Munira Hussein

The Language of my Volatility

The Language of My Volatility  

Most of us claim to resort to our vernaculars when in the depths of pain or joy. All the pain I experienced as a child was in Afaan Borana. My father would yell dabanasan madhi gar sigalcha bekh (I will turn your forehead inside out with a slap), dabanasan surri si chochosa bekh (I will shake your brain with a slap) dabanasan ill mana si yasa (I will remove your eyes from their house with a slap), ditichan bol si khaa bekh( I will kick you into a hole). And indeed, when my father slapped you, you felt your brain shiver, and your eyes would not leave their houses but tears would eject like water at high pressure and you would know you have been hit by someone who was angry at you and wanted to let you know of it. so I experienced all my pain in Afaan Borana but never quite processed it in the same language.

When I am angry, my curses are in Afaan Borana, and they are so scalding that I instantly repent for it. I inherited my father’s anger and made it my own. I was cruel to the goats, losing patience when they did what goats do, I yelled and cursed at the chicken so much that if words were bullets, they would have all turned to a confetti of feathers, and my siblings, I being a first borne who had a role in raising them, received a fair share of this anger and I was only recently apologizing to my baby sister for the times I hit her when she refused to eat. It was the only way then, I knew to act. Or maybe it is an excuse, I don’t know, but I am deeply sorry.

When I realized this anger about me, I retreated from life, from friendships but like my father, my anger only hurt the people closest to me. My father is a beloved figure, cordial, compassionate, and respectful to everyone, and on several occasions, he was to us too but while we received a fair share of his anger, the outsiders rarely did, except maybe the time a teacher beat me so much, he came to school, pulled her out of class and held her up by her neck that we all thought she would die. So then while father was allowed to beat me as much as he desired, I learned not many other people had this privilege but they didn’t need it because daddy did make full use of it. Was I a horrible child? I don’t know, maybe, but I do know that for fear of him, I ran around the house to ensure everything was in place, that the chicken had food and water, that the vegetables were watered, that the goat pen was cleaned, that the kids were fed, the goats milked, and if it was during the farming season, that farm work was done even if not in full, because I didn’t want to hear him come home and say how useless I was, we were. And when I felt everything was done, I hoped he would be very pleased, but of course, there was dust on the table, and so I would be beaten for ‘playing on the table’ as if everything in me didn’t know better than to do something like that, and with my father, you couldn’t stand up for yourself, say you didn’t do it? Talk back to him? Unless you really wanted to die. I still fear my father and most of it, because I have gotten used to managing the verbal, is that he would actually hit me. And so I keep my distance, even though he is entering an era of calm, that I still can’t trust because he lashes and the last time I was home, he did kill a cock because it strolled into a neighbour’s farm.

My solitude put me in a place where I was the only object of my frustrations. I pinched myself hard until my skin peeled, when I forgot to do things, or did them wrong. I broke plates and mugs when I felt an increasing build of anguish that made me feel like I would blow up. I hurt myself so much that I began dreading the time I spent with me, and when I finally moved into a house alone, I had no interruptions to protect me from myself, and boy did I damage myself!

I didn’t learn to love myself in order to love other people. I had an abundance of love for other people before I even considered myself a person. I spoke to them kindly, elevated them with my words and with my hands when they were beating themselves up about a missed opportunity, a mistake, a heartbreak. In the same circumstance, I would call myself sirgo, say your father was right, you can’t do anything well, how do you burn rice? Miss a deadline? I would yell at myself, my ears would ring, and I could feel myself cower into a corner, and I would cry, not knowing what exactly I was crying about. It is loving people, being kind to them that taught me to be kind to myself. I read something that said ‘Assume you are someone you love, would you talk to them that way?’ and the answer was, not in a million years, and the other realization was that while I loved a lot of people, I wasn’t one of them and I was broken to learn that, but it was also the beginning of building a better relationship with myself.

However, the language in which I learned to be kind to myself, is English. All the podcasts, the YouTube channels I watched, the books I read and even the language in which my friends affirmed me, was English, and so even now, when irritated, I do my ‘yelling’ in Afaan Borana, for example, when the birds come into the kitchen through my window and poop all over, I say shimbiro, waqi udhu issan qadadina maaf armat udhoftan, but this now, is in good humour, and I don’t actually want waq to qadada shimbiro’s udhu. I love these birds, they come because I put food and water out for them, and in my conversation with them, I ask, is it possible to eat here and go poop over there in that farm, please? Of course not. When KPLC becomes the darkness it is supposed to eliminate, I say Ibidh dabaan issani worri gargala khun maan’ because often, I am in the middle of work or dance and both are pertinent to me. I cannot be this verbally vehement in English, well, I could if I tried.

I have also realized that I am funny both in Afaan Borana and in English, well, that is if the laughter of my friends and sisters is anything to go by. Maybe not as funny as sarcastic, or maybe I am very sarcastic in English but funny in Afaan Borana. I don’t know, but I do know that I make people laugh in both languages and I do love making people laugh. My wife Ellah says I can try my legs at standup if writing fails, she also thinks I didn’t come with all my parts installed especially in the brain, I think it was shaken loose by my father’s slaps. He promised, remember? Not funny.

This all, came about because I had been thinking about the languages I know and what I assign to them in my life, and a conversation I had with Sahara about who we are in different languages, the personalities we embody, and unfortunately, my first language of speech is only my first language of pain and fear, but it is also the language of laughter and of all the beautiful experiences of my childhood, the music of my grandfather, the love of my grandmother, the language in which I cared for the goats and made friends in the village and in my first school, it was the language of the break time play and cousin hangouts. I am also deliberately speaking to myself and to my friends and family, kindly in Afaan Borana, using terms of endearment, saying I love you to my partner in Afaan Borana even though he is far from a Boran, carrying out my gentler conversations with myself in Afaan Borana, sharing Oromo music with my father. The pain and fear stand out conspicuously because they follow me everywhere and I am constantly reminding myself that I am safe, although it is hard to believe because there are a couple of other experiences that make it difficult, and not just my own but the eternal danger I am in being a woman.

Anger here, encompasses a lot of emotions that elicit certain reactions in me. Pain, grief, fear, loss, irritability…I have learned now, to discern them but for a large part of my life, they were all things that made me react angrily. What is your language of anything?


I am looking for books, papers, anything that documents something like this, I would appreciate a recommendation.





2 Responses

  1. This piece reminds me of how I fell in love with your writing, and your (mostly dark) humour.

    I’m thinking about the question, and if I find anything useful, I’ll point you to it.

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