Development Research Day: Inclusions / exclusions? Communities, identities and value systems reconsidered.

I am here today to reflect on being the other, on othering. I am not here as a PhD student from this University but as an activist, a blogger and as your research object.

The previous presenter raised a very important point that activism does not put bread on your table. I concur with her.

In fact, I want to expound further on that point by arguing that one cannot be paid and be an activist at the same time. By that I mean, if I was receiving funding from an entity that is unethical, could I be an activist? Would I have the freedom, the backbone to question their unethical practices knowing the repercussions? What if they claimed to work on equality but never hired minorities? If they claimed to fight racism while having a white board? Could I be involved in these institutions and claim to be an activist? Can a colonialist be an anti-colonialist while still in the colonialist establishment? My answer is no.

I came to Finland, as a fleeing refugee, with a battered suitcase and a chunk of halwa in my kiondo in 1990. While I slept soundlessly in a motel called Matkakoti in Helsinki, dreaming of cardamom tea in Xamar, the Finnish press was busy selling mass hysteria. A man saw the opportunities the newcomers brought with them and quickly sat down to write. As a result, the first descriptive text on Somalis, or rather their invasion of Finland, was penned. That text was aptly titled “Somali Shock”. I stumbled upon it years after I’d arrived, dazed from all the racist slurs but still desperate to belong. I sought answers, comprehension but never got any.

Somalis became an interesting phenomenon to study. Why would all these young, mostly good-looking young men want to come to Finland? Why were they all coming through Russia? Why were they not malnourished, with flies buzzing over their runny noses? Why come to Finland when thousands are migrating elsewhere? These questions woke a few hibernating researchers who then devoted their time to their new pets. After all, the Somalis looked, smelled and acted differently. They mistreated their women, neglected their children, ran away from fighting in Somali, were loud and had a fetish for Finnish women. In addition, they also had a liking for extravagance, shiny stuff, perky breasts, driving in BMWs, and all at the expense of the generous welfare system. This was a phenomenon worthy of a study. I never had the pleasure of meeting these researchers personally but followed their activities through the grapevine.

Fast forward to 1995, a Finnish woman married to a Somali man is in our house, asking questions about death and studying how we deal with grief. She is doing a PhD on Somalis, is dressed as a Somali, henna on her hands, gold bangles jiggling. She is more Somali than I am. You see, this is very important. A researcher must resemble the natives, must eat as they do, must be part of them and must behave like them. After all, this is an ethnographic research. But does that mean she knows what I am feeling? What it is to be me? What it is to be a Somali woman, a Muslim from Africa? No. She is a privileged white woman. The power dynamics are skewed in her favor. No amount of dressing, mannerisms, is going to change that reality.

She shoots her Finnish questions relentlessly, her tongue darting in and out of her mouth. I don’t hear her, my mind is on my mother, the only solid foundation in my life, crumpling under my feet. My mother who is slowly dying in her sterile hospital room. My mother who has always been by my side, is going on a long journey, alone. The persistent chatter from the researcher never ceases. It floats above the community din, overwhelming my dulled senses.

As death went about his business, I tried to negotiate for a few days, hours, minutes. He shook his head, stood above her, and coaxed her soul to depart. I kissed her face, wiping away her sweat and my tears. Death, the only certainty in life, had accomplished his mission. The researcher hovered about, notebook in hand. She asked me something, pink mouth moving silently. I looked away, ear cocked, head turned to the side, listening for any sounds from my mother. I heard someone explaining something to her. No, you cannot take pictures. No, you cannot go to the grave. No, because women are not allowed to.

The next day, she stayed with us at home, observing our grief. As my brother was putting my mother’s head in the grave, kilometers away, her husband came out with his camera and started snapping away. The camera was wrestled from his grip and taken away.

Years later, I read her PhD research and could not place myself in her writings. That is not what happened on that day, at that hour, I fumed. I should know, that is when my mother died. We were never presented with the findings and were never involved with her research in any way. However, her research, her participatory research, claims otherwise.

