Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Goat Soup and Bonding

To be born with an insatiable curiosity – be that a blessing or as I see it, as a curse. I needed to understand what I was seeing. My only frame of reference was the past 30 years as a midwife volunteering for the jobs hardly anyone else wanted. During those first years in the mid-1970s I was virtually fearless; I was simply too curious to be scared. I never feared for my own safety when arriving at a housing project in the middle of the night to visit a Hmong or Cambodian refugee family that didn’t speak English.

Fast forward to 2010, Minneapolis. It turned out that the Somali grandmas were as curious about me as I was about them. But how do you gain access into what appears to be a closed society? They are Muslim, there is the language barrier, and I am pigment-challenged (Eastern European ‘white paper’ as one Nigerian summed me up once.) I wondered if their world was indeed closed to me or if I would be able to gain entrance. I have no degree in sociology or psychology. I had no list of behaviors to check off; no lectures to recall; no protocols to remember. No vast store of previous research papers from eminent scholars. I didn’t even know what I was looking for. But I could look and wonder. And ponder. And listen. I bought a paperback English-Somali-English Dictionary and I was off.

I attended a strange gathering last year of a very unlikely group of alumni from the Bush Fellowship Foundation, all radical ‘outside the box’ thinkers. The keynote speaker put it perfectly. His talk began with, “You are an unreasonable people.” I wondered, ‘where could he be going with this?’ He continued: “You will not take NO! for an answer.” He was right. We were doctors, teachers, scientists, business women and men, Native People, Asians, Orientals, Africans, and a mixture of other races, all of whom had been confronted with a unique problem in our own field and did not just give up, but demanded an answer and did not stop till we found or figured one out. Money? No problem. Where there’s a will there’s a way.
Years before I had entered the world of Hmong refugees as they began arriving in Minnesota in the late ‘70s. I simply, perhaps naively assumed that if you approached anyone different from yourself with humility and respect, they would react in kind. Years later an old Hmong elder told me that the reason they didn’t like social workers here and wouldn’t cooperate with them was basically “because they won’t come and eat our rice with us.” And I would. That really opened my eyes. They looked at it this way: “they don’t accept our hospitality and spend time eating with us” but the ‘outsiders’ looked at it totally differently: “They have all sorts of diseases, they are illiterate and their houses are dirty [though they had never been inside of one to know that], they eat out of a common pot and I might catch something. They can come to our classes first and we will educate them about hygiene and cleaning methods since we know better about these things, don’t we?”

After about the 3rd year of being with our Hmong friends (and I still had not contracted TB or hepatitis) we were lounging in one of their living rooms after a big meal one summer evening as the grandpas lit up their bamboo hookahs and the smoke swirled in ringlets above our heads, watching our toddlers playing with each other on the floor. My little boy Avi was playing with Caana, a chubby little girl the same age. They were so cute together. Children don’t worry about language or cultural barriers at all. At one point Caana’s father became serious and asked me in his broken English, “Stephanie, what you think? Avi and Caana get married someday?” I realized this was actually the ultimate test of our true feelings for them. We had hoped from the beginning that they didn’t think we felt superior to them in any way, though we are educated and privileged Americans. We had tried hard not to judge anything they said or did against our own standards. We tried to give them every opportunity and advantage that we ourselves enjoyed, helping them to overcome difficulties as they arose. We had eaten squirrel and pigs ears with them, (pigs’ ears feel and taste like rubber bands) and rooster foot soup.

So I thought for a moment and then said, “If they want to. If they love each other, yes. What do you say?” I think he was taken aback. I don’t know why he wouldn’t expect that answer from me. I thought he knew me well enough by then. I can only guess that in his mind, by my asking him also for his permission I had more than passed the test.

