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Abdifatah Shafat

Abdifatah Shafat

Shafat was born in Garissa, Kenya, in 1977. After finishing a BA in Education from the Islamic University in Uganda in 2002, he moved to the United States and obtained an MA in applied linguistics from Ohio University. He is a high school teacher in Minneapolis, MN, pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Hamline University, St. Pauls, MN.

He has
written feature stories for afrikanews.org and news articles for
the Twin Cities Daily Planet in Minneapolis. The Rogue Son is his first published fiction


 The Rogue Son


Socane and his father weren’t very close. As a child, he had aspired to the closeness of sons and fathers, but had never quite pulled it off. He had attended to his father like any other boy: filling his bathroom kettle with water for his toilets; getting medicines from the store when he ran a headache, and laying out the prayer mat for him when the older man returned home… but no filial bonds worthy of mention existed between them.

One evening before the fireplace, Socane’s paternal grandmother had explained, over a cup of tea, how his father got his name. “When he was still a child,” she chuckled, revealing the empty socket of a recently lost tooth, “your father had the dreadful habit of scratching and clawing at our backs when we carried him. Yet,” she added, “when we put him down, he howled for us to carry him again, like an orphan deprived of food.”  One day, a livid Halima, Shabeel’s older sister, had stormed to their mother and shrieked, “Mama, that boy is a shabeel.” ‘Shabeel was Somali for tiger, and the name had stuck ever since

As Socane grew, he saw in his father, the tiger depicted in his grandma’s tales. Shabeel had four wives, and when the children and their mothers saw him coming, they generally froze. The large stick which was a constant presence in Shabeel’s right hand, and which he rarely spared, frightened them all. Some rose, looked down, or moved away, while others, anticipating the onset of his rage, pretended to be absorbed in some serious chore.

However, it was Socane’s birth rank that had cursed him with his current predicament: Being the eldest son, the chore of clearing the way and ensuring a better future for his father’s little children fell upon him. This required him to toil in one construction site or office after another, sometimes scrubbing floors for days on end. At the end of the month, he took his earnings to his father.

Shabeel was miserly with money. He would go to the animal market on the first Wednesday of the month, and stand to the side as people made their purchases. Like a vulture waiting for stronger carnivores to finish with a prey before descending, Shabeel would wait until the trading was over and then pounce on the unsold ones, offering the cheapest prices. “The market is closing,” he would say, reminding the seller that he had seven days until the next market before he could sell the animals. The poor fellow (who perhaps had many hungry mouths to feed) would eventually accept Shabeel’s meager offer.

That evening, Socane got home tired and worn out from lifting stones and shoveling sand. His unkempt hair and oversized shirt placed him in his thirties although he was a decade younger. His father was sitting on his mat outside the hut, sipping tea. The hour-long BBC Somali service was over and the old radio, held together by a rubber band, was of no further use to him. He turned it off. Once they exchanged greetings, Shabeel asked, “Where is it?” Both father and son understood the underlying message of these crisp words.

Socane unzipped his tattered blue jeans, and lowering it to his knees, extracted a damp blue and white envelope from the back pocket of his khaki shorts and handed it over to his father. His father turned his back to the direction from which the wind was blowing, then he tore open the envelope and started to count.

Socane was in awe of his father’s hands, and how the fingers moved as he counted the money. The veins jutted out while the muscles on them twisted from side to side. Usually, when he finished counting, Shabeel would tuck the envelope away in one of the large inner pockets of his coat, then he would blink once and say, “Good boy, great job.” Socane would glow with contentment to see his father happy, however, fleetingly. It was the sight of his angry father – face turning dark and forming deep gullies, eyes blinking like a snake’s – that Socane struggled to avoid.

That evening,  Shabeel peeled off his fading Arafat-style red and white turban and tossed it away. He preferred uninterrupted attention when counting the money. He waved off the swarm of flies that kept buzzing around, almost getting into his eyes and nostrils. Then he firmly held the wad of stinking old currency notes in his left hand and licked his thumb and right index finger to moisten them. He carefully counted each note, his eyes narrowing like a cat blinded by light as his lips moved in whisper. He finished counting: “There is something missing.”

“Yes, father.”

