From Google Earth it looks like a slab of marble. It looks beautiful. The complex shades of brown in bands and blotches, feathering at the edge of ravines and old stream banks. Through it all the dark fissure of a river; the crack in the rock where water seeps and vegetation grows.
This is where the elbow of the Dawa nestles into the town of Doolow. This is where the imaginary border line of Somalia and Ethiopia nips ruler-straight across the earth. Across the border is Dolo. People who have fled the turmoil of Somalia for the seeming safety of a refugee camp.
There was a time, maybe 15 years ago, when a man got a bus with his two small children (maybe one, it’s not my story, I can’t remember the details) and went to Kenya. The man on the bus with his children was beginning a journey that would take years. One consequence of that journey was that I met some of his children – a decade later – and I taught them.
The person I know best in that family asks me troubling questions. “What’s it like to be a white man?” It depends who you ask. For me it has become more and more complicated to be a white man. To be a white, middle-aged, middle-class, heterosexual, liberal, atheist man. I wonder what it would be like to be me in Doolow. To be so visible. To carry so many labels and ideas around with me in the eyes of others with my skin. Like it is for her, to walk around the streets of Wellington. To be black, young, poor, liberal and conservative, Muslim, female.
She is a poet.
I wish I could remember the times that we ran across the African plains.
How nights would get so hot that we would be forced to sleep on the roof so the cool air could kiss our skin while we listened to our father’s stories ‘sheeko sheeko’, as we watched the stars rain on us
About an hour after I last spoke to her I went to a friends’ house for dinner. Before we left she was showing me photos. Some of the photos were of her and two sisters when they were all younger sitting in spots around the suburb where we live. They stand out. The visual language of identity in New Zealand accepts as normal: Māori, Pākehā and Pasifika. Then we have Asian and Indian. African? Middle-Eastern?
At the dinner afterwards one of the children there, a Pākehā child, was trying to remember if he had done a certain ride at Universal Studios Japan or one of the theme parks he went to in Florida.
Which is one thing that it’s like being a white man: the world has opportunities in it that I feel I can access and if I accessed them I would feel welcome or entitled to be there. Well, I would if I wasn’t myself. What I feel often when I am overseas is uncomfortable. Like the descendant of a tyrant stepping on the bodies of the poor to the Koru Club Lounge.
I hope she gets to see Doolow one day. To see the Dawa where her brother almost drowned. I suspect it will not feel like home. Although feeling inconspicuous may be a tremendous feeling of liberation in itself. Another set of problems. Being inconspicuous but feeling different in a new way. A complicated prism of difficult homes.
I understand and I never will.