I was getting ready for bed when my phone dinged with a message from my childhood friend, Shamhad. She had previously left two messages which I had not yet answered, so I knew I needed to respond to this one. Time differences had us playing phone tag, her in Africa, and I in the U.S. I called her back.
“Abaayo, what time is it in Malawi?” I asked, using the Somali word for sister.
“10 am," she answered, as she trafficked the herd of children that surrounded her.
Shamhad was calling to check how my older sister, Hibo, who lives on the East Coast, was doing. Hibo’s husband had disappeared a month ago after failing to pick up their children at the airport. For the next two weeks we followed a maze of confusing reports. Rumors reached us from other family members telling he was in one place or another. I got him to answer my call once but he was vague about where he was. Finally, after two weeks, he called my sister, telling her that he had suffered a nervous breakdown and was in Minnesota. Another two weeks of detective work and news from family members revealed that he was no longer in the U.S. It turned out he was not sick, either. He went back to Somalia to marry a seventeen-year-old in a secret ceremony.
Many Somali men do this, knowing their actions would be illegal in western cultures. They keep one wife here and the other, usually a minor, in Somalia. In Islam, it says a man can marry up to four wives, but it has careful rules governing how and when he can take more wives. The rules are made to protect the family and make sure all the wives are treated equally. But all that Somali men seem to hear is that they can have more than one wife and they disregard the rest of the rules. One method they use is if the first wife protests about her husband taking a second wife, he just accuses her of sacrilege. Or he says, “Are you questioning God’s words?” Ever since Somali men discovered this loophole, most women have suffered in silence or simply gone mad. I am not here to debate this contentious topic. What I know, after growing up with a father who had multiple wives, is that this arrangement destroys families. The only happy person is the man with many wives, especially since their wives seem to get younger each time they marry.
After I updated Shamhad on Arafo’s husband, she said, “No one should trust Somali men,” adding “mine beat me up a couple of weeks ago.” Her tone was even, as if this was part of normal life.
“What?! Why would he do that?” I asked, enraged for my friend. “He can’t do that.”
“I am ok,” Shamhad answered, not wanting to linger on this conversation.
Shamhad and I grew up poor, but after the Somali Civil War, I ended up in western countries. I was able to get a good education and I am blessed to have married a good man, but Shamhad never left Somalia after the brutal war. She stayed behind, enduring many more wars incited by greedy warlords and hateful jihadists - the worst being Alshabab, the Somali version of ISIS. Shamhad married her first husband very young, had three kids and then divorced him. When I asked what the issue was, she said he was a womanizer and she got jealous. But she assured me that he never beat her. Her mother-in-law was kind and treated her like a daughter. Because Shamhad was such a young mother and had no income, her mother-in-law offered to raise her children for her.
Shamhad then moved to Nairobi, Kenya. There she would eventually meet her current husband, the one who beat her, and became his second wife. Both wives lived in the same city. Initially, the man did not show his cruel side. In fact, Shamhad said he showered her with kindness and attention. She had another suitor who had been courting her from abroad, but she had decided to marry this man instead. I could hear a sense of disappointment for the path that could have been taken.
I was a bit confused why Shamhad, who did not like the idea of her first husband having another wife, was now doing this to another woman. She said it was wrong, and she still regrets it now. I could not help but wonder if she rushed into marriage because life got hard in Kenya.
Life is not fair. We are two women of the same age, yet here I am living my life to the fullest. The idea of my husband beating me is a very foreign concept, but it is a part of life for my friend. My mind could not understand or wrap around the idea of a grown man beating his wife. I felt a visceral pain for Shamhad.
When their marriage became more violent and abusive, Shamhad moved to a refugee camp in Malawi with their four young children. The Christian church there educates all refugee children regardless of their religion, so Shamhad put her two older kids into their school. While her husband knew about this, he was never really involved in their day-to-day life. Shamhad said that he never showed any interest in the children’s education either. He now lives and works in Mozambique but according to Shamhad he has not taken another wife. But part of me was suspicious after the ordeal I had just been through with my brother-in-law.
As Shamhad recounted the events leading up to this most recent beating, I could hear the sadness in her voice. I am absolutely against what he did to my friend, but I wanted to know the details in order to understand what triggers a man like him. She is such a sweet-natured woman that I couldn’t understand why someone would want to hurt her. Shamhad explained that one of the older Somali men living in the refugee camp twisted the story and told her husband that his wife was making their kids Christian. Her husband had to act for the sake of his ego, since it was another Somali man who told him. Shamhad was shocked to find out he was upset since he already knew they were attending the school, and because she knows a lot of Muslims who attend Catholic schools for education.
Her husband, who had rarely visited, arrived at the camp angry and revved up. She calmly explained that the kids were getting the only good education that existed in the refugee camp, and that taking the kids out of the school would put them at a disadvantage. Shamhad reminded him that he knew about this arrangement and she insisted on keeping the kids in school.
“He beat me up until our eldest son woke up from the commotion,” she added in a matter-of-fact way. Her young children all witnessed part of the beating, but her three-year-old, the one who shares a bed with her, saw the whole thing.
“Was that the first time he beat you up?” I asked, sounding like a foreign lady interviewing my own friend.
“No, it was the third time. The first time, I had just given birth and my toddler boy needed to go to the bathroom. I had been up the whole night with the baby and then both kids were demanding my attention at the same time. I woke my husband up and asked him to take the toddler to the bathroom.
‘Are you ordering around me like this?’ he said, mocking me for being weak.
