A lion's share
There is always
something new out of Africa.
- Pliny the Elder
The intelligent man who
is proud of his intelligence is like the condemned man who is proud of
his cell. - Simone
Two British Tommies in
short pants, with machine pistols on slings over their shoulders,
escorted us off the airplane from Mogadishu, Somalia, at the airport
in Aden in what is now Yemen in South Arabia. Aden was becoming part
of the People's Republic of Yemen in south Arabia. It was 1967, the
year of independence from British rule.
Aden: an old Roman trading
post, and the chief link between the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf for
Arab traders in their dhows, who with lateen sails and all deliberate
speed trade with India and Africa. Until its demise it was part of the
Raj, the British rule of the Indian subcontinent, even though Aden is
in south Arabia. It was a coaling station on the long run from
We were on our way to
Hargeisa in Somaliland in an ancient DC-3, a workhorse of an airplane
that had been flying since 1935, which shuddered and creaked over the
Somali coastal mountains and the port of Berbera on its way across the
gulf to Aden, from which we were to return to Hargeisa, the northern
capital of Somaliland, which was later to be devastated and mostly
abandoned in the civil wars of the 1980s.
We were two pilots and a
purser, and six passengers -a Lebanese businessman, a couple of
couriers from the Trucial States, Father Fabian, Willy Willis, and I.
Fabian was a sort of monk,
a friar, a member of the Irish Order of Friars Minor, a mendicant
Franciscan monk remarkable for the full beard and white cassock he
wore, who took care of the ritual needs of the few English Roman
Catholics in Mogadishu, Hargeisa, and Aden. It was his gray beard that
made Fabian stand out, his dress hardly different from that of an Arab.
And also his girth. Most people in the desert are skinny, a
consequence of the original low-carbohydrate diet.
Unusual for a Franciscan,
Fabian had been to university, to Dublin to earn two degrees, and he
had made his commitment to the mission of the church in Africa as a
middle-aged man. My colleagues Willy Willis and Veronica Brattle and I
had sung carols at Midnight Mass on Christmas 1966 at Fabian's request.
Veronica, the secretary to our chief of party, was a Negro American
whose car was frequently stoned by Somalis when they saw her in it
because she was a Negro, and "Negroes are a bad tribe," they
For ourselves and for the
12 worshippers who were there to hear the English Mass, we played our
guitars and sang "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," with "tidings
of comfort and joy" ending on an uplifting Picardy third. And
then Fabian preached a short sermon about the tired and bedraggled
passengers one dreary afternoon on a Dublin bus who looked up to see a
young mother boarding the bus carrying her newborn child, and about
how their frowns turned magically into beatific smiles at the sight of
hope and love.
Upon a time when I was ill,
down with pneumonia, Fabian paid a call at our villa to comfort and
encourage me. Feverish, I padded downstairs to greet him, barefoot and
dressed in a comfortable Somali wrap-around skirt, a ma-awis,
to the airy salon with louvered windows and drapes against the sun,
with lizards and geckos and chameleons that ate mosquitoes on the
walls and drapes.
"Will you have a
drink, Father?" I asked.
"Surely, and God
bless, I will." We State Department people had commissary
privileges, unlike mendicant friars.
I poured a water glass
two-thirds full of Jameson Irish Whisky and handed it to him. He
looked at the glass of whisky in amazement, hesitating while he
admonished himself silently.
"Oh, lad, you've a
gen'rous hand!" he said.
My paternal grandmother,
Delta Heacox, would have disapproved, had she been there, not
especially of the whisky, but of my having to do with a Catholic. She
was a second rank dragon in the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana in the 1920s,
and she taught her children to hate and fear out of a strong moral
sense of self-preservation. She had never shared mortal danger with
anyone as strange as Fabian; consequently, she never learned to love
except selfishly. When I left for the assignment in Africa, she said
to me "Oh, Honey, don't go across the Pond!" She did not
know that living in danger with others is how we become fully human.
In today's world all young Western persons need to be put in
situations that shock them out of the ignorance of their ethnic
complacency, like the military, the Peace Corps, or missionary and
relief work with the miserable. They can then learn to see beyond the
ends of their noses
Send the child to work as
an orderly or practical nurse or teacher in a country where no one
speaks his language, and he will become human, as in humanism.
Willis, my colleague at the teachers' college, was an assistant
professor of education at Eastern Michigan University on contract with
the US Agency for International Development to try to make the Somalis
admire us more than they admired the Soviets, that is, the Russians
who were supplying and training the Somali Army. In turn we Americans
were training and supplying the Somali State Police.
Willy was a junior high
school teacher in Detroit, a slight, compliant, and fecklessly nice
person, avidly curious about sociological matters. Sociology is the
study of people not as if they are humans, but as if they are wild
animals, not as individuals, but in groups. It is the ethology of
people, a branch of primate studies in zoology.
Willy played the piano for
his wife Anna, a large, commanding soprano who pushed Willy around
like a dust mop. Her accompanist in every sense, he anticipated her
every trill. In exchange she allowed him to relieve himself in her
every Saturday as her mother had taught her.
As the only practicing
soprano in Somalia, she and her piano player were invited to perform
where the pianos were located, at the homes of ambassadors and consuls,
and especially at the International School, an American enterprise
where the Europeans whose kids were not away at school sent them to
I was asked to perform a
wedding ceremony, that is, to read a Quaker service for the daughter
of the West German consul Reinhold Schwab, by Frau Dagmar Schwab.
Their daughter Heidi was marrying an American Peace Corps Volunteer,
Ernest "Tug" Wilson, who was a Quaker. The Schwabs were
nominally Lutheran and I was vaguely Christian and could read aloud.