“Twenty shillings, where is it?”

“I gave it to my mother who was returning to the country.”

Socane’s armpits and face sweated and shook violently as it prepared for the worst. His father had warned that he wasn’t to use a penny from his earnings; he was to surrender the envelope sealed. If he needed anything, he had to ask. Some things were out of the question (like khat, which Shabeel forbade, but which Socane sometimes got from friends and chewed behind his father’s back). But when he needed a bottle of Coca-Cola, especially, when one of his frequent stomachaches visited him, his father would take him to the shop of their Yemeni neighbor, Sheikh Ali, and buy him one. Socane had to swig the soda in the store so as not to infect his siblings with such needless wastefulness.

Socane’s mother, Arlia, had been divorced when he was still a little boy and she was now married to another man from her clan, for whom she bore half a dozen children. She sometimes visited the town to see him, her eldest son, and – when she had the means – to buy necessities for her family. She had visited Socane at his place of work that day. When he saw her sitting under a tree in front of the compound, she seemed frail, much older than the last time; and the parts not covered by her guntiino were darker too.

She told him that her family hadn’t lit a cooking fire for two days; and that his younger siblings hadn’t eaten either, and he was moved to tears. Socane had been paid that morning. He dug out the envelope and delicately slit it. He extracted twenty shillings and gave it to his mother to buy “tea” for her family. She didn’t ask for more, instead she looked at him, patted him on the shoulder, said a prayer, and left.

Socane’s father, however, wasn’t one to lend an ear to such nonsense. Instead of the usual “Good boy, great job,” which he sang at the end of each month, Shabeel grew visibly enraged, his lower lip quivered, and his eyes blinked wildly. Almost instinctively, he flung the money at Socane’s face and shot from his chair. He slapped Socane across the face and kicked him several times as Socane struggled to crawl away. Usually, he would throw anything he had to hand – the tea kettle, the radio... getting so close to him had been a dumb idea, and even though he was growing weaker, Shabeel made his point clear: he had never been disobeyed before, at least not by his children, and this would not be the beginning of it.

Socane leapt from the ground and scampered away. When he was at safe distance, he slapped the dust off his shirt and jeans. He hadn’t stopped to check if he had sustained any injuries, instead, he began to chase the currency notes that had now been picked up by the evening breeze. It was a full month’s pay and it pained him to see it lost. His step brothers also joined the chase and they canvassed through the neighborhood. They went up trees, ducked under rusting iron sheets lying in the far corner of the compound, slid between walls and ran into other people’s homes. None of them dared to hide the money, even when their father wasn’t watching.

A little while later, they gathered around Socane with what they could find of the money, and he counted it. They had long learned that when their father was angry with any of them, none was safe. After he finished the counting, he looked at them grimly; the money was ten shillings short. He knew this would heighten his father’s ire, but nonetheless decided to take the money home. His father had left for the mosque. He gave the money to his stepmother and left for his uncle’s house.

Santur was Shabeel’s younger brother, but Socane never called him ‘uncle’. As his people expected of their young, he simply called him ‘father’, only calling him ‘father Santur’ for purposes of distinction, when Shabeel was around. When Socane got to Santur’s compound, the sun was beginning to retire behind the tall trees. He was sitting outside his house chewing khat and smoking cigarettes with two of his friends in the long evening shadow of his house. He was coughing deeply, recovering from a bout of sustained laughter. He looked at Socane and recognized immediately that his brother and nephew were at it again. He spit the cud he was chewing on his palm and took a sip of water, gurgled, and then spat out green liquid.

“Is it peace?” he asked, without excusing himself.

“No, father and I crossed again.”

“What happened?”

Socane related the finer details of the incident, and his uncle pensively shook his head from side to side. The rest of them clack-clack-clacked their tongues in sympathy. Their protruding cheeks glistened, as though fat with pus. “I don’t know when your father will grow up,” said the older one sitting closer to Socane.

“Doesn’t he realize you’re old enough to know wrong from right,” said the other, “and doesn’t he know that your mother is your parent too?”

“The whole family is under siege,” chipped in Shukri, Santur’s wife who wasn’t particularly friendly with Socane’s father.