So how do you get to know a group of Somali women? (There are over 70,000 African refugees in Minnesota as of this writing.) You first go to where they shop I suppose. That would be Karmel Mall, dubbed here The Mall of Somalia, a takeoff on our own world-famous Mall of America. Over 100 tiny stalls all partitioned inside a warehouse-size building, arranged around 3 central aisles. I would say it looked like 90% of the little shops were owned by grandmas, and maybe the remaining 10% by men who were either tailors or merchants selling imported men’s clothes or barbers whose little shops looked more like mini courts filled with men solving the world’s problems of the day while they watched TV from Nairobi or Mogadishu. I didn’t see any women sewing. You buy a skirt or dress and take it to one of the tailors that same day, having him pin the hem or mark an alteration. You would leave it with him, go to the coffee or snack bar and visit down there with the other women for a while, picking up your finished garment later.

Ok, I will check out the snack bar. I ordered a coffee latte for $1 and walked around the mall. I would say hi to each lady who would ask what I was looking to buy. Some had a bit of English under her belt (or hijab). Most didn’t. I would smile and move on to the next cubicle, staying to watch a woman painting a young girl’s arms with henna designs, moving on to wonder at the stall piled high with herbs and potions. When I asked what they were for the proprietress patted her head, then her tummy, then her knees. Some sold wedding clothes from Egypt, some had scarves and hijabs from Pakistan, the traditional head coverings. Others had sandals from Jordan and jewelry from India. Some had ornate harem-style curtains and rugs and floor pillows that could turn any American apartment into a proper Muslim home. There were shops with pots and pans and tea services for 20!

I did that every day for about a week. By week 2, I was getting a little bolder and would introduce myself and ask what their names were. A very few didn’t even try to exchange names, but most had learned enough English for introductions. Some seemed miffed that I never bought anything but just wandered around smiling and sipping coffee. One day I asked the waiter at the café in the mall what kind of soup were they serving. Goat soup, you wanna some? Sure. To go? Yes. One dalla. So that is how I started eating goat soup.

By week three I had a routine down. Take the train to Lake Street. Transfer to the number 21 bus and ride 45 minutes though the Hispanic business district to the Somali neighborhoods and the mall. Stop at the café and get a goat soup to go. Walk around and prove that I had indeed learned their names: Farhia, Fadoomah, Marium, Hikmet, Fowsiyo, Hanan, Jamad, Hafso, Yeshigeta, and Fatimah. I looked up the Somali word for midwife, umolisa, pronounced oom-moe-LEE-sah; my very first Somali word. My second Somali word was easy: HAH! Yes! Then I learned the traditional greeting: Assalamu alaikum – the peace of Allah be with you. The appropriate response is "Wa alaikum assalaam" And upon you be peace.

At one point one of the grandmas invited me to come and sit with her in her little stall. She asked first what I was sipping. I told her goat soup. She wanted to know if I liked it. I said I did; it was spicy and warmed me up. We chatted about this and that and used the dictionary when one or the other got stuck in the discussion. I asked her what dyed her hands and nails red. She didn’t have all the words that she wanted to use to explain it to me, so instead took me by the hand, abandoning her shop, to one of the other ladies further down the aisle. There was a brief exchange, I was sat down and the old lady proceeded to smear my finger tips with a greenish paste out of a paper cup. It looked like wet golden seal powder to me, or ground up tea. We left it on while they chatted in Somali for a long time. There were no clocks. They also didn’t open or close according to any time it seemed. Lunch breaks were random. Your neighbor would watch your stall if you needed to buy a snack or coffee or tea, or if you wanted to go to the mall’s prayer room to attend one of the 5 daily prayers there, announced over the intercom by the mall’s muezzin.

After what seemed like at least an hour, the old lady made a motion that I understood to indicate that I should rub my hands together and flake off the now-dried herb. I did that and asked if I shouldn’t rather just wash my hands. NO! they shouted in unison. Next they took some oil from a bottle and dribbled it onto my hands to rub into my now dark bright red fingers and nails. The old lady smiled and I thanked her, taking her hand and kissing the back of it as I had seen the women do when greeting one another. She in turn took my hand and returned the kiss. 

