Modern Nomads Journal

modern nomads1

I love artists. I love when people living abroad use their authentic talents to delve into their host cultures and I love when they do it in collaboration with local artists who can teach the foreigner, provide insight, and give broader perspectives, like how does this event fit into the historical realities of this location…

That’s why I love this project: Modern Nomads Journal. It doesn’t hurt that it is beautiful and expertly crafted. It also doesn’t hurt that writers I’ve worked with at EthnoTraveler, like Abdi Latif Dahir, are featured in interviews or that a female Somali playwright tells her story and her dream inside the pages of this 88-page journal.

Last week they launched a kickstarter campaign to fund the first printing of the journal, to which I happily contributed. This week they are busy launching their Somali-language magazine Dhugasho and I am happily promoting the English-language journal to Djibouti Jones readers. Head over to their kickstarter page, donate if you feel so inclined, and look forward to getting a copy of this lovely journal in your mail box (actual mail box).

Journal Introduction

There are few nomadic societies that have been catapulted into the 21st century as dramatically as the Somali. 20 years of war have scattered hundreds of thousands of Somalis all over the world. People who were born in little desert villages and grew up herding camels are now young professionals in London, Toronto, or Minneapolis. And as their large families often live in a dozen different countries, many Somalis live uniquely international lives as modern nomads.

But while most of those who have left their country as refugees keep up their connections with home, and try to preserve their rich cultural heritage and history, a new generation of diaspora Somalis is growing up that has never seen the Horn of Africa. Raised in Western or Middle Eastern cities and surrounded by American, European, or Arab friends, they are more interested in pop culture than camel culture, and often barely speak their mother-tongue or know their place in the clan system.

As new catastrophes force new refugees into the West, and old diaspora members return to their home country, the clash of cultures within Somali society is being fought wherever Somalis live. Whether a family in the Netherlands, trying to teach their children the old traditions and values, or a family in Mogadishu, struggling with an influx of “Westerners”, every Somali is confronted with cultural change, and everybody has to ask themselves what it really means to be Somali.

We want to capture a cultural heritage that is in the process of being lost forever, and help the Somali people to remember and treasure their past. At the same time, we are hoping to document the amazing changes that are happening within Somali culture, and to catch a glimpse of the new rich and diverse society that is emerging out of the ashes of a long civil war.

Follow Modern Nomads Journal on Instagram and be sure to check out their Kickstarter campaign, less then three weeks to go!

And a personal side note, Djiboutian artists (story-tellers, photographers, poets, writers, painters…) I would love to connect with you and to hear how you are sharing your story and art with the world…please leave a comment or contact me.

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Our Tribal Elders, The Heart of Ruth Van Reken

Today I offer you Part 2 of the paper by Paul Asbury Seaman, Our Tribal Elders. This part, about the heart of Ruth Van Reken made me cry and I’m not a Third Culture Kid, though I am raising three of them. So many beautiful things here today.

Last week in the Introduction, Paul wrote that:

In a very primal sense we are formed by the landscape of our upbringing—by specific events and social factors as well as the physical place. But our identity is equally influenced by how we interpret this heritage. The basic human question Who am I? is not just about self-discovery but finding our place in the world…

…Placing each of our tribal elders—Van Reken, Useem, Pollock, and McCaig—in one of the Four Directions of the medicine wheel will highlight their distinct contribution and also illustrate four different “windows through which to view the global nomad enigma. These are heart, identity, wisdom, and integration.

(Read all of Part 1 here) And today he will begin diving into the lives of the four people who left massive impacts on the conversation about growing up as a Third Culture Kid by looking at how Ruth Van Reken embodies ‘heart.’

Paul attended Murree Christian School in Pakistan. He currently lives in the Bay Area, California with his wife Catherine. He has published several articles about the impact of growing up overseas as well as a memoir, Paper Airplanes in the Himalayas: The Unfinished Path Home (West and the Wider World)

Website: Paul Asbury Seaman and you can contact him at


Heart… Ruth Van Reken (b. 1945) Our deepest, most satisfying connection to others—as well as to places, things, even ideas—comes from the heart. This is where we hold our most cherished beliefs and sense of self, and it is the heart that tells us we are home when we find what we have been yearning for. The first quadrant of the medicine wheel is the East, the direction of the rising sun, of new beginnings, and family. This is where we experience our emotions and our most vulnerable moments. It is here, in the heart, that we feel the ache of displacement and it is through the heart that we redeem our sense of belonging.