Now fast forward to 1999, the start of the research avalanche. The Somali communities had research commandos crushing through their front doors, back doors, windows and even through their roofs. You could hire a Somali to open their community for you, rush in and pick your research objects. If you were a feminist, you’d pick the Somali woman with her pregnant forehead. If you were a youth activist, you’d pick her adolescents with their protruding teeth. If you were a social worker, you’d pick her children with their swollen bellies. For some strange reason, the Somali man, the lucky bastard, was never picked on as a study subject. As a researcher, you’d work your way up from a novice researcher to an expert, then to a specialist on Somalis. This was the golden era in Somali research.

Now fast forward to 2002, the research specialists linked up with associations/NGOs and put their drinking straws into the blood of the Somalis. The trend was to publish your research, then set up an EU-funded project and call it a name like “half-an ass”, your momma”, “save a skinny Somali” or something like that. To gain legitimacy, you’d scrawl Somalis on your cover page and disregard any ethical considerations. It did not matter that you did not interview all the Somalis; that you only interviewed a handful. It did not matter whether you consulted your target group, what they thought of the labels attached to them, of your findings. All that mattered was gaining recognition and making a livelihood. Once you had that project which allowed you to overnight in Mogadishu, dine in Nairobi and drink in New York, you were set for at least four years or more.

Now fast forward to 2006, I am a development expert and planning a project for a certain country. I fled Finland as a refugee, fled from xenophobia, to faraway sunny places. Obsessed with doing good deeds, I spent endless hours working on plans, calling meetings the next day and getting signatures from the parties involved by that evening. The plan was given to them for implementation, along with funding. When the reporting time neared, the implementing party sat and churned out a report to my liking. Instead of teaching them how to fish, I taught them how to rely on donors. I bought the ingredients, cooked the food, invited them over, offered it to them and even told them how to eat it. And so life went on. My point here is that I know what it feels like to plan for people, to take away their agency instead of planning with them. I know how it feels to operate from a privileged position.

Now fast forward to 2014, I am a PhD researcher. As I embark on my research, I am mindful of my two roles, of being a researcher as well as the researched. I sit with you, not as an object but as an equal being and challenge you to think outside of the box. As I stand here, I know that there are some here who think that I don’t belong. You’d rather exclude me. Perhaps you believe that exclusion and inclusion are only concepts? You would rather continue seeing me as the other, the exotic, the victim. You want to silence me so that you can continue to speak for me, speak over me. Do you think you can tell my story better than me?

I also know that there are some here who are offended by what I am saying. But as you’re stewing in your indignation, please remember that it is not about you. It isn’t and has never been about you. It is about the other, the communities that have been researched to death. It is about producing the same bull year in and year out.

Then there are those from these communities who cry wolf, who blame others for entering and researching these communities. I understand their views. Like them, I want the researchers to stop focusing on producing disempowering narratives on Somalis. I want them to stop generalizing their findings to all the Somalis: to the Farah and Farhiyo eating peanuts peacefully in Puijonlaakso. However, my response to them has been that as long as there are people among us who let in these researchers, then they should also be blamed. It takes two to tango. The reasons for letting in these researchers are various. Some of us let in these researchers, hoping to get something out of it. But when that does not materialize beyond consultancy fees, salary,  acknowledgement or a career as a used fiddle in the hands of your fiddler, what then?

If your research has nothing new to add, then please don’t do it. It does not help that you recruit assistants from these communities, that the gates have been opened to you, that your team has people from these communities. If the end result is the same as your findings in 2001, then it is time to call it quits. Or is it?

Thank you.

12.02.2014

I came to this country as a refugee in 1990, at the time of recession and when foreigners where a rarity. As a result, we had become a “Somali shock” overnight. It was common at the time to hear racial slurs, to wake up to the sounds of “perkele”, to drink tea to “mutakuono” and to dance to “vitun neekeri”. People would stop to gawk on the streets, kids yelling “look mommy, a nigger”. Grandmothers would ambush me in the swimming hall shower and scrub me down, hoping to wash the color off. Others, after a few pints, would come over to touch my hair and make inappropriate propositions. I went from being an individual, with aspirations, feelings and rights, to a degraded sub-human: a “mud face”, “nigger”, “whore”, and “social loafer”.