Dagmar was a chunky blond
lady with bracelets and a voice as loud as Anna's. Before the brief
ceremony in which Reinhold gave Heidi to Tug, Anna sang and Willy
played on the old out-of-tune upright. Clutching a hanky, she sang
"I Love You Truly," and "Thine Is My Heart Alone,"
to polite applause. Then she sang "Can't Help Lovin' That
Man" from Porgy and Bess, to loud applause.
Delighted, Dagmar turned
to me and said "She sinks yoost like a Nigger Mommy!"
Willie was completing a
master's degree in Social Studies when he was back in the world. He
had taken a sociology course in Juvenile Delinquency, and had
consequently prepared a set of teaching materials, that is, what
outsiders call notes, for passing along his understanding of
delinquency to juveniles.
We boarded the decrepit
DC-3 airplane in Mogadishu with trepidation and resignation. Our
flight to Aden in the Yemen and then back to Hargeisa would follow the
Shebelle River up to the edge of the Ogadén Desert in Ethiopia,
across it and the coastal mountains of the Horn of Africa before
gliding down and running up to Aden at the tip of Arabia. The only
other Somali Air flight outside Somalia was to Mombasa on the Kenya
coast south of Mog.
The smoky old motors fired
up, banging and whistling, and we flew low over the few cultivated
fields of sugar cane, bananas, and palms, climbing high so that if we
had to ditch the airplane we might land near one the few wells at the
oasis of Werder in Ethiopia halfway between Belet Uen and Hargeisa,
300 miles away.
Ahmed the purser served
lunch, cans of San Pellegrino aranciata, biscuits and bananas.
Then he brewed espresso coffee on a hot plate, and served it, pouring
the thick, black brew into delicate white cups on matching saucers,
and then on request adding raw, unrefined sugar. Fabian and I were
sitting in the front seats on either side the narrow aisle. Smiling,
we toasted each other.
"Chin, chin," I
said, holding the cup with my pinkie finger extended.
Fabian said, leaning back, tipping his bearded head to sip the pungent
His seat, a contraption of
aluminum tubes and canvas straps like all the others, collapsed. He
fell back with his head in Willy's lap, the coffee spilled all down
the front of his white cassock.
Fabian shouted. That was one happy monk. He lay laughing while we
mopped up the mess.
We landed in Aden under
the mountain ridge next to the port where terrorists were to attack
the American destroyer USS Cole in the year 2000, killing 17 sailors.
Two people drove a raft loaded with explosives into the side of the
ship, tearing a hole so large the entire huge ship had to be
transported back to the United States for drydock repair.
Our Somali Air plane
taxied to the terminal, a ticket office, an old Quonset hut. Two
soldiers wearing Bermuda shorts, knee socks, and pith helmets opened
the door of the DC-3 and herded us into the building. There were walls
made of sandbags all around it.
"There's been an
alert," one of the Tommies shouted. "We're under attack!"
Elated, I shouted "That's
damned exciting, ain't it, Willy?"
Willy cringed against
Fabian's coffee-stained paunch as they pushed us farther into the
building. I walked up to the window in front to see what was happening.
An officer shouted for me to get down and back just as someone threw a
satchel charge of explosives into the side door of a cargo plane
parked on the tarmac in front. The building shook as the blast tore
the large airplane in two and shattered the window. Within seconds the
fuel tanks exploded in a fireball. Fire trucks converged to extinguish
the blaze when the shots died down, and then an ambulance went by, and
a pickup truck with bloody bodies piled in its bed. We waited in a
feeling of relief with the help of a dram of Scotch provided by our
hosts, everyone talking and nobody listening.
In half an hour the all
clear sounded. We said farewell to Father Fabian, and with the pilots
and Ahmed, Willy and I flew south over the Gulf of Aden to Hargeisa,
the capital of the former colony called Somaliland.
In those days the Russians
controlled Somaliland by virtue of the military help they were giving
the ambitious Somali government. Then as now, the Somalis wanted the
land in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti where their own people live.
They are the only ethnic group in Africa so dispersed across borders
in neighboring countries. And they love to go to war. The Soviets were
supplying and training the Somali Army at the base in Hargeisa,
provisioned by sea from the port of Berbera on the north coast 135
kilometers away near Djibouti.
Poor landlocked Russia had
to send their ships with difficulty from ports such as Murmansk in the
arctic, Vladivostok in the Far East, or St. Petersburg (then
Leningrad), or through the Dardanelles, winter cursed or sailing in
enemy waters only to find in Somalia that they had to transport their
cargo from Berbera by way of dirt roads one hundred miles over
Djibouti, not far from
Berbera, today has seen a new purpose in the American base established
there in 2003. A telecommunications center, formerly aboard the USS Mt
Whitney, was established at the former French military base La Meunière,
with 800 Marines on stand-by to counter terrorism in Somalia, Eritrea,
Ethiopia, and Yemen. At long last, Djibouti has a source of income. As
a French colonial counterpart to Aden just across the straits of
Bab-el-Mandeb, where the Red Sea meets the Indian Ocean, Djibouti
served as a coaling station. Today it is a republic, unique in having
the highest temperatures, driest climate, and the lowest spot in
Africa, Lake Assal, 155 meters below sea level. For a while it was a
port for landlocked Ethiopia. The people are the formerly Christian
Afars and the Muslim Issas, ethnic Somalis. They produce nothing
exportable, except salt.
In 1967 we were all
engaged in the "Cold War," an ongoing confrontation among
the Warsaw Pact, the Chinese, and the Western Allies, the capitalists
with their NATO Alliance. They all threatened each other, and tried to
"win the hearts and minds" of their clients around the world.
In some places the Cold War grew hot, as in Korea, Vietnam, and
Angola, wherever the superpowers chose to fight, but in relative terms
the war was colder than another kind we know little about.
So we were there in East
Africa trying to make the Somalis become fond of us, imitate us, and
work for us. It was that simple. And there might be oil there that we
could exploit. It was a standoff between us and the Russians, but no
one really wanted to win and thereby become responsible for the
modernization of Somalia. The Yanks, the Brits, and the remaining
Fascisti were in competition with the Soviets and the Maoists for the
Somalis' favors. It was a simple case of disinterested beneficence
versus actual self interest.