So I now knew how to greet other women. It was not done lightly, like when first meeting someone, I noticed, so I reserved the hand kiss for women who I felt were becoming friends. It would not be for another whole year before they started calling me ‘Sister’ though, as they referred to one another.

I started shopping at their little neighborhood groceries, even though the bananas and vegetables weren’t as fresh or as cheap as the big supermarkets throughout the city. But I wanted to support the family-owned groceries in my own area so I shopped there. I bought a package of ingera one day, a pancake-like wheel about 20 inches in diameter that serves as a plate and is stacked with honey and yogurt for breakfast, and meat and rice or bean curry for lunch and dinner. We liked it a lot, so I would pick up a package about once a week. Most families bought it fresh everyday but we didn’t use that much. It is made out of a protein-rich grain called teff and prepared like a thick pancake batter. It is cooked on a flat iron not unlike a tortilla maker, but only on one side, leaving it wetter and softer than a tortilla. I skipped buying my ingera one week and when I returned to the store the proprietress roundly scolded me: “You haven’t come in all week! I thought maybe you were sick! Are you OK?” I told her that although I liked it very much, we weren’t using it every single day. Then she voiced what the whole neighborhood had been gossiping about: “Your African husband wants his ingera every day, surely?”  Oh, dear! They couldn’t figure out why else an older pigment-challenged American would be buying ingera unless she was married to an African! I laughed and told her, “No, we are Americans, and he is not African, but we really do like your food! It is healthier, too, than our processed white bread.” Mystery solved, but she said it really is better fresh and don’t stay away so long next time.

Another day as I strolled around the mall, another woman waved me over. We are from a Plain church, similar to the Mennonites, and I wear a head scarf tied in the back when I go out. This particular woman wanted to know if I was “Arabi” perhaps, their word for Saudi Arabians who, though Muslims are light skinned. Then she asked if I was Muslim. I said, no, I am a Christian. She said she had never seen a Christian who wore a scarf and long skirts before. I said there are a few of us around and that I like to sew my own clothes. She was surprised and asked if our tailors have enough work to feed their families if American women can sew. Another shop keeper walked into the stall at this point and chatted in Somali with her without taking her stern eyes off of me. They talked for quite a while. During a pause I asked my new friend what they were talking about. She said, “She wants to know if you are Muslim. I told her you aren’t, so she wants to know if I am going to convert you. I said you are OK – you are a Christian, the real kind. So she said, ‘well she is dressed like us, she is half way to Muslim already! You might as well convert her!’” I laughed. The old woman didn’t.

Another day another woman named Jamad waved me into her stall to sit with her. Her English was choppy, but again, with my dictionary we were able to talk. When I told her I was a midwife she really relaxed and talked about all of her recent bladder problems. She hauled out a purse from under the counter and lined up all the pill bottles she was recently given. She wanted to know what I thought of each one and what they were for. She got out a spiral lined pad of paper and had me help her write out all her questions for the next time she goes to see her doctor: “AUK-rite, tell me to say, ‘what is pill for?’” and “AUK-rite, how me say, ‘when I stop pill?’” So I printed out a whole page of English lines for her. She was delighted and dashed out of the booth, returning shortly with a Somali coffee latte loaded with cardamom, ginger and sugar to thank me. I kissed her hand and had mine kissed in return. I helped her say ALL-right over and over until I thought she got it, but she still says, AUK-rite to this day. OK. I understand what she means.

Later that week I met her early one morning as I was ordering my goat soup. The cook came to the counter and put it down as I handed him a dollar bill. She snatched up the bill and handed it back to me while shouting at him in Somali. Then she took my hand and led me back to her stall. I asked, “What was that all about?” She explained, “I told him, ‘She likes us. She is teaching us English and helping us. You can’t charge her anymore.’” Period. That was it. I was never charged for goat soup again but would be handed my cup to go every morning whenever I appeared at the counter.

