The world sends us corrosive signals on the daily and we absorb that mess like our lives don’t matter. This pernicious cacophony festers in our minds until we slowly disintegrate, allowing shame, fear and indecision to contaminate our selfhood and sanity. As always, the body keeps count.
Reader, I’ve been there. There have been many times when external disarray concussed me until I was sweating in my sleep, chased by chimeras forged in alternative facts – Brexit, Blue Lives Matter, so-called heads of state defunding health services or telling us to inject disinfectant into our veins to ward off deadly contagion.
So what do I do when the world is spinning off its axis? I dance, reader. I dance like everyone is watching, because nowadays, someone always is. Allow a brother to elaborate.
When I was laid off from my sales job at Neon Gumbo, the boutique where I had worked part-time for a year, as well as let go by The Afrosphere, the publication I had written for five years; and my club night, Anima Kingdom, had to be shut down for the foreseeable, unforeseeable future as a health hazard, I did a deep pivot into the digisphere. I built a water-tight website for Anima Kingdom, using my paltry savings to set up and run an interactive queer dance party, four nights a week. I charged two pounds per entry and promoted the events heavily through e-newsletters, online ads and relentless plugging on social media.
Consequently, there was an average of five hundred guests hot-stepping it on the livestream at some point each evening. I played mashups of Masego, Mulatu Astatke and Rah Digga; Raveena over a Madlib soundscape; Yousou N’Dour, Björk and Megan Thee Stallion over a Bootsy Collins bassline. Me and my cyber crew kikied like our lives counted on it. Reader, it was the sexiest session south of the river and your bredrin was dolled up prettier than Diana Ross (this is sacrilege, dear reader, and I apologise. No one can fix up and look sharper than Dirty Diana.) Even my downstairs neighbours were rocking out to my dope rotations, smoking dank and chilling in their gardens.
Towards the end of the night, I dialled the groove down and signed off with my mantra: ‘Smoke, have sex and stay excellent, beauties.’
At sunrise the simulated party would end and the real one would begin. I would take a shower and cross the hallway to my habibi Kayd’s house. Our timelines were in sync, as Kayd was spending his nights making funky protective masks, photographing them and uploading the images on his hyper-popular Etsy page, where each ‘collection’ would sell out in a few hours. We would connect at daybreak, feeling hungover and horny and happy. Reader, we would make love on his squeaky bed until we were sleek with satisfaction. It was our own act of deification, every rubdown a holy haiku: a reminder that we worshipped each other.
Afterwards, we shared a blunt in bed and spooned. Kayd wriggled round to face me and pressed his head against my chest. My heart was beating like a two-step snare.
‘What are you afraid of?’ he asked, finishing the last of the blunt and stubbing it out in the bedside ashtray.
‘I’m in a war with my mind that I’m determined to win.’
‘I don’t understand what that really means.’
‘Oftentimes, I experience something called formication, like my skin is crawling with ants, which is caused by anxiety. In those instances I repeatedly splash my face with cold water and I perfume myself. People wax poetic about mental illness but it’s not poetic. It’s about finding a reprieve. A way to exist inside a body in revolt.’
‘How can I nurture you?’ asked Kayd, softly stroking my belly.
‘By being here,’ I said. ‘By realising that I’m a morass of contradictions. By continuing to show me the kindness and care that you have shown me thus far.’
‘I don’t want you to ever feel like I own you,’ said Kayd.
‘You mean like a sex slave?’ I smiled. ‘Honey, gag me and don’t skip the whip.’
Kayd laughed. ‘You’re a mess, but you finesse that messiness into creative juice, flavour, and some buttery bussdowns. I fucks with you heavy-heavy.
‘Then stop all that blather and lace me with the kind of kinky, halwa-sweet sex that you blab so much about. You gas a good game but you don’t deliver.’
‘Is that so?’ said Kayd, sliding on top of me. ‘You’re awfully confident for a bloke who was squealing my name ten minutes ago. We’re not going to leave this bed until you’re hobbling out the door.’
