One of the most enduring memories from my childhood in Garissa, North Eastern Kenya, is that of evenings spent listening to the BBC Somali Service, the London-based BBC World Service radio station transmitted in the Somali language. We would sit under the shade cast by our house, mostly the adults did, as us kids played football and watched from a distance as they sipped tea and listened to the news eagerly. As the clock hit 5 o’clock, the familiar ululation-sounding tune would usher in the programme, filling the hot evening air, breathing life back to the quiet, lazy neighbourhoods. People gathered close to their transistor radios, the antennas would be pulled to their limits for clear receptions. Those with portable radios held their devices close to their ears, mostly as they walked back home. The shopkeepers sat outside their shops, kikios pulled back to the knees, a wooden toothbrush at hand, ears glued to the radio.
This preference for the radio is deeply rooted in Somali culture. Somalis have historically favored the oral tradition. Television was a privilege of the rich. The Latin alphabet was only embraced as recently as 1973. So folklore was passed down to subsequent generations through word of mouth. Getting information and assessing its veracity is also a feature of the Somali way of life; the nomadic way of life not only necessitates knowing where there is danger and where water and pasture are but also knowing how other relatives are getting on. Whenever a Somali meets another, the first order of business would be the exchange of news; in fact, most of the phrases used for greeting in Somali, such as “maxaa war eh,” are meant to solicit news. Also, oral poetry enjoyed a place in the highest echelons of Somali culture. An enduring love for poetry as well as a common language brings Somalis together. Though there are other types of media that shape the politics and society of Somalis, radio naturally became and has always remained the easiest ways for Somalis to connect, and has exerted the biggest reach and influence.
As a child, I grew up in this oral culture, this news culture. During the school holidays, I would visit my relatives in the countryside—Balambala was our rural home. My maternal uncles and grandfather would sit outside under a tree from late afternoon. A big sisal mat would be spread out. A thermos flask full to the brim with tea and bundles of fresh khat just delivered from Meru would be procured. The radio would play Somali music recorded in audio cassettes—a necessary accompaniment for the khat, for better stimulation. Often, cassettes containing the poetry recitations of the likes of the legendary Somali poet Careys Ciise would be played. When it reached the time for the news, they would tune to the BBC and listen with keen interest. When on the move, such as when grazing the livestock, my grandfather and uncles would hang their radios from their necks to listen as they walked. Back home in Garissa, my father always invested in the latest radio—the powerful Panasonic and Sony were his favourites. Seldom, he would tune in to KBC to catch up with the latest from the rest of Kenya. But he never missed the BBC; he would tune in for all the news programmes: at 7 AM, 2 PM, 5 PM and 9 PM. As children, we probably never paid close attention to the actual news. But since the entire town was tuned in, from the shopkeepers sitting outside to the shepherd bringing home the livestock, from the farmer returning from the market on his donkey cart to the butchers making their way home, it meant that we were constantly hearing of Somalia and Somalis.
The legendary Ahmed Hassan Cawke and others would deliver the news in eloquent Somali. Their voices were as familiar as they were beloved. Their Somali was exquisite, musical even; I felt envious of the presenters for their excellent command of the Somali language—I felt the Somali we North Easterners spoke, derogatorily called “Somali sijui” by those from across the border, was not nearly as beautiful or as authentic as the one they spoke. But at the same time, listening to the station had helped improve my Somali sijui. I got to pick technical words such as beesha caalamka (international community), Midowga Afrika (African Union), Lanqeerta Cas (Red Cross) just to mention a few.
The programme mainly featured events happening in the Somali world. The news did not just involve Somalia. It covered every region that Somalis lived in: from Muqdisho to Minnesota, Garissa to Hargeisa, Garowe to Djibouti, Nairobi to London. For those of us in Garissa, we first heard of events happening in our town through the reporting of the eccentric Garissa correspondent Cabdirizak Xaaji Catoosh. News items mostly involved issues such as the war, famine, immigration, refugees and humanitarian crises—the civil war in Somalia may have ended, but the country was, almost hopelessly, struggling to find its footing. We would hear of meetings organized by the international community in Djibouti or Nairobi or London—or any other city outside Somalia—to bring another “dowlad kumeelgaar” (a transitional federal government) to Somalia.
One of the most interesting segments of the news, however, was the Baafin section, a 15-minute programme designed to bring together families separated by the conflict. Tens of thousands of Somalis have been separated from their families as a result of the decades of conflict. Those who are seeking to reunite with their families would share the names of their missing loved ones with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which shares the names with the BBC Somali Service. The BBC would then broadcast the names. I remember finding the messages long and amusing because of the size of each family. It was also interesting to note the magnitude of people who were separated from their families, the long periods (decades) they were separated, their astonishing resilience and the unwavering hope that they had in being reunited with them.
