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Sunday 14 July 2024


Fadhi ku dirir: cultural symbol or a symptom of despair? 

20 June, 2024
Photo source: MSF
For the last generation, fadhi ku dirir was a chance to get together, chat, reminisce and spend time with friends. For this generation it’s a coping strategy for despair. 

Late one night, I agreed to meet my friend Ahmed the following day at our favourite café in the heart of Hargeisa. Ahmed and I have been dear friends for many years, and these meetings are special because we don’t often get to see each other. The next day, around 5pm, I boarded a bus from my neighbourhood, Jigjigyar, heading downtown.  

The bus was packed with the usual mix of commuters: elders, parents with children, and a few students. Fortunately, I secured my favourite spot—the seat next to the window. The bus stopped every few minutes, allowing a stream of passengers to board and disembark. 

People rushed along the sidewalks. Street vendors shouted their wares. Cars jostled for space, with horns blaring and engines howling. Glancing around the bus, I noticed an elderly man in a traditional sarong (macawis) at the far corner of the road, hurriedly adjusting his koofiyad, the Somali hat, and peeking at his watch. A mother on the other side of the road coaxed her children to stay close, like a shield of steel encasing a fine gem. Teenagers scrolled through their phones, occasionally glancing up to check their surroundings. 

Finally, the bus reached my stop. I stepped off the bus. Not long ago, the first traditional maqaxi café sprang up, perched right at the roadside, just a few yards away from the bustling traffic. A quick glance, one can see young men, sharply dressed, filling the space, and elders wearing the traditional koofiyad, carrying a stick, locally known as bud in their hand. They gather in various crowds—some groups of five to seven, others in pairs or trios. A few sit alone, eyes fixed on their phones. 

The café was outfitted with a range of plastic chairs and tables, each arranged in rows. Upon every table, glass cups gleamed, accompanied by a water jug and small, neatly stacked bags of cheap tissue. 

Waitresses sprinted between tables, taking orders. Young boys, no older than ten, can also be seen darting between the tables. Known locally as balashle (shoe cleaner) they approach patrons with buoyant smiles, brushes and polish at the ready, their voices a chorus of polite offers of shoe cleaning services to anyone in their vicinity. 

The café was nestled beside the Deero mall intersection where I was due to meet my friend, Ahmed, always a highlight and break from my routine to catch up.  

Unlike other traditional cafes on the city streets, this café has a reminiscence of European aesthetic style, a style that has taken the city by storm. The café features sleek, minimalist tables made of reclaimed wood. The tables in the café are arranged in a linear fashion, one after another, with pairs of chairs facing each other with warm lighting from pendant lamps above. Towards the back of the café, the arrangement becomes more flexible, featuring individual tables surrounded by three to four chairs. The café’s open layout allows for easy navigation, with a small bar area where people place their orders. 

This unique, yet similar aesthetic of cafes isn’t particular to Hargeisa. In his piece for the Guardian, author and columnist Kyle Chayka explored how social media has influenced the design and aesthetic of physical spaces, particularly cafes. Chayka coined the term ‘AirSpace’ to describe the phenomenon of cafes and coffee shops around the world adopting similar designs and aesthetics to be visually appealing and shareable on social media. “These cafes had all adopted similar aesthetics and offered similar menus, but they hadn’t been forced to do so by a corporate parent, the way a chain like Starbucks replicated itself. Instead, despite their vast geographical separation and total independence from each other, the cafes had all drifted toward the same endpoint,” Chayka writes. 

In Hargeisa, the prevalence of this globalised aesthetic, a ubiquitous sameness, is unmistakable. Each new establishment seems to race to adopt the style, from minimalist decor to elaborate latte art, in a bid to attract customers and create a social-media-worthy experience. 

What these modern, minimalist cafés have in common with the traditional maqaxi cafés on street corners, however, is the crowd of people, humming with energy. The loud, rowdy conversations, full of animated gestures and passionate tones, can be heard from a distance, drawing in passersby with their infectious zeal. Due to the volume, one can clearly hear what each group is discussing, mainly politics, with heated and opinionated debates flying back and forth. 