“My brother is half-crazy for raising hell about everything trivial,” intoned Santur, recalling that Shabeel had once beaten Socane’s mother for milking a cow whose calf was weak, against his instructions… but he lamented that Socane was crazier for not heeding the explosive ways of his father. “You know your father well. Why did you do that?”

“Mother said she had nothing to feed her children.”

They clack-clack-clacked and shook their heads again; and Socane was unsure if it was in sympathy or despair. Tears welled in his eyes as their commiseration sank into him. Santur asked Socane to sit, and Shukri offered him a chair. Then she brought a cup of tea, and a kettle of water to wash his face and dusty feet.

“Listen son,” said Santur as he threw the cud back to his mouth and resumed his chewing. “You will spend the night here with us and I will take you back tomorrow.” There was an enormous approval of “yes, yes, yes” with heads nodding. The stimulant they were chewing had gone into their minds and altered their reasoning. They chattered aimlessly as they wiped off the beads of sweat streaming down their faces with the sleeves of their shirts or the edges of their sarongs.

“OK, Father,” Socane mumbled.

The following morning Socane went to work. When he came back to his uncle’s house in the evening, Santur was sitting out in the shade alone. The hangover of yesterday’s khat was bearing on him. If he was a king yesterday, he was the king’s servant today. He looked bored and yawned constantly, and his eyes drooped. He hardly talked. Instead, he scratched his head and rubbed his watery eyes. After the greetings, which took a few minutes, Santur asked his wife to bring Socane a meal, then he accompanied him to his father’s house. This wasn’t the first – or second – time Santur had returned Socane to his father’s house. It had happened so often that he now considered it a second job.

Santur led and Socane followed timidly behind. It was late in the afternoon and the animals had just returned home. The sky had cast an almost reddish glow over the huts. The sheep and goats ran around bleating, while the cows bellowed. Heavy dust rose and spiraled upwards from the kraal as the kids and the lambs were un-tethered to suckle their mothers. As they passed through the compound, Socane tripped on a decaying metal. The useless water tap stood, forlorn, in the center of the compound.

When the white man was here and shortly after he left, the tap ran endlessly throughout the day, and children played with it and splashed water at each other happily. Now it stood stiff, as if sad at the departure of its maker. Many who lived through colonization remembered that, with all its horrors, infrastructure and social amenities were better back then. Water ran and there was medicine to be had in the local dispensary, all for free. Now you had to pay in what the government called “cost sharing”. Bribery and tall-relative connection became the surest way to see the old, limping, pseudo-pharmacist if you were ever lucky enough to negotiate the line in front of the nurse’s door.

Shabeel sat alone on a mat in front of the house facing the Qibla. He had just prayed Maqreb and was saying the istiqfar, letting go of the beads on his brown rosary one after the other. He wore a black coat and wrapped a turban around his head. The simmering heat of the evening sun didn’t deter him from his heavy clothing. As the duo sat to make their case, Shabeel raised his ash-white hair, silhouetted against the darkening twilight. Socane kept a safe distance, knowing that his father despised Santur, considering him a lazy smoker and weakling who lived under the wings of his wife.

Nabad,” Santur greeted his brother.

Peace overshadowed everything else; the word was embedded in every sentence: May we sleep in peace, may we rise in peace, may we eat in peace… peace this, peace that… Their obsession was no mystery: for them, the mere mention of a government which came in the form of “Moi’ was enough to stop people’s hearts. Identity cards were all they hoped for. To be regarded as Kenyans with full rights was asking for too much. If angered, the government could be cruel; particularly when elephants were killed. Men with red berets would come in droves and visit untold terrors on the villagers. Such men had in fact coined a name for them, Shifta-bandits.

Santur announced that they had come in peace: his nephew was distraught at what he had done – and Santur found it intolerable. Santur talked as though he addressed no one in particular. He asked his brother what had transpired, in order to amicably resolve the issue.

Shabeel swung around to face Socane, and blurted, “Creation precedes counsel!” It was a phrase he normally used to ridicule crooked behavior. On this occasion, it had the ring of incoherence, but Socane and Santur had come for peace, so they had to acquiesce to whatever Shabeel said. And for every sentence that Shabeel uttered, Santur complemented, “You have surely spoken the truth, brother.”