On the good days when I needed exercise, which was usually from Monday to Friday, I got that while being chased by skinheads, at 7:30 every morning on my way to Finnish lessons. I had gone, overnight, from hating running, to becoming a talented long distance runner.

What were these skinheads doing at the bus station at that ungodly hour? These were young boys and a few older diehards who’d mapped our movements, formed a vigilante mob and decided that we had to go. To get to the language center, we had to walk through a darkly-light tunnel, pass the taxi stand, then cross the road and walk a few blocks to the center. The skinheads would converge in the tunnel, set upon us, raining blows like a machine gun and then run after us. Those guys also introduced me to gender equality: justice was meted out to even the women. You had to make a mad dash for the exit of the tunnel, out to daylight, to humanity which just stood nonchalantly watching, laughing and from there onward it was smooth, languid running.

When one of us finally managed to call the police, we were told to keep on running, after all, it is in our African blood, isn’t it? Isn’t that how we got to Finland? Tired of being chased, harassed and physically attacked, I approached the police and reported the skinheads. I was told to run and to avoid being chased. The police eventually agreed to escort us every morning to the language center. We went from the nightmare of having skinheads on our heels to being trailed by one or two police cars. Not what one would hope for, especially coming from Africa, were the police spell trouble and torture. On the last day of being escorted and as a farewell gesture, one of the police men drove up closely, rolled down his window and told me “run, nigger, run”.

Twenty three years later, racists are still chasing and beating up on innocent people.

Recently, a Somali mother with two children under the age of six was left wailing, crying her eyes out and devastated at the Pasila station. She had come from Malmi that morning, cheerfully talking to her Finnish children and looking forward to the day. A person behind her on the escalator violently pushed her three-year old baby out of the way and stood in front of her. She asked the person, a blond woman, why she pushed the child. The woman looked back, snickered and smacked the six-year old girl on the face, smashing her lips and nose wide open. The mother, shocked by the brutal act and the amount of blood spilling from the face of her daughter, yelled for the bystanders to stop the running woman. THEY JUST STOOD AND WATCHED, LIKE SPECTATORS IN A STADIUM. The mother could not run after the woman and leave her kids on the escalator.

When the police came, all the witnesses were slowly dispersing. They refused to step up and be responsible citizens. The mother implored the spectators, tried to appeal to their decency and humanity, but to no avail. Now the case has not gone far, the children are psychologically traumatized and the mother wrecked with feelings of hopelessness, anger and deep hatred. Why do Finnish people do this? Why did they choose to be passive, watching such a heinous act? This is a child, a child! I could understand if it were an adult being attacked. But a defenseless CHILD: that is just plain callousness. Please, if you were at Pasila that day, please go to the police and do your bit. That deranged woman needs to be brought to justice. The next child she attacks could be YOURS.

Times have changed, mostly for the better. The face of racism has changed from milky white to differing hues of yellow, red, chocolate and sometimes green. Racism is no longer exclusive to the Finns. No, we also have migrants doing that. It is okay to bash the Somalis, if only to score brownie points and curry favors. If you’re a frustrated migrant, with low self-esteem and disgruntled disposition, just walk up to a Finn and tell them how you despise those nasty Somalis, sit back and expect to be invited for coffee the next day. You’ll be sorely disappointed for your turn will come too one day. But as you attempt to do this, don’t forgot that you’re here, enjoying relative peace, because we did the running, bit the bullet, endured the worst and paved the way for you.

Why am I opening up old wounds if times are better, as I claim? Because I am tired of hearing that the Finns are racists. That we cannot integrate into this society because we are of a different color, religion and culture. That Finns want us to give up our culture and religion. If that were the case, why are our children learning, free of charge, their mother-tongue and religion in schools? Where else in the world do you have such endless and highly sought after educational opportunities, all paid for by the state?

I’m not denying that racism isn’t a problem in this country. Racism is a global phenomenon that can also be found in Somalis as well as in other migrant communities. Take the example of migrants running on the tickets of populist parties here. I am talking about the ones who glare at you, huge bucket loads of condescension dripping off them and whose mistreatment is even worse than the actual racists. God forbid you should run into them in the hospitals, the government offices and even on the streets.

