On Grandfathers and Poetic Heritage
Updated: Jul 7
Perhaps the greatest social service that can be rendered by anybody to the country and to mankind is to bring up a noble family — George Bernard Shaw.
These days I have become silent seeing all the outpourings of loss and grief on my timeline, as Covid-19 continues to leave no corner of our planet untouched. As I sit in silence, day by day at my study desk, I find living a virtuous life harder than ever before. My batteries, my empathy, my ability to connect: every one of the antennas of my being have somehow been affected. In one sense, I find it difficult to describe, but in another, it feels as though I’m being purposefully prepared for what is to come. Perhaps I’m being prepared for big changes that loom on the horizon. Perhaps it is a loss dormantly lurking somewhere nearby, waiting to receive the divine command to strike me.
Recently, I was particularly touched by the words of a social media friend. Grieved over the death of her grandfather in Somalia, she lamented her loss. The young lady actually wanted to see him this very summer. Expressing appreciation for the impact her grandfather has had on her life, she paid tribute to him beautifully. Her obituary even included a fitting, current picture of him. May he rest in eternal peace.
A dignified elder and poet with a henna beard, though thin and frail, he seemed to embody the best of what our grandparents' generation had to offer, exuding honour and wisdom. She deeply wished to become the chronicler of a book containing her Awoowe's poetry - the work of his life - and thus immortalise his life and legacy. In the end, Allah’s decree ruled that this was not going to happen sadly. In God's name, I really felt that. Not only on account of her moving and relatable descriptions, but also because I had the same goal for a few years.
Tragically, only one member of my grandparents' generation remains alive today. My paternal grandfather Warsame Abtidoon 'Umar is the last one left. The epitome of a nomadic, Somali patriarch, he’s an over 90-year-old born in the 1930's. One of my dear friends was actually in Adaado, central Somalia one day in March 2017, and asked me for his number to visit him on my behalf. Many people, describe me as resembling him, and my friend confirmed it, too. Growing up, I sadly did not have the fortune to be around my grandparents — who never left Somalia. I have only ever spoken with them briefly over the phone. Even so, seeing is different from hearing, as they say. For one can never truly grasp the essence of a person unless one sits down with them.
From the moment I became aware of my roots, I have wanted to correspond with him, ask him about his long life, the things he's witnessed, ask about the eras and changes he's lived through, and just generally capture what he would wish to convey to later generations. What’s more is that in spite of the geographic distance and lack of acquaintance which separates us, I have felt a type of connection to him since I was little. Both through the stories I’ve heard from those who knew him intimately and our phone conversations.
Warsame was born into a nomadic family of the Mudugh province, Italian Somalia, in 1935 or thereabouts. His father Abtidoon Omar passed away when he was a mere infant, leaving him and his older sister orphaned. Warsame’s mother re-married into another, neighbouring clan, leaving him to be raised by his grandparents. This experience, and the nickname of ‘Madhiy’ (lone boy in Somali) shaped him profoundly, on account of which he subsequently swore to have many sons so that none of them would have to go through what he went through. Life was generally tough in the semi-desert plains of central Somalia, and only a numerous tribal band could guarantee survival. Grandpa fulfilled his vow and went on to have twelve sons from three wives throughout his long life.
What always baffles me the most, however, is that even though Warsame and I are only separated by a generation, it feels more like 2 or 3 generations. The world has changed dramatically in the decades between us. From Italian Somalia in the fascist, second-world war era to the independent, democratic and united Somali Republic of 1960, all the way to the military dictatorship and the lawlessness it gave birth to, he’s literally witnessed it all. And whenever I think of him, I’m reminded of an African proverb: "When an old person dies, a library disappears." Ya Rabb, allow me to see him before the inevitable occurs.