The Chinese were paving
streets and roads, and erecting the National Theatre Building in
Mogadishu in order to demonstrate their amicable intentions. We were
told never to speak to the "Chinks," who always were seen in
groups, never alone, dressed in their grey uniforms with Mao collars.
But we always waved to them, and at least one would always furtively
The Somalis did not truly
want any outsiders to be in the country, their pastoral, nomadic life
suiting most of them perfectly, but many had seen Paree and Roma and a
different way of living. So the government of Somalia was a cargo cult,
with no one in a position of authority having any idea of how the
outside world worked. All of the foreigners were confined to the towns,
to civilization. The Negroes, the Bantu Somalis, a slave caste, were
welcome only on the dirt farms along the two rivers, the Juba and the
Shebelle, which come down from the mountains in Ethiopia. The Arabs
and other foreigners left their offspring in the few towns. They were
unwelcome anywhere else.
Staunch Shiite Muslims,
the Somali have no use for missionaries who proselytize. Only the
Seventh-Day Adventists, who keep their mouths shut, were welcome to
run schools for Somali children in Beled Uen, a city on the Shebelle
at the edge of the Ogadén Desert of Ethiopia, which is inhabited
mostly by Somali. The Somali are akin to the Amhars, the people of the
Coptic Christian Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, the Lion of Judah,
Ras Tafari Makonnen (his name before he became Emperor), the Cushitic,
not Semitic, god of the Rastafarians, the Jamaican religious cult that
venerates him, promising redemption through the eventual return of
blacks to Africa, forbidding the cutting of hair, and known for the
ritual use of marijuana, and for reggae music and dreadlocks.
The Somali have no need of
the outside world. Strangers seem always threatening to them. They
fight. They do not flee. Fighting is in their blood, they think. It is
not only stubbornness. They are fierce warriors secure in Islam,
people who prove that violence is necessary in the ongoing
construction of their collective identity, just as do the Israelis,
the Turks, and the Bosnian Serbs, who kill those they have been taught
to hate by a nice process called "ethnic cleansing," a fine
* * * *
In regard to such
barbarity, understanding the killing of people because they are
different requires a realization that people live in their own
separate worlds. Worldview, the way of valuing the quality of things,
is a reality not shared with most others. There are many realities.
What is important to you may not be of any consequence to others.
We know and believe only
what we have learned, nothing else. Hand a Somali a crucifix, and
he'll hold it like a knife, with the cross bar as a pommel or knuckle
guard. Our houseboy spent a morning scouring clean down to the metal a
new Teflon-coated frying pan. When an Arab was killed trying to shoot
a visiting Saudi in Mogadishu, the police at once buried him where he
fell, in a flower bed dividing a main street. Once I gave a bottle of
soda to a Somali hunter, Nimrod, in the bush who did not know how to
drink from the bottle. A houseboy asked to shoot my pistol. I set up a
tin can as a target. He took the pistol in his right hand, and then he
cocked his right arm as if to throw the bullet toward the target, with
the pistol pointing up. Who knows? He might have developed a new
technique of shooting.
The problem is greater
than just the arbitrariness of convention. There is something that it
is like to be a Somali that is unlike everything else. It is the
meaning of quality. Call it qualia, the
consciousness that all the frames of reference enclose. We see the
world as on a screen in a frame, with expectations, disappointments,
and satisfactions. The show is more or less different for each of us.
The negotiation of
intersubjective reality is necessary for understanding. What I think
it is has to be what you think it is. We have to get to common ground,
so that what we think is what the others think, and what they think is
shared with us, so that we have the same values and appreciate the
same qualities of things and relationships. We must see the world in
the same way.
I once introduced foreign
students to American football before we took them to watch an actual
football game. At the meeting before the game I showed a training film
and had a colleague, a football coach, on hand to answer questions
about the rules and procedures. All of the students were expecting to
see a film about soccer. The first gang tackle on the screen brought
whoops of astonishment and disbelief from the foreigners, who could
not expect physical contact on the playing field from their own
experience. Believing is seeing.
* * * *
Somalia is a narrow,
barren coastal plain along a quarter million square miles of savannah
plateau a half-mile high, becoming low mountains in the north near the
Gulf of Aden across from Arabia. There and in the north and west in
Ethiopia and Kenya are 10 million or eight million Somalis. Nobody
knows the number for sure; they die in droughts and famines, and no
one knows how to count them.
The most important fact to
a Somali is his identity as a member of a tribe. Large families of
tribes are called clans. Any two Somalis can tell you how they are
related if they are of the same clan. They memorize their lineage in
childhood. They have no notebooks to impair their memories. Within the
tribe tradition rules; there is no politics. Violence is remembered
and losses resented. Blood feuds result. They are pastoral nomads who
covet grazing land.
At a peace, that is, peace
among the clans, conference in Djibouti in 1999, the clans were
weighted according to their size and importance in discussing the
"selection" of a government for Somalia. Among the noble
Somali are these clans: Darood, Hawiya, Digile-Mirifle, and the
biggest and most important, the Dir. The Dir clan consists of several
tribes as big and important as some other clans. Other clans that are
not noble are: Jareer, Midgaan, and Ybir. Their members are farmers,
merchants, blacksmiths, tanners, and prostitutes.
I am an honorary member of
the Dir clan, specifically of the Isaaq tribe, an Isaaq Sheikh, an
honor bestowed upon me at a graduation ceremony of the National
Teacher Education Center by the president of the Somali Republic,
Abdirashid Ali Shermaarke, who was assassinated in a coup in 1978.
War, anarchy, and famine under Siad Barre, warlord of the Mareehaan
clan, followed, and after a disastrous war with Ethiopia that created
a million refugees, the National Alliance attacked and devastated the
capital city, Mogadishu. Civil war among the clans followed.
