Culture, Tradition & Diversity
May 18, 2005
by: Kristine Wing
I interviewed a thirty-year-old Somalia woman who lives in Lewiston, Maine. Her name is ZamZam Mohamud. She has two children. Hannah is a seventh grader and Jhama is a sixth grader. One of ZamZam’s brothers lives with her and just recently graduated form USM. ZamZam has another brother living in Lewiston with his wife and two children. Another brother and sister live in England. ZamZam’s mother still lives in Africa.
I met with ZamZam at the Lewiston Public Library. We talked while her two children volunteered in the children’s section of the library. Zamzam works at CMMC as a certified nurse’s assistant (CNA). It was obvious to me how important her family was and how proud she is of her life.
ZamZam was dressed in a pair of lavender nursing pants with a sweater underneath a nursing smock. She was wearing a hajab, a traditional head covering of Muslim women. She had sparkly brown eyes with smooth skin texture. Near the end of our interview she started to appear to tire. This past weekend she had a celebration in honor of her brother’s graduation. Both her brother and sister came from England to share in the festivities. You could still see the excitement in her eyes.
I also got the opportunity to meet with ZamZam’s two children. They were very polite and ZamZam was very eager to have them share with me all of the activities that they are involved in. They both enjoy volunteering in the library and said that it is their chance to give to their community.
My name is ZamZam Mohamud and I was born in Mogadishu. I have uhh four siblings and my mum she’s in Africa. My dad died when I was two so most of the time we’ve been bright up like a single mom. And we went – I went to a school where it was mostly religious. And English and everything that I learned was mostly through religion. So I spent there most of my time and I was married when I was fourteen. So I was kind of young to get married. And I remember doing some activities and cooking and cleaning and that sort of a thing. And knitting and doing crawchet, and fetching water from the river. All those kind of things that people don’t do here.
(When I was growing up) … we had a very hard time. She really had struggled with that (Her mom being a single mom.) and we really had no food, no clothing. Whatever we had we didn’t have much. We just had some food to survive. I remember going to bed when I was ten years old without food and Christmas comes and Christmas goes and we don’t have new clothes. We only have one clothes to wash at night and drip it during the day. I remember all that.
We didn’t have money but we had love. And which is very important I think. I remember my mom holding us and talking to us. And telling us one of these days this would change and there is nothing she could do. And telling us all stories once upon a time this happened this happened. But it was just to kill time so that we could go to sleep. And she put up a pot of water in the firewood. On top of the firewood which we used like a stove thinking telling us that the food was going to be ready. Which there was no food for sure. It’s just that we don’t have food but she doesn’t want to tell us we don’t have food.
From 1975 to when I got married I was living with my mom. And then I moved with my husband which wasn’t far. It was like Lewiston and Portland. But it was far because of transportation and again I was married so don’t just go easily home every time. So I stayed with my husband. My husband is a Somalian. We have the same culture same a little bit different clan but in the same big clan. And when I got married was my parents betrothed me. Was arranged marriage so. It was an arranged marriage and when I was married I moved out.
My life didn’t change much when I got married. But my husband was a little bit definitely he was a little bit wealthy. Because his father was like what is called like a witch doctor. (He treated people with roots.) Which at least he could make a monthly income. My mom couldn’t make an income because there was nothing she could do. And she could go to people’s houses and clean at times but not everybody afford to pay you so she would go to rich people. And again it was far away then. It was different particularly where people live. It’s not like we lived all in the same area. The rich people moved away so. Their family was a little bit wealthier than my family.
And then I moved to Kenya. When the war started we migrated to Kenya at the refugee center there. The refugee camps. And it was 2000 when I joined my husband in the United States. My husband came to the United States in 1996.
At the beginning I was in the refugee camp refugee camp from 1990 to 1991. End of 199 – December end of 1991 is the time I met my husband again. And we everybody was going their own way. When the war started I was with my father-n-law who was a blind so blind. And I thought I should go and help him. So while I was in the house – the looting – people came to the house and sat down. And they beat him and they killed him and they raped me. So I wasn’t function until my husband came back and got me and then we ran.