‘Ooh, filthy,’ I said, pressing replay on my Kehlani rare grooves. ‘I’m ready.’
Reader, I couldn’t walk right for a week afterwards.
Hear ye, hear ye.
Smack your lips if it’s sweet to your spirit.
Kiss your teeth if you ain’t savouring what I’m serving.
In the early hours of the morning I sit still and try to relocate my centre. There is always one question that pops into my mind, one question that remains preserved like a ghost flower dipped in formalin: What are you missing out on in your life? I answer in hushed tones: everything. I’m missing out on everything, and my spirit is hungry for something sweeter than what is currently available in the cupboards of my body, my psyche, my personhood. Reader, don’t get to tripping. I’m grateful for my good fortune, but every now and again I’m caught off-guard by mutinous acts of self-subjugation. Freedom is about honouring your humanity in all its gore and glory. Freedom is a hymn and a holler. Freedom is simply believing that your life matters. It is a lifelong trust exercise played with the God in you.
I glance over at Kayd, snoozing peacefully on the other side of the bed, and a wave of panic washes over me. How do I protect my habibi? How do I keep him safe from the unseemliness of this world? I know Kayd is older than my own parents, but there is a softness to him, a certain delicacy that makes me want to shield him from the terrors of daily living. So I laugh and invite levity into our small lives, because I know that my fears will harden to a ludicrous extent otherwise. I know that my worries will morph into paranoia and, if I’m not careful, psychosis.
You weren’t expecting this frequency of blue funk, were you, beloved reader? This is a narrative about lightness as a counterpoint to difficult circumstances. This is a narrative about making peace with impermanence. Your presence is a psalm and I’ll keep singing this paean as we navigate our new reality of face masks, mass grief, joblessness, and dangerously incompetent shysters peacocking shamelessly in every corner of the political arena.
So what do we do in such moments of crisis, reader? We do what we have always done: we tell stories. We craft narratives that revel in pleasure and self-restoration. Sit with me as I light some frankincense and spin fables, the kind that chronicle how mi familia found ways to not only get over but thrive for generations, by creating their own intricate mythology as a devotional act of memory-keeping.
You ready? Buckle up, beauty.
My grandfather on my mother’s side was a man named Magan. Bredrin was a merchant from Kismaayo, Somalia, and he made real screw-you money importing gold and diamonds into the country in the mid-seventies. He and my grandmother Filsan owned a series of luxe jewellery stores together, and that’s where they would sell their gems. When my mother was born, my Ayeeyo Filsan immediately knew her daughter was a firestarter. Even as a child, my Hooyo consistently brought all the smoke. She was a ragamuffin who regularly boxed her two older brothers and went fishing with Bajuni blokes, ran the streets with beggar children and played football instead of attending madrassa. At the age of fourteen she approached my Awoowe Magan, who had a soft spot for his idiosyncratic daughter, and said she wanted to leave for Mogadishu: she had outgrown provincial Kismaayo. My Hooyo wanted pure, undiluted kickassery, and Mogadishu offered the promise of kineticism.
Magan, however, was having none of it. He forbade my Hooyo to venture out into the world on her own.
‘You’re just a child, Amran,’ he said, as he ate his morning bowl of porridge. ‘What if you’re abducted or, God forbid, you fall pregnant? I can’t have my child walking around Mogadishu with a head full of battered dreams and a baby in her belly.’
‘Times are changing, Magan,’ said my Ayeeyo Filsan, lighting her third cigarette of the morning. Ayeeyo was practically infirm in the a.m. if she didn’t have her three Ubax cigarettes.
‘Aabo, you’re being an asshole,’ shouted my Hooyo.
