Hawo stares at the television, wide-eyed, and frightened. A young reporter holds his hand to his ear and shouts into the microphone, “Witnesses are saying the clerk handed over the cash before he was shot.” Behind the man, a crowd gathers outside the Garissa Store in South Minneapolis. Women wail while men shout and curse. Hawo and her three children sit still, the rice and goat meat, either lay rolled in their suspended fists or on the plates, untouched.

Muxuu leeyahay?” Hawo asks her 17 year old daughter in Somali.

“People have been shot and killed,” Naima translates for Hawo.

On hearing the word killed, her curious six-year-old twin boys look at each other simultaneously.

“Who did it?” Hawo asks again.

“He doesn’t know,” Naima replies.

Hawo has no answers either, but like everything Somali, plenty of speculations make rounds in their heads.

The camera pans across the scene. Blood streams from under the store door and drips down like drops from faucet that wasn’t squeezed tight enough. Slowly, the blood flows and disappears into the cracks of the storefront and onto the curb where the earth swallows it up. In the distance, police talk on their walkie-talkies. Their cars, doors open, flash red and blue. The camera pulls in closer, bringing into focus the faces of speakers getting into position. The large stature of the police chief and the more petite mayor come into view; two men standing side by side, each taking brief turns to answer questions from reporters.

That’s when things become clear to Hawo. Though she cannot make out the language of their words, the language of their bodies tells her all she needs to know.

“We will find those responsible for murdering those three hard-working men in their own store,” says the police chief, “and bring them to justice.”

Hawo yanks the remote from her daughter and switches the television off. Killings have become part of the Somali culture. This year alone, ten people have been killed in Minneapolis and the year isn’t over yet. The police promise swift investigations, but Hawo, like other Somalis, rarely cooperate with the police. She doesn’t trust them. She predicts that the officials will soon regret that they’ve made no arrests.

Hawo sighs, rises and says to her children, “Let’s go.”

She takes long and quick steps toward the kitchen and dumps her disposable plate in the sink and rinses her hands. She tells her children to wear their jackets. It is cold outside. As she comes back she sheds off her stay-home clothes, the colorful dirac and garbasaar. Before she puts on her own jacket, she slips on jeans and as natural as a second skin, covers herself in a black abaya with a white and red patterned hijab over her head and shoulders.

“Where are you taking us?” Naima protests.

Hawo, now agitated, shakes her head as if exorcising unwanted, disturbing thoughts and charges: “Do you have any idea where Aideed is?”

Naima looks blankly at Hawo.

“You haven’t thought about your older brother until now, have you?”

Naima scurries away to get ready.

Aideed is a runaway who has dropped out of school in 10th grade and can’t hold a job for more than two weeks. He deals in drugs, mostly khat and marijuana. His violent nature greatly troubles Hawo. Two months earlier, he was accused of stealing from a drug store using a pistol.

Hawo goes through the same rituals every time she sees these grisly incidents on television. She conjures images of Aideed toting guns and shooting at people, or running away with stolen goods. And she runs to the site of the incident to see for herself. Whenever police come knocking on her door, she denies knowledge of Aideed’s wrongdoing, even when she knows. These conflicting situations, however, bother her to no end: she is powerless to stop him from doing the awful things he does, but her son is a thief who could kill. When the law sends him to jail, as it did so many times in the past, Hawo blames Aideed’s misfortune on the police or his friends.

Naima and Aideed’s father, Jamac, was killed shortly after the flare-up of civil war in Somalia by an opposing militia who figured that he belonged to a rival clan. When Hawo moved to Minnesota, she remarried, and her new husband, Hassan, attempted to rein in the wayward Aideed. Aideed, however, stood to him. He argued with Hassan endlessly, accusing him of stealing Hawo’s attention and manipulating her. One night, after their last confrontation, Hassan called Aideed a loser. Hawo heard it all. When she did not defend Aideed, he packed his bags and left.

Aideed comes home every now and then to demand money. Hawo does what every mother would do. She counsels him and reads Quran on him. When Hawo takes Naima and the twins to the mosque to learn the Quran and Arabic on the weekends, she donates money for a dua—a special prayer for her oldest son. Hawo’s efforts to reclaim her son, however, have run into a snag. Aideed has left to live on the streets and spends countless nights as a constant guest in the Minneapolis jails for suspicion of trafficking drugs and possessing illegal arms.

