Thursday, February 22, 2007

Aman: The Story of A Somali Girl

Title: Aman: The Story of A Somali Girl
Author: As told to Virginia Lee Barnes and Jance Boddy
Year: 1994
Rating: B
Pages: 349 pgs. Book From: Public Library

"Somalia has been without a central government since its last president, dictator Mohamed Siyaad Barre, fled the country in 1991. To date, there have been 14 efforts at national reconciliation."
-U.S. Bureau for African Affairs, Feb. 2007

"Around four or five in the morning we heard a big noise I had never heard before, like an earthquake. The whole house was shaking. It was the noise of the military tanks going by outside to arrest the ministers. In the middle of the night, Siyaad Barre, a young man who was in the military, had taken over the country...I know the military were very bad. Even the police were bad. Ever since that policeman had grabbed me off the street and thrown me in jail, I hated the police. I knew what they were like, and the military was worse than the police."
- Aman

As a human rights and refugee activist, one of my ongoing frustrations is the lack of attention paid to the political vacuum that is currently Somalia. Not only is it ignored by the vast majority of news outlets and government bodies, it is ignored by various human rights organizations as well [searching Human Rights Watch's website for reports on Somalia only brings up a handful, the most recent in 2004; only 5 reports dated after 1995, nothing from 1995-2000]. Considering myself somewhat knowledgeable and aware of Somali current events, I never quite understood the history behind what has happened in recent history, or what it was like for those who grew up in Somalia prior to the 1980's.

Then I met Aman. Figuratively, that is. Her story is one of a woman growing up in Somalia in the 1950's and 60's. It is one story, and should not be taken as the norm for Somali women of her generation. It should also not be seen as particularly unusual circumstances. Many events in her young life are reflected in the lives of others. Her story is told in the way of her culture, through oral storytelling to Virginia Lee Barnes, and later, Janice Boddy.

Owing to the rich oral storytelling tradition in Somalia, and Aman's raw talent, she relates the details of her childhood in amazingly detailed and believeable accounts. Aman struggles from an early age with the norms of her culture. Although willingly undergoing an infibulation circumcision, she balks at most other gender-scripted tasks required of her. In many ways, she behaves in a similar manner to teenage girls the world over: she rebels, runs away, sulks, throws tantrums, and does everything else in her power to get her way. Unlike many teens however, what she is rebelling from is astounding: at age 11 she is forbidden from an innocent relationship with an Italian boy; at 13 she is given away in arranged marriage to a man more than four times her age. Aman survives on her wits in Mogadishu, using her sexuality as a rebellion against many of the expectations and social norms of traditional Somali culture. She finally flees Somalia after the military coup makes life in the city even more treacherous.

Aman's story is all the more poignant for her unabashed straightforwardness. She does not apologize for her actions that were selfish, but through her story presents a clear reminder of the victimization and oppression of women around the world.

One of the more shocking descriptions for me was Aman's defense of female circumsion (what I refer to as female genital mutilation).

"You know, Rahima, I've heard many Europeans, many white people no matter where they come from, they're trying to educate Africans about circumcision. But would they accept it if I educated them to circumcise? This is my culture, my religion, and I don't believe another nation can take away another nation's culture. If Somali women change, it will be a change done by us, among us. When they order us to stop, tell us what we must do, it is offensive to the black person or the Muslim person who believes in circumcision. To advise is good, but not to order."

Although my opinion about FGM has not changed, thank you Aman for allowing me to view the issue from a different perspective.

And, one more quote:
"Mama and I slept side by side on a wooden bed. There was only one sheet, and she always made sure she covered me with it. It was no problem. But some nights, I thought of the spring bed I had in the hospital. If people had money, they bought those. They could also have tables and more dishes, with maybe a radio, and everything clean. I wanted that. But we didn't have it and it didn't bother me. I was happy with what we had. I knew we were poor."


Lotus Reads said...

Thank you for the wonderful review! I have had "Aman" sitting on my bookshelf for the longest time, but with all the challenges, I just haven't had time to pick it up. I do have it listed for my TBR challenge though, so I know I will have to read it before the end of the year!

Nyssaneala said...

lotus- Thanks for the kind words!

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Anonymous said...

I've read the book..I myself come From Tanzania..whereby I have grwn up with somali friends who had shifted to tanzania..I would just like to say that, aman might have implied that female circumsision is a part of her religion (islam), its not, its only a part of her culture (somalis)..most sudanese, somalis, ethiopians and certain tribes in Tanzania like the maasai and kurya and other tribes in Kenya practice female circumsission..its not encouraged in Islam.