One morning I wandered into a beautifully arranged little shop that I hadn’t noticed before. The woman came out from behind the counter and greeted me. We chatted for a while and then she asked me if I was a Muslim. I went through my explanation once again, but to my surprise, I got a sound lecturing instead of approval. How can I call myself a follower of the Virgin Mary if I don’t imitate her in her modest dress, especially her head covering that carefully hid her ears and neck, too? Did I want every man seeing me like THAT? This tirade went on and on. True, my neck was not completely covered but my blouse was buttoned up to the top and I thought it was modest enough. No, she insisted, and I should buy one of her large shawls to cover myself properly.

I felt myself blushing and feeling like a rebellious 15-year old once again. Wow! I wondered if her daughters unveiled themselves once they went through the door at high school like my three girls did a decade earlier; (my sons’ suspenders got stashed in a bush at the bus stop with hopes that they wouldn’t be recognized as  ‘woodies’ at school, the name the other kids dubbed the kids from our church.) Marium gave me a free DVD before I left that day. I took it home and watched it, fascinated by a history of Islam I had never heard before, called “The Message.”  It is an historical epic that concerns the birth of the Islamic faith and the story of the prophet Mohammed directed by Moustapha Akkad (1977). I watched all 177 minutes of it completely entranced, but if you are wondering, no, I have not adopted the hijab. Yet.

On my way to the mall one morning several months later I was waiting at my bus stop with an older Somali man. He kept stealing sideway glances at me. Finally he spoke: “You Arabi?” I said, “no, I am a Christian.” He looked puzzled, “Why your head (scarf), your dress?” I explained that some Christians dress this way. He thought about that and said, “Same as us.” I said, “yes, we have many common beliefs, you and I.” Then I added, “That is why you are my brother!” At that he seemed visibly jolted. He pondered that a moment and then a huge grin spread across his face and he said, “Yes!”

I continued to visit Jamad in her little stall. I started bringing snacks to share. She loved grapefruit so I made sure to bring some to share. I knew most American processed foods were forbidden and are called haram  (حَرَامْ "unlawful"). Like my grandparents’ strict adherence to kosher laws, Muslims only eat foods that are halal (حَلَال "lawful") and which have been officially approved. I found their food to be very fresh, not unlike how my grandparents would prepare it. One day Jamad appeared at her little shop with a take-out box. She announced, “we eat lunch together today. Somali spaghetti!” She proceeded to lay down a little carpet and arranged the box in the center. Then she put down 2 bananas. I still have to ask about the bananas. Every meal no matter what it is, is accompanied by a banana by each setting. Then she (tentatively I thought) laid out two plastic spoons. I looked at her a minute, knowing this part was not usual. I had seen the men in the café using their hands to eat, the right hand only, that is. The left is reserved for ‘dirty’ uses. I had even noticed that some Somalis held a napkin in the left hand while eating and wondered if this was a reminder not to eat with that hand. Jamad then said, “do you use this one?” I answered with a question: “You don’t, do you?” She laughed a little nervous laugh. I continued, “I want you to show me how you do it. Put the spoons away”. She seemed relieved and proceeded to show me how it is done. The three middle fingers of the right hand are extended with the thumb and pinkie held back and touching each other.
The three middle fingers scoop up the spaghetti, sauce and meat and twirl it around until there are no strings hanging down. Then the thumb acts as a ‘pusher.’ You open your mouth at this point and shovel the bunched up spaghetti into your mouth with the thumb. All of it. She did it expertly, of course, but when I did it, I got a few strands stuck to my chin and the sauce dribbled down my neck. She burst into loud guffaws. I mumbled as I chewed, “you’ve probably never had to teach a grown woman how to eat!” She got her breath back finally and said, “No, nevah!” rocking back and forth, laughing. You would have thought it was the funniest thing she ever saw.