He woke me up and told me asked me what happened. I explained to him what happened. And people were running. So they had big trucks helping people. So I went to the truck and I thought my husband was with me. So I ran. And I was running I left him behind. So I went to the truck and I left him behind and the people helped me to climb the truck so I left him behind. So we get lost each other. And to go to Kenya wasn’t easy because we didn’t have any circles.
So all the police were up country and we were going. They put us in jail until we were released. And we were related to some people, some good Samaritans who help us and bring relief and said you are refugees you are taking her. So I was lost contact and everything from my husband and there was no response and there is no nothing for I didn’t know every word. So when I went to refugee camp which was in Khoka which is in the northern part of Kenya is not very far. By calling by my last name and the clan. That is the only time Somali clan can help. And they really ask the clan. It took him a year but he eventually find me.
A clan name is Somali have different clans. I think it is almost eight, or nine, ten clans. I am not sure how many. So it’s just a big clan. And then it goes when you have your kids you are part of your father’s clan. And then there is your mother’s clan. And people inter-marry now a days so you have to take your father’s clan. And when you call it – and you ask someone this is so and so and I’m looking for. This lady that was her specialty asking what is her clan and then you say your clan and then it was after this clan. And that is how we know each other.
I saw my mom in 94. And the war started. I left my mom 1990 after my wedding. It was the last time I saw my mom. After my wedding I didn’t see my mom even when my country was still OK. But we didn’t have any war. So I didn’t see my mom. So when the war happened again I didn’t see her until 94.
So! I had my kids in Kenya. Hannah and Jhama. I was seventeen when I had Hannah. And I’m thirty now, and Jhama is eleven; Hannah is twelve and a half. I raised them by myself until 2000 when I joined their family up. He left me in 1996 so he was little in their part of life. He left when they were very young. So I migrated here to his own family and I moved to Atlanta, Georgea. Also at the time I was working and the kids were going to school. It was so hard for me. So I had some friends and I talked to them and family and they told me to move to Maine. And that’s how it worked then.
But life in Georgia was it was OK but it was so hard. Like life in Kenya the way we had a very hot July. But living in a big hitaca, living under a tent and fetching water and getting food. But getting enough for us to feed the kids and for the whole family. So my mom joined me to come into camp in 1994. When At my kids were the right age. And I stayed with my mom most of the time until my husband left in 1996. And then when he came here he was working so hard and going to school at night. And then he was supporting us. So I moved from the refugee camp and I rented an apartment out of the refugee camp. And I lived there until 2000 when I joined him.
I moved to Atlanta and in maybe forty days my husband told me if your not going to stay in the house and provide me with your daily bread and have more kids then it’s better that you decide what you want. I get up and say you know what I want. This is what I want. So I went to look for an apartment and I didn’t have anything. So that it is when I asked for help. So I got a job and I rented my apartment a three bedroom apartment which was $950. And then my children and brother moved in with me. And I started life like that.
My lease was ending end of November and I had a friend in Portland, Maine who said oh apartments in Maine. You pay $950 and apartments in Portland can be $700. And went on about Maine and the schools are good here. They have after school activities, which we didn’t have in Georgia and all of that. So I decided to move to Maine. So I bought my ticket. Instead of paying for my rent in December I bought my air ticket. And I moved in to her house. And when I got to her house I lived there. I did not want Portland. It was too big a city. So I asked her if there was another city and she said yes. Further up – Lewiston, Maine. She was upset and said how come. I thought that you could stay here and that we could help each other. And I said I cannot live in the big city.
I moved to Maine in 2001. And things were so hard in Atlanta and I had a family, husband, culture shock. Everything was different. So I moved to Maine. I’ve done good I think from where I was. When I was here I was going to the center for English as a second language. And alone and a different language and a different culture. It’s so hard. It’s so difficult but what we do here now, we are now – it’s raising kids. They need to be taken here. And they need to play sports. And like coming here to the library. They are here volunteering. And I eventually graduated from my CNA class. And I do interpreting for the hospital.
