Monday, 15 April 2013

Guest Post: 'I Don’t Live in a One-Word World'

Rachel Pieh Jones (DjiboutiJones) is one of my favourite writers and so I was delighted when she agreed to write a guest post for my blog. I honestly can't sing this lady's praises enough. The more she writes, the more I want to learn about her experiences as an American expat in Somalia and Djibouti and her sincere exploration of faith. Read on to learn more about this wonderful lady and what will hopefully be the first of several collaborations in the future. 


One of my favorite things to do in Djibouti is to listen in when people talk about me in Somali and then interrupt with a quiet and firm, “Waan ku fahmayaa.” I understand you.

Shock registers, every time. People fall from chairs, trip over their own feet, grab onto one another, cover their faces with their headscarves in shame, kiss me, shout “Maasha Allah!” Thank God! They pull random bystanders into our space and throw their arms around me.

The newcomer invariably responds with “That’s impossible.”

I remain silent while the others repeat what just happened and again, at the right moment, I interject with a proverb or a joke or a rare fact.

A few weeks ago I waited for my coworker Hassan in the front area of the Djiboutian newspaper offices. The lone foreigner. Curly blond hair. Long skirt and billowy shirt, modest but not local. A small group gathered. People wanted to know who I was and what I was doing there.

★  ★  

“The white lady is waiting for someone,” the doorman said. We had already spoken, shaken hands, asked after family members.

“But who could she be waiting for?” one of the cleaning ladies asked. She sat next to me, our elbows brushed. “Her skin is white but maybe her insides have become Issa.” Issa is the major Somali clan in Djibouti.

“I’m waiting for Hassan,” I said in Somali.

The cleaning woman gasped and grabbed my arm. “Praise God I called you white and not galo!” she said. The word galo means infidel but is often used to refer to Caucasians.

“I’m not an infidel,” I said. “I have a religion and am very happy with it.”

“Are you a Muslim?”

This kind of conversation happens on a regular basis. If people learn that I have lived here ten years or eat rice with my fingers or dine on goat meat. If I wear a headscarf or turn down alcohol. If I say maasha Allah or Alhumdillalah while speaking Somali.

Living in a rural village, 2003
Am I a Muslim?

The one-word answer is: no, I am not. But I don’t usually give that answer because, at least in Djibouti, the only other option is to be a galo, an infidel. Instead, I give a culturally integrated response.

“I have read the Quran in three languages. I fast. I pray. I give to those in need. I also read the Bible, every day. I love and try to follow Jesus.”

After some discussion, a common reaction to this is either an exhortation to say the shahaadah or an agreement that I’m not a Muslim but I’m not a galo either. 

This is the best way, I’ve found, to develop friendships in a foreign country. Dig deeper than one word, ask questions that draw out thoughtful and surprising responses, answer questions with something unexpected. And follow conversations wherever they flow.

At the end of a 15K walk for peace in the Horn of Africa, 2012

Are you American? What is your religion? What is your expatriate job? The one-word answers could be yes, Christian, and, it varies. But those words don’t define me and don’t satisfy. I’m American, but what kind? I’m a Christian, but what kind? I’m an expatriate, but what kind?

The kind of American who carries a blue passport but isn’t restricted by the rules binding diplomats (like not taking taxis or avoiding certain parts of town), not the kind married to a local. An American who gets sick off McDonald’s and can go entire days barely speaking English. An American who follows African politics as closely as US elections.

A person of faith who goes to church but generally doesn’t use the label Christian. A person of faith who is committed to the religion of my past and childhood but who has learned so much from the religion of my present surroundings. A person of faith who celebrates Easter and who loves to listen to stories friends bring home from the hajjAn expatriate who teaches English one year, coaches a running team the next year, is a stay-at-home mom the next, writes cookbooks and articles, volunteers with the local newspaper, manages micro-enterprise funds. An expatriate for whom the only professional constant is my husband’s job.

Swimming with whale sharks

As an expatriate, I have bounced between extremes. Initially, everything unfamiliar was wrong, scary, or exotic. I learned to appreciate these new things and suddenly everything from my previous American culture felt wrong or offensive. It took a decade to learn how to integrate these vastly different cultures.