Ruth Van Reken’s credentials as a spokesperson for TCKs are partly genetic. She comes second in four consecutive generations of third culture kids. At one point when she was a little girl, her family (including her parents and older sister) consisted of four people born on four different continents. In her adult life, her husband’s career as a doctor included time in the Navy and several years with an interdenominational mission board; in Liberia he was assigned to the main government hospital, sponsored by USAID; in Kenya he worked as a professor for the medical school of Moi University in Eldoret. This gave Ruth experience in four of the major categories of sponsoring agencies from which TCKs come: military, religious missions, government, and education (the others being corporate and nonprofit).

Her grandfather was a missionary doctor who set up a Presbyterian hospital in Resht, Iran—then known as Persia. Her father was born there, became a missionary himself, and took the family to Africa for the first time in 1944. (The ship on which they crossed the Atlantic was sunk by German planes on its return voyage to New York.) Ruth was born in Kano, Nigeria and, not counting two home-leave “furloughs,” lived there until she was thirteen. Four more of her siblings were born in Nigeria where her parents worked for a total of thirty-four years. During high school Ruth lived with her grandmother and aunt in Chicago. She did not see her parents once in four years.

Later, she married David Van Reken, soon to become a doctor and a man who shared her calling to mission work. David served two years at the U.S. Navy hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia, and in 1976 Ruth returned to Africa, this time as a wife and mother.[i] Working through SIM (Society for International Ministries; formerly Sudan Interior Mission), they spent nine years in Liberia, where the first of three daughters was born. The global itch was passed down again, and Ruth’s first grandchild was born in Ghana.

One day when Ruth was growing up, her father told her he felt like he didn’t quite fit anywhere, and she was shocked. This from a man who had regaled Ruth and her siblings with stories of his childhood in Persia, a man who was a well-regarded leader in their mission community, the one people came to whenever there was strife between missionaries and the Nigerian church leaders. (Both sides trusted him, but in the end both sides got mad at him for not taking their side. Being a cultural bridge can be a lonely task.) But her father also used to tell Ruth: “Wherever you go, unpack your bags and plant your trees. Too many people keep waiting to move and they never really live. If you have to move, then at least you will have lived life fully while you are here. If you don’t get to eat off your trees, someone else will.”

Van Reken’s first book, Letters Never Sent, a global nomad’s journey from hurt to healing grew out of Ruth’s struggle with inexplicably persistent depression as a happily married adult. It is presented as a series of letters she might have written to her parents—if she had been able to name her feelings—beginning with her first night at a missionary boarding school in Nigeria and concluding the day her own daughter leaves Africa to begin high school in the United States. The result, published in 1988, is a sort of memoir that carefully reconstructs the little girl’s pain and how that unresolved grief impacts her as she moves into adulthood. With the special power of personal narratives, Ruth’s book has helped thousands of people get in touch with grief. Psychology tells us that we cannot truly feel joy until we are willing to feel all our emotions, including anger, sadness, and fear.

Not everyone will relate to Ruth’s boarding school experience, or to the overtly Christian perspective of her upbringing (and that of the adult author). But the themes of loss and grief, of unintended consequences, and how children can so easily misunderstand the most well-intentioned actions of their parents—these are universal. Although barely 160 pages, it took me a year to finish Letters Never Sent. I cried on almost every page. The book is powerful because of Ruth’s courageous presentation of her feelings, without judgment or analysis, simply describing the sense of abandonment, the compulsive insecurities, and the irrational fear of losing those close to her that continued to plague her well into adulthood. As a result of naming the things she previously felt she was not allowed to even feel, let alone say, Ruth was able to let them go.

