Authors: Hibo Wardere
First published in Great Britain by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2016
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Copyright © 2016 by Hibo Wardere and Anna Wharton Media Ltd
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To my children
While this book gives a faithful account of the author’s experiences, names and some details have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals involved.
he sky at the windows had turned from black to a midnight blue, as the sounds of a waking Mogadishu began filtering in through our
curtains. The hungry bleating of the sheep and goats we kept tethered outside carried through the air, as the neighbours busied themselves with breakfast, clattering pots and pans as they fed
families who, like us, slept fifteen to a villa; a hungry baby cried for milk after a long sleep, while the chickens clucked and scratched around in the dirt in the hope of finding one little grain
left over from the day before. And, of course, there was the clockwork crow of the cockerel, puffing out his wings as he emerged from his own slumber and once again beating the imam in his minaret
to his call to morning prayers. In the distance, the sound of engines stoked up, as the men set out to work or to mosque, after a breakfast cooked by their wives. And, further away, fishermen were
getting ready to cast their lines out for another day in the Indian Ocean, determined to return with a bigger catch than yesterday, perhaps a fish so huge they wouldn’t have to work for the
rest of the week.
I had been roused from my sleep by the light touch of Hoyo’s hand stroking my legs, her gentle voice calling to me in the darkness.
‘Hibo,’ my mother sang in a whisper. ‘Hibo . . . Wake up.’
And now, my bones still heavy with slumber, my hand in hers, she led me from the bedroom I shared with my cousins. I could just make out the sleeping silhouettes of Fatima, Amina and Saida in
their single beds, just feet from me but far away in their dreams. My cotton nightdress had offered little relief from the heat of the Somali night, and now it flapped around my ankles as Hoyo led
me through our silent villa.
It was not yet 5am, too early for the sunlight to have begun its creep through our windows and across the floors, but the warmth of the previous day – and every day before that –
permeated each brick of our home. We lived with the heat, we were blind to it; the nights were hot in Somalia, the days even hotter.
Slivers of light shone out from under the doors of the rooms we passed, muted sounds of my aunties shuffling behind them, readying themselves for another day of cooking and cleaning.
Except today was different.
Hoyo took me into the kitchen, where she’d lit the fire in the middle of the room and filled our tin bath. Slowly, she pulled my nightdress over my head and lifted me, still sleepy, into
the warm water. She started to wash me, dipping the cloth into the water and rubbing it in the soap, then gently transferring the suds to my skin. Over and over she went, her touch much lighter
than I’d ever known before. She sang softly, as she always did, folk songs that had soothed my ears as a baby, long before I’d understood any of the words.
‘My pretty girl . . . The prettiest in the world to me . . .’
Every so often she’d pull me towards her to kiss my temples and tell me how much she loved me. As my mind slowly surfaced to full consciousness, it didn’t occur to me to ask why
I’d been woken at this hour or why I was having a bath this morning rather than at night; instead, I simply basked in the haze of tenderness.
‘Today is going to be a big day, Hibo,’ Hoyo said, planting a kiss on my soapy shoulders. ‘You’re going to be a brave girl, and I will be there with you. You’ll
never forget it. And I will be there the whole time.’ I smiled to myself, sleepy and warm, as she pulled me in for another hug. ‘I love you,’ she said, kissing my face again and
If I had looked more closely at her face, would I have seen anxiety trace a path across it? Would I have noticed that her brown eyes twinkled less than usual this morning?
Finally, it was time to get out of the bath. Hoyo hooked her hands under my armpits, as she’d done a thousand times before, and lifted me out of the water, drying me as gently as
she’d washed me. Yet when she was finished, she didn’t dress me in any of the beautiful clothes that I’d been given at my party – not the red-and-yellow dress with matching
shoes, or even the blue one – instead, she put me in rags, an old dress that must have belonged to one of my cousins years before and now didn’t even look fit for playing hopscotch in.
She forgot to put any underwear on me too, but that didn’t matter; once my cousins were awake, I’d rummage through the bedroom drawers for some cotton briefs.
‘Now come over here and eat some breakfast, Hibo,’ Hoyo said.
My eyes lit up at the sight of
. I watched as she poured the creamy batter into the pan, and how it bubbled and fizzed into sourdough pancakes over the flames of the fire. She
fished one out with a flat knife – it was as big as a dinner plate – and doused it in more butter and sugar than she would ever let me put on myself.
‘Come and eat,’ she said, scooping me on to her lap, my long skinny legs dangling over the sides of each of hers. My little potbelly still ached from all the wonderful food from the
last two days, but I did as she said, because she was my Hoyo and pancakes were my favourite.
As I ate, she kissed the back of my neck, again telling me, ‘Everything is going to be fine today’, before placing me back down on my feet as she got up to make me another
. And another. By the third one even my eyes weren’t so greedy, and my stomach groaned inwardly.
‘If you love me you will eat this as well,’ Hoyo said.
And I ate it because I did – I loved my mother more than anything else in the whole wide world.
Hoyo was clutching a kettle of water as we stepped out of the kitchen and into our yard. The ground had already been swept and covered in water to stop the dust from wafting up
as the day wore on. This process would be repeated as the sun made its way through the sky east to west, to save the wind blowing the dirt back into the villa that Hoyo and my aunties would spend
the morning cleaning.
The water had turned the ground into a deep-golden yellow, and the pink flowers that sprouted from it would soon be coaxed open by the rising sun. Outside of our compound, the smoke from
neighbouring chimneys poured into the awakening sky, billowing light grey against the electric blue that was paling with the sun’s ascent.
Hoyo took my hand and held it more firmly than I had ever known her to, and together with my auntie, the three of us walked to the far end of our garden. There the boundaries were hidden by
three or four huge trees that provided shade for us children to play under in the afternoons after school. The long branches that reached down and tickled the earth now camouflaged the hut that
I’d watched go up in my honour over the last two days. I had, of course, seen the same light-brown canvas erected in honour of my cousins so many times before – I was familiar with the
sticks that Hoyo bought from the market and hammered into the orange earth, how she and my aunties bound them tightly together with twine that would hold fast for nearly a fortnight. But today it
was me who was being led towards it.
‘You be brave,’ my mother said, as she gave my hand another squeeze in hers. ‘I’m right here . . .’
I didn’t think to ask what was going to happen in that hut, or why I needed to be brave. Why should I have worried when my mother was right there beside me? It had never occurred to me
that anything bad could happen to me under her care. So as we approached the hut, moving aside the long branches of the tree like a leafy curtain, I felt only anticipation and the lingering
sweetness of the
on my lips.
Three women were waiting outside the hut for us. They weren’t wearing brightly coloured dresses like the ladies who’d visited my party bearing gifts; they weren’t wearing the
same happy smiles. Instead, they were covered from head to toe in the dark
, with a long shawl providing extra coverage for their heads. The two younger ladies addressed me and my