Fatima Osborne is a Copenhagen based activist, diversity & inclusion counselor, and lecturer. Her focus is on combating racism, xenophobia, and sexism by challenging oppressive social structures and policies. Fatima lectures throughout Denmark and is the founder of Black Woman Sanctuary, a healing space for black women in Copenhagen. Fatima grew up as a nomad in Somalia and came to Denmark when she was 12 years old. I had a conversation with Fatima some time ago, the first part of which I am finally able to share with you as the final interview in my sisterhood series.
YF: I am very interested in the early part of your life growing up as a nomad. What was that like for you, what were the challenges, and what did you cherish about it?
FO: I think, honestly, I have been thinking about what were the challenges? and it’s interesting because I have a western filtered mind on that now when I look back.
YF: I’d really like you to try and speak outside of that.
FO: …yes and this is what I was actually getting to because when I speak outside of that I honestly didn’t feel there were any challenges. For me, it was a very free life. I was a child, but I was also a responsible child, I had responsibilities. The elders trusted me with their livelihood, such as looking after sheep and… their wealth. They didn’t have any money. My grandmother didn’t have savings in the bank and everything she owned was her animals and I was looking after that every single day. Even from the age of 5, I was doing that. So, for me it was really a very, very happy childhood when I look outside of my western filters. The only thing that I would say that sometimes could be a challenge is that there was always some lack of water, we were always aware that there could be a lack of water. So, that was something that could potentially be challenging, especially in the drought seasons, but we always managed. We were resourceful, we knew that this could be a problem, so we had reserves, we dug holes to store water. There was always a backup plan and people were very generous and helped each other. I think that the sense of community in the nomadic lifestyle is something that I have never experienced anywhere else in my life. And the fact that we don’t have any written rules as nomads, we don’t have a set of rules that we adhere to like, oh it says here in this constitution that bla, bla, bla – there’s none of that. But at the same time, there’s just amazing humanity and love and respect…
YF: So, there’s no need for an outside of authority to tell you how to be in society, it just kind of comes with the needs of the community?
FO: Absolutely! I mean if something wasn’t working or if there was any disagreement or dispute or whatever, people went to the elders of that family, of that community, and they got together and everything was talked through and negotiated and it was always done… my understanding as a child was always that it was done with love and, you know, it was done with great empathy for each other and it was always resolved. That’s what I remember. Everything had its flow, everybody knew what they had to do, everybody had a job, every child had a job, every adult had a job, every woman; and we all had different types of responsibilities but while doing that we also had fun. Every task… like the women, for example, they would get together – we did everything by hand, you know, even the things to cover the house with, mats, carpets, blankets, and things; everything was done by hand…
YF: … so, weaving was a big thing?
FO: Yes, it was. And women got together in the evening and just did that together. There would be about 10 women doing one woman’s house and they would be singing and making jokes and telling stories, folk stories. And we as children would just be around and listen to these stories and sing and… we would move, you know, because every couple of months we had to move to get closer to a place with more water and green. We followed the rain and that was also a community thing. People would get together and help each other pack one house and put it on the back of a camel, and we would travel and there would be singing and happiness the whole way. Even though it was physically hard walking for three to four days, we were having fun. These were really some of the moments that I cherished a lot in my life.
YF: When you were talking about how everyone had their different tasks; I got this sense of clarity. It’s this community and people knew what they were supposed to do, the distribution of tasks was clear… because I think it can be so confusing nowadays in the kinds of societies that we live in, the way that the society is organized. I mean, even if you think of couples, of marriage, it’s very confusing! it’s really not very clear at all…
FO: No! it’s one of those things, I think, that in the West even though, obviously, they are fighting for women’s rights and there is feminism and there are all these rights, and it’s all good and great but at the same time it can make everything fluid. Like, who’s responsible for what? especially in relationships, it can be very hard to see who’s going to do what, and it doesn’t matter what it is, just setting clear rules and boundaries for what each person is supposed to contribute to this relationship. I think that was very clear [in the nomadic lifestyle], it was very, very clear. Everybody knew exactly what they were supposed to do every single day and they did it with pride and they took that responsibility on themselves. Also, one of the things that really baffled me, still does, but especially when I first came to this country, was that kids were not supposed to work and I thought, why? I mean, it takes the whole household’s work for the whole household to function, to thrive. And I do understand of course that there are guidelines for how kids can work and not, but when most westerners think of children working, they think about small children with small hands working in India or somewhere, doing…
YF: …being abused and exploited…
FO: Exactly! and mass-producing things for H&M or something like that. But it’s also just helping the family and actually doing what it takes to run a family, you know, and I think that was great. It’s something that was instilled in me from a young age.