For an outsider visiting Hargeisa or any other Somali-inhabited land, the scene may seem peculiar. This is what Somalis call "fadhi ku dirir" culture, where men gather to sit, sip tea or coffee, and engage in conversations that can last for hours. As time passes, discussions evolve from politics and current events to clan histories and centuries-old anecdotes about family heritage. This tradition is deeply rooted in Somali society, transcending locations and clan affiliations. 

The loud, rowdy conversations, full of animated gestures and passionate tones, can be heard from a distance, drawing in passersby with their infectious zeal. Due to the volume, one can clearly hear what each group is discussing, mainly politics, with heated and opinionated debates flying back and forth. 

“These are the café talkers. They are Somali men who gather in public spaces to discuss and loudly debate social and political problems,” writes Safia Aidid, a Somali-Canadian professor at the University of Toronto. “They are also the men in Tim Hortons and Starbucks, the men in Somali neighbourhoods across the diaspora, thousands of miles away from the events in Mogadishu and Hargeisa that they dissect and argue about,” Aidid continues, illustrating how this cultural practice has even migrated with Somali immigrants to the West. 

 In Minneapolis, known for hosting the largest Somali diaspora in the United States, the community, especially the men, have popularised this culture. Armenian-American journalist Liana Aghajanian poignantly observed: “No matter when you arrive at 815 25th Avenue—whether it’s over the weekend, a Wednesday afternoon, or Friday night—the ever-revolving group of Somali men is there, as permanent a fixture in this coffee shop as the coffee itself.” 

In literal translation, “fadhi ku dirir” means “fight while sitting down.” However, the phrase metaphorically expresses intense and passionate conversations about topics of interest. It captures the passion and energy that can animate even the most mundane discussions. 

People often perceive metaphor as the exclusive domain of poetry or eloquent speech, relegating it to artistic expression rather than recognising its role in everyday communication. It’s commonly assumed that metaphor is merely decorative, embellishing our verbal or written expressions. This perspective is aptly summarised by Lakoff and Johnson in their seminal work, Metaphors we live by, where they argue: “Metaphor is for most people a device of the poetic imagination and the rhetorical flourish—a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language.” 

 They challenge the conventional understanding of language by revealing metaphor’s ubiquitous presence in our daily lives. Contrary to popular belief, they argue that metaphor extends beyond language. “We have found, on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature,” they contend.  

If any phrase exemplifies Lakoff and Johnson’s argument about the role of metaphor in shaping our actions and how we interpret language to make sense of our actions in a more meaningful way, fadhi ku dirir would personify their interpretation of metaphor. 

Asking an elder about fadhi ku dirir often elicits a response steeped in tradition and nostalgia. They might say, “this is a symbol of our culture, a time for socialising where men gather to engage in conversations.” It’s a cherished part of daily life, a moment to connect with friends and family, sharing stories over a warm cup of tea. 

In a sense, this gathering is a nostalgic reminder of traditional miyi culture. After a long day of herding, pastoralists would come together to share stories and find comfort beneath the shade of trees. The daily struggles of their nomadic lifestyle would momentarily fade away as they bonded over shared experiences and found solace in each other’s company.  

 It’s a cherished part of daily life, a moment to connect with friends and family, sharing stories over a warm cup of tea. In a sense, this gathering is a nostalgic reminder of traditional miyi culture. 

 Moreover, hospitality is a key element of this culture. Historically, upon a guest’s arrival, food would be prepared while guests would be ushered outside for convivial drinks—an enduring custom, especially in rural areas. During a recent work trip to the remote villages of Togdheer, this tradition was vividly alive. Our gracious host welcomed us with food and refreshments. Led by the elders, we gathered beneath a towering acacia tree, engaging in unhurried conversation over tea for nearly two hours. After our tea session, we were summoned for lunch, only to return to the tree afterward for another round of tea and long, banal conversations. Scanning the surroundings, similar gatherings of men could be seen. 

However, for the younger generation, particularly my cohort, Generation Z, their perspective on this culture is unique and often surprising. When questioned about their feelings towards spending hours in cafes, their response is quite different from what one might expect. These cafes, for them, symbolise desperation and hopelessness, reflecting a deeper societal crisis that often goes unnoticed. When i asked my friend Ahmed about this culture and how he feels about, i was taken aback by his cynical tone,  “maxaa kale oo la qabta”, which translates to “what else is there to do?”, “wax kale oo micno leh oo la qabtaa ma jiro” meaning “there’s nothing else valuable to do’, he responded to me.   

