Before its independence in 1960, Somalia was the bloody battleground for power between the fading British and Italian empires; in the late 70s it became a staging ground for the cold war maneuvering between the US and the USSR. In 1991, after Somalia's genocidal dictator was overthrown, equally bloodthirsty warlords began vying for control and, tragically, Somalia collapsed into anarchy. Ironically, this racially, ethnically, religiously and linguistically homogeneous people are now controlled by clans and subclans. Unless and until the country confronts its past, Somalians will render Somalia into nothingness.
Nuruddin Farah places responsibility for Somalia's plight on Somalian's themselves: "If you take the Somali nation as a family, the betrayal is no longer that of colonialism, it is no longer from outside, but from within. And the cure must also be found from within."
Farah strives to keep his homeland alive through his writing and his most recent trilogy, culminating in Secrets, is polemic disguised as obituary disguised as parable disguised as local drama.
In Secrets, one family serves as a metaphor for Somalia, itself; a family whose own checkered past and its members failure to understand one another tears apart and destroys their lives.
Kalaman, the protagonist of Secrets, has always wondered about the secrets surrounding his origins, beginning with his own name. For the name, Kalaman, came from the cry of a bird heard at his birth and, as such, is devoid of any sense of history or family heritage. Family heritage, though, is essential to Kalaman, for he was a child who had always been "interested in the origins of things, how rivers came into being and why they ran and where."
As a result of the secrets surrounding both Kalaman and his family, his grandfather, Nonno, cannot die, his mother suffers from violent nightmares and Kalaman's world is filled with an ever-increasing emptiness.
On the eve of Somalia's collapse into anarchy, Kalaman's sensual and demanding childhood sweetheart, Sholoongo, appears in his home and announces her intentions of bearing his child. Her presence incurs the wrath of Kalaman's mother and pulls Kalaman back into a despair-filled past where he disassembles the myth that represents his family and unleashes all of its long-held secrets.
Secrets displays Farah's superb talents to the fullest. The plot is rich, the language sophisticated and exotic without being overwrought. Displaying elements of magic realism, totemic animals drift through scenery, dreams are symbolic, folktales, prophetic. When Kalaman asks Nonno about Sholoongo's own secrets, Nonno gives him the enigmatic reply: "A man shuts himself away in a dark room, raises his index finger, pointing at the ceiling. Reemerging, he challenges the community members to tell him what he did in the dark room. Another man describes accurately what he did in the dark room when alone."
Conceived in violence rather than in love, and ignorant of his own history, Kalaman is a metaphor for Somalia, itself. Sholoongo, who was born a "duugan," a baby to be taken to the desert and buried, represents Somalia's festering, unspoken history and like that history she "lived to haunt the villagers conscience." Sholoongo is the book's catalyst and her arrival brings back an ugly past for each of Farah's characters, yet, once confronted and embraced, this ugliness is transformed.
Nonno tells Kalaman his "undealt-with troubles began the instant he introduced a decisive element of blame-the-other syndrome into his guilt ridden sorrow." Nonno then begins to associate Kalaman even more closely with Somalia: "There are moments in a person's or a nation's life when collapses can be avoided, even if at first they seem inevitable...Kalaman could have brought an end to this rigamarole sooner, if he had been true to his own instincts, if he had been forthrightly frank with Sholoongo herself: the Somali collectivity could have reversed the coming decline. He had no right to blame his parents or Nonno or others for his own failure...Give people a chance to speak their pieces, and many will display their personal and collective hurts: they all see themselves as ill-used by the dictatorship. Press them further into the corner, ask them for their contributions to the struggle against one-man tyranny, and they fall silent, many unable to deny being accomplices in the rain."
Secrets is a magical story, evocative of the beauty and tragedy that is Africa today. Its politics are metaphorical and never intrusive, for Farah is not a politician but a storyteller extraordinaire.
His life-affirming message, however, to the family that is Somalia is clear: Heal your wounds, Sister. Shout your secrets from the rooftops as loud as you can.