In 1993 when the United
Nations was trying to help the starving in Mogadishu, Pakistani
soldiers protecting the aid workers and food supplies were engaged in
battle by the warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid of the Habr Gidr clan. Of
the 24 Pakistani soldiers killed, several were flayed, that is,
US military intelligence,
that oxymoron, ordered a US general, who declared later that Muslims
are Satan's servants, to relieve the Pakistanis and to remove Aidid.
Rangers, SEALs, and
commandos, numbering 120 men, attacked. It was Black Hawk Down
with 18 American dead, and 73 wounded, and hundreds of Somali killed.
They dragged American bodies through the streets in celebration. Today
the Battle of Mogadishu is known in Somalia as "Ma-alinti Rangers,"
the Day of the Rangers.
Poor Hector, slain by
Achilles, was dragged behind his chariot around the walls of Troy
"face down like a plow." So what's new in Africa?
More war, anarchy, and
famine were to follow. With Somalis flocking to a fight, instead of
running and hiding when big trouble starts, there is no simple way to
put down insurrection among them. Somalis love conflict as much as the
Swiss hate it. They try hard to find an edge to live on.
I went from
American-advised Mogadishu, the capital of former Italian Somalia, to
Hargeisa in the northern area sometimes known as Punt, and formerly
known as British Somaliland, near the French coaling station of
Djibouti, the land of the Afars and Issas, those three areas along
with eastern Kenya and Ethiopia comprising the five nations
represented by the five points of the white star on the light blue
My mission was to evaluate
the situations of our teachers' college graduates there along with
those of our student teachers, and to introduce to them a practice
book for learning English where few people use the language. I had
just produced the book, English for Somalis, a manual for
learning pronunciation, vocabulary, and structure. I had made a quick
study of Somali errors in English, and with the help of JJ Pia's
thesis about the sounds of Somali, I made up hundreds of exercises,
put them in a book and had it printed at the State Printing House,
after typesetting it on a Russian linotype machine with the help of
Sandro Evangelisti, who knew no English. Linotype machines use molten
lead for molding each line of type. One error made in a line, and it
must all be done again. It had taken six months to make a book that
today would take six days with a word processor.
My colleague Willy Willis
and I were to visit 12 schools in the North. Willy was to demonstrate
how to teach his unit on juvenile delinquency to the Somali children.
We were also to make sure that our graduates, those who had their
teaching certificates from the National Teacher Education Center, also
had a chalkboard, chalk, a map, a pointing stick, and some textbooks.
We were to arrange for their classes to be self contained in rooms out
of ear-shot of other classes, for in Somalia learning is by rote out
loud. All children begin their schooling, such as it is, in a Koranic
tutorial, a "Dooksie," a gathering of a teacher and pupils.
They sit together wherever they can, and then they repeat until they
can recite the verses in Arabic. Their teacher is invariably a Sufi wadaddo,
a more-or-less literate man who also sometimes serve as a justice of
the peace, such as it is. Often the only teaching supplies are a flat,
weathered board and a piece of burnt stick for scratching Arabic words
on the board: "Insh'allah," God wills it, "Bismillah,"
in the name of God, "El-Hamdu-l'illah," praise God. It is
all they know and all they need to know.
The original "Mad
Mullah," Mahammad Abdille Hasan, of the Darood clan, still a
popular poet, was such a Sufi Dervish. He raised the Somali resistance
to the British, Ethiopian and Italian encroachment on the Somalis'
territory that resulted in sporadic and horrible war between 1899 and
1920. The British and Italians were the best of friends against the
natives. As a young man Mahammad had become a Hadji, traveling to
Mecca by working as a fireman on a cargo ship out of the port of Aden.
In Mecca he became a member of the mystical Salihiya tariqa,
a brotherhood, a harsh, uncompromising and fanatical sect unlike the
Kadariyah of most Somali. He convinced others through his oratory to
make war on the wealthier tribes and Ethiopians, resulting in a
general uprising against the foreign colonizers.
A case in point: At
Gumburu in 1902, two companies of the King's African Rifles and 48
rifles of the 2nd Sikhs came against the Mullah himself. His force was
about 5,000 warriors, some mounted on horses and camels. The British
square was finally broken by "a rush of spearmen" when the
ammunition ran out. Perhaps 2700 Somali died; no one knows for sure
because there were no officers surviving witness of the deed. Nine
officers and 147 men were killed. Note that the killed troops were
African and Indian mercenaries. The officers were of course British
Mullah Mahammad Abdille
Hasan was a poet in the old, original sense. He did not write his
poems down. He recited them to other Somalis who then remembered them,
and then passed them on throughout the clans and beyond the
generations. Every Somali today can recite his verses on demand.
Now I'm dead and in the
grave with my lips moving
And every schoolboy repeating my words by heart.
- Osip Mandelstam
The Royal Air Force bombed
Taleex in 1920, killing the Mad Mullah, the revered and beloved Somali
poet Mahammad Abdille Hasan, who named his devoted and favorite horse
"Hin Fineen," Sound of Gravel.
The old spelling of Somali
names was arbitrary, inexact approximations using the rules for
spelling the languages of the colonizers. Today, with a standard
orthography using the Roman alphabet, Somalis can easily learn to read
their tongue. The name of the poet is rendered today, for example, as
"Maxamed Cabdiile Xasan." X means a noisy H; C means a
glottal stop, a catch in the throat.
