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Nuruddin Farah: Sweet and Sour Milk

Soyaan is ill. He has been ill for a while but now has come early feeling much worse. He declines his mother’s treatment – yoghourt and traditional medicine – but does not have the strength to take any of his Western medicaments. Soyaan has a twin brother, Loyaan, a dentist, and a younger sister, Ladan, who adores her older brother. His father, Keynaan, has remarried and his new wife, Beydan, is nine months pregnant. Soyaan who works in the government, had been giving money to his father, as his father had lost his job in the security services for unspecified misdemeanours. However, he has now stopped giving him any money, having found out that Keynaan is spending his money on his new girlfriend, who is younger than Ladan. Soyaan also has a girlfriend but one that his mother, Qumman, does not approve of, not least because she is not a traditional Somali woman. (We know, though Qumman does not, that the couple are having sex.) During the course of the day, Soyaan gets worse and, by the end of the first chapter, is dead.

The family, who want to avoid trouble and also because Muslims bury their dead within twenty-four hours of death, refuse to have an autopsy. Qumman is sure that Soyaan’s girlfriend has poisoned him. However, we soon learn that Soyaan has been involved in opposition politics (opposition to a man described only as the President, though presumably Major General Mohamed Siad Barre). Loyaan realises that he knows very little of his brother’s life. Qumman finds an article in Soyaan’s pillowcase. Fortunately, she cannot read, but Ladan realises what it is – an article critical of the regime. When a government minister turns up at the funeral and starts asking questions, Loyaan wonders what his brother was up to.

As the book develops, there are more questions thrown up than answered about Soyaan’s life and his involvement with both the regime and the opposition. The regime extols him, even naming a street after him and writing a paean to him in the newspapers, claiming that his last words were Labour is Honour (his last words were actually his brother’s name, repeated three times). Loyaan eventually finds out that Soyaan has even become state property, meaning that his body and files are owned by the state and not by the family, as is normally the case. However, in the first newspaper article, they inadvertently put Loyaan’s name and photo. Keynaan seems to have some role in this, using it as a way of getting his job back, as we learn why he lost it in the first place. Other mysteries ensue. They get a visit from Margaritta, whom we have already met but they have not, who was Soyaan’s girlfriend. She has a young son, Marco, by Soyaan. She is half Italian, half Somali and had apparently met Loyaan many years ago in Italy but he has no recollection of it. She is not, contrary to what Qumman thinks, after money but just thought that they ought to know about Marco. But we also learn about Soyaan’s opposition – articles he has written, for example, including one which his secretary typed out and for which she has now been arrested and apparently tortured to reveal its contents.

All of this takes place against the background of the political situation in Somalia, ruled by a tyrannical general. We learn that the general is concerned about tribal politics. Indeed, he fears the old men of the different tribes much more than the student opposition, like that of Soyaan and his friends. We also learn that Soyaan had almost been arrested before but, according to Keynaan, Keynaan had appealed to the general to stop it. We also learn about how the government spies on the population, how people are arrested, without any documentation about their arrest, so that they essentially disappear and, inevitably, about torture. Indeed, Dr. Ahmad-Wellie, one of Soyaan’s friends has been called in by the security forces to examine prisoners who have clearly been tortured.

Loyaan, who knew little of this world, gradually becomes involved in it and learns much about his brother and his brother’s friends that he did not know. He also learns much about what is happening in Somalia of which he was ignorant, all of it distinctly unpleasant. Farah’s aim is clearly to show the horrors of Somalia under Major General Mohamed Siad Barre but also to show that there is opposition to him. This opposition is brave but at considerable risk, as Loyaan will find out, as he learns about his brother’s fate but also about his own.

Publishing history

First published 1979 by Allison & Busby