ASK A SOMALI | Like a human being


Q: How can you tell if an individual is from Somalia or Ethiopia? It seems they don’t like each other.
A: And they don’t like to be mistaken for one another.

Here is my suggestion. The best way to tell if a person is from Somalia or Ethiopia (and let’s not forget Eritrea and Djibouti) or any other country on earth is to ask them like a human being. It is a lot easier than playing amateur anthropologist and looking for physical or cultural clues.

It annoys me when someone greets me in a language I don’t speak, just assuming they know who I am from looking at me.

My friend and I were at the Hub recently- the bike shop on Minnehaha and E. Lake – when this middle-aged white man came up to us and started greeting me in Oromo. When I didn’t respond, (I recognized it but didn’t know how to respond, because – excuse me, I don’t speak Oromo), he then said “Setahey,” which means “how are you” in Somali. I responded “I am fine.”

And instead of leaving me alone because he missed the clue that he annoyed me (as well as interrupting my friend mid-sentence), he continued to stand there and educate me in the Oromo greetings. He really thought I was out of my mind for not knowing how to respond in Oromo. So, I told him, “You do know that I am from Somalia, right?”

It was so awkward. I know he wanted to impress me with his worldly language but really he ended up offending me instead.  There’s nothing wrong with being Oromo, but what pissed me off was that he didn’t take the two seconds first to ask me before assuming.

Within each of these East African countries, there are different groups that hold different opinions of each other.  In general, Somalis wouldn’t like to be identified as Ethiopians, and Eritreans don’t like to be called Ethiopians, because they fought a war for 30 years to not be part of Ethiopia.

If you ask, people from any one of these groups should be happy to educate you about their country and culture. (Sometimes we’ll tell you about ourselves even if you don’t ask.) Please ask them where they from! It is okay to seem uneducated about them. Once they start talking about their country they won’t stop talking! It is better to appear uneducated and eager to learn than just ignorant.

If you’re in a situation where a) it is important to determine what a person’s nationality is, and b) you can’t ask them, my suggestion is to address them as individuals from East Africa. Please don’t go around and make assumptions and offend people. And remember, identity doesn’t always correspond to lines on the map.

Oh, and one more thing: Even if you know someone is from Somalia, it is not okay to tell them Ethiopian jokes (even if they laugh, which they shouldn’t).  We can make jokes about each other but outsiders should not.