Sunday, December 19, 2004

Professor Togane: A Somali Christian Hero

Prof Mohamud Siad Togane

By Robert Rhodes
Mennonite Weekly Review

HARRISONBURG, Va. - Mohamud Siad Togane might have stepped right out of the Walt Whitman poem he quotes with such cheerful facility.

With his colorful scarf, skull-hugging kufi cap and tasbih, or Muslim prayer beads, Togane seems to embody the mystical form of Islam that he - and his ubiquitous alter-ego, Charlie Stoltzfus - has long cherished.

"For his o'erarching and last lesson the greybeard Sufi / in the fresh scent of the morning in the open air . . . / spoke to the young priests and students," Whitman wrote in A Persian Lesson.

"A Sufi poem by an American!" the snowy-bearded Togane exclaimed on the hill in front of Eastern Mennonite Seminary.

A native of Somalia and a 1969 graduate of Eastern Mennonite College, Togane is a rare breed of believer, an amalgam of many roots and influences.

Calling himself a Mennonite Muslim - or, more broadly, a Somali Muslim Mennonite Sufi - Togane fords the social and spiritual gaps between the West and his fellow Somali immigrants, many of them refugees from war and oppression.

Now a resident of Montreal, where he teaches and composes poetry, Togane writes for a Web site frequented by the Somali Diaspora.

His urgent and sometimes profane essays - many of them cast as long polemical poems - address political and social issues that remain volatile for Somalis and other Africans.

Clannism, political corruption and religion are frequent topics when Togane addresses his countrymen.

"I write what Somalis don't want to hear," he shouted.

As a young man befriended by Mennonite mission workers in Somalia, Togane attended Eastern Mennonite College, where he studied literature and was among the first Muslims to enroll.

His Mennonized moniker, by which many of his classmates still know him, came about when he was asked to speak at a church.

Because his Arabic Moslem name was hard for some to pronounce, Togane jokingly said he was called "Charlie Stoltzfus," and the name stuck.

After a rather rocky period teaching in Philadelphia in the early 1970s, Togane moved to Montreal in 1973, where he is a member of Montreal Mennonite Fellowship.

But because he still identifies deeply with his Islamic background - especially as expressed by the tolerant, peace-centered Sufi tradition - Togane also can be found at a Montreal mosque, attending Friday prayers.

And though he remains in many ways a Muslim at heart, he embraces the teachings of salvation and freedom from legalism that Christ personified.

In his poetry - which owes as much to Whitman as to Sufi poets such as Rumi, Attar and Hafiz - Togane frequently has explored his links with Christianity, and with the Mennonite church.

His poem, The Gullet, appeared in the recent book, Fifty Years, Fifty Stories: The Mennonite Mission in Somalia, 1953-2003, by Omar Eby (DreamSeeker Books, 2003).
In it, Togane memorializes Mennonite missionary Merlin Grove - anointed in another poem by Togane as a fellow Sufi - who was murdered by a fundamentalist mullah on July 16, 1962.

Right now,in my mind's eye,
in the village of Mahaddei Uen
I can see Merlin
I can even hear Merlinsingingas it was his wont
the best definition of Islam thereis:
Perfect submission, perfectdelight.

In another poem, What Sa-eed Samatar Said to Me, Togane writes of missionaries Carl and Leota Wesselhoeft.

The Wesselhoefts fed you
the choicestthe juiciestroasted goat meat
from Burane restaurant
until you became healthy
until you became wealthy
until you became . . .the second finest fellow
the second fattest fellow
in scrawny scroungy mean

Because of diabetes, Togane has not kept the Ramadan fast for several years, but now that his diabetes is under control, he intends to fast during Ramadan---- a spiritual gesture that also keeps him in touch with his fellow Moslems and Somalis.

The 30-day Ramadan observance began last year on Oct. 26, the same day a Mennonite consultation on Islam closed at Eastern Mennonite Seminary.

Source: Mennonite Weekly Review, Dec. 17, 2004
Photo credit: Hiiraan Online

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"....Instead he went on and on, praying for somebody named Charlie Stoltzfus. ‘Dear Lord,’ he shouted, ‘You know Charles Stoltzfus. He lives in that silver trailer down the road about a mile. You know the trailer, Lord, just down the road on the right-hand side.’ I felt like saying, ‘Knock it off, fella, what do you think God’s doing? Saying, ‘What’s the address again?’

Anyway, he went on and on and on: ‘Lord, Charlie told me this morning that he’s decided to leave his wife and three kids. He told me that he was walking out on his family. Lord, step in, do something, bring the people in that family back together again!’

All the while, I’m kneeling there with eight guys leaning on my head and I’m asking myself, ‘When’s this guy going to knock it off so I can get these Pentecostal preachers off my head?’ But, he kept going on and on about Charlie Stoltzfus’s leaving his wife and kids, giving God constant reminders that he lived in a silver trailer a mile down the road on the right-hand side.

Finally, the prayers were over and I went into the pulpit and preached. After I was finished, I got in my car, drove to the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and headed for home.

As I drove onto the turnpike, I noticed a hitchhiker. Now, I know you’re not supposed to pick them up, but I’m a preacher and whenever I can get anybody locked in as a captive audience, I do it. So I stopped and picked him up. We drove a few minutes and I said, ‘Hi, my name is Tony Campolo. What’s your name?’ He said, ‘My name is Charlie Stoltzfus.’ I couldn’t believe it!

I got off the turnpike at the next exit and headed back. He got a bit uneasy with that and after a few minutes he said, ‘Hey mister, where are you taking me?’ I said, ‘I’m taking you home.’ He narrowed his eyes and asked, ‘Why?’

I said, ‘Because you just left your wife and three children, right?’ That blew him away. ‘Yeah! Yeah, that’s right.’ With shock written all over his face, he plastered himself against the car door and never took his eyes off me.

I drove off the turnpike at the next exit. Then I really did him in as I drove right to his silver trailer. When I pulled up, his eyes seemed to bulge as he asked, ‘How did you know that I lived here?’ I said, ‘God told me.’ (I believe God did tell me.)

We got out of the car and I ordered him to get in that trailer. Half shaking he answered, ‘Right, mister, sure! Sure! I’m going.”

When he opened the trailer door his wife exclaimed, ‘You’re back! You’re back!’ He whispered in her ear and the more he talked, the bigger her eyes got.

Then I said with real authority, ‘The two of you sit down. I’m going to talk and you two are going to listen!’ Man! Did they listen!

That afternoon I led those two young people to Jesus Christ. And today, that guy is a preacher of the gospel out in California.”