As a consequence of their
religious training, the Somalis, whose language is Cushitic like that
of other people in Ethiopia, know more or less as much Arabic as we
know Latin. In those days the Somali language was not yet written
because they could not decide which alphabet to use in writing it, the
Roman or the Arabic. Therefore, the language had no standard form,
with each clan speaking its own variety of the language. Those Somalis
who had been schooled by Europeans favored the Latin alphabet, the
more traditionally religious favored the literary Arabic. A special,
unique Somali alphabet had been invented by a Somali man, but he was
not of a good tribe, and everyone realized the shame of learning an
alphabet made up by a member of a tribe not one's own, and so no one
would even try to use it. Besides, Somalis did not need to write and
read their language; they had got along quite well in their own way
forever without doing so. But English, French, German, and Italian
were useful in getting wonderful and entertaining things from the
world beyond Somalia, like guns and trucks.
In my teaching I used a
structural approach of practicing speaking the language by using
substitution drills, an old-fashioned behavioral technique that works
wonders with intermediate students, who were delighted and eager to
participate in choral work that reminded of them of their youths and
their first Muslim Sunday school.
When it became known at
the American Embassy that I was going to go to Hargeisa for the
Ministry of Education, the American military attaché, General "God-damn"
Potts sent word (there were no telephones) for me to drop by his
office discreetly. The next afternoon I went to the embassy and joked
with the Marine guards and the American staff. We were all friends who
entertained each other, there being little else to do in Mogadishu. On
Thursday evenings we all went to the American Consulate to watch
whatever old movie was making the rounds in the diplomatic pouch,
projected onto a whitewashed outdoor wall beside a tennis court. We
carried drinks in a cooler, and stopped along the way to buy a bag of
fried pies, "zambuzis" in Somali, "Somosas" in
Hindi, made of camel meat, onions and hot peppers.
General Potts was advisor
to the Somali State Police, which was furnished its equipment by the
US and the West Germans, the counter to the Somali Army and Security
Service, supplied by the Russians and the East Germans. It was a
microcosmic Cold War. We wanted only the Somalis' hearts and minds and
oil, which still lies under the Gulf of Aden. The Russians, who
controlled the army, had the military airfield at Hargeisa in the
north, which was useless as a major base because it was one hundred
miles from the sea and there was no way to get aircraft fuel to it
except by air.
Potts explained to me that
they knew from aerial photos the location and size of the landing
strips and oil tanks at Hargeisa. What they did not know was the
number and types of vehicles and armaments out of sight on the base,
and the location and number of the living quarters of the Russian
personnel, and whether there were any Russian tactical aircraft hidden
from view. The Somali air command consisted solely of three ancient,
single propeller, Russian bi-planes, which could occasionally be seen
buzzing slowly along the Shebelle River. I was to be a spy when I went
And I was not to tell
anyone about my mission for General Potts, not Willy, my traveling
companion, and especially not John Mitford, our host in Hargeisa, a
member of our staff who had been placed there, an occasional advisor
to the Somali graduates, as a personal favor by his old friend, the
Dean of Education at our sponsoring university back in the States.
Mitford had been an elementary school principal in rural Michigan and
also the pastor of a congregation of the Church of God, an evangelical
group. He was a pillar of the community of Bad Axe. A pipe-chewing,
overweight family man, he had impregnated a teacher at his school, she
became vindictive, and consequently he lost his job, his wife and kids,
and his congregation. The Dean got him appointed assistant professor
of education and posted to a refuge far from the world, where he could
But Mitford, a voluble
talker, was known throughout the region, and General Potts did not
trust him. He was not even to take us to visit the schools on the
military base. Instead, I was to ask the Consul to provide a Jeep for
There were five elementary
schools for the children of the Somali soldiers training and stationed
at the base. Almost all Somali soldiers lived with their extended
families, not with other soldiers. The soldier, one of the few
salaried men in Somalia, was the bread-winner; all his relatives who
could do so joined him, so there were many children to be given
rudimentary schooling. And, the Somali School Curriculum has the
English language as a mandatory subject. So I was to advise English
teachers on a Russian supplied and controlled military installation.
That is how I came to know Foká Chechmistro, the Russian consul in
Hargeisa. I had to get permission from him to visit the schools on the
base, even though I was working for the Ministry of Education. It was
a matter of courtesy, and common sense.
Hargeisa was a sprawling,
spreading shantytown of shacks and grass huts emanating from the main
street, impermanent dwellings of one sort or another covering the
hillsides with no order except for the traditional tracks that led in
several directions to Djibouti, and Jigjiga, and to Burao, and Berbera.
The streets were not paved, with few sidewalks, no sewers, no trash to
collect and dispose of, everything recycled, used again for some
purpose. The smell: wood ashes, frankincense, myrrh, urine, decaying
flesh, funk like India. Nothing made with the use of electricity is
from Somalia. Bottles, cans, boxes, cloth, used until useless and
wasted away, litter the sand. All organic matter, flesh and grass is
eaten and excreted and dries and blows away. Cooking fires made with
charcoal from resinous thorn trees and the charcoal pits where it is
made smolder, releasing a sandalwood fog, even today.
We were installed at the
Hargeisa Hotel, a British establishment reminiscent of Fawlty Towers,
a hotel mostly in name only, where the bar functioned as the social
center of the expat community. The dining room offered a sideboard
breakfast of beans, fried eggs, cold toast, tea and jam. The dinner
menu was to be avoided if possible - kebab, humus, boiled potatoes,
rice and onions, ful madamas, cous-cous, and boiled goat, sheep, camel,
or cow with cumin.
The guest rooms were in
low buildings separate from the small, main building, the whole
surrounded by a concrete wall topped with broken, jagged glass bottles
against intruders. Screened windows, a mosquito net over the bed, the
feet of which were set in tin cans half full of kerosene against
scorpions and other crawling beasts, a tepid shower, a toilet, a real
sit-down commode without a water trap against the odors of the septic
tank. Each evening a boy sprayed the entire room with insecticide.
Each morning a boy brought a tray of tea and cookies, and hot water
It was in the bar that we
received invitations to dine with the local foreigners, many of whom
regularly dropped by the bar looking for company. The only public
house to serve drinks in Hargeisa, it was there that we met Bwana Don
Hunt, the lion tamer who had developed an animal show for children on
television, and William Holden, the actor. He and Hunt had a thriving
business providing wild African animals to zoos and animal retailers.