On their way to the shooting site, Hawo calls Aideed’s phone number over and over again. The call goes straight to voicemail. As the twins sit at the back of the car, now sad now playful, a powerful unnerving feeling takes over Hawo. Something inside her stirs her to expect dreadful things to happen. When they get to the site, the police chief and the mayor are finishing the interview, each one trying to appear as somber as he can. The vigil begins thinning as the cold bites.

“Stand on the corner,” Hawo instructs Naima and the heavily-clothed twins. Hawo doesn’t trust them in the car or in a parking lot. She melts into the crowd, listening in on the mourners and scouring for gossip about the killer’s identity. She feels sick to her stomach. People are weeping because of the senseless murders of the three men; men who fled the wars that have claimed Hawo’s own husband. Now they are gone while Hawo is concerned with something completely different. Is she not human?

Her solace always arrives by thinking of and referencing Somalia, where people step over corpses to get to the other side of the street, where murderers are heroes and roam freely. In a striking way she feels not so different from them. She wonders what has happened to their morality—to her morality. These thoughts imbue in her a strong sense of suspicion. She feels as though people are looking at her with suspicion. And with every glance, she grows overly self-conscious. She pulls her hijab forward, lowers her head and decides to return to her children. She hasn’t talked to anyone or gathered any information. By the time she is back with her children, she finds them sleepy, tired, and cold. Under her breath, she curses Aideed. Not her son, but the Butcher who made her flee Somalia.


That night Hawo never sleeps well. Her phone is constant feature in her hand, and whenever she dials Aideed’s number and it goes to voicemail, the blue light beams from its surface, reflecting on her face. Tonight, instead of Hawo, Naima puts the young ones to bed and retires to her room. Later Hassan hobbles into the apartment, tired from a long day of taxi driving.

“Why didn’t you come home immediately?” Hawo squeals, standing up. “I called you almost five hours ago.”

“Don’t lose sleep over Aideed,” Hassan says. He turns his back on her, a usual response to Hawo’s complaints, and walks into their bedroom. “He’s gone. Never coming back.”

Hassan is cruel and cold-hearted, though what he says about Aideed is true. Hawo follows her husband. She restlessly shuffles back and forth as Hassan slides into his sarong, jumps into bed and snores away peacefully.

The following morning Hawo sits on the couch when Naima comes in with her backpack on ready for school. Naima pauses at the door.

“Mother, are you alright?”

Hawo doesn’t want to tell her daughter how she hasn’t slept all night, waiting for Aideed to come home, but ends up only sitting in the dark thinking the worst.

“Yes,” I’m fine,” she says and rubs her eyes. “Now off you go.”


Three days have gone by and still no sign of Aideed. Hawo doesn’t eat much, sleeps less, and yells at her children. Occasionally, she hops into the car and prowls the streets, like the taxi-man that is her husband. She stops at the spots where Aideed and his friends used to hang out: outside the Somali Mall on 24th and Elliot, the gas station along Bloomington Avenue, or the myriad of tall apartment buildings where Somalis live. These places bring back images of her son. Not the present Aideed, but the innocent one with whom she ran endlessly in the deserts of Somalia. Not this one whose lifestyle she can no longer comprehend. The boys she finds in these places are all Somali and have a striking resemblance to her son: not really boys, but young men wearing oversized t-shirts, jeans that threaten to fall down, and hats that conceal their bony heads.

Hawo pulls the car over to the curb and unrolls the passenger side window. “Hey, you boys!” Hawo yells with authority. “You seen Aideed? You know where is he?”

“No,” one says.

“We haven’t seen him,” says another, and they turn away.

That’s how they are in all the spots she visits. Even if they know where he is, they won’t tell. Maybe they swore a secret oath not to tell on each other. Hawo tells herself things will be fine. And because of this she doesn’t call—or visit the Minneapolis jail. She denies the fear inside her that the inevitable is bound to happen. Sooner or later.


On the fourth day, the television, which is showing an old movie, turns red and the words Breaking News spread across it. The same woman who announced the shooting four nights earlier comes on. She looks melancholic, perhaps to match her physical features with the sorrow she is about to convey. She talks of a developing story in which an arrest has been made in connection with the murders. When Naima interprets for Hawo, tears well behind her eyes and come flowing down. Hawo’s heart beats so loudly that Naima can hear it, while the tumult in her head is almost palpable.

The inevitable happens: a snapshot of Aideed flashes across the television screen. Hawo’s premonitions are validated. She covers her ears with her hands and weeps uncontrollably.