YF: I heard the way you spoke about taking care of your grandmother’s sheep as a responsibility that you were proud of, you said, she entrusted me with her wealth…
FO: Yeah, because if you think about it, it’s like me giving everything in my bank account to my 6-year-old and saying, go outside every day with it and then come back with it in its entirety! Make sure that nobody steals it. So, for me, these are actually some of the things that have shaped me as a person, you know, as a human being. I feel like my nomadic lifestyle in my childhood, in the nomadic setting, was one of the key factors to who I am. And being with my grandmother especially, my relationship with my grandmother.
YF: Do you want to say more about that, about your relationship with your grandmother?
FO: My relationship with my grandmother was very, very spiritual and very, very deep and she was always someone who lifted me up, she was always affirming, said that I was doing a good job, that she was proud of me, that I looked beautiful. I was that darkest in the family, of all the children I was the darkest, and a lot of times there was all this anti-blackness even in the nomadic setting – it’s interesting how that has traveled into our little small communities in the African bush – but she would always say how beautiful I was and how radiant and how my blackness was like the most beautiful blackness that she’s ever seen and so for me it was also strong to have that upbringing with someone that close to me.
YF: I think you have already touched on it, but what do you think the nomadic way of life can teach us?
FO: Well, I can sense all the things that I think in my own life it has taught me that I can benefit from living in this society.
YF: Yes, the second part of that question is actually, what do you think you bring to this society because of those experiences?
FO: I think we can learn about trust, you know, trusting each other and, actually, even beyond trust, having good intentions for each other, making that the key factor everywhere you go…
YF: … so, not just trusting because trusting is kind of expecting the other person to have good intentions towards you, but also you yourself having those intentions?
FO: Exactly, yes! And knowing that… the biggest thing for me is knowing that the Source provides. This idea of lack was not in my life. I didn’t lack anything there was nothing to lack…
YF: … until somebody came and said that that was lacking in some way?
FO: Yes, exactly! oh, so you had one dress and you only got one dress every year?! that’s very poor! No, I wasn’t lacking anything because my dress, if it was ripped it was patched in by my grandmother, and if it wasn’t patchable, we got a new one, and I didn’t lack anything. So, I think that for me, I see myself as someone who is not very materialistic in the sense that I don’t hunt things down just for material gain. But, at the same time, I also feel like I’m someone who, because of not chasing it and because of trusting that Source that always took care of me, that always provided for me to also provide for me when I live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Wealth comes to me because of trust.
YF: …so there’s trusting each other and trusting in the Source…?
FO: Absolutely, because one thing that my nomadic lifestyle has taught me is that… what is it that makes a 6-year-old girl look after 250 – 300 sheep every single day, outside. Yes, outside, away from home – because you had to go as far away from home as possible, alone. There are hyenas, there are lions, there are foxes and… here you are, in a little body. These sheep are a lot stronger than I ever would be and I am protecting them from these bigger animals (laughs). At the same time, I know that there was the Source protecting all of us, even me and the sheep!
YF: Wow, that is amazing…
FO: Yeah, so it’s really just symbols, you know.
YF: Life is a metaphor, right?
FO: It is.
YF: It’s just about paying attention.
YF: So, what else? What else can we learn, what else do you bring?
FO: I think… to know your limitations, that we as human beings individually have different limits and it’s not a weakness to say that you can’t do something and not be afraid of learning something new. See the thing is, as a nomad, because you move so much, you are always adapting to new surroundings, new people, constantly adjusting and readjusting and accommodating, and I have learned as a nomad to have that open mind of… you don’t have to know everything, it’s OK. You have to have the humility to actually say, this is new for me, but also the tenacity to know that you will be OK, you will get this at some point. Because as a nomad I spent a lot of time alone, because I was just with my sheep (laughs), that gave me the strength to be willing to seek company when I wanted to and to welcome it because it was a rare thing. So, I cherished it. And I learned a lot of skills from that, how do you talk to someone to make them open up? How do you become friends with someone you just met and who could possibly be your only friend for this season, right?
YF: Right, because you moved in packs, I imagine?
FO: We moved in my immediate family. My grandmother and my uncles…
YF: So, it wasn’t a big clan?
FO: No, no, no, it wasn’t that big, no! So, every time you could end up in a different clan and you could end up with different people entirely.
YF: …and you had to make new friends?
FO: All the time! and get to know, oh you have these sheep – because every sheep and every animal that every individual family owned, and every clan owned, had different types of signs on them. So, you would get to know, oh OK, it’s that clan living there now.
YF: …and you might meet them again another season, another year…
FO: Yes, exactly! and you could be two, three years older when you meet again…
FO: So, it was a continuation of always being open, saying yes to opportunities all the time. I think that’s something that we absolutely can learn, that’s something that benefits me every day.
YF: … and that I imagine the people around you benefit from? For example, your children learn it by watching you…
FO: I hope they do.
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