They try their best to instill our cultural and religious values in us. Of course they employed any means necessary to ensure you followed their script to the letter without question― guilt tripping, intimidation, threats, violence and a horde of other potentially illegal methods― but still, they tried so hard to make sure they got through to our thick skulls.

Despite this, they would still offer, out of the goodness of their hearts, to give you money to buy “decent clothes” (read: kanzus over a nicely patterned kikoi). You eat the money. You feel guilty. You get a huge knot in your throat. You can’t swallow saliva. They continue to extend their kindness by inviting an old dude to pray for this lost sheep, i.e. you, for a week. But still nothing. No results. And since that time you tried to explain to them why you don’t have even one kanzu, they have stopped calling you.

You go out shopping and come back with a bunch of old stuff that were used during your grandpa’s lifetime, not by your grandpa of course, but most likely by a redneck in Alabama. You go to Gikomba and buy a pair of trousers that don’t quite fit. Also they have four holes in them but you could always patch them up, and they seem like they haven’t been washed for a decade and have a weird smell. Like a dead cat. Also they cost 5K but you don’t mind the price. Most of your closet, in fact, comes from Gikomba and other thrift stores.

You stray away from anything with over a thousand views on social media and only share obscure posts. You suddenly like non-mainstream music and cinema. You like to talk about music that nobody has heard of. Your friends don’t know even one song in your music library. You have a problem with a number of mega-corporations and openly pray for their demise. You are seriously considering moving to New York, the centre of hippiedom.

The interesting thing, however, is that I have never had even a single hippie friend. I did not hang out with artists or musicians or painters. I did not go doing yoga and meditating in Karura. Or hugging trees.. Or smoking hallucinogenic drugs.. Or touching people’s foreheads to “find that energy within..” . In fact, all my friends and family are normal people. Weird right, these normal folks? Very weird lot. It is interesting, isn’t it, to turn out a hippie nonetheless? But I do think that I ended up with the good parts of being a hippie. Mine, it would seem, was just the superficial parts. I did not adopt the ideological parts.

It is interesting to note, also, that I have become less and less of a hippie now, especially in the past couple of years. The hair is becoming less and less. The visits to the barber have been considerably increasing in the last year or so. I have to admit thought that I am still slightly afraid of anything sharp near my scalp. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is real folks. I have witnessed it. I am confident, nevertheless, that I have been making some significant strides in observing the basic rules of hygiene. The ironic t-shirts have all but disappeared, well except the Radiohead one with the label “CREEP” in red font. That one is still there. I have tried to get rid of it, but I have failed. Turns out homeless people don’t want to give off the wrong message. So I’m stuck with it.

Also, I am slowly warming up to the concept of employment, though I am still highly suspicious of it, though I still prefer working from in my sweatpants.. I am still highly skeptical of mainstream society. Though I’m making significant strides in this regard, I still think it is very weird. I still do not approve of it completely, but I have to say these days they seem cute as I watch them, as I wonder how they happened. And they are sucking me in, dragging me with them into that dreaded black hole of mainstream society. The sad part is, I am not kicking and scratching anymore. So sad.

My friend says this is because I have grown up. Rolls eyes.  Maybe she is right. I am slowly growing out of it. Maybe I am moving towards the other end of the spectrum— the nomadic identity. A completely opposite, very opposite identity. Perhaps I had to be a hippie to actually appreciate my culture. But let’s pray that I don’t jump straight from Bohemia and smack into the rocky plains of Danyeerre, in the company of my camel-herding extended family.

Image source: http://www.hipi.info

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22 thoughts on “To “Hippiedom” and Back

  1. I so know Topaz. I was always sent to the shop to get my brother’s hair shaved , clean.

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    1. Clean indeed. Seems that was the tool of choice for all mothers ey

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  2. All I can say is that, thank God I did not have to shave my hair but definitly used the cooking oil on face lol! Great piece walal

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  3. All I can say is that, thank God I did not have to shave my hair but definitly used the cooking oil on face lol! Great piece walal

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  4. Love it! 👍🏻

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  5. Great piece my former school mate.You brought back memories especially the haircut.the patterned kikoi and the wooden toothbrush will be there as long as we are alive for most Somalis(sema maasai na shuka yake).Hippiedom is a blessing in disguise.hepls us appreciate our culture more.keep keeping up.well done bro.

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    1. Hilal, thank you very much, appreciate it.

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  6. Great piece my former school mate.You brought back memories especially the haircut.the patterned kikoi and the wooden toothbrush will be there as long as we are alive for most Somalis(sema maasai na shuka yake).Hippiedom is a blessing in disguise.hepls us appreciate our culture more.keep keeping up.well done bro.

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  7. Please don’t ever stop writing.

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  8. Great as always Aress. I hope you will not keep us waiting for another month for your next offering!

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    1. Thanks Nick. I hope I will not!

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  9. Great piece, I totally relate..

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  10. Great piece.

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  11. Interesting piece. I have only stumbled on his blog today and I M already enjoying it. Thank you! And keep it up!

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    1. Thank you! Glad to hear that. And welcome

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  12. It’s amazing how I could relate to this. Our parents were not welcoming to change. I think a lot of us went through this.

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    1. I’m glad you could relate.

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  13. One thing I love about your writing, you describe this scenarios that we all went through in such a beautiful way. You know like the haircut. I am so able to connect except for the fact that my mum used scissors and not razor. Any mistake and a chunk of your skin could disappear, especially the lower part of the head next to neck. Also crying was strictly prohibited in case she cut of some part of your body. Apparently it was your mistake that she cut you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hahaha that’s so true. The painful accidental cutting. And the fact that crying was not entertained. Thanks a lot though, I’m glad you could relate to it.

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