The room fell silent. A rooster could be heard crowing in the neighbour’s backyard. My Awoowe Magan put his spoon down, picked up his napkin and wiped his mouth in slow-motion. My Hooyo was unnerved, but Awoowe Magan didn’t dash his daughter for disrespecting him. Instead he said, ‘You can hate me all you want, Amran. You can take a crossbow and wound me, but the day I let my only daughter — who is still a child — leave my care and run around Mogadishu like some street rat is the day you’ll know that my spirit has disintegrated. You will stay here in Kismaayo, in this house, until you come of age. But I will never talk to you again after the way you’ve just hurt me.’
‘Aabo, I’m—’ began my Hooyo, but before she could finish her sentence, my grandfather had got up and left the room.
‘Go after him,’ shouted my Ayeeyo Filsan.
My Hooyo’s face hardened. ‘No,’ she said, before exiting the room in the other direction. After all, she was her father’s pickney.
‘Knock, knock,’ said my Hooyo as she entered my apartment. ‘I hope you guys are decent. Seeing my son having sex could potentially scar me for life.’
‘You’re safe, Amran,’ smiled Kayd, getting up and giving her a hug. ‘How are you? How’ve you guys been holding up?’
‘Oh, we’ve been living our best lives despite the mild inconvenience of a global pandemic that threatens to kill off everyone and everything we value. How’ve you guys been doing?’
‘Oh, you know, we’re kicking ass despite being desperately impecunious,’ I said, ushering her into my living room. ‘We’ve got soulfulness to sustain us.’
‘Well, that’s a good thing because I’m here to bring you my very own, very special brand of Somali soul food to elevate your spirits. Kayd, you like seasoned kidneys, don’t you?’
‘Serve it up,’ said Kayd, pouring my Hooyo a glass of lemon water and in a separate tumbler a shot of Glenfiddich whiskey to chase it down.
‘Yes, Hooyo, wolfing down a meal that tastes of piss is exactly what we need,’ I smiled.
‘That’s where the seasoning is key,’ said Hooyo, sitting down on the sofa. She held a covered dish on her lap.
‘I really liked the last meal you brought us,’ said Kayd. ‘It was a Kenyan dish. What was it? Oh, wait — a cow’s intestines.’
‘Hey, mutura is a genuinely important dish amongst the Gikuyu. I was dating this cutie-with-a-booty called Wambui when we lived in Kenya. It was her favourite meal, and she was all that and a bag of piping hot Cheetos.’
‘Aren’t Cheetos banned in the UK?’ I said. ‘They don’t meet our definition of edible, or something.’
‘God, that only makes them more delicious,’ said Hooyo, gulping down the Glenfiddich before turning and pouring the lemon water out of the open window behind her.
‘Hooyo, could you tell us the story of your journey from Kismaayo to Mogadishu in the eighties?’ I asked, pouring her another shot of whiskey. ‘Kayd asked me.’
My Hooyo knocked back another shot and said, ‘Baby, we’re going to need to set the scene for this sheeko. Play me some Prince and I’ll spin a yarn that will make your heart sing. Also, bring me some weed and a tumbler with some fresh ice-cubes. We’re about to have a proper session. Oh, and Migil?’
‘Yes, Hooyo?’ I said.
‘I will be needing that whole bottle of Glenfiddich.’
Kayd and I dutifully set everything up so my Hooyo could feel comfortable. She closed her eyes as she rolled her joint, trying to call up long-suppressed memories, trying to navigate the meridians of her life’s pattern in order to unearth secret knowledge: an alchemist on the cusp of concocting a potent potion.
She took a puff of her indo, opened her eyes wide, and began.
I always knew that Kismaayo wasn’t conducive to my spiritual wellbeing. I wanted to feed the fire and so I dipped and dashed. I left home one night after my father had gone to bed. My mother, your Ayeeyo Filsan, gave me three things: a large yellow diamond, a small kitab, and a Smith & Wesson revolver. She told me that the diamond would help me buy my way out of trouble, the kitab would offer me spiritual guidance during trouble, and the gun would annihilate trouble altogether.