Somalis in the Twin Cities see the photo of Aideed. The media displays it colorfully on television, and it shows up on countless Somali websites. Hawo confines herself in her apartment. A voluntary prisoner. The Somali cosmology steers by honor and community opinion. What others say about Hawo’s family, her son, bother her profoundly. People are naturally cruel. Not wanting to be seen as weak or grieving, Hawo enforces a new order of discipline on her children. She ensures they are clean: their skin sparkles and their hair shines. She urges them not to interact with others, not even at school. Children are the gateways through which gossip reaches into homes.

For Hawo, her only outlet is a quick peep through the window or staring at the ceiling as if the answers to her puzzle rest there. Though she immediately pushes the ideas out of her head, for a fleeting moment, she regrets what has brought her to America. She says it is better that she lived in the refugee camp. In the refugee camp, bullets fly freely, men rape women and kill without consequence. No sufficient food, clean water, or medicine. But death comes quickly and that’s far preferable to what she’s facing now. Her blood and bone will be her jail forever.

When she is done with her musings, when her eyes come down from the ceiling and drop on the carpet, when she picks up the cup on her feet and realizes its emptiness, she glances around her and sees her children. “Come here,” she says, signaling with her fingers and opening her arms widely. They squeeze themselves under her tight grip. They stay there till one of the twins complains of pain in the back. Hawo releases them, reluctantly.


Aideed is arraigned two days later. It is a Friday, a Muslim holiday. Too many spectators show up for the arraignment. That’s what Somalis do best. When someone gets sick, they crowd the clinics. When there is a graduation, the auditoriums fill. And weddings—people arrive in droves, uninvited. And they are too noisy. The courts know about these rowdiness. Two policemen are stationed on the courthouse’s door to maintain order.

In the eerie silence of the courtroom, two uniformed men usher Aideed from a side door. Though his face is haggard and his hair disheveled, he still walks with his familiar gait: limps on one foot and springs on the other. His confidence is also intact: he lashes out a sweeping glance around the audience and settles on his mother, nodding, sending his unusually long, black hair cascading back and forth.

The judge, a man older than Hawo, stares at Aideed with an expressionless face. The formalities begin and end: name, address, age. Most of these particulars are incorrect. Aideed doesn’t know when he was born. Neither does his mother. She can tell the season, but not day or month. A woman sits in the corner, frantically typing away and transforming the conversations into a public record. The judge then looks at the prosecutor, smiles and nods.

The prosecutor reads a long list of charges that include murder. The judge then asks Aideed, “How do you plead?” The defense attorney whispers something to Aideed. Aideed strokes his goatee and straightens it, undisturbed. He glances up and down at the prosecutor as if sizing him for a fight, his upper lip crooked.

The judge screams with impatience, “Are you or are you not guilty?”

“I am not,” Aideed says defiantly.

The two uniformed men shuffle Aideed out the way they brought him in.


The following night, Hassan stays home from work. Hawo knows he is sacrificing—that although he is hard on Aideed, he cares about her—because Saturday night is when business is briskest. She gets the twins ready for bed while Hassan sits on the long couch with his sarong wound around his waist, making phone calls. Shortly before lunch next day, Hassan goes out and returns with big trays of rice, chicken, goat meat, salad, bananas, and crates of water and soda. Naima doesn’t ask Hawo what the food is for. After prayers, middle-aged and old men, most clutching support sticks or rosaries, and all wielding cheap phones stream in and sit. Laughter spills from the living room into the bedroom where Hawo stays out of sight with Naima. Hassan serves the men the food. The noises die down, replaced by muted whispers. Names trickle through the small hallway and enter the bedroom in which Hawo and Naima sit listening. Hawo can picture Hassan, as he writes down the names of all their clansmen and against each one, two hundred dollars for Aideed’s lawyer.

“That is the benefit of being born into a long branch,” Hawo tells Naima. “Large clans, like ours, is one’s security, one’s insurance.”

The following few days, money starts flowing in. Old men who don’t work and receive Social Security benefits bring their two hundred dollars to Hawo’s door. It’s everyone’s responsibility to chip in. Who knows what tomorrow holds? People also write letters on Aideed’s behalf, handwritten letters. Hawo imagines how many are filled with English misspellings, but hopes they are legible. She is confident, however, that the letters convey her belief that her son is an exemplary citizen who couldn’t do the heinous crimes he is being accused of. Hassan and two other representatives from their clan hand over half the money to Aideed’s lawyer.


