When I was 18…
When I was 18 I was heading off on a backpacking trip to India with my sister and a couple of friends.
Taking endless crowded train journeys, trying new foods, visiting wonders of the world, bartering in colourful markets and nursing traveller’s diarrhoea with homemade remedies of flat coca-cola.
I was not fleeing one of the worst droughts to hit my country for 60 years.
Nor did I have two small children to care for, on my own, having lost my entire livelihood and having been separated from my family.
This is what Afifa is doing, when she is 18.
I met Afifa in Riiga camp for displaced families, on the outskirts of Garowe town, in Puntland, Somalia.
She has two sons: Zakiri, three months old, and Abdir Nasi, three years.
As soon as I arrived at the camp Afifa came up to speak to me and said she wanted to show me where she was staying.
I followed her to her small, make-shift shelter on the edge of the camp. She had only been at the camp for three weeks, so it was all new for her too.
We made our way carefully through the river of plastic bags and broken bottles to her home, made of cardboard boxes and sacking.
Inside was blissfully cool. Afifa invited me in, sat with her small son Zakiri and began to tell me her story.
Afifa used to own 20 goats in south central Somalia, but her entire herd had perished in the drought.
Forced to find food for her family, she travelled for nearly a week to the camp in Garowe.
When she arrived, neighbouring families did not have much food to share with her, and now she only has one sack of flour.
She is breastfeeding Zakiri, but is worried that Abdir Nasi is not getting enough to eat.
A humbling experience
I was utterly humbled by her resilience and her determination and that she could talk so openly about the challenges she faces. She is nothing I was at 18!
I ask her what her main priority was, what she really needed:
“I need to find work so that I can provide for my family,” she said.
This is a very different answer to the one I would have given when I was 18.
I wanted to get as far away from my weekend job as possible. I wanted to see how far I could travel on only $5 for fun, not because I had to.Not because my life, or my children’s lives depended on it.
Afifa’s story will stay with me for a long time.
The image of her playing with her three month son in a make-shift shelter, hundreds of kilometres from her home.
No ticket home
I know Afifa’s story is not a one-off. It is estimated that 1.7 million people have been displaced by the drought in Somalia, there are hundreds of Afifa’s in camps dotted across Puntland.
When I was 18, when I’d finished my backpacking — after phoning my parents for more money and borrowing a couple of $100 from my sister — I boarded a plane home.
There’s no ticket ‘out of here’ for Afifa, Zakiri and Abdir Nasi. There’s definitely no easy journey home.
I left them to queue for water at the only stand pipe, and waved goodbye as children played in the dust.
When I was 18, I was dreaming of going to university, of travelling to exciting places, of working abroad and meeting new people.
I wish I’d asked Afifa about her dreams.