‘Shitty Shitty Bang Bang,’ I said.
‘Yezzur,’ said my Hooyo, smacking her lips and warming up to the meat and bones of her mambo.
I schlepped to Mogadishu by essentially hitchhiking there. I rode on buses and the backs of lorries, tuk-tuks and such tings. Eventually, your Hooyo arrived in the city and her eyes were dazzled by the grandeur of the goddamn joint. Migil, you may not know this, but Moga was mad delicious back then — and mad dangerous, too. I kept my Smith & Wesson, which I had christened Coffy, stashed in my fanny pack. Hey, don’t judge me! I was a fourteen-year-old kid, but I was also a young OG-in-training.
The first thing I had to do was find shelter. I went to see a jeweller my parents had talked about called Gacamey. Homie had symbrachydactyly, which meant that he was born without three fingers on his right hand. Gacamey was not one to mess with. He scoped-and-scoped-and-scoped my mother’s yellow diamond and then scanned me one time.
‘Abti,’ he said, gently. ‘What are you doing with a diamond of this size and rarity? Who gave it to you? Did you steal it?’
I reached into my fanny pack like I was casually fishing for a cigarette, whipped out Coffy and pointed it at his head. Holding that gun in my hand was the first time I felt like the warrior-beast-bomb-bitch-lesbiana that I am today. Holding that gun made me know I would never need dick in my life. I almost creamed just thinking about it.
‘Hooyo!’ I snapped.
‘Sorry, I got lost in the moment. But that shit was one heck of a thrill ride.’
‘What happened next?’ said Kayd, through mouthfuls of cashew nuts. ‘This mess is like a Clint Eastwood jam.’
‘Honey, Clint Eastwood ain’t got shit on us,’ said Hooyo, smoking her joint. ‘Not even Pam Grier. Somalis are the most loving and loyal people you’ll ever meet. We will support you, offer you everything in our pockets and our homes, serve up our hearts like it ain’t a thing. But if you even think about pulling a fast one on us, we’re one million percent with the shits.’
Hooyo was buzzing at this point. She stubbed out her spliff in the ashtray and closed her eyes as if in prayer. For some folks telling stories was merely a pastime, whereas for my people storytelling was a portal to something primal and sacred: it was how we got closer to the softest, most holy parts of our humanity.
I held that gun to Gacamey’s head and never once considered the consequences. Gacamey, to his credit, didn’t flinch. What he said next would alter the course of my life forever. He handed me back my mother’s diamond.
‘You look hungry,’ he said. ‘Have you eaten anything today?’
I was thrown off by his question. ‘Why aren’t you afraid of me?’ I asked, ‘Is it because I’m a girl?’
‘Oh great, a needy criminal,’ said Gacamey, heading towards a small fridge in the corner, opening it, and pulling out an ice-cream tub covered with foil. He extracted a spoon from under the counter, and handed both items to me. Later on I thought, he could have had a gun of his own in either place. But he didn’t.
‘If it makes you feel any better, you’re the scariest criminal that’s ever walked in here,’ he said.
‘That really does help,’ I said, putting my gun back into my fanny pack. ‘Thank you.’
‘You’re welcome, kiddo,’ said Gacamey. ‘Now eat.’
I peeled back the tinfoil from the ice-cream tub, which contained tiramisu. Maybe it was the fact that I hadn’t eaten for a while, but that tiramisu was so delicious I still have dreams about it. I pigged out on the dessert whilst Gacamey observed me, quietly.
‘Where did you get that diamond?’ he asked.
‘My mother gave it to me,’ I said, through mouthfuls of chocolatey goodness. ‘I came here to try and sell it so I can pay for a place to sleep for the night.’
‘Don’t sell that diamond,’ he said. ‘You can stay at my home until we figure something out for you. That gem will be useful to you in the future.’
‘I don’t want to impose,’ I said, warily.