This highlights the disconnect between the older generation’s perception of this culture and the younger generation’s sense of cynicism and ennui. 

The cynical responses of the youth reveal a pervasive and systemic despair that is quietly seeping into our society. This despair is often overlooked in mainstream writing and discourse, resulting in the neglect of hopelessness and desperation among young people. The cynicism evident in their voices is not merely a fleeting sentiment but rather a symptom of a deeper issue – a sense of disconnection from the world around them. It’s a feeling that the system is broken, and their voices are not being heard. Fadhi ku dirir turns from a social glue bringing people together to a coping strategy. 

The youth constitute 70% of Somalia’s population. Unlike the previous generation, which was largely illiterate, the younger generation is well-educated. For instance, the number of graduates with first and second degrees has been steadily increasing. According to the Iftin foundation, in 2022 alone, the top universities across the country produced over 25,000 graduates combined. Nationwide, due to the proliferation of universities, this figure continues to rise annually. Despite this growth, the employment rate remains alarmingly low, with the vast majority of graduates unable to find jobs. 

The idea of pursuing a career in either the private or public sector has lost its allure for many young people. The prevailing perception, often grounded in reality, is that landing a job in Somalia relies heavily on nepotism and personal connections. This perception has encouraged a sense of exclusivity, where only those from influential families or with connections in positions of power have a clear path to employment. Consequently, a pervasive sense of hopelessness has gripped the youth, leaving many to while away their days in cafes, feeling adrift and without purpose. The outcome is a generation of young people who are losing confidence in the promise of a brighter future, finding themselves ensnared in a cycle of uncertainty. 

This despair represents just one facet of the broader narrative surrounding Somali youth. Some teeter on the edge, seeking solace in drugs to numb the persistent ache of their circumstances. Others find themselves drawn into a life of crime. Many embark on treacherous journeys through the desert, traversing blistering sands and relentless sun with bare feet. They brave icy oceans with scant protection from the biting cold. Sadly, far too many meet their demise in anonymity. 

Lamenting the hopelessness of the youth, who were dying in masses on their hellish journey to Europe, a cadre of singers, poets, and artists dedicated songs, poems, and other artistic forms of expression. Their aim was to appeal to the desperate youth who were, and still are, paralyzed and perplexed with what has come to their home, running in search of better opportunity, one that offers what their hollowed country has failed to provide. Asha Lul, a Somali poet, mourning the Somalis who were dying en masse, wrote this in her poem The Sea Migration:  

Look at the hoards of women, all the young who drown,  
all those deprived of life’s basics, adrift outside their country:  
our future floats bloated in sea, is a corpse dragged on sand.  
They are devoured, picked dry by sharks and sea creatures,  
wild dogs eat them like darib, the best camel fat,  
and many dead bodies lie decaying on our shores  
defiled by strangers’ eyes, skin peeled off their carcasses,  
their lives end in distress, and there will be no decent burial  

“For the secret of man’s being is not only to live but to have something to live for. Without a stable conception of the object of life, man would not consent to go on living and would rather destroy himself than remain on earth, though he had bread in abundance,” writes the great Russian philosopher, novelist and essayist Fyodor Dostoevsky in his acclaimed novel The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky underscores that human existence transcends mere survival. He implies that genuine living demands more than just physical sustenance; it necessitates a sense of meaning, hope, and belonging. Without such purpose, profound existential despair becomes unavoidable. Regrettably, this existential despair is a prevalent issue among today’s Somali youth. Witnessing the cynicism and widespread despair of Somali youth, one can't help but worry about the looming existential crisis among our younger generation. 

This brings home the contrast in the function of fadhi ku dirir by the older generation and the young, college-educated generation. For the older generation, it evokes a deep sense of nostalgia. It represents treasured traditions and social bonds that have been maintained over the years. They see it as a precious heritage to be preserved and celebrated. On the other hand, for the younger generation, the culture takes on a different, more subdued meaning. To them, it signifies creeping despair, a pervasive sense of loss, and the fragments of broken dreams.