Lucky Omaar

Nairobi Pic Lucky.jpg

"This is the interesting thing about identity, the places we come into and that we live in, change us."

I hadn't expected to interview Lucky for Letters, but I have the good sense to never turn down the chance to sit with someone interesting.

Her husband (also a part of the Letters project), invited me to lunch with the two of them. But a few hours before our scheduled lunch, Rageh had been unable to make the lunch and suggested Lucky and I get together anyway. When Rageh and I had first sat down to talk about what home meant to him, I had been enthralled by him and his wife's ability to sustain multi site connections to notions of home; spending the last few years between Somalia, Kenya, the UK and US. So I agreed. Eager to hear her half of their story and her own diasporic experiences.

Originally from Somalia, Lucky grew up in Kenya before moving to the US for college. We met at a cafe in the glistening suburb of Westlands, Nairobi—a floor up from the flamboyant restaurant Rageh and I had sat it in for our interview. What ensued was #BlackGirlMagic on an intellectual level. 

Tell me about your journey since you left the US?

I worked in Somalia for about 11 months then a [Fulbright] scholarship came through and I went to the UK. I was there for a year, then came back to Nairobi and started working with a consulting firm. We’ve been here for about 8 months now.

What made you decide to leave Minnesota?

The biggest thing is my son. He’s 13 now and he’s going to school here. My mom and sister are here— being closer to family. It was not an easy experience being away from my family, when somebody gets sick or dies and you can’t come home. There was a time I didn’t have a passport, my [immigration] papers were pending and you don’t have the ability or even the finances to just catch a flight. Also in the US, I feel like I’m just a drop in a very vast ocean but here I feel like what I do matters. 

I am not arrogant enough to think that I can make a huge difference, but the things I engage in matter to me. Working on something that is directly related to Somalia makes me feel better about what I’m doing. Before I went to the UK, I worked with the Office of the Prime Minister of Somalia. Being that close to government and working on the government work plan, that’s a big thing. You can actually see how these things you are doing play into a bigger picture. In the US there wouldn’t be that for me. 

America doesn’t need me but Somalia is a country that has so many challenges, that has fallen apart to a large extent and that needs all of us who can actually do something about the country to come. I mean, it’s a bit idealistic but…

I think any ideas worth their weight in gold are a little idealistic. That’s an interesting twist on your career path, a lot of people think you can’t do the things you can do in the US here but really, what exactly are you trying to do? 

I’m interested in government; how it works, how it fits together. I personally don’t have the ambition to become a minister or something like that, but I like to see it work and I feel that’s not something I could achieve in America. The American government, for better or worse, works the way it is. But here, I feel as though I would actually be able to contribute something. It might not be huge, but at least I do my part as a citizen and a conscious person. That’s why I came home. Also, life is better here. I can’t stand the snow. I’m so glad I’m not there anymore. 

America doesn’t need me but Somalia is a country that has so many challenges, that has fallen apart to a large extent and that needs all of us who can actually do something about the country to come.

What are your ideas on home? Where is home to you?

I’ve settled on the idea that home is nowhere. Home to me is family. 

Is there a sadness in that statement? 

There is. For a long time, I looked forward to home being Nairobi. Maybe I’ve changed too much, maybe I look at these inequalities too much that it doesn’t feel like home. Some parts of Nairobi, like here [the cafe], you could be anywhere. This could be in Minneapolis, really. There’s a disconnect between the home that we remember and the home that we’re coming back to. Being Somali and having all these different countries I could call home, means that there is no home. I think I’m accepting this a bit more now. There was a time when it was completely distressing. But now I accept the complexity and know I don’t need to make sense of it.

Home is nowhere...

I had interesting conversation with a colored man in Cape Town who told me, ‘I’m not Black enough, I’m not White enough, I’m not enough anything.’ I had never really understood colored identity in that sense. It made me realize how we’re all trying to be something most of the times we feel we’re not.

I understand that sentiment: I’m not Somali enough, I’m not non-Somali enough. When we go to Mogadishu, suddenly you’re this diaspora thing, people are questioning your Somaliness. When we were kids and growing up in Kenya, we were never Somali enough and to some people, we’re still not Somali enough. I don’t have an answer and I don’t know if I would call it a performance but I guess sometimes we perform our identity in some ways. You’re either Somali or a Kenyan or an American or sometimes all. Or sometimes none. But I’m much more at peace with all that now.

You were telling me about this social location theory...

Yes. Let’s say me and my husband living in the US, we’re both from Somalia living in a place where we are not of the higher socio-economic status, but because he’s male, he occupies a different social location than I do. Even if I might be of a higher income, the fact that he’s male places him in a different social location than myself. I would experience more challenges than he would. That is one location. Now, let’s say I’m working and he’s not, that places me in a higher social location than he would be occupying.