‘I have a son about your age,’ said Gacamey. ‘He’s perhaps a little too gentle for my liking. I want you to toughen him up.’
‘That’s a weird request.’ I handed the empty ice-cream tub along with the spoon I used back to Gacamey. ‘Why can’t you do it?’
‘He already hates me for the fact that I try to push him,’ said Gacamey in a sad tone. ‘Life is very difficult for him because he’s different. It’s not natural, you know, for a young man to be so obsessed with women’s clothes and makeup; to be so oblivious to his own manhood.’
‘Maybe you’re misreading the moment,’ I said. It was the eighties and flamboyant men weren’t that unusual. ‘Have you seen Prince and Boy George? They’re pretty badass.’
‘I don’t want a badass son,’ shouted Gacamey, slapping his almost fingerless hand on the counter, which startled me. I wondered if I would have to whip out Coffy and use it for real this time. I tried to keep cool.
‘So, what exactly do you want me to do? Teach your son how to throw a punch?’
‘Yes,’ said Gacamey. ‘I want you to teach him how to fight. I want you to teach him how to play football. I want you to toughen him up.’
‘And what do I get for doing all this grunt work?’ I said.
‘Food and shelter.’
‘Sounds like a pretty good setup, but I do have some stipulations,’ I said.
‘I didn’t come to Mogadishu to babysit your kid. I came here to have adventures and I will come and go as I please.’
‘That’s a non-starter,’ said Gacamey. ‘There are rules at my house. My wife runs a tight ship.’
‘That’s entirely her business,’ I said. ‘I won’t get in anyone’s way but I also won’t be policed.’
Gacamey mulled this over for a moment and eventually said, ‘Deal.’
‘I’m going to stop there for now,’ said Hooyo, smiling cheekily.
‘No!’ Kayd and I shouted in unison.
Hooyo pulled us both closer to her.
‘Do you want to know the secret to a great story?’ she said, conspiratorially.
‘Don’t leave your audience hanging?’ I piped up.
‘Always leave your audience wanting more. Storytelling is sixir of the most ancient sort. You want to tease and toy, tease and toy with your audience until they’re practically begging for you to lace them. So is you two ready? Is you two really ready to rock with me?’
‘Oh, for God’s sake, yes,’ I said.
‘Roll me a joint,’ said Hooyo, ‘And get ready for the most buckwild shit this side of Benadir.’
Gacamey took me to his house that evening. It was a decent digs with a swimming pool and a garden jam-packed with fruit trees and flowers. His wife, Maryan, a heavyset, homely woman greeted us at the gate.
‘One of your strays?’ she said, giving me the evil eye.
‘Come on, she’s a kid,’ said Gacamey. ‘And she’s here to help Diini become tougher.’
Maryan became vibratory with rage. ‘Who do you think you are, waltzing into my home like some goddamn street rat?’ she shouted at me. ‘My son is refined. He’s sensitive and sweet: a poet!’ She turned to Gacamey and said, ‘I don’t know what’s going on here but I will not have some random urchin messing with my son’s self-esteem.’
‘Is that your son?’ I said, glancing at a strikingly handsome, androgynous boy around my age climbing out of the swimming pool in a pair of Speedos like his ass was Ursula Andress.
‘Waryaa, Diini,’ Gacamey shouted, ‘Put some clothes on. Ya Allah, this is not a swimsuit competition.’
‘He has a fantastic figure,’ I said, eyeing his abs and strong legs.
‘Nayaa,’ hissed Maryan, ‘You will not corrupt my boy.’
‘Oh, I think it’s too late for that.’
Diini strolled over to us and, walaahi, my breathing became erratic. He was sculpted and lithe, with sun-soaked skin and a smile that oozed understated sexiness.
‘Waryaa,’ said Gacamey, ‘Meet Amran.’
‘Hi Amran,’ smiled Diini, shaking my hand. ‘I hope my father hasn’t roped you into one of his schemes.’
‘What do you mean?’ I asked.