I moved to Lewiston I didn’t have anything. I was on welfare. I went to welfare office and I walked in. I said I have two children and this is what I’m doing and this is what I plan. And when I got my education after nine months I went back I said I got my education and I’ve got a job at CMMC and this is how much I’m earning and I’m done with you right now. Thank you very much. It was a stepping stone. It’s not that I didn’t have my apartment but if I lived on that my kids would not wok hard. I have this $10 and this is what I’m using. I don’t have any more. So at least my children see that I am working hard.
It’s been a long trip and I forget even most of it. But for now I am so happy. And I’m proud of myself. And I think I have achieved most of the things that of, of my goals. And the next thing is to go to college. The kids have been very helpful and honor students for now. And listening and helping me. That helps. And most of the time my brother is around helping me and such. He has been helping me a lot. So that is most of Lewiston. Maybe you would like to ask some questions.
That hope I brought from my mom stayed with me. And in the end I think of my children. You are in America and you have like five different juices in your refrigerator, you have clothes, you have shoes, you have food on the table. You don’t in a way know how we grow how we were raised or how hard it was. So I want you guys to work hard in the school. That is the only way you can help yourself. With me myself I didn’t get the chance to go to school. So I am here now and I am trying to go to school but please don’t do that. Don’t tell me that oh I couldn’t go. There’s financial aid. There’s a lot of other things that can help. Scholarships and everything. So wok hard and just go to school. Wok hard and go to college. Achieve it so that you can break tradition with not the way I am raising you guys. Not living in apartment with you guys but again where I am and where my mom was is a bit two different fields. So I want you to be telling me mom where you go when you were growing up and where my kids are are two different things. And I’ll be happy about that.
(The kids remember) living in Kenya. They remember that time. They remember their grandmother. (Hannah) was a spoiled brat. Most of my brothers were out of the country at that time. Their father was out of the country. We were getting supported from United States or Europe. Particularly they were getting their daily bread. And they were going to an expensive school. And the jobs that were here. Their schools were being paid for them by their father and the uncles and aunt because everyone wants them to get a better education. We were living in a nice apartment, nice area. They didn’t have it all bad.
We’ve been there for each other. We’ve been there for each other and I talk with my family if I have any problem or anything. They have been so supportive. Without my brother’s I don’t know how I could do it raising my kids alone. And till even know I call them you know when I have problems with my children and I don’t know how to handle this. How do I this how do I do that. And they’re there.
And we go to school with my other brother who just graduated from USM. And he go with me to school and we talk with the teacher. The teachers know that we are concerned. And this is where I’m from but this is what I want and this is what I want the kids to do. And they’re in all activities and he helps me sometimes when I’m working 12 hour shifts. He drives them around. He takes this one here and takes the other one to basketball, take the other one to field hockey. And he’s been really doing good in that. It is very helpful to have support.
I have a lot of friends who are Americans and are in the city here. And they’re really helpful. They’re really helpful to me. With advice and support with my kids when graduating. And When my daughter was graduating from sixth grade. And they have been there for me and their supporting me and I think that’s more important.
Back home it is wondering how we get our daily bread you know. But here now you have everything. But here now you have everything. It’s different. It’s sort of fresh in the city, in the town, in the United States because you have your daily bread, you have your daily prayers but your so busy. I don’t know what’s wrong. Just the time. You don’t have enough time. You think you haven’t done this and enough. It’s just the kind of thing that is now too much for a mom. And it’s too much and it is good to have someone to talk to.
