Mother of Tongues

When I was learning how to drive, I always felt afraid — but a little more alive than usual — whenever I drove faster than 40 miles per hour.

“You’re going to have to slow down before you make the right turn.”

The instructor’s bland voice made me want to crash the vehicle into a truck. His body was a bean bag and he smelled like an old couch. Tufts of white hair shot out of his ears and his seatbelt was snug against his protruding stomach. “You can’t make a safe turn going at 45 miles per hour.”


In the summer of 2015, my family moved to Nairobi, Kenya. It was time to visit our roots, my mother told me. In the Somali language we have a word for American born kids who went back to their motherland: “daqan celis.” The phrase can’t be translated into English literally, but it’s an insulting moniker used to describe a person that had lost touch with their cultural identity, and were being sent back to their parent’s home country to find it. I was offended when I first heard the term being used to describe me. How could I be a daqan celis? Not only was I comfortable in my racial and ethnic identity, I was proud of my Kenyan-Somali heritage. I loved our culture, our stories, our foods, and our family. I was definitely not part of the daqan celis crew.

The people in our close-knit community and school exclusively spoke Somali, which ended up causing a wedge between me and my classmates. I could understand the language perfectly, I just couldn’t speak it. How could I make friends with people who saw me as an incompetent American kid who didn’t speak her own language, a daqan celis?

I really did try my best to learn to speak Somali the entire two years I lived in Kenya. After all, a large part of my extended family only understood Somali and there was no way for me to communicate with them with English. I sat at my grandmother’s feet, stuttering through simple Somali words and telling her about my long day at school. I was still wearing my uniform — a blue skirt and pleated white button down shirt. She didn’t laugh at me once. I spoke with a ridiculous American accent, it took me multiple seconds to think of the next word, and my sentence structure was all wrong. But she didn’t say anything. She knew that with practice of the tongue, I would learn.

At lunch, I tried to enter the conversation my classmates were having. Before a full Somali sentence left my mouth, the table burst into laughter.


As a new student to the school, nearly every teacher that arrived in our classroom asked for my name…

“Asma,” I said.

“Girl! I asked for your name, your real name,” the teacher scolded me. He was missing his left ring finger. No one knew how it happened, but throughout the school year, he occasionally joked that he sold it for food.

“Asma is my real name,” I responded, confused.

“Your full name is what?” he commanded. He sighed exasperatedly.

“Oh! My last name.” I understood. “Asma Gaba.”

“Gaba? Your pronouncing your name incorrectly! It’s not Gab-a, its Gab-ow.”

He then proceeded to write my last name on the board, underlining the syllable that I had apparently gotten wrong.

“No, I’m sure it’s pronounced Gaba.”

“You Americans,” he muttered. “You don’t know anything about your mother tongue.”


I chased my sister through our home in Kenya, trying to grab her so I could shake her by her shoulders and scream in her face. I don’t recall what she had done to anger me, I only recall that she had pissed me off enough to get me to run — an activity that I would never willingly impose upon myself.

She ran through the kitchen door and tried to slam it behind her. I caught the door before it shut and continued to run, but fell to the ground with a thud when my little toe crashed comically hard against the door. I collapsed in agony and wondered how this much pain could be concentrated in such a small area of my body. I tried to get up, but the pain was debilitating.

The chase between my sister and I had reached such a volume that our entire family rushed to the kitchen to see what all the commotion was about. My mother, two of my mom’s sisters, my three-year-old cousin, my grandmother, my brother, and both of my sisters — including the one that had caused me this injury, the minx. I leaned on the fridge melodramatically, clutching my foot and moaning in discomfort.

I crawled up the stairs to my bedroom as my toe swelled to an ungodly size, and oddly enough, turned green. I stayed upstairs for an entire week — my large family bought me food three times a day, with the occasional tea and snacks peppered in between meals. My three-year-old cousin would climb on to my bed and she would speak to me in Somali. I practiced my broken Somali during these weird, childlike conversations between us two. She didn’t laugh at my mistakes or comment on my unusual pronunciation. All she cared about was talking to me and cuddling underneath my blanket.


I stood on my bed’s box-spring in my dorm, stretching to reach where the wall met the ceiling to hang my golden tapestry on the wall. At home, my tapestry was hung right next to my bed — it was the last thing that I saw when I fell asleep and the first thing I saw when I woke up. I theorized that bringing a small piece of home with me to university would comfort me.

The thin fabric that covered the box-spring couldn’t support my weight, and it tore beneath my weight. My foot fell through, and the joints at the base of my little toe screamed and immediately began to swell. I remembered the last time this happened to me, and how in less than a minute after I fell, I was surrounded by my entire family. I remembered my baby cousin and how liberating it was to speak to her in my mother tongue without a single hint of judgment. She was such an intelligent and pure child. I wondered how she was doing.


“Did you hear me?” the instructor spoke again. “I said you have to slow down. You can’t make a turn going this fast.”

“I can try,” I joked. I moved my foot from the gas pedal to begin pressing on the brake. Before I had to chance to decelerate, his short thick legs stomped on the brakes on his side of the vehicle.

“I was just kidding!” I yelped. The unexpected jolt forced me to instinctively press hard on the brakes as well, and we were stood still in the middle of the road. As the shock reverberated through my body at the suddenness of the situation, I began to giggle, as if there was something funny about potentially speeding through a turn and skidding right into an accident.