Livia Albeck-Ripka on Mariam Issa
Born on a still day, in the equator town of Kismayo, 500 kilometres south of the Somalian capital, Mariam Issa grew up in the shadow of brothers, believing that women weren’t entitled to work or education.
As a child, Mariam was circumcised on her mother’s kitchen table, told that an “impurity” had been removed. She didn’t question this, her father’s polygamy or a fate of childrearing and chores until she began devouring books, wondering about the rest of the world.
When she finished primary school, Mariam was determined—despite her parents’ opposition—to continue her education. Headstrong and curious, she convinced her mother to pay her high school admission fees, and would sneak out to work behind her back. At 17, Mariam married into a more liberal family in the hope that there, she might find some freedom. But by 1991, the civil war had broken out in Somalia and Mariam, heavily pregnant with her third child, was forced to flee while bombs fell in the middle of the night.
When Mariam, her husband and five children first arrived as refugees in Australia in 1998, they kept to themselves, afraid of assimilation. Until after September 11, when the other mothers at school glared at Mariam as if she were hiding something under her clothes. Until her daughter, just four at the time, sensed that perhaps, she was rejected from kindergarten because of her skin colour. It was then that Mariam had what she calls her “awakening”—she pushed her way into the predominantly white Melbourne bayside community of Brighton, cleaned homes and worked in aged-care centres, wrote a book, and started the Resilient Aspiring Women (RAW) Community Garden in her backyard.
When I meet Mariam the first thing she does is hand me a rose from the RAW garden—which brings women from different backgrounds together to plant seeds, share their narratives and break bread. It is “where African chaos meets German precision,” she laughs, explaining how RAW was co-founded together with her friend, permaculturalist Katharina Kons.
I visit a couple of weeks later and before taking me through the garden, Mariam insists we sit, and share a pot of chai. She meditates on how compassion is essential to understanding our shared humanity, on the union of old and new and on the wisdom to be found in religion and oral culture; in communities we in the West so often disregard as backward. The story of Africa has been hijacked, says Mariam. It is up to us however, she explains, to reclaim our stories and toshare them, because they have the power to heal.
As we walk through the sprawling urban plot, abundant with herbs, berries, vegetables, animals, and projects to be completed, Mariam points out a dead tamarillo tree, uprooted by the wind. “This,” she sighs, “is the ‘no worries’ tree. We have so much to learn from nature.”
Mariam has lived through oppression, war and prejudice and come out the other side promoting dialogue, peace and resilience. When she enters a room, you can feel her presence—she’s at once gentle and fiercely passionate, championing the power of storytelling and community. But the most incredible thing about Mariam is how strongly she believes in people. Inherent in everything she says is an idealism; that wrongdoing is simply misunderstanding, that people are really good at heart, and that all it takes to change things—even at the highest levels—is a face-to-face conversation. Preferably, over a cup of tea.