The Walled City

We took a trip to the “walled city” yesterday and got to experience the culture and history that the city entails. Years ago, the city governed itself, but in 1887 it was conquered by the country that I currently live in and became just another city in this country. This walled city, back when it had its own government, served as a trading route between the East African Coast, the Middle East and India for centuries. In its hayday, the city had 5 gates, one of which was the sending out gate (to spread Islam to the rest of the Horn) and only Muslims were allowed in and out of the city. The whole city was founded and based on Islam – I assume from its Arabic influence through trading. The people of this city pride themselves on being able to speak 5 languages, three “tribal” languages, the language of a neighboring country, and then also Arabic. However you cut it, they’ve got me beat. The 5 gates and all the walls and roads are still there, but others besides Muslims are allowed in and out now. The history, architecture and culture there run really deep , however, now it is sort of a run down city, with an old glory, lots of walls, and filled with people chewing chat (more on that later).

During the time that the city was being conquered by its current government, many of the people in it left and went to a different city.  After the war, many of them moved back to the original city, but those that stayed in the new city became the people that I will be working with, the Sparrows. So, as far as I can tell, the Sparrows only have about 125 years of their own culture and language and prior to that they belonged to the culture and language of this walled city. The village I will work in is about a 3 hour drive from the capitol and this city is about a 9 hour drive from the capitol and they are in opposite directions, so I cannot imagine how these people relocated. It had to have been a long journey. Our hostess said that her grandmother was actually born in the Sparrow village and then later her family moved back to the walled city. What I find a little ironic is that the culture of the walled city is known to be well off and actually sort of esteemed, while my people are dirt poor and are not looked favorable upon. Yet, less than 150 years ago, they were the same people.

Our hostess today took us to a house that was built by her great grandfather and is in the walls of the city. Nowadays, you can’t move into the walls of the city, but to live there the house has to have been in your family. No new houses are being built inside the city. The houses are very unique and we were told they are the only ones built like this. The roof is made of a couple of layers of logs and cement and is supposed to allow the heat out in the summer but keep the heat in in the winter. The walls of these homes are covered with baskets and/or bowls that are traditional to these people. In the homes, there is raised seating traditionally designed for the teachers of the Koran to sit on and then the students and servants sat below. Now, the raised seating is for guests, and the other seating is for less important people.

After lunch and coffee had been served, the chat was brought out and I’m not gonna lie I felt like I was involved in some illegal activities (although I didn’t partake). Chat is a plant that is grown throughout all of this region and is known as a type of legal stimulant. I think it would probably be a cousin to marijuana, but you don’t smoke it, you just chew its leaves. I swear everyone in this city was chewing it. Unfortunately, it is such a cash crop that people have quit growing food and started growing chat and it seems to have done much to wreak havoc on these people. Many of them chew chat all day long, most likely because they have no work to do anyway, and then end up passed out in the streets. It can be a little disheartening to see.

After chewing chat for a couple of hours, one of the men in the room asked me if my skin was my natural color. A little hesitantly, I said that it was. He continued on by saying, “you are extremely white, extremely white. I have never seen anyone this color.” I didn’t really know what to think. Usually being called white is a compliment because many people here think it is beautiful, however, the way he kept saying it led me to believe that he was not paying me a compliment. He repeated his “extremely white” statement several times throughout the afternoon and also mentioned that if I wanted my skin to be more brown, I could get more sun. He seemed to believe that I could actually turn my skin the same color as his just by spending more time in the sun. We had to convince him that that would never happen and that he was actually born with that skin color, and I would not turn that color if I just spent more time in the sun. Too much chat I think.




The pictures above explain why this is called the “walled city.” The walls here reminded me a little bit of Santorini, but much less beautiful. Still compared to what we see daily in the capitol, the architecture and colors here were very refreshing!



This is all of us in a traditional home doing a very inappropriate thing – showing the bottoms of our feet. In Arabic based cultures, you would only show the bottom of your feet to someone you were intentionally trying to offend….oopsie! They later graciously covered our feet with a cloth.

The baskets on the wall are very representative of their culture and are one thing that this city is known for.  A traditional home would be covered with baskets like these. You can also see the different level platforms in this picture.


Of course, we had to make a basket purchase!



The beautiful girl whose job it was to make the baskets.



Another very nice traditional home.


The colorful bowls at the top I think are technically from China, but they were in “style” during the days of our hostess’ mother and they cover the walls of many houses. You can’t actually buy them now, so they are kind of an heirloom.


This woman has on the same type of "hot pants" as what I put on the other day with my bridal gown. I pity her for having to wear them.


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