Turns out it is not a one off incident but more common than I would like to admit. I am recognising the patterns. It starts with a clumsy security check procedure with a group of disorientated Somali travelers unable to follow basic instructions. The graceful elderly man with henna-red beard and his young male companion look composed till they had to go through the scanner and soon as they hear the beeb sound, indicating they have something metallic on them, they totally lose their cool and hurriedly remove items from their pockets, remove their shoes and belts and throw them at the table. I watch in a mixture of pity and amusement. The young man leaves the elderly man looking helpless and fends for himself. I was surprised by this as it is contrary to ‘Somali culture’, that loaded word that no one knows what it means anymore, for a more able-bodied to leave an elderly man behind.
I patiently wait for this chaotic scene to pass, go through the security check and proceed to check in. I am becoming familiar with the Somali nomadic traveler’s scenario. It is like people uprooted from their camel-travel planet and implanted in a concrete jungle with strange culture of filling forms, walking through scanners and boarding in an alien spaceship. Most of the Somali travelers I encounter at airports, especially between Kenya and Somalia, seem to be totally confused about air traveling and I am baffled by how majority of these people manage to own a passport, afford a ticket and figure out how to get to the airport, in the first place!
The check-in desk was closed so I decided to take advantage of the time and fill in the departure card. Soon as I arrived at the desk to pick up the card, I was approached by about 6 Somalis, all apart from one are deportees! They have never gone through an airport and don’t read or write. I have no choice but to fill the forms for them. First in line is this young woman who seems either super stressed or high on khat. She is unable to stand still, fidgeting with her phone and spoke to me in a broken English. I reply in Somali and she is surprised. It must be my very short hair and the way I am dressing. I fill her form, ask few questions, like why does she have a brand new Somali passport issued in Nairobi with no Kenyan visa? I tell her she better think of an answer before the immigration officer asks. The woman is so disorientated I am wondering if she has been yanked out of her hiding place this morning by immigration officers for deportation. I complete the form and ask her to sign. She refuses! She holds on to the form and looks at it seriously like I am asking her to sign her life away. A young man behind her urges her to sign and tells her that there are others in line waiting to be helped. She asks me what exactly she should sign as! I tell her to replicate the signature on her passport. Next was the elderly henna-beard man from the security check. He is polite and says he needs help filling the form because he can’t see well. To my surprise, he has an American passport and he is dressed well. Am thinking, couldn’t he afford glasses and suspected he was also illiterate. I complete his form and he asks me to kindly also help the young man traveling with him. The young man hands me a blue paper with deportation orders issued by the Somali ‘embassy’ in Nairobi. I ask him for a passport or travel document to fill the departure card. The elderly man answers that he doesn’t have a passport and only has that “Go home”, blue letter. It was the same for the other 4 people waiting to be helped. They are being deported to Somalia and they are destined for Galkayo. I complete filling their cards, they say their thank yous and head for the immigration departure desk.
When I come back from checking-in my bags I find the disorientated young woman at the immigration being refused exit! She asks me to help her translate to the immigration officer why she has a blank new passport and how she got to Kenya in the first place. As I walk to the desk, another immigration officer in the next booth shouts out at me and asks where I am going. I politely tell her I am trying to help someone with translation but she doesn’t listen and repeated her question and asked why I am joining a full queue when she can help. I am thinking this is effing annoying and not what I want to deal with at 4am. She let’s me go soon as she realizes I can explain myself. In contrast, the officer I am translating for is very calm and polite. He must see this often enough to write a book about. He asks reasonable questions and she provides either untrue or confused answers, which basically boiled down to her having entered the country illegally. I translate literally and in the middle of this interrogation, she kept answering her phone and spoke to some concerned family members. Both I and the officer got annoyed and I told her in Somali that she is acting both rude and suspicious and to put her phone away if she wants help. The officer asked who she is speaking to on the phone and why is her phone ringing non-stop. I then had to explain to him that she is harmless, just totally confused and to please just let her go home. Thank goodness he agrees. I wanted that young woman back to a place where she knows what the hell is going on. I don’t get it, do people like her have a family or friends to tell her to stay put where she is comfortable and safe. I am guessing she had plans to make it to Europe or North America. There is a side of me that thinks, who the hell am I to prevent her from realising her dream, if she has some beyond landing in a frozenland with gold pavements. It is a depressing situation to witness but am glad at least she boarded the flight and heading back home.
While we were in the middle of this confusion, I noticed few other side events. Like how the Sudanese man with the UN passport who looks like Somali got caught up in this and the rude female immigration officer who shouted at me started interrogating him also, lol. You are doomed if you look like a Somali at Jomo Kenyatta airport, you get some annoyed officers to take out their frustration out on you and honestly, I am slowly starting to empathise with Kenyan immigration officers. I found some of these scenes annoying even as a fellow Somali. I was losing my patience with some of the travelers, everyone needs help at every stage, it seemed. Start the change now and invest in basic literacy class. If you want travel in search of better opportunities and quality of life, by all means go ahead and do it. But for heaven’s sakes, teach yourself to read and write so you can fill your own forms at airports. You will also be able to read documents determining your life. I want to scream about this but it is 4am and I am not fully awake to be preaching.
What I will do is write to the Somali government, if I can find the right department or person. Minister of Foreign Affairs, maybe? This is the responsibility of the Somali government and I think they should employ someone at all major Kenyan airports, especially in Wajir and Nairobi, to provide information, support and advocacy for Somali travelers. There are flights from Nairobi to all the major Somali cities at least 3 times a week and I can’t imagine how many people are stranded, end up in the wrong cities or denied entry/exit due to language and communication barriers.
3 weeks prior, I arrived from Mogadishu to find 4 women and an elderly man in desperate need and one of the women was holding a brand new Kenyan passport but she didn’t speak a word of Swahili and was in the visa queue until I noticed her passport and asked why she is trying to get a visa for her own country. She laughed shyly and said it is her first time traveling. All of them couldn’t read or write and one of the ladies was in Nairobi to buy stuff for her business back in Mogadishu! Clearly, Somalia needs a massive literacy and numeracy campaign. How are people to make an informed decision if they are struggling with the basics? It is worrying.