Her modest little book is now something of a classic of global nomad literature, far beyond how she originally conceived it.[ii] It would be hard to find someone more empathetic, who is a more fully-present listener, than Ruth Van Reken. And that is her continuing gift. Such compassion—the ability to authentically connect with another person’s pain—would not be possible if she had not acknowledged her own. Ruth’s “letters” were a deliberate part of her faith journey, not just a therapeutic exercise; and her struggle with darkness enabled her to see the commonalities beyond our disparate backgrounds and personalities—starting with the lonely child in each of us, longing for connection, to be loved, to know that we belong.[iii]

Intimacy is the greatest expression of feeling at home. Learning to embrace the whole of our past (whether or not we ever get it all untangled) is part of our wholeness as human beings—and as a culture. It has been said that intimacy means “in to me see.” We cannot be closer to someone else than we are to ourselves. The awareness and trust that creates such closeness must include owning all our feelings—the accumulation of buried emotions as well as what we feel at any given moment. Letters Never Sent is about reconciliation—with our past, with others, and with the conflicts within ourselves. Sometimes we have to forgive life itself for not being all we thought it should have been. More than something we do, forgiveness is a state of grace beyond blame.

Recently, Ruth told me about flying across the mountains of Afghanistan a few months earlier, in a small single-engine airplane like the ones in which she used to travel across Africa as a child; and how the plane banked to dodge the masses of low-level clouds. Later, sitting in a cold guest house after leading yet another workshop on third culture kids and their families—in forty countries, so far—she realized, This is what I was born to do. Everything in her life, all the pain and displacement, joys and connections, had prepared her for the satisfaction of her life now and the effectiveness of her calling. The awareness of such complete integration is a moment most of us can only hope to achieve. In many ways, Ruth has become one of the fruit trees her father counseled her to plant.


[i] Ruth Van Reken had a B.A. in Nursing, as well as being an R.N. But with the trend toward nationalizing mission hospitals and education institutions, her services were declined. Instead (along with raising four children), Ruth started a Bible study group for interracial couples. In a serendipitous foreshadowing of her later work with TCKs and CCKs (cross-cultural kids), it was here that she was first exposed to cross-sector commonalities and saw the many hidden aspects of cross-cultural relationships.

[ii] Including the first, self-published version, more accurately titled Letters I Never Wrote (1987), Van Reken estimates that as of 2010 Letters Never Sent has sold about 35,000 copies—“not really that significant by publishing standards,” she adds quickly, in her usual self-effacing way.

[iii] In summarizing survey responses from adult TCKs, Van Reken lists nine challenges they experience as a result of their cross-cultural background. Six of them—fully two-thirds—relate in some way to the question, “Where do I belong?” (accessed June 30, 2010).

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Giving Birth in Djibouti

Quick link: International Birth Stories, Djibouti

Today Lulia at Best of Baby is graciously hosting a brief bit about my birth-in-Djibouti story as part of her (really cool) series: International Birth Stories.


Can’t imagine life without this one. She is already 9 years old.

Click here to read some of what surprised me most about giving birth in Djibouti. And if you want to read more and are a new Djibouti Jones reader, click here to read the fuller version in the New York Times (published in 2012).

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The Bookshelf: About Somalia, By Somalis

somali books

Once we decided that we would be moving to Somalia back in 2003, the first thing I did was head to the Hennepin county library. I searched for every single book about Somalia and I found about fifteen. That included government papers and reports and children’s books. Granted, I didn’t know much so I didn’t know that I should google specific author’s names, like Nuruddin Farah or Waris Dirie. But still. There weren’t many books available.

Now? Hennepin County is home to more Somalis than any other county in Minnesota and there is even a book called Somalis in Minnesota (People Of Minnesota). The library has followed suit and the last time I was in Minnesota, I searched for books about Somalia and found hundreds, including articles in magazines and newspapers.

Now there are so many I wouldn’t know where to start. Back then, I simply checked out every single book and worked my way through them all. Now, no way. But here are some I’ve read, loved, hated, thrown against a wall, or read over and over again.

