I stopped at a red light and kids swarmed my car. It is the cool season in Djibouti so my window was down and the kids thrust their hands through the window and asked for water. Several of them stood on any ledge they could find on the car.
They were speaking broken, thickly accented French.
“I don’t have any water,” I said, in Somali. Then I started asking them their names.
The kids started laughing. “You’re speaking Somali!” a couple shouted.
“Are you Somali?” one little girl asked.
“No,” I said.
“But you’re speaking Somali, so you must be.” She asked me again,” Are you Somali?”
“Yes,” I said and laughed.
“But you aren’t black,” she said. “You’re red.”
An argument ensued among the kids. Some argued that I was Somali, others that I was Chinese, and others just didn’t know what I could possibly be. Finally, they came to a group conclusion.
“You’re galo,” the girl said. Gal is the Somali word for ‘infidel’ and it can also be used to identify anyone who is not Somali.
“I’m not galo,” I said. “I have a religion and I fear God.”
Now they were stumped.
“What do we call a red person (white – another kid shouted from the other side of the street) who fears God?” the girl asked.
At that point the light turned green and all the cars behind me started honking so I had to drive on, leaving them to ponder this conundrum.
What do you call a person who doesn’t fit into the categories you have known all your life and constructed in order to cram people inside them?
I’m more peachy with brown moles and some freckles than red or white. I’m not Somali. I’m not Chinese. I’m not an infidel. I’m not Muslim but I cover my hair sometimes and I say “insha Allah” and “Alhumdillalah” and fast and pray. I’m not the kind of Christian I’ve heard people here describe – the kind who gets drunk on Easter and who thinks Santa Claus is Jesus.
I am American, that’s a label I can claim because of my birth certificate and passport. I’m also a mother, there are three clear evidences of this fact. I’m a wife, there is also legal evidence of this.
But you might not know these things about me the first time we meet. In order to find out about me, you would have to ask questions, be curious, initiate conversation. You would have to lay aside assumptions and engage. This goes the same for me and these kids.
When I see street kids spot my car and descend in swarms of outstretched hands, I could make lots of assumptions. I could lump them into that category I just wrote: street kids, with all the attending prejudices. Or I can ask them their names, tease them about their sticky faces, ask them where they keep their family goats, and generally get them laughing. In those brief moments before the light turns green, I can treat them like the individuals with names and unique personalities that they are.
They aren’t objects to label and slip into categories. And neither am I. So before making assumptions or jumping to conclusions, let’s talk.