Aideed is again led in through the rear door in orange suit and shackled legs. Many months have passed since Hawo saw him in this courtroom for his initial hearing. His skin has turned slightly darker and his hair is longer. However, his walk and wild eyes haven’t changed. The proceedings start. The purpose of today’s hearing is to request Aideed’s bail. When Aideed’s lawyer argues that the judge allow Aideed to stay out on bail, that his had family is here, his mother, brothers and sisters, and that he has grown up here and knows nowhere else, the prosecutor rises in objection. With the stealth and self-assurance of a man who has fought many battles, and won most of them, he produces photos of Somalis who he claims had committed crimes and were granted bail only to skip town.

Gazing up through the large frames that dangle on his pointed nose, the judge nods. “This is true,” says the judge. “Some of those accused have fled, but were captured and have come before this court. “No bail,” declares the judge.

A collective gasp rises from the courtroom. However, most of the audience doesn’t understand what the judge is saying. On Hawo’s side of the courtroom, questioning, bewildered, faces plead for an interpretation. To Hawo’s dismay, the court hasn’t brought an interpreter. Outside the courtroom, Hawo and her clansmen will share the bits and pieces of information that each one has collected and make their narrative from it.


That evening Hassan, Hawo, and Naima visit Aideed. Hawo left the twins with her cousin. Hassan drives them in his taxi. He shuts off the radio that usually crackles about customers who want to be taken to happy hour in downtown Minneapolis. They arrive at the county jail house and stop at the gate. Hassan gives their names to a guard who tells them to park in the rear. They pile into a small office where another guard hands them visitor passes, leads them through a long hallway with a gray carpet. The guard ushers them in a small cubicle and tells them to wait. The cubicle has one door and a large, glass window.

Aideed appears on the other side of the glass screen. His body is pallid, his face gaunt, and his long bony hands wobble on his sides. His glittering dark skin has given way to ashen gray like someone who has slept in a heap of dust. The prison warden walks around and says they can talk to Aideed using the red phone. Hawo begins to weep again. Hassan picks up the phone and puts it in Hawo’s right hand. Aideed speaks to Hawo in a smattering of English and Somali.

“This place sucks,” says Aideed.

“What is the problem?” Hawo asks him.

“The food is terrible, it’s boring, and I feel lonely,” he answers.

“Anyone has harmed you?” she asks.

Aideed frowns and answers, “No.”

Hawo has heard stories from other women that inmates are forced to befriend other men, even forced to marry stronger ones. Whenever she asks Hassan to verify this claim, he dismisses it as women talk.

Hassan steps forward and grabs the phone from Hawo and asks Aideed, “Did you kill those three men?” That is his only concern, his small way of enforcing justice.

Aideed gazes down. “No.”

Hassan lays down the ultimate line which no Muslim crosses. “Do you swear that you didn’t kill those three men?”

“I don’t have to take this,” says Aideed. He pushes his chair back, as if to leave and instead, he and Hassan argue about the three dead men.

Hawo stares helplessly at her son as she did the ceiling of her apartment. He is so near, yet so far.

Hassan drops the phone on Hawo’s hand and steps back. She sees satisfaction in his face, a battle won. He sighs so deeply his chest rises and stops as if stuck to his spine before he exhales again.


On the subsequent hearing, Hawo and Hassan hire an additional lawyer for Aideed, a good one that has defended a man who strangled his estranged wife. Regardless, the hearing is ruthless.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this man is a killer,” the prosecutor says and wags his index finger at Aideed. “A cold-blooded, and unrepentant killer.”

The jury closely follows the proceedings. Some are taking notes, while most nod in agreement with either the lawyer or the prosecutor. Though a woman juror cries when the prosecutor shows pictures of the dead men, it is still not easy for Hawo to gauge which way they will vote.

The day of the verdict, colorful hijabs and hennaed beards animate the expanse between the Minneapolis courthouse and the downtown train station. It’s as if the crowd is going to a wedding. Aideed’s lawyer has insisted that as many people as possible attend the hearings since it is likely to tilt the judge’s decision favorably.  The dead men’s families also come in droves. They wave placards Hassan interprets for Hawo that read: Kill the Killer, Jail Him for Life, Aideed Is a Terrorist. The older men from Hawo’s clan try to make peace, but the dead men’s families are adamant. A confrontation breaks out. The police break it up and disperse them.