‘He is your child too. I have not slept the whole night. Please take the little boy to the bathroom.’ He launched an object at me and it hit me in the eye, blinding me in that eye immediately. My toddler cried out more loudly as I screamed with pain. My husband went to bed as I dealt with more pain, my baby still on my lap,” Shamhad said, chuckling a little as if to make the story less impactful.
“Oh my god!” I gasped. At this point I was in tears. I could feel my chest getting heavy and I felt sick to my stomach.
Shamhad walked around for weeks with a huge, swollen, bruised eye. When people asked what happened, she told them the kitchen door hit her. Eventually, she went to a doctor who treated and saved her eye. By the end of the call I was feeling hopeless for my friend and guilty for my safe and easy life.
I couldn’t even hear the story of the second beating at this point. My mind went blank, and I could not register anymore. I could not sit through more violence toward this sweet friend of mine. Shamhad is one the kindest people I know. Despite being very poor, she never troubles other people. By nature, she is an introvert in a country that is full of mean and domineering men. Her quietness is often misunderstood, making her a target to those who want to inflict violence. Not long ago, in this very refugee camp, a woman wanted to fight her for no apparent reason other than to bully her. Because of all these abuses and stressors, Shamhad’s blood pressure often goes up and is hard to control. I was worried about her health for a while, but finally, she was put on a medication that stabilized her blood pressure.
That night after she told me the story of her most recent beating I stayed awake. The next morning, after deciding to write this story, I called her back, ready to hear about the second time he beat her up.
“That beating was worse than the other two,” she said, while trying to pull apart two of her kids who were fighting. I was not sure if I wanted to know more, since she said it was worse than the one when she almost lost an eye. But she went on.
“Shugri, that one started because one of our children had a worn-out shoe that needed replacement. I had reminded him multiple times and was a little short with him. Out of nowhere, he punched me as I sat, caring for the kids. I quickly staggered to my feet, disoriented. He boxed me, punching me from the left and then right, left, then right. I tried to block him, but he was too strong. I was no match for him. One punch landed on the top of my left breast and I landed on top of my toddler. But still, he did not stop punching until I fell limp. After this beating is when I developed my blood pressure issue.This beating took weeks to recover because my body was bruised from all of that punching. I am still not myself.”
I went silent, but at the other end of the line, I could hear the kids in the background complaining non-stop.
“Mother! Mother! Sabrina beat me up!” one child called. She consoled that one, only to have another one come complaining, then another. Shamhad called her older daughter to take the younger kids. I never once heard that husband of hers help her with the kids. She is a single mother living in a refugee camp. This man’s sole purpose is to beat my friend up any time he feels like she stepped out of line.
Shamhad’s youngest boy, the three-year-old, witnessed the whole beating and was distraught that night. He told his father to stop hurting his mother. When the beating got too painful, Shamhad ran out of the house that night and did not return until late in the morning. The husband chose to beat her up at night when most of the people were busy with their kids. The little boy kept saying to his father, “Where is my mother? Is mother coming back? You made my mother run away. You hurt my mother!”
At this point, I was so enraged, I wished someone would beat him up the way he beat my friend. Shamhad said her husband told her he only beat his other wife once when she was late opening the door for him.
“I know I am quiet, but once he gets me angry, I don’t stay silent like I should. I just keep defending myself. The other wife is very quiet,” Shamhad said, thinking perhaps she was to blame.
I felt very sorry for my friend and I honestly could not believe what I was hearing. Despite starting out in similar circumstances, our worlds are now miles apart, both in distance and experience. My friend did not call the police or any authority. Because she does not have the resources to get herself out of this situation, she is simply waiting for this man to stop abusing her. But I know that unless she changes her life’s equation, the outcome will be the same. I fear the phone call telling me that my sweet friend is gone. And what about her beautiful children?
The other day her three-year-old, the one who witnessed her last beating, started threatening her. “I will tell father if you refuse to give me what I want,” the little boy said.
“Your father can’t do anything to me, I can protect myself,” Shamhad answered.
Her son replied, “Father will beat you and hit you with a belt.”
I was shocked and wordless. What kind of damage was being done to those kids? This abusive husband was teaching his son that it was okay to beat a woman. I could almost see how this child’s life would end up if he continued to witness this violence against his mom.
I prodded her to see if she called any of her male relatives on him when he beat her this last time. She said she reached out to her cousin to help her get a divorce. Her cousin was actually shocked that he beat her up. But when this cousin called her no-good husband, he lied and blamed Shamhad for everything. When she insisted on a divorce, her cousin wasn’t as willing to stand up for her, warning that her husband might cut off the two-hundred dollars he gives for child support. This money is not enough even to get her through the month, but without it she will end up on the streets. I had sent her money here and there, but I did not know how bad her life was. I told her today to send me a picture of her house. From her description, it sounds like she lives in a mud house with a corrugated metal roof in the refugee camp. Metal roofs can make a house get very hot, so I do have a vague image of how difficult her living situation is.
In my upcoming memoir The Last Nomad, I wrote about Shamhad and how life was for both of us when we were children. We reconnected about a year ago after she found my sister Arafo when she was in Africa. My goal is now to free my friend from her cruel husband. The plan for her to put the kids back in school, ask for a divorce, and if he cuts her child support, I will step in. I continue to live in fear that one day he will inflict a blow that she cannot recover from. Her kids need their mother because their abusive father has nothing good to teach.
This was a very heavy topic, and I am sure you are drained and sad like me. Thank you for reading.