At first she had believed her mother was a jinn who had changed into a human for only a short while and then had to change back, but she was always too cold to have had a mother made of fire. Then she thought her mother may have been blown away by a typhoon, but too many older orphans said they had seen her walk away on her own two feet. Finally she decided that her mother, this 'whore' they talked about, was not like other women who lived and died beside their children, but another kind altogether, who knew that her child would be clothed and fed, just not by herself, like a bird who lays her egg in another's nest.
So Deqo had grown up thinking herself a cuckoo amongst the other camp children, whose parents were all refugees from the fighting and famine that had swept across eastern Ethiopia from the seventies into the eighties; some were Somali, some were Oromo, but they all had their families or even just their family names and clans to help them. Deqo deeply wishes she had a second and third name; she won't be greedy and ask God for a whole abtiris of seventeen names or anything, just two more would allow her to puff out her chest and announce her existence to people. When she was too young to know better she had taken the name Deqo Red Cross because that was the name of the clinic she lived in, but the frowns on the white-uniformed nurses' faces let her know it wouldn't do as a replacement name. She lived as just Deqo, or sometimes Deqo-wareego when the nurses shouted at her, and waited for her prayers to be answered.
When Anab Hirsi Mattan came into the orphanage at around six years old, head shaved for lice and wild with grief, Deqo was charged with looking after her. When she ran away to the burial ground Deqo was in close pursuit, nervously waiting and watching while the little bat-eared girl beat her hands on the mound of earth covering her mother. The older graves were marked with rocks, planks of wood, or thorny acacia branches, but the newer ones were unadorned, rolling up the hill in a wave. The cemetery resembled the vegetable plot between the dispensary and orphanage, pregnant with plantings that would never grow, watered with nothing but tears. Anab shovelled her hands into the dirt as if she was trying to dig up her mother or bury herself; eventually she tired, defeated, and laid her face down on top of the grave. Deqo had then approached and stretched out her hand; Anab took it, her fingers bleeding, and sloped back with her to the orphanage.
Deqo took ownership of Anab from that day, sleeping and eating beside her in the large tent that housed fifty-two orphans and strays. Every day she and Anab ate canjeero for breakfast, played beside the standpipe where the earth was damp and malleable, followed funeral processions to the cemetery, had an afternoon nap and then played shaax with mud counters before the unchanging supper of rice and beans and lights out. Lying in the dark, whispering and tittering, Anab called her Deqo-wareego Hirsi Mattan; they were newfound sisters, thrown together like leaves in a storm.
* * *
The myriad buildings that Deqo is slowly learning the names and purposes of appear in the edges of her vision as she steps into the pitted road. The library for keeping books to learn from, the museum for interesting objects from the past, the schools in which children are corralled and tamed, the hotels for wayfarers with money in their pockets the existence of all these places brings pleasure, despite her belief that as a refugee she is not welcome inside.
In the weeks since her arrival in Hargeisa she has learnt something every day just from observing the life around her. In the first few days she slept in the market, led there by electric lights and children's voices. She huddled rigidly under the stalls with a few girls and many, many boys fighting and sniffing all night from little bags that gave them leaky noses. She left there and found a concrete area in front of a warehouse that was swept clean and raised above the dust of the street. She found a little sleep there until one night a pack of stray, short-haired dogs found her, growling and barking as she hid her face in her hands. They drew the attention of the watchman who frightened them away and then banished her too. She had then stayed a week outside the police station, hoping for their protection against boys and strays, but instead there was the constant disruption of police cars, of foot patrols and military vehicles sweeping up and down the road. Eventually, she had gravitated closer and closer to the ditch, lured by its quiet thicket and isolation, to the point where she is now perfectly comfortable sleeping within its deep darkness, unafraid and undisturbed, unless it rains and a deep chill enters her bones.
Copyright © 2013 by Nadifa Mohamed
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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