Shabeel narrated the tale again, in a stop-go fashion, taking his time. He related a rather different incident from the one Socane told Santur the previous night: it transpired that Socane had given more than half of the money to his mother… Shabeel spoke shamelessly, knowing that no one would ask him to recount the money. As he listened to Shabeel, Santur drew patterns and hit the earth with his stick, sending grains of sand flying in all directions.

When Shabeel finished, he turned toward the fence, and like an angry cobra released a string of spit between the gap in his two front teeth. Santur looked up and coughed deeply, spitting out yellow phlegm. The cigarettes were killing him. He turned and stared at Shabeel with his head slightly bowed.

Santur knew that Shabeel twisted facts to his advantage, lending gravity to those that were relevant to him. For lack of a better thing to do, Santur turned to Socane and in a hoarse voice ordered, “Apologize to your father.”

Socane approached his father and as was the custom, bowed down half-way and held his father by the knees. Then he rose to gently touch his father’s red hennad beard, kissing him on the forehead and murmuring, “I am sorry father, I beg for your forgiveness. I will never repeat it again.”

Santur hunched forward, “I want you to listen, son. Your father raised you, and he cared for you. Now he is in his sunset years, old and tired. It is your turn to care for him, step into the role and lead your father’s family, especially now that he has all these young children, instead of running around like a woman.” Santur sat back and sighed deeply.

Overtaken by the urge to retort, Socane summoned his energy and began to talk. But before the first words were out, Santur raised his right hand, cutting him short. “Ceb!Shame!” he shouted, reminding Socane that he couldn’t speak before elders; that he hadn’t come of age, and would never come of age. If he was about to complain about his father, then he ought to know that his father was and would always be right.

He was told to leave immediately. That was why Santur was there: to ensure Socane’s continued loyalty to his father. It was now dark and one could barely make out a figure a few feet away. Socane left in the direction of the kraal, but went around and sat on the other side of the fence so that he could hear everything they were saying.       

When they thought Socane was out of earshot, Santur turned to Shabeel, “The child you sired hasn’t sired you, we Somalis say. You bore him but he hasn’t borne you, my brother. You would starve for him but perhaps he would not do the same for you.” Santur looked over his shoulders like a monkey stealing maize cobs from a garden. “Socane looks a bitter youth to me. You better tame your wild ways for he will leave you and you know how weak you are! You will have no one to care for you in your old age and all the brood that you keep having every few months.”

Socane inched closer and peered at them through the interstices of the twigs and branches from which the fence was built. Flames from the burning fire caught them and Socane could see them clearly. Shabeel looked at his brother contemplatively. “But what have I done wrong? He is my son and like any father, I can discipline him.” Even when Shabeel knew he was wrong, he never admitted. Even when he was defeated, he never attempted to set things right, instead he kept on fighting.

Socane saw the flash of Santur’s wry smile. His red-tainted teeth glittered in the golden glow of the flames. In a low tone, Santur said, “He isn’t the young boy you knew. He now feels the energy running through his bones and the money wet in his pocket. One more of your outbursts, and I can assure you, he is gone.”

Socane felt a surge rush through his veins. For the first time, someone was expressing to his father what he’d felt all along. At that moment, one of his siblings who had been watching from a few feet away crept over and sat close to Socane. They looked at each other and smiled in the darkness.

“Do you think the curfew is lifted now?” whispered his brother.

For a long time, as though it were a new reality that had just dawned on him, Shabeel stared silently into the night. Then he looked back at Santur, dropping his eyes to the ground. He stroked his red beard. Just then the rest of the children quietly trod back from the kraal. Shabeel yelled at one of the kids who threw a rope on the ground. Socane turned a knowing glance at his younger sibling and whispered back, “Creation comes before character, brother.”

Santur, eager for a well-deserved rest, said goodnight and left for home.


Istiqfar----- The act of asking for forgiveness from Allah after prayer by Muslims
Guntiino----Sari-like garment worn by Somali women.
Khat----a leafy, stimulant plant grown and consumed in Kenya
Qibla-----The direction Muslims face when performing prayers.
Maqreb-----The Muslim dusk prayer
Nabad- a form of greeting in Somali, which literally means peace


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