My other priorities right now is get education and my kids to be educated and get a good job. And you know I have a nice car and I think that is all I need as long as it works. My priority is not what type of CD it has, what type of seat it has. But at least that is my priority is to work hard and to keep achievement and to see where I was and where I am now is two different things. But I want to be even more that where I am now. Eventually maybe get my own house and move from my apartment and take my kids to college. I’m saving for college right now. And take them to college. I say to my kids what is your priority. If you don’t work hard and go to school then who will help each other. And I don’t get tired. I tell them every day, every day. I remind them. I think that is what a parent should do. That is why I am sitting in the library at 5:30 still in uniform instead of being home.
Due to the time constraints of getting this Life Story done I was very limited in time. By the time ZamZam and I settled in it was about 5:30 PM when the interview began. Her children were done volunteering at 6:30 and she started to sense this around 6:15 or so. I tried to conclude and sum up before 6:30. After the tape was turned off and we were waiting for Hannah and Jhama, ZamZam shared with me some other stories about coming to Lewiston. After the children were done they stayed for a while to tell me about their day and what they do in their life.
You could see the pride in ZamZam’s face as her children spoke. They were articulate and very respectful. It was important to their mother that they stood still and faced me as they talked. She is concerned about their priorities but they seemed to have those in line compared to the adolescent counterparts. Not many sixth and seventh graders will stand still to discuss their life with an adult.
It is springtime and Hannah is involved with the track program after school. She runs the 400 and the 100 meters. She prefers the 100 because you can go all out and only tire at the end. Jhama is involved with tutoring after school to help him get ready for the seventh grade. Both brother and sister are looking forward to being in the same school again next year.
This summer Jhama will be attending Muslim camp and continuing with the tutoring. Hannah will be at camp as a counselor and she will also be involved in the medical aspirations program through CMMC. One day Jhama hopes to be a lawyer but not a criminal lawyer. Hannah has many ideas but is not sure at this time what she wants to do. She does know that she wants to go to college.
When ZamZam talked the pride in what she has accomplished came through loud and clear. She told me about the time she moved from Portland to Lewiston. She called a cab in Portland to take her to Lewiston. The cab driver told her that it would cost her $70 and she said OK I need to get there. On the ride ZamZam shared with the driver some of her experiences and why going to Lewiston was so important to her. The driver told her that she needed to start at the Lewiston City Hall. He drove her directly there.
When the cab ride was over the driver only collected $30 from ZamZam and said that it was his way of helping her. As ZamZam stated, “This was one of the many times in my life that people be good to me.” She went in to City Hall and with $20 she got an apartment and mattresses for everyone to sleep on. Also some vouchers for food. She then took her last $20 and went to the dollar store and bought items for their apartment.
I think about this experience and the many others throughout ZamZam’s life. I am in awe. She has so much strength. A woman in her culture is only supposed to cook, clean, and have more babies and she went against this norm. She wanted more for her life and also in her role and mother. She wanted to show her children more. She wanted to live the priorities that she hoped and desired for them. Becoming an independent woman is always difficult but to go against your cultural beliefs and in a foreign country. I see myself as an independent woman but could I have become one under the circumstances that surrounded ZamZam. Would I have had or found the strength?
Due to this conflict ZamZam feels in the middle of two cultures. If she wears pants then she is not being true to her Somali side. If she speaks Somalia she is not being a good American. The conflict between the two cultures is hard for her and for her children. She worries about them losing their priorities, which I feel ZamZam connects to the Somalia culture, and becoming involved with drugs and smoking and making the wrong choices. But speaking from my American culture, I believe that these priorities and worries are a part of my beliefs also. I consider these parent priorities and values that seem to cross many cultures.
When ZamZam spoke her messages sounded like the messages that my father spoke to me and that his parents spoke to him. Work hard and get a good education. Always work to have more than I have and to get further than I have and further than you are today. Do these messages come from immigrating to the Unites States, being from a lower social class, not as many freedoms and rights, or is that “The American Dream”?
I heard a fiercely independent woman who wants more and more for herself and her children. ZamZam did not spend a lot of time talking about her past in Africa. “It’s been a long trip and I forgot even most of it. But for now I am so Happy.” She wants to spend time in the present day and look towards the future.