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The Horn of Africa and the paradox of politeness

28 May 2021

When life in the Horn of Africa confounded Rachel Pieh Jones’s expectations, Muslim friends challenged her about her faith


An informal marketplace set up by the roadside in the centre of Djibouti City, Horn of Africa

An informal marketplace set up by the roadside in the centre of Djibouti City, Horn of Africa

SOMALI doesn’t have a word for “please.” People occasionally use a word borrowed from Arabic, fadlan, but I only heard it used with foreigners. There is a phrase for “thank you,” waad mahadsantahay (shortened to mahadsanid), but people rarely use that either.

My friend Amaal teased that even when my Somali words were correct, I sounded foreign because I sprinkled politeness phrases through my speech. I said things like, “Please, would you be willing to bring me a Coke? Thanks so much.” She said, “Bring Coke.”

When someone sat too close on the bus, I said, “Sorry,” and moved away. Amaal said, “Move,” and shoved them off. At market, the woman I bought onions from returned my change, and I said, “Thank you.”

The onion seller laughed. “Why do you thank me for doing my job? Also, you gave me money. I don’t understand.” Eventually, I broke the politeness habit — which created problems back in the United States, where I appeared terse, rude, selfish, and demanding.

But did I really mean it, when I thanked a grocery-store clerk for the receipt? Did I mean it, if I apologised when someone stepped on my toes in line at the bank? These phrases were culturally obligatory but authentically hollow.

It is through being the stranger that we recognise strangeness. Whenever I travelled outside Djibouti, I brought back gifts. Bangly earrings, purses, perfume, black lace bras, sunglasses.

My friends would barely glance at my gifts, setting them on the table or shoving them into the bottoms of bags, where I never saw them again.

This made me mad. I could pack peanut butter or novels instead, if they were going to be ungrateful! I finally asked Amaal about it.

“You bring gifts because we tell you to,” Amaal said. “If you came back from a trip with nothing, we would call you hunguri weyn.” Greedy — literally, big throat.

“But why doesn’t anyone ever say thank you?” I asked.

“Why should we thank you?”

I threw up my hands. “I spent money, time, and thought on you!” “So?”

“No one even acknowledges the gift,” I said. “They hide it away like I never brought anything — but then next time I leave, they demand something again.”

“I don’t know why you think you did anything for us,” Amaal said. “Who provided the money? Who gave you your mind to think of us with? Who directed you to the store and to the exact thing we wanted? Who developed this friendship between us in the first place?

“I don’t know why you think gift giving has anything to do with you. If we say thank you to anyone, it is to God. People don’t thank you, because they are thankful to God: for you, for your friendship, and for the gift. It isn’t about you, it’s about God.”


IT ISN’T about you. It’s about God. She was right. I had never considered a lack of gratitude — or misdirected gratitude — as unbelief. But when I look at the origin story of the world in both Qur’an and Bible, the sin of Satan (or Shaydan) seems to be ingratitude.

He had all the beauty and glory of being in God’s presence, and he wanted more. More power, more honour, worship. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve weren’t satisfied with all God gave. They weren’t thankful.

They did not believe that God was all-sufficient, al-rahman, al-rahiim. They wanted more.

Zakat, tithing, charitable giving, leaving behind consumerism and comfort to identify with the poor — when it stems from belief in God and the promise of treasure in heaven — is faith in action, faith with flesh on.

Could I learn to live gratitude in the Horn of Africa? Could I be truly thankful in loneliness and heat, spiritual isolation, language-learning exhaustion, cultural faux pas? These were precisely the refining challenges that would hone the habit of giving thanks.

It is impossible to complain and feel thankful in the same moment. I couldn’t whine about 120-degree temperatures while delighting in the sun’s shimmer through the dusty screen windows. I couldn’t simultaneously complain about spiritual isolation and feel thankful that I was learning true faith.

I couldn’t cry about loneliness while laughing at Amaal’s jokes. Expatriate life in Djibouti is hard, a hardness I continue to consciously choose. That hardness forces me to examine my beliefs, my habits, my attitudes — and to be transformed. Maasha Allah. Thanks be to God.


This is an edited extract from Pillars: How Muslim friends led me closer to Jesus by Rachel Pieh Jones, published by Plough Publishing at £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.69).

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