Now, people ask which I prefer and they want that one-word answer. Djibouti. America. Somalia. I can’t do that, the categories aren’t so clear anymore. All the boundaries that seemed important, clear-cut and self-evident in the beginning blend and blur. I know my convictions, my habits, my passions, my theologies. But if asked to give one-word responses, I can’t.

★  ★  ★

According to the cultural competence scale, this is integration. Valuing and respecting and incorporating aspects of the new culture without jettisoning the old. It is “ethnorelativism, becoming a part of and apart from a given cultural context.”

Integration has meant I am divided between passport country and host country, between two faith worlds, between multiple career paths. I can’t answer questions about identity with one word because I don’t live in a one-word world.

How about you? Which one-word labels are you trying to shed? How?

★  ★  

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti where she swims with whale sharks and loses to her children at hula-hoop battles, foot races, and anything craft-related. She has written for the New York Times, Brain Child, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Literary Mama, Running Times, and Relevant. Visit her blog at: Djibouti Jones, follow her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.


  1. Rachel - I love learning from your perspective and your wisdom!

    Maybe because my local language skills aren't as proficient as yours (sigh... even after all that work), I don't avoid the one-word labels. I just try to be creative with them (and hope whoever I'm speaking with can switch to French :-)). So I'll use labels like: learner, voyager, mom to many (one word in our local language), Jesus-follower, lover of this land (both also one word), etc. - but with the same general goals of provoking conversation rather than simply labeling myself.

    Either that or I'll give the one word, perhaps "expected" answer with a twist depending on the context (when/where/how I'm asked the question) - American who is blessed to live in Niger, for example, or American Zarma language learner.

    The one question I've still not figured out how to answer any other than with a simple yes (Africa, States, anywhere) is "Are all of those kids really yours?" :-) And maybe I don't need to - often that simple yes opens enough conversation doors.

    1. And Sarita - I hope to see many further collaborations between the two of you, as well. I'm certainly enjoying them!

    2. I think your American Zarma Language Learner is a good example - shows where you're from, what you're doing, where you are living, but puts it all into a process because of the 'learner' part, you know? So it isn't a static definition and is one that is open to change and also a conversation point. I do also like the: are all those kids yours?! Do you have any snarky/clever responses to that?

    3. depends on who's asking - i usually just say yes - but then sometimes add "meme pere et mere-" -which isn't really snarky but usually gets a laugh b/c so many here identify their siblings using a variation of that phrase. one immigration guy in morocco was giving me a hard time (we'd been directed to the wrong line and then redirected to his line and he was wanting to go on break), so i mentioned i was just trying to catch up with my husband and other kids who were waiting "right over there." he asked if all of the kids were mine, same dad and mom. I said yes and then he started insisting that i couldn't really be an american with all those kids. after about 5 minutes of banter (and being very tired from 18 hours of airplane/airport travel with 8 kids), i finally just agreed with him and said, "you're absolutely right, sir. my passport claims i'm an american, but i must be moroccan at heart." he started laughing and we had the red carpet treatment from that moment on.

      seriously, i've had police pull me over for a "controle" and then say they just wanted to know if all of those kids belonged to me. :-)

    4. Richelle - thanks for taking the time to write an encouraging comment for both Rachel and myself. This Tuesday I'll hopefully guest posting for Rachel as part of her Hijab series.

      Very glad to have discovered your blog too.

  2. you are invited to follow my blog

  3. This is one of my favourite expat posts I have yet read because I find her organic view of expat life and culture really inspiring.

    Bonnie Rose | A Compass Rose

    1. I love her perspectives on life and faith too. Thanks for your encouraging comment : )

  4. I missed this when it first came out, but I'm glad to read it now. :) I can relate, but it is easier here, I think. Living in a somewhat isolated area (in Congo) where most of the ex-pats are other Africans, gives fewer stereotypes with which to contend. I'm a stay-at-home mom, which makes sense here- even more than in the US- as long as we don't start talking about homeschooling. Then things get complicated. People here are generally accepting, and don't try to make you fit in a certain "box." The problem I had back in the US is when someone asked me a question like "Where do you live?" or "Where are you from?" I could either give a short answer, which seemed kind of sketchy or the long answer, which is way more info than most people want. I started just saying my hometown, where most of my family still lives. Close enough. :)


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