I met her at the Mall of America in Minneapolis, two and a half hours from my home in rural Rusk County, Minn. She was tall and dark and beautiful. She wore a bandana that covered her hair completely and gave her a bit of an exotic look, as though she had originated in a country not America. Her tongue, when she spoke, gathered up her syllables, rolling over her r’s in an unfamiliar way.
“Are you Muslim?” she asked. I realized that she had never met a conservative Mennonite before and did not know what to make of my dress and white mesh head covering.
“No,” I said. “I’m a Christian.”
She smiled, and her eyes glowed. “I’m a Christian, too.”
She was from Somalia, I learned. We exchanged phone numbers and then visits and then friendship. She told me a small part of her story. “The war started in 1991,” she said, “and that’s when we went to the refugee camp.”
Five hundred thousand people under miles and miles of blue tarp. A three-mile walk to the closest bathroom. Water so nasty you had to boil it. Food — what food there was — cooked over fires. Meat cut with a knife held upright between your toes — your two hands pushing the meat against the blade — because there was no table to lay it on.
After five years of the refugee camp, her family moved to Nairobi — the bad part of Nairobi, where sewage ran through the yards. And she told me how she, a girl born in a Muslim family, became a Christian.
“There was a single mom, a Kenyan, who needed a babysitter, and I told her, ‘I will trade a babysitter to learn the Bible.’
“She asked, ‘Why do you feel so empty that you have to learn Christ?’
“And I said, ‘I feel like the teaching is so wrong. Nothing that I’ve prayed for really happened. I feel like I’m praying to the wrong God.’ ”
And so the Kenyan woman read her the Bible in exchange for her help.
“You know if your family finds out, you’ll be killed,” the woman warned her.
“We’ll worry about that when it happens,” she said.
She refused to learn the Quran. She refused to marry any Somali Muslim suitor. She prayed every day to come to America.
When she was 21, her family boarded a plane in Nairobi and disembarked in Minneapolis. There were drinks everywhere, she remembers, and clean, cold water.
As happy as she was to be in America, telling her family she was a Christian was more difficult than anything she had ever done.
She is estranged from them now because of it.
She is married to an American, a kind man with a pale face. One day I visit her in her rural Wisconsin town, and we go out to the garage and sit in the cool dim of it and talk — just she and I, where no one can hear us.
She pulls out her smartphone and finds music and teaches me Somalian dance moves. Her body is lithe and graceful. Mine, when I try to follow her, is stiff, jerky, awkward. I am too self-conscious. I have sat straight-faced on wooden benches for too long, listening to preachers, hugged my arms to my chest when crying too many times, ducked my head far too often when meeting strangers. Maybe I never could gyrate my body, swing my hips, even alone with the closest of friends in a garage.
I watch her, admiring, as she moves. I watch all the riches of Africa — the color, the cumin and curry, the laughter and low, expressive words — come alive in her face. And I realize that, in a large sense, she is alone, marooned from her culture, exiled with a white husband in a white town in snow-covered Wisconsin.
I think she may be the most courageous woman I have ever known.
Lucinda J. Miller lives with her thoroughly Mennonite family in Rusk County, Wis. She is the author of a memoir, Anything But Simple: My Life as a Mennonite, and blogs at lucindajmiller.com.