As a result, I grew up thinking that Somalis were not people confined to and defined by a border, but global citizens who liked to move around, that they were nomads regardless of time and place. That being Somali meant being separated from one’s family, that it meant sending long Baafin messages to lost loved ones who were not seen or heard from for decades. I thought that conflict and war lords were as Somali as camel milk: that being Somali meant being a refugee, constantly running away from your country; that it was normal for Somalia to be constantly prayed for. That North Eastern Kenya was as part of Somalia as Kismayo was, and that its only relationship with Kenya was merely geographical.
It seemed to me that Kenya was just an idea, a distant, out-of-grasp notion that you couldn’t fathom or understand, that for some reason, you didn’t really like, that left a bad taste in your mouth. To me, Kenya was the kinky-haired Kikuyu teacher, who had a funny name such as Mr. Kamau or Mr. Wang’ombe, who taught you Swahili, who beat you senseless every chance he got, who, unlike you, found the heat uncomfortable and unbearable, who would sweat a lot, who smelled of alcohol and who lived closely in the town area, close to other kinky-haired people. That Kenya was the strong, rugged Kamba construction worker who mixed concrete and lifted huge stones to build our houses; Kenya was the big bellied Luo civil servant who rode around town in marked government Land Rover, who called you “waria” derogatorily and tried to speak in heavily affected Somali, who lived apart from us, who seemed suspicious and scared of us, who looked over his shoulder despite his superior physique and the guns he carried. Kenya was the man with the big boots and heavy military regalia, who was constantly hunting shiftas in the bushes. In short, Kenya was the “other”: distant, present, looming, disliked; but Somalia, familiar, troubled, war torn but homely.
This cognitive dissonance—feeling a sense of belonging to Somalia and estrangement from my own Kenya—has shaped how I, along with other Kenyan Somalis, have come to view and understand Kenya. We grew up in an environment cut off from the rest of Kenya where the language, the news, the culture, the identity were all Somali. Even as one grew up and got to understand the historical issues that have shaped the region—involuntary annexation of the region by Kenya’s first post-colonial administration, massacres, internments and decades of socioeconomic marginalization—the feeling of distrust and estrangement increases even more. Even as one becomes an adult and interacts with the other peoples of Kenya, their primary identity still remains Somali. Perhaps it always will. But while most Kenyan Somalis would base their dislike of Kenya on how successive Kenyan regimes have treated their people, they may not be aware that their intrinsic feeling of belonging to the Somali ‘nation,’ fostered by programmes such as the BBC Somali Service, has somewhat contributed to this dissonance. Such is the impact of the BBC to our sense of identity.
But nowadays when I go home, I find that fewer people are listening to the BBC. The educated youth get their news from television and online sources. The older generation is now listening to other radio stations. In recent years, it would seem, the reach and impact of the BBC on the Somali people seem to be reducing. In North Eastern Kenya, the emergence of locally-owned Somali language radio stations such as Nairobi-based Star FM and Frontier FM who primarily focus on this region, have provided viable alternatives to the BBC Somali Service. The growth of the Somali middle class means that more Somalis have switched to television as their source of news, with channels such as Universal Television providing news and entertainment in Somali. The increasing use of the Internet and social media tools by Somalis around the world has substantially reduced the need for radio stations. Perhaps the recent launch of the BBC Somali Service television programme in April is an acknowledgement of these trends.
When the station was established in July 1957—it has celebrated its 60th anniversary this year—it sought to provide a key link between those in Somalia and those elsewhere. Over the decades, it has been criticized for spreading British propaganda and for misrepresenting Somalia to serve the interests of the West. But it has also been praised for being the single voice that serves Somali speakers and for ensuring the idea of being Somali remains alive. For an hour or two every day, at least in its heyday, Somali people from the Horn of Africa and beyond came together as one ‘nation’, much like the way the rest of Kenya comes together at the nine o’clock television broadcast. In that one hour, Somali clan lines blurred; the age-old colonially established border lines vanished; though the news reeked of geopolitics, geography, in a sense, became an abstract notion. Somalis around the region sipped tea, listened to the news and discussed Somali affairs. For that one hour, Somalis became one family—and Cawke, in a sense, their ‘president.’ To Somalis everywhere in the world, including us from North Eastern Kenya, this is more than just a radio programme or a ritual observed with religious devotion, but rather a lifeline, one that connected us to Somalia, or to the idea of being Somali; its impact will continue to be felt for decades to come.