By:Yusuf Dirie,Deeq Mohamed
To ask where does our dependency stem from is to give the impression that dependency describes the totality of our current state. That, it is the natural state of many of us – a condition that we are born into and then how we go onto experience life. Yet, nothing in this life is a given.
Reality is a neutral void that does not naturally advantage or disadvantage anyone. The systems that humans build do that. Yet many view it as having a natural flow. Martin Luther King said that “The moral arc of the universe bends towards justice”. Ta-Nehisi Coates responds by saying “It bends towards chaos”. Both of these statements give the impression that there is a curve that naturally bends towards something, if allowed to naturally flow. It either goes towards justice or chaos. To favor justice is to have a more hopeful view of life; to say chaos can imply a more pessimistic one. We don’t subscribe to either view.
We believe reality is a neutral space – and the direction of flow (justice, chaos or whatever) will benefit whoever is willing to work to direct it. Work done, and steps taken determine where you end up. So in this instance, you want a future based on justice – you better be willing to work for it.
The idea of dependency is something that has very much become a part of the Somali collective subconscious and the collective psyche. It is one of those things that the moment someone tells or ask you about Somalia or even Africa – what are the first set of images that comes to mind? People usually start thinking about what’s often portrayed in the media: corruption, hungry children, famine, unending civil wars etc. These images have become part of the day-to-day currency and form the foundational building blocks upon we imagine both our nation and continent.
The power of these images cannot be understated. The images of destruction and devastation stick much more in the memory – than any analysis or opinion pieces written. It is effectively politics as images. Now if the foundational building blocks upon which we imagine ourselves, our community, society, nation and continent is created out of a diet of negative images – where does that leave us?
It puts us in space of thinking about ourselves individually and collectively as being in need of help. Many subscribe to this understanding and hold it as truth. And if as Richard Rorty says ‘truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with’ – no one challenges, it means it becomes further embedded as the understanding of how things just are around here. Those who don’t question the story and reject those images are still forced to confront it on a regular basis. The danger becomes that conversations can become pro- or anti- those images and that storyline – at the expense of thinking in completely different ways in which dependency doesn’t even play a part.
Pastoralist communities in Somalia are right now facing a huge drought and possibility of famine. This is an unfortunate reality. But at the same time these same communities also produce nearly (if not) all of the milk and meat consumed in the country – and are generating hundreds of millions of dollars worth trade in export every year. And that’s without the help of NGO’s and governments.
Instead they achieved this through innovation, adopting technologies that were relevant to their needs and responding to market opportunities both within Africa and the Middle East. That’s not to say many pastoralists aren’t currently suffering. But lets not also lump them all together – and ignore the ones that are doing very well right now.
Given that, is it right to say those people (the pastoralists) are dependent? The simple answer is no. Anyone who knows pastoralist communities is aware of their attitude to work. Like my mother likes to say – you never see an unemployed person in the Baadiyo (rural areas). For many – their starting point isn’t one of dependency, or one of waiting for help to arrive.
Rather it’s about the need to keep moving so as to find pasture for the livestock. It is when mobility stops and communities become settled that you find that the bite of poverty really kicks in. Speak to pastoralist elders and many will tell you that poverty and dependency is not how just are. But rather as how things are perceived by ‘outsiders’. For them, poverty and dependency is not starting point of the story – but there
is a real danger of it becoming the only outcome.
Now there is a danger here of painting a rosy picture that doesn’t account for the particular way in which political, socio-economic and even cultural factors inhibit individuals from working. And when I say work here, I don’t mean it in a narrow capitalistic sense but rather in terms of what does it mean to live well? What does it mean to be self-sufficient? And indeed what does it mean to be happy? These are some of the bigger questions that are missed when conversation ends up revolving around dependency.
Much of the political, cultural and social system in Somalia is based on hierarchy, and a belief in a need for hierarchy. This is evident in many settings. But it becomes painfully clear when I think back to some of the projects I was involved in almost a decade ago – and how aid was and in large part is still being distributed.
I think back to being informed that I would need to collect images from the feeding centres and camps of the relief being distributed to the ‘most in need’. This was to show those who had donated that their money had indeed gone to the most needy and destitute. As if those people are not human beings whose dignity deserves to be preserved.
In those moments, the focus was only on helping them stay alive rather than working with them to get back to self-sufficiency.
Think of how banks were viewed during and following the global financial crisis. Despite causing the crash through reckless and illegal practices, they were not viewed as incompetent and unable to help themselves. Instead they received huge bailouts. Governments, using tax payer money helped them return to self-sufficiency.
Instead of thinking in terms of aid, why do we not think in terms of bailing out those who have fallen out of self-sufficiency in Somalia? Ultimately, it’s because the images that we have of them in our mind does not correspond to that trail of thought. Dependency is taken as the story rather than as an interruption to the on-going one of self-sufficiency. Ultimately, ideas become real when people subscribe to them and act them out. The more people that subscribe the more concrete it becomes.
Yet, across Somalia there are many examples of self-sufficiency and self-reliance. The big business successes of Hormuud and Dahabshiil are obvious examples.
The thousands (if not millions) of Somali women and men (across the globe) running a whole range of small to medium sized businesses another. Somali culture and practices, rooted in Islam and pastoralist practices of Gargaar or Irmansi are a reality. Irmansi is when those with livestock give some of their animals to those who have lost their herds so they do not become poor and vulnerable. This is done not out of a passive obligation to give charity – but a collective sense of responsibility in safeguarding human dignity and not allowing another to fall into destitution. This is the spirit that fuels the remittance industry. And means Hormuud’s recent commitment to provide $600,000 (USD) to those affected by the drought.
Those who have share as means of assisting others get back on their feet. Is it right to say that Hormuud’s and Dahabshiil are anything but self-sufficient? That the thousands of Somali women and men running small and medium sized business are dependent? Or that the pastoralists that have thrived for centuries are now incapable of surviving in the region? The simple answer is no. Ultimately, all this points to people operating from a different mentality or paradigm. They have anchored themselves not in a view of themselves or of their responsibility to others as merely surviving “but instead thriving!
To move beyond the thinking in terms of dependence, we need only learn from their example. In doing so, we need to change the images that inform how and what we imagine. This will lead to different questions. Rather than asking how can we best survive? We will instead ask questions of how can we thrive? How can we have more Hormuud’s and Dahabshiils? How can we work with people to return them to their natural state of self-sufficiency? How can we face the challenges of the present without giving up hope for the future?
We should always remember that the future hasn’t happened yet. The work that we do today goes directly towards shaping it. We need to interrogate the images and assumptions that we use as building blocks in constructing it. Ultimately, we need to change the way we view and relate to each other by focusing on the best of what exists in our realities. Those practices aimed at allowing everyone that opportunity to thrive, whilst collectively safe-guarding the dignity of any of those who experience a bump in the road.
Yusuf Dirie is a Research Fellow at PENHA and PhD Researcher in Science, Technology Policy at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), University of Sussex. Yusuf can be reached on twitter @NS4CP
Deeq Mohamed is the Executive Director of Fursad Fund and can be reached on twitter @DeeqAfrika