However, I have a problem with generalizing it to the wider population. The majority of the Finns, often silent and in the background are tolerant, peace-loving and civilized people.

The racists, although vocal and visible, are a small minority in this country. How do you recognize them? They have one thing in common: hatred. It is targeted at people who are doing well, who have jobs, businesses, high salaries, education, good living standards and who speak languages other than just Finnish. They’re easily manipulated and gullible because of their low educational level. And so they take it out on people that they perceive to have led to their misfortune. They tend to live in denial and have a utopian outlook on life: like waking up one day to the sound of angels singing in harmony, violins playing and finding a colorless Finland.

If all Finns were racists, like some claim, then life here would be hellish. Imagine that for a moment, imagine it again for a little while longer, and let it sink in slowly.

Take the opportunities available in this country, learn the language, get an education, work hard and abide by the national laws/norms. If, despite all that, you still feel unwelcome and sick of it all. Don’t despair, there are other countries looking for competent workers and who will gladly take you in. Finland is fast becoming a country known for training and exporting highly skilled labor. But remember to come back. Running away is not the best and only solution. I write from experience here.

We need to engage the tolerant majority constructively, unite forces with them, find common goals and work towards an inclusive Finland. I believe that this is our country, no matter what, and we will be here long after the storm has died down. I love Finland and I love being a Somali-Finn. This is my country, my home, my mother is buried here and my children were born here. Stop being apologetic, stop complaining, roll back your sleeves and join us in finding a solution and building bridges.

 

At last, some good news. Somali women in the Diaspora, as well as in Somalia, are taking control of their sexuality and reproduction rights. According to the CIA World Factbook, Somalia is projected to have a total fertility rate of 6.26 in 2012. This is a decline from 7.18 in 2000. Overall, the projected total fertility rate in Somalia is steadily declining year on year. As a result of the ranking, Somalia is placed third on the global total fertility rate rank chart, right after Niger and Mali.

The reasons for the decline in total fertility rates could be several: the civil war, inability to support large families, family planning or women joining the labor force. I know from my work in Somalia, and here among the diaspora, that Somali women are taking charge of their bodies and opting for family planning. In any case, this is a positive development which is laudable.

The same positive trend is observable here in Finland also. According to Tilastokeskus (Statistics Finland), the total fertility rate in Somalis declined in the twenty years that they’ve been here almost by half: from 6.6 in 1990, to 4 in 2012. The number is even smaller in Somali-Finnish women aged 27-years and who live in the capital area (3.2 child per woman). Interestingly enough, Thai women whose population is estimated at 4,430 seem to have a higher fertility age than their Somali counterparts (3,650). This is contrary to the general myth here exploited by the True Finns (a populist and nationalist political party) that Somali women are a child-producing factory.

The decline in fertility rate means progress for some of the women who came here in the 90s and who have been unable to integrate due to various reasons. For the first time in many years, they can finally come out from their four walls, learn the Finnish language, get an education, join the labor force and eventually integrate into the Finnish society.

The second generation Somali-Finns are faring well compared to the first generation. Although they appreciate and see the value in having big families, they also feel that it would not be feasible in the Finnish context. First, the extended family network that would help with child-rearing is not available in Finland. Second, Finland is a very expensive country and thus raising a big family in an equitable manner is extremely difficult. Thirdly, second generation Somali-Finns want to enjoy life, travel more often and to see world, instead of being bogged down by child-rearing.

Although we have made positive progress in ensuring reproductive health rights, I feel we have a long way to still go. Personally, I believe that the future lies in the second and third generation Somali-Finns. They can play a greater role in building bridges between the Finnish authorities and first generation women. It is imperative that we enable women to choose when and how many children they want to have. Most importantly, women of child-bearing age, as a policy, should have access to culturally sensitive family planning information and services at every visit to health centers. However, this is an area that needs strengthening. Women cite religious reasons and the lack of information leaflets in the Somali language as a barrier to accessing these vital services. Thus and in order to increase access and uptake of family planning services, it important to develop culturally sensitive targeted campaigns on the benefits of reproductive health and family planning.