In August 2011, I was invited for dinner by my student but she never showed up in the dining. I was new in her school but I accepted the invitation because most teachers had also been invited to other families to mark the end of Eid celebrations.
I was received by my student’s dad, Abdul and we went straight to the dining. Abdul and his two brothers sat on my side of the rectangular dining table, three boys and another man sat on our opposite. We shared dinner. There were no different plates or forks or knives. We used our hands. From time to time, a woman who I later assumed was my student’s mother, filled the plates. They conversed loudly and almost entirely in Somali. When I attempted a conversation with him, because he sat by my side, he continually clicked. I thought he was being disrespectful. The meal was delicious but I did not enjoy it. There were a lot of things running through my mind.
I chose this encounter because it was new to me and because it served as my orientation to a new school community. I was first disappointed then angered. I thought I was being played. Why did they invite me? Where was the student who invited me? Whenever the men laughed, I thought they were laughing at me. They were all dressed in Kanzus and the woman who kept filling the plates was in a buibui and a hijab covered her head. I was in casual business clothes. I kept silent most of the time except when occasionally Abdul asked me a question. Only he seemed to understand my responses. At one point I thought he was trying to explain to his brothers what I had said. It then dawned on me that he could be the only one who understood English well.
I started thinking that to some of them I may have appeared as an intruder. Looking back, I now realize that they may have felt my silence the way I felt their loudness. We never introduced ourselves till tea time, which came much later when I was about to leave. I should have attempted to participate in conversations. After all Abdul could have translated. I had allowed the first impressions to crowd my judgment.
Later I was to learn the culture by interacting with my students. I learnt that boys and girls valued their different ‘spaces’. Surprisingly, I learnt that when one clicks, it means he or she appreciates what you’re talking about. It signifies understanding.
The culture seemed barbaric to me but I have since learnt to appreciate every bit of it. I do not subscribe to some of its aspects, but I am glad I understand them. The experience taught me how to be a better pupil in a new culture.
By the way, I never saw my student that day because she was with women in another room.