One time I was invited to lunch at Fatimah’s apartment. I had finally found their apartment on the 14th floor of a 28-storey building in a low income housing project. The Somalis call this place ‘the cages.’ No wonder all of them work two jobs or more to save for their own homes. They can’t wait to get out of there. I watched with great interest one day as she called her 2 children and two other little girls she was babysitting for to come to lunch. They sat in a circle on the bare floor as she set down a huge platter piled high with noodles, covered with bits of goat meat and a tomato sauce. Around the edges were the ever-present bananas. They waited with their hands in their laps for her to begin. Then she asked them in Somali, “which hand?” Three out of the four held up their right hands. She nodded. The littlest girl had held up her left hand. Fatima patiently took the raised hand and put it back into the little girl’s lap and held up her other hand, smiling. “This one,” she said. 

After our lunch, Jamad whisked away the banana peels, lunch box and napkins. She went down to the mall’s lady’s room and washed for prayer. There was a utility sink with a hose where one could wash your feet and prepare for prayer. She returned and proceeded to say her midday prayers. The little prayer rug is equipped with a tiny compass attached at the center to help one remember which direction is East or toward Mecca (where the holy Kaa'ba is), an important prerequisite to Muslim prayer. I asked if I should also pray with her or just sit and say my own prayers. She said I could do either, so I followed her lead, bowing, kneeling and touching my forehead to the rug, standing, and bowing again. 
Then Jamad rolled up the little rug and unrolled a larger one. She pulled the curtains at the entrance to her little booth and proceeded to lie down, grabbing her oversized purse to use as a pillow. Then she announced we should have a short nap. I had brought a book so I read for a while. She promptly fell asleep. When I got home later that day I rummaged around my sewing closet and found a square of foam that was left over from an upholstery project I had done earlier that year. I found a zipper and made a cover for the foam piece. The next time I visited Jamad I presented her with the little pillow for her nap time. From that day on we tried to out-do each other with little presents. We talked about many things in those early days: where we bought our groceries, what we were making for our husbands’ supper that night. Why teenagers in America reject their heritage; why our daughters are so anxious to defy our values. I think we both discovered how very much alike we women are, no matter what country we come from.

Finally I asked the one question I had been wondering about. Why aren’t the Somali moms nursing their babies? The Minnesota Coalition on Breastfeeding declared it a ‘disaster’ in 2007 in the Minnesota Somali community. I’ve even had nurses from the University Hospital ask me how they can get the Somali moms to room-in with their babies. When I found out that the Somali community has a 1 in 28 incidence of autism in their babies according to the SAAF or Somali American Autism Foundation, compared to the 1 in about 110 in the rest of us, I realized what I was here to look for. I knew that the Hmong had even lower stats than that during their first decade of assimilation. Thus began the research that has led me to believe that the biggest disparity between the two immigrant communities lies in bonding or maternal-infant attachment. I wrote a 6-paper in 2011 to the NIH (National Institute of Health) arguing that this significant, tiny window of opportunity here in Minneapolis (and present nowhere else in the world) is quickly closing as Somalis assimilate into regular American society. The NIH came to Minnesota in January, 2012 to conduct the official study, though the university they are working with has thrown out all other theories except genetic causes. 

And so I find myself writing a book I never dreamed of writing, about a subject I had no particular interest in before eating goat soup.

Stephanie Sorensen
Umulisa (midwife)

COMING SOON: This and other stories will appear in Stone Age Babies in a Space Age World:* Babies and Bonding in the 21st Century© pending by Stephanie Sorensen

*This phrase was first coined by Dr. James McKenna, used here with permission and gratitude for his work. A world-renowned expert on infant sleep – in particular the practice of bed sharing, he is studying SIDS and co-sleeping at his mother-infant sleep lab at Notre Dame University. He is the author of “Sleeping With Baby: A Parent’s Guide to Co-sleeping”, 2007, Platypus Media, Washington, D.C.

1 comment:

  1. Hi steph i did read your blog and it seemed like you had fun at Karmel and my mom's store. I was just gonna comment on the part about "Jamad" my mom, she isn't on any pills and even if she was she knows what they are for and when to stop taking them. She speaks enough english to know atleast that much. Iam just wondering if you are mixing her up with some other somali lady. My mom isn't a med person she would even hesitate to take tylenol for headaches. somali women are wonderful and iam glad you are taking the time to get to know some of them.