The idea is that we don’t sit in the same location based on different aspects of our own identity. Being female and Muslim in the US places me in a different place than you even if we’re coming from the same continent. We’re both women but I may discriminated against more because I’m Muslim. What really attracted me to this theory is that you change. I am not all oppressed because of all these intersections, but there are some of them which move me up or down.

I came back to Nairobi for my dissertation, which is a city where I basically grew up. I interviewed young ladies who were in high school in Eastleigh [a predominantly Somali neighborhood in Nairobi] where I grew up. Even though these girls could be said to be the same as I was at their age, there are differences based on how much more religious some of them are than I was at the time, or how things have changed in Kenya within the Somali community and the host community. I used that theory to place myself and them and look at how those experiences are shaping them, experiences that shaped me but in a different way.

You’re either Somali or a Kenyan or an American or sometimes all. Or sometimes none.

What things did you find had changed for them?

One thing that was quite different is that when I was in high school I saw myself as Kenyan. With these girls, increasingly, they feel excluded from being Kenyan.

Does that have to do with the socio-political climate over the last couple of years that has made such an intentional point of saying, “Somalis are not Kenyans?”

Absolutely. Some girls were telling me that people call them “Al Shabaab.” That wasn't there when I was growing up; being called a terrorist because you cover in a certain manner or this whole criminalization of the Somali identity. Whether or not you’re a Kenyan-Somali, just being the ‘other’ and being suspect is quite challenging for these girls—and for myself. But I experience it differently now than I would have if I was an 18 year old. It was not easy, trying to step in and step out of those experiences as an adult woman who’s fairly privileged; with a foreign passport, a Master's degree, et cetera. 

Because my family is here and I spent so much of my life here, Nairobi is one of my homes. It used to feel completely like my home, but it doesn’t anymore since that Kasarani concentration camp fiasco, for lack of a better word. Feeling excluded from the community you grew up in is very challenging. It’s painful, degrading and maddening when you think about it. But even with those feelings, I felt privileged, so it was hard to acknowledge my own outrage while at the same time looking at these girls. Some of them don’t have ID’s, they’re the ones being stopped every day, their education is—for some of them—of a much lower quality than mine was. It was a surreal experience.

What's happening in Kenya isn’t just Islamophobia, it’s much more nuanced, because it’s only a certain subset of Muslim people that we mistrust. Do you think Kenya has entered that perpetual state of War on Terror or is this anti-Somali climate temporary?

Because of the relationship between Kenya and Somalia, I don’t see this as something that’s new. Somaliness has been criminalized in Kenya because of the dispute in North Eastern Kenya but now the global discourse on anti-terrorism is feeding into that. 

Is there a difference in the way you experienced that anti-Somali sentiment when you first moved to Minnesota versus coming back to Kenya?

I was fortunate that when I went to the US I was fluent in English and had done some college here, so how I experienced Minnesota was different. Life wasn’t easy in the US but people around me had it much, much worse than I did. I didn’t experience Minnesota as a particularly oppressive place. When you go to the airport and you get pulled aside, you’re annoyed. Those things exist but I didn’t really experience things as harshly as when I came here. That rounding up of the Somali community was going on [at the time] and that was harder for me than all my years in the US. 

Feeling excluded from the community you grew up in is very challenging. It’s painful, degrading and maddening when you think about it.

I can understand that feeling, 'if the state is sanctioning this violence and behavior then who is going to protect me'?

Yes. Right now I’m watching what is happening with Black Lives Matter. It’s something that even though I am so far removed, is affecting me. This is the interesting thing about identity, the places we come into and that we live in, change us. It really affects me as a Black person and I never really had to think about being Black before I went to the US. We essentially became Black in the US.

You never think about it when you’re running around Nairobi. No one cared about what race you are, people care about your tribe or that you are Somali. But going there and starting to gain a Black consciousness—even now that I don’t live in the US, still having that outrage and feeling, ‘Yes, the Black community is being oppressed and killed for no reason.’ Having that Blackness and bringing it with me here where it doesn’t really make sense is quite an interesting thing.

Bio: Lucky Omaar is a Somali-American who currently works as a development consultant in Somalia. She is a Fulbright Scholar and holds a Master’s degree in Education, Gender and International Development from the Institute of Education, University College London. Lucky’s interests include exploring issues of belonging, access and development as they relate to educating vulnerable populations, gender equity in education and the impact of conflict on education. Her work experience includes community-based research, economic sector development and serving as the Communications and Public Relations Advisor to the Prime Minister of Somalia in 2014. 

Read more Letters here.