They traveled from place to place getting information about available
animals from White hunters and game wardens. A good part of their work
was to arrange the safe shipment of their goods, which required a
network of helpers and customs officials. On their way to Nairobi,
they had stopped at Hargeisa to arrange to ship a young lion they had
just agreed to buy from Guelle Hassan, a local merchant who had got it
from some Ogaden tribesmen. Guelle kept the lion in a cage next to his
shop on the main street in Hargeisa.
The cage was not a proper
one like the ones you see in zoos, but the iron skeleton of an
unfinished building. In that climate, wood decays rapidly. Somalis do
not live in houses but rather in tents and grass huts, because they
are nomads, and besides there is no native wood for building anyway. A
permanent building is made of concrete and coral stone, with
reinforcing iron bars set in the concrete footings, and extending up
inside the poured walls shaped with imported plywood panels that are
used again and again. The cage next to Guelle's shop would eventually
be a shop building perhaps 20 feet square. The rebars sticking up from
the footings made a box of metal bars a half-inch wide, a foot apart,
and eight feet high, welded together across the top, a lion proof lid
that would support the roof eventually.
The young male lion,
nearly full grown, with the beginning of a mane like the soft beard of
a teen-ager, kept out of the sun by lying in his niche, made from an
old sea freight container. He was tended by Guelle's servants, who
brought meat, hides, and bones every afternoon just before prayers and
sunset from the local market, scraps of camel and goat mostly. Local
children gathered to watch the lion feed. "Simba, Simba,"
they would call, taunting him in Swaheli. He drank water from a five
gallon petrol tin, and saved some of the meat in his niche for
midnight snacks. In the cool of the evening the lion could be seen
pacing back and forth, remembering his youth.
In the hotel bar after
dinner, we sang and told jokes, and tried to learn the lay of the
land. I had brought my guitar, and in ways that have been forgotten we
amused ourselves. In the days before electric music, people played,
and sang, and danced, and told stories. Every person had a party piece
to perform on demand. It might be an impersonation, or a funny face,
or a recitation or performance. And if you didn't insist that some
individuals perform for you, their feelings were hurt. My mother had
an uncle who lived through such social occasions by imitating the
sounds of chickens; we were grateful that he did not sing. That first
evening at the hotel bar we sang the popular folk songs of the day -
the Weavers' repertoire, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter,
Paul, and Mary. For Bill Holden we sang a bawdy song:
The sex life of the camel
Is more than anyone thinks.
When in a fit of passion
It tried to fuck the Sphinx,
The Sphinx' posterior opening
Was filled with sand from the Nile,
And that accounts for the camel's hump
And the Sphinx' mysterious smile.
way down in France
Where the ladies wear no pants,
And the dance they do
Is enough to kill a Jew.
Holden told a story about
a Turkana tribesman, after relating to us how they were planning a
safari to Lake Rudolf in Kenya to look for animals, provisioning at
Marsabit and basing their trips at the Asis Safari Camp on the eastern
shore of the lake. He and Don Hunt invited Willy and me to go along to
provide the entertainment, but since they were leaving for Marsabit as
soon as they had arranged to have the lion trucked down to Berbera,
where it would wait for transport to Aden, we could not take the time
to go along. They got Guelle Hassan to asssure the beast's safe
arrival at the shippers' godown in Aden by deferring the final payment
The region around Lake
Rudolf, the Chalbi Desert, part of the Great Rift Valley that
stretches from Jordan in Asia to Mozambique in south east Africa, is
inhabited by the Turkana people, akin to the Masai, those lean,
spear-wielding Nilotic pastoralists so beloved of photographers. The
Turkana men are famed for the great size of their penises, Holden said,
and once when he was escorting a mixed party of tourists along Lake
Rudolf, they spied a lone, naked Turkana standing waist deep, casting
his net. When he saw them, he approached, wading out of the lake, his
long penis dangling. The ladies giggled at the sight. Offended, the
Turkana asked the men "Doesn't a white man's shrivel up when he's
in the water too?"
The next morning we paid a
call on the Russian consul, who was expecting us. Dmitri Grigorivich
"Foká" Chechmistro, was a colonel in the Russian Army,
seconded to the diplomatic corps so that he could manage the military
and other aid to Somalia there in Somaliland. Delighted at the
opportunity to practice his English, the language he had to use in all
his dealings with the Somali, he immediately demanded that we treat
him like an American and call him by his nickname, and as soon as we
had told him of the individual teachers and students, and which
schools we would visit, and I had convinced him of my single-minded
devotion to duty as an English teacher, he invited us to have lunch
with him in his office, which he had brought in from an Indian
restaurant down the street. Vodka and lamb curry went well with the
Foka was one of those
Nordic Russians, tall and blond with no eyebrows, who was enthusiastic
and positive in the face of a very difficult job, so much so that he
seemed out of place. We expected to meet a dour apparatchick, like
Russian officers in the movies. Foka was a nice guy, or very good at
his job, or both.
Willy asked Foka all about
juvenile delinquency in Russia and the Soviet Union, wondering about
Khazak gangs and hustlers on the streets in Moscow, even after Foka
had assured Willy that delinquency was found only in the more remote
and backward Soviet states where organized crime unfortunately still
Foka had to use English in
all his correspondence with the Somali ministries of defense, trade
and interior, and English was the common language of the United
Nations personnel and other foreigners. He was fascinated by my book
of English for Somalis, so I gave him a copy and showed him how to use
it, my reason for visiting the schools. I assured him that it was a
scientific book, not propaganda, that I was listed with the federal
government of the United State as a "scientific linguist."
He liked that a lot.
When I told Foka that we
had to disabuse our students at the teachers' college of the notion
that all Russians are Jews and Zionists in disguise, part of Muslim
folklore equating secular Jews with atheistic communists, he replied
"They have a point. We all have Zion in mind all the time."