Books By Somalis

(*I go by the idea that the best practice is to go first to those who know best – Somalis. There was a recent hashtag on Twitter #cadaanstudies, cadaan means white, in which Somalis were complaining about the ways westerners co-opt their stories. I see the point, though I believe outsiders can also contribute to cultural discussions and often have valuable input. But here I want to highlight the diversity and talent of Somali writers. Personally, I find books written about the United States by non-Americans are incredibly helpful and insightful and I will never say that we can only write who we are. Otherwise how could a female author write a male character or how could a living person write anything historical? Anyway all that is for another day perhaps…on to these books!)

In the United States of Africa (French Voices) by Abdourahman Waberi, a prolific novelist. He also wrote Transit, The Land without Shadows, The Nomads, My Brothers, Go Out to Drink from the Big Dipper, and Passage of Tears (all translated from French)

Understanding the Somalia Conflagration: Identity, Political Islam and Peacebuilding by Afyare Abdi Elmi

Black Mamba Boy: A Novel is by Nadifa Mohamed who also wrote The Orchard of Lost Souls: A Novel

Waris Dirie is the author of several books

Desert Flower: The Extraordinary Journey of a Desert Nomad, also has been made into a movie
This book is probably best known for its horrific depiction of Female Genital Mutilation, a tradition which Dirie continues to campaign against.

Desert Children

Desert Dawn

Ayaan Hirsi is also the author of several books


Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations

The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam

Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now

Hirsi is a controversial figure among Somalis and Muslims. She has served in the Dutch parliament and worked with the film producer Theo Van Gogh who was killed by a Dutch Muslim the year after their film Submission came out.

Nuruddin Farah, author of several novels

From a Crooked Rib


and many, many more novels about Somalis and Somalia. His work is highly regarded in the literary world.

Nomad Diaries: Life, War and America by Yasmeen Maxmoud. This one…ah, this one. Could have used a better editor. Tough to recommend other than for the fact that as I read it I felt like I was living inside a Somali’s mind. It was interesting in that although she changed the name of the housing complex that features in the novel, I not only know exactly where she is writing about, but I also lived there.

Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth (Mouthmark)by Warsan Shire is a powerful book of evocative and at times erotic poetry.

Keeping Hope Alive: One Woman: 90,000 Lives Changed by Dr. Hawa Abdi, an incredible story of courage and bravery from southern Somalia.

What I’m reading this week

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott. Super interesting historical look at the role four specific women played in the American civil war. I had no idea there were so many female spies or that they could hide such serious weaponry up inside those hoop skirts. This was a different era in the treatment of ‘ladies’ and so they could get away with quite a lot. I am left with some questions about her research and facts but the story is fascinating so I’m letting those questions slide. This is a long one and I’ve had a busy week, so just one book this week.



*post includes amazon affiliate links

Other books by Somalis or about Somalia that you’d recommend? Have you read any of these and what do you think? What are you reading this week?


Is Djibouti the Land of Rain Forests and Red River Hogs?

Quick link: Land of the Red River Hogs

Today EthnoTraveler has published my essay about the wildlife in Djibouti and efforts to preserve it, keep it clean, and honor it.


My favorite lines about wildlife in Djibouti come from the website “Red River Hog,” the entry reads, “is one of the animals found in Djibouti. It mainly lives in the rain forests. The fur of the animal is usually reddish in color and its mode of nutrition is omnivorous.” Djibouti’s red river hogs, in reality, are as numerous as Djibouti’s rain forests, which is to say, there aren’t any. Or at least, I’ve never seen or heard of either.

There are plenty of other indigenous species with various modes of nutrition. Baboons are a common sight on Route 1, the two-lane highway that connects Djibouti City to Ethiopia. Ostriches can also be seen from this road, a few kilometers before passing the Grand Bara desert. I have only seen them in pairs, a brown female blending in with the dusty backdrop and a male with tar-black feathers and a pink neck. Further north, Forêt de Day is one of the only places left on earth to see the elusive bird immortalized on the Djiboutian 250 franc coin, the francolin. Djibouti is not home to large land animals like in Kenya or Tanzania but wildlife does abound. Chameleons, sand snakes, wild parrots, flamingos, bee eaters, hyraxes, hyenas.

Click here to read about Djibouti’s DECAN Refuge, also known as the Cheetah Refuge and about Dr. Bertrand LaFrance’s work to promote wildlife conservation: Land of the Red River Hogs.