Moments later, the two sides file into the court without talking to each other. The rage electrifies the air. The judge instructs the jury to read its verdict. The shorter woman who has cried when she saw the dead men’s pictures rises and marches to the dock. She struggles to fit her large glasses onto her small face. Her silky red dress flutters from the air blowing from the ventilator above her. Stepping up, she places a white piece of paper in front of her.

“We the jury find Aideed Jamac guilty on five counts,” she reads in a steely voice that cuts through the room. “First degree murder…” She continues reading before she sits back down.

The judge takes over. “I sentence Aideed Jamac to life in prison,” he says. Hawo knows this is bad news by the silence of the courtroom and the look of satisfaction on the faces of the people in the other clan. She cannot feel her finger tips, her face is numb from fear. The judge continues slowly with hesitation, and adds, “With no possibility of parole.”

Today, a Somali man in a business suit translates from the side of the judge’s bench. When he renders the ruling in Somali, gasps of shock surround Hawo, while muted jubilation erupts on the other side. Hawo collapses on her daughter’s lap, writhing in pain, and watches her son sitting unmoved, unshaken. He stares ahead with the glassy eyes of a dead man.


Within a week, Hawo feels better and asks Naima to call the jail and inquire when she could visit Aideed. Her eyes are still red and swollen, but she is calm, like someone who can’t get what she wants, but has settled for what she got. Naima puts the phone on speaker. It rings three times and a man with a deep voice answers it.

“Yes?” he booms.

“My mother wants to visit my brother,” Naima says curtly.

“What is his name?” the man asks.

“Aideed Jamac,” she says, and spells it for him.

The keyboard cracks under the man’s fingers. “Aideed was transferred to a penitentiary in Oklahoma two days ago.”

When she relays the message to her mother, Hawo asks, “What is Oklahoma?”

“A state far from Minnesota,” Naima points up at the map on the wall and crooks her finger to the South.

Hawo’s eyes moisten and she wraps her garbasar-sari around her shoulders. Sorrow is her constant company. In a low whisper, she says, “They have taken him away to kill him.”


Life adjusts itself to its old rhythms. Hawo relaxes a little, though she clings to Naima and the twins as if someone is constantly wrenching them from her grip. She watches all their movements, where they go, and what they do. She plans to visit Aideed in March when she has enough money from her tax return. However, two months after Aideed was taken away, the telephone rings one early morning. Hawo grabs it and puts it to her ear. When she can’t make out what the caller is saying, she rushes to Naima’s room and thrusts the phone to her. Five seconds pass. Naima’s face turns flat and ashen. A loud peel erupts from her lungs and fills the apartment with pain.

“What, what?” Hawo shakes Naima’s shoulders.

“Aideed,” Naima says between sobs, “The man said Aideed wound his bed sheet around his neck and—”

Hawo continues to sit still, not crying like her daughter. The twins race into the room. The frightened children circle their mother, absorbing the intensity of the tragedy around one another’s warmth. Hawo’s wails turn inside, her chest heaves with subdued cries.

With her index finger on her cheek, mourning, visions of the times she has had with her son fill her mind. The visions fade as quickly as they come. Hawo knows: Aideed had been dying for a long time, ever since they left Somalia. Quietly, she pulls the twins and Naima closer, holding them, forming a small ring. Hawo straightens her back. Under her breath, she promises herself, “I will do better.” She wipes her tears. As if seeking an endorsement from them, she says, “You will be good boys, won’t you?”

The boys don’t speak, but nod their heads.



About the Author:

Portrait - ShafatAbdifatah Shafat is a short story writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He has previously been in African Writing Online, Mizna, and Munyori Literary Journal. His short stories revolve around the issue of immigrant experiences.

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I'm finishing up a phd at Duke University where I study African novels, which I believe are some of the loveliest things ever written. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

3 Responses to “Not Guilty | by Abdifatah Shafat | An African Story” Subscribe

  1. Felicia Reevers 2016/08/03 at 6:49 am #

    Excellent portrait of a mother’s love, self-doubt…and guilt. Hawo never could fully bring herself to hold Aideed accountable…for anything. Instead, she found fault in her choices/decisions, and in herself. Great piece!

  2. Swoosh 2016/08/04 at 4:14 pm #

    Loved this.

  3. Abdifatah 2016/08/04 at 11:13 pm #

    Thanks all for the kind words!

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

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