‘I hope he hasn’t inveigled you into thinking you’ll become my wife. I have no intention of getting married.’
Gacamey and Maryan immediately starting invoking Allah.
‘Don’t say that,’ said Maryan, ‘We’ll find you a pretty girl from a good family — not some beggar who looks like she fell from the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down.’
‘Actually, Hooyo,’ said Diini, checking me out, ‘She’s stunning, and she looks like a proper fire-starter.’
I could feel my face becoming heated. No-one had ever complimented like that.
‘Maryan, take Amran and have the maid run her a bath,’ said Gacamey. ‘She’ll be joining us for dinner.’
Maryan’s eyes flared but she didn’t say anything. She reluctantly led me inside the house, leaving Gacamey and Diini to discuss what had just happened.
Over the coming months, I became Diini’s personal trainer, teaching him to kickbox and knock any trifling fool’s teeth out. Unexpectedly, he had an aptitude for it. He, in turn, showed me how to skateboard, how to play dodgeball, how to fix my hair, how to apply lipstick without leaving a smudge. It was a match made in haram heaven.
I knew he was into boys, but it turned out he also fancied girls. He liked, he said – he was only fourteen, remember – to dip-and-dive into both worlds. Diini saw sexual malleability as an aphrodisiac, and he often tried to hit on me, but I wouldn’t put out.
‘I know you dig chicks,’ he said to me as we lounged on the beach one afternoon, which was something we often did, to get away from his parents.
‘Does that make you think less of me?’ I said, sucking on a lollipop.
‘It makes me like you even more.’
‘I’m going to be leaving soon,’ I said.
‘Where to?’ he said, genuinely startled, though he tried to hide it.
‘Kenya and then Europe, probably England.’
‘I’m coming with you.’
‘Look at Danger Mouse,’ I smiled, crunching my lollipop.
‘You’re the best person I know,’ he said. ‘I would be a fool to let you walk out of my life.’
I surveyed the beach, half resenting, half envying the young families enjoying their lives, planning their ordinary futures. Soon this city would become a death zone, but who can imagine such a thing before it happens? For now all I could think of was a future for myself that would be filled with adventure and alternative ways of being. I too wanted a family of my own someday; a home where I would feel safe and supported. I could never have envisioned what that family would look like, but I was determined to honour the God in me.
I was ready to claim my freedom.
As she said those words My Hooyo promptly blacked out on my couch. This was not unusual, so I covered her with a blanket whilst Kayd cleaned up the kitchen before retreating to his own apartment across the way.
As my Hooyo snoozed peacefully, I thought of all the ellipses in her retelling of our family history, all the important parts she didn’t mention. I thought about how she and my father, Diini, stayed in Mogadishu until the Civil War destroyed their lives and the lives of their loved ones. I thought about how she shot my grandfather Gacamey’s good hand with her gun, Coffy, when he found out that she was a lesbian and tried to kill her. He lost two more fingers. I thought about how she paid for her and my father’s flight out of Mogadishu with the yellow diamond her mother had given her. I thought about how she read her kitab whilst she was heavily pregnant with me in a refugee camp in Kenya. I thought about how she and my father made a pact at the age of eighteen, which was, when they got married, about how they would build a queer family of their own: a small, self-designed universe predicated on kindness, joy and tenderness. But there were also the psychic and spiritual sacrifices that my Hooyo had made in order to have me. Whilst she was pregnant, she made a pact with my Aabo that the trauma stopped with them: that they would safeguard me from sorrow at all costs.
In many respects my parents kept their promise. I grew up without a sense of inferiority or self-hatred, and I was consistently surrounded by a circle of care. When I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, my Hooyo studied to become a psychiatric nurse in order to help me cope with my condition.
As she slept on my couch now, her body exhausted from telling stories and smoking too much weed, I kissed her on the forehead.
‘You did it, Hooyo. We’re free.’
Image by SEPHORA VENITES