The rumor was so
persistent that it must have been spread by the mullahs everywhere -
propaganda the CIA could not have bought at any price.
Foka showed us photos of
his young wife, Klavdia Alexivich, a stunning Georgian Peach, a tall,
thin girl, with curly black hair and blue eyes, wearing a demure
shirtwaist dress. An economist of some sort, she had been away
obtaining a certificate in accounting, and was to arrive the next day
by air from Tbilisi. Childless, Foka was evidently anticipating the
reunion with some eagerness. They had been apart for a year. We showed
him the photos of our wives and children, and he made appropriate
noises. We parted on the best of terms, with letters of introduction,
in both English and Russian, which would give us access to the army
camp and the schools there.
That evening we had dinner,
if you could call it that, with Professor Mitford, at his house a few
miles outside Hargeisa. He lived with a houseboy and a cook, who also
served as translator and driver. His cook, Abdullahi, had learned to
cook at the Hargeisa Hotel. There was not even any incorruptible
whiskey to make the food or company bearable. We played cribbage.
Judge Farley Cocks, the
local British arbiter, was another denizen of the hotel bar eager for
company in the privacy of his home. When we met in the bar I told
Farley that I was working for the State Department as an "expert,"
which my colleague Al Corn said meant that I was first of all an
"ex," a has-been, and a spurt, that is, a drip under
pressure. He found the observation sufficiently humorous to invite us
to dinner, or he had other hopes for us, which I inferred from the
topics he introduced to our conversation.
He was intrigued by the
fact that the Somali government was calling the National Teacher
Education Center one faculty of the University of Somalia. The other
faculty of the university was Professore Giovanni Sarducci, an old
Italian judge who had three students studying with him to qualify as giudici
or conciliatori for arbitrato and arbitraggio
in case there might some day be small claims suits or salary
negotiations or a secular wedding for the magistratura to be
concerned with. There was no divorce among the Italians in Somalia, of
course, and the Somalis could divorce by saying it three times.
The visits to schools were
unremarkable. Everyone froze in the presence of strangers. We met two
American Peace Corps Volunteers who were teaching at a school in
Hargeisa and living together in self defense and for convenience.
Their school had the largest enrollment and the most advanced pupils,
a sort of senior elementary school, a high school, "high" in
the sense of highball, highlight, High German, highbred, hightail,
hijack... Tony Macaluso and John "Mick" O'Brien were hoping
to coach high school football back in the world after their tours were
up. College boys living frugally on the local economy, like most
"Beace Corpse," as the Somali called them, Tony and Mick
made a little money selling liquor and American cigarettes to other
teachers, who as Muslims were forbidden to acquire or use alcohol.
The boys justified their
bootlegging by explaining that unless a teacher had alcohol he would
chew qat. In Somalia everyone who can get it chews qat. Qat
is flown to all the major towns daily from Yemen, as it must be fresh
to be effective. A cultivated crop in the highlands of Yemen and
Ethiopia, it is a narcotic leaf, Catha edulis, like the
source of cocaine, coca. It must be chewed fresh, so planeloads are
delivered daily to markets in the cities where an elaborate
distribution system makes sure everyone gets his fix. Where there is a
will there is a way, they say. Those who distribute food aid should
hire the qat sellers to do their work for them. In a country
with 95% unemployment, that is a place to start building an economy, I
should think. People get money enough for drugs, no matter what.
tea," qat is both narcotic and anesthetic. It makes
people drunk, bug-eyed, and sensitive to sunlight. That is why all
schools and businesses let out at noon before the heat of the day. By
that hour the teachers and everyone who can afford it are all high on qat.
Everyone. Old tin cans are used as spittoons everywhere indoors. The
spit is green like camel shit.
I am told that today in
the anarchy of Somalia, teen-age boys high on qat, and armed
with automatic weapons, ride around in "technicals," trucks
mounted with heavy machine guns, or with self-propelled grenade
launchers, looking for a fight. They know only what they see, and all
of them have seen videotapes of The Terminator movies. They think that
life in the esteemed West is like a video game. They play for real.
Tony and Mick did not
frequently go to the bar at the hotel because they couldn't afford to
buy drinks in return for the men who always offered them, but on
occasion, to get the "scuttlebutt," as Mick put it, they
passed by looking for news or amusement.
Willy and I went to have
supper at their little house about three miles from the hotel, and to
listen to a baseball game on short wave radio, courtesy of the Armed
Forces Radio Network, that beacon of hope for the far flung in the
wilderness. Tony and Mick were not there when Willy and I arrived, so
we were greeted by a cute Somali girl who said her name was Muna,
sweet, smiling, slender Muna. Dressed in a ma-awis skirt and a Rutgers
University tee-shirt, she pushed open the door carefully until she saw
that we were the expected guests. Then she shouted "What's up,
man" said Willy, astonished to hear American spoken, and already
in love. He tried to kiss her hand gallantly, and she countered with
an elbow to the Adam's apple, not very hard, just to show a playful
willingness within a boundary to be set. The boys had gone to town to
get some cold beer. She invited us in, and Willy began a hound dog
routine with Muna that would have shamed a college freshman, it was so
"Where you from? I've
never seen a Somali girl so beautiful, have you? That's the stuff! I'm
hip, man. Are you the maid or the girl friend?" Muna seemed
inviting and pliable.
I excused myself to take a
walk. The hill above the house was high and mostly bare except for a
few stunted trees. I followed a path that led to the crest in a saddle,
looking for fossils. Out of sight of the house, I had found one
calcified fossil sea snail, nearly perfect and big as a fist, when a
foraging troop of baboon, giant monkeys that I surprised, started
screaming at the sight of me and running up the track ahead, looking
back and jabbering in fright as if I were Satan himself, complaining
to heaven of my presence. All fifteen of them ran over the brow of the
hill and out of sight and earshot. I laughed to myself, unarmed, of
course, and relieved to see that the baboon were not vicious. They
have been known to attack and kill children.
Then I heard them
screaming again, and saw them loping like chimpanzees back over the
hill towards me. I stood stock still watching them approach. They were
all looking back over their shoulders in fear. Then one of them saw me,
and barked the alarm. They skidded to a stop in a pile in front of me,
and looked back up the hill to see a beautiful, haughty, large leopard
peering down at us plebian primates.
The baboon scattered to
the left and right, screaming and running into the thorn bushes. I
stood transfixed, sharing moments with the leopard's eyes. Every
Somali's nightmare, it seemed to sniff in derision while looking at me
for a few seconds. Then it turned around and walked over the hill out
It was the second time I
had been face to face with a leopard in the wild. Once before,
pursuing Guinea fowl with an empty shotgun, I had walked up on a
leopard who was gazing at a flock of fat-tailed sheep being tended
below the hill by two Somali children, and thinking about supper. It
regarded me from 50 feet away with what seemed to me disgust for a
time out of time. When I could stand the apprehension no longer, I did
what one is not supposed to do. I turned and ran. It didn't follow me.
Leopards apparently don't like my smell - Pear's Soap and Burma Shave
- for which I am grateful.
The leopard's attack is
said to be like that of all other cats. They immobilize the prey with
the front feet and claws while biting the neck and ripping at the
viscera, the vital organs in the body cavity, with the hind claws.
The Somali teach their
children how to defend themselves with a spear against attack from a
leopard, the shape of bad luck that always waits in the bush for
shepherds and travelers on foot. Leopards are seen always alone, never
in pairs or groups like lions, who need the society of their prides in
order to share with other lions. Leopards, on the other hand, eat even
their own children, their mothers abandoning them at an early age.
Shaken and relieved, I
walked back to the house to learn that Tony and Mick lived with two
smiling and gracious girls who were cousins of the same age, Muna and
Maysa, both sixteen and stunningly like fashion models that did the
cooking and cleaning for, and sleeping with, the boys. They were hired
from the families of servants of other Europeans in Hargeisa. With
beautiful white teeth and a tonsure of black curls, after more than a
year of conjugal practice, the girls were charmingly Americanized, yet
shy and retiring, it seemed. They went about the business of preparing
the food while we opened stubby bottles of Tuborg beer and made
man-talk about last year's college football season. Willy had not got
to first base in the game he had tried to play with Muna, not
surprisingly, moveable-property rights being extremely strong in
License my roving hands,
and let them go,
Before, behind, between, above, below.
- John Donne
Willy and I had brought
along a carton of Lucky Strike cigarettes in lieu of flowers,
cigarettes being a sort of money good for buying anything from the
natives. We had them duty free at one tenth the retail price at the
Commissary, so we always bought as many as we were allowed. Servants
preferred to be paid in cigarettes, for example, because they could
make a profit in selling their pay. I gave the carton to Mick.
hey, man, that's cool," Mick shouted, delighted with the gift.
It became clear which girl
was paired with which boy when Maysa brought into the room a bowl of
salted peanuts and placed them not in front of Willy or me, but in
front of Tony to give as he would.
Amused, I asked the lovely
Maysa "Do you really love Tony?"
She considered her
response for a second and replied smiling and pleased with herself.
"You fuckin' A," she said.
"I'm hip," I
said, trying to sort out the replies in the right style among the
possibilities. The conversation was full of colorful current slang,
mostly expressions of astonishment, feigned or real, that absolved the
speaker from any further elaboration: "Fuck old Maude! Kiss my
petootie! Shit and step in it! Fat chance! Do little brown bears shit
in the woods?"
At one point Mick said to
Tony "Don't ask cat's-ass questions," and not understanding,
I asked him what he meant.
he said. "Ain't a cat got an ass?"
We four men at the table
ate Spam baked with canned peaches and spaghetti with tomato sauce,
served by the girls, who would have been very out of place sharing a
meal with strangers. For dessert, Muna presented Mick with a gigantic
papaya, a most delicious fruit, as large as a football, cut into four
pieces surrounded with lime quarters on a tray. I had never seen such
a large, orange papaya. Every papaya in Somalia has someone's name on
it. As the fruit grows larger and riper on the tree, the first person
to notice it, if it is within his space, puts his dibs on it, and then
listens carefully for it to fall when it is dead ripe. In the same
way, Tony and Mick had put their dibs on Maysa and Muna, to Willy's
He had not often been let
out into the world without his wife's chaperonage, and he was feeling
his oats, as we used to say, not caring that the right word is hormones.
Willy was confused. You can pinch a Somali girl's bottom, but you may
not shake her hand.
Making small talk, I asked
the beautiful Muna about the big papaya "Is that a local fruit,
from here in Hargeisa?" Of course, she didn't understand that I
was showing astonishment, and took me literally. They say that the
best place to learn a language is in bed where your mind becomes a
"If it ain't, I'll
kiss your ass on Nassau," she said deliberately like a fraternity
boy, as if to say I shouldn't doubt it. From this I surmised that Mick
was from New Jersey, from Princeton, to be exact. My guess was true,
to his amazement.
Judge Farley Cocks was
eager for us to come to dinner at his home, a villa in a small
compound reserved for former British civil servants. Farley, an older
man with a disillusioned jowly face, a younger brother of the Baron
Somers, Godber Cocks, he must have had his reasons to live as he did,
all alone with a few servants. His wife Camilla had taken the children
to her parents' home years before. His father and mother had lived for
years across the gulf in Aden when it was part of British India, and
he was in school. Since 1836 when the Suez Canal opened for business,
Aden had been an important re-victualizing and coaling station on the
run to India, with livestock brought over from Somalia from the port
of Berbera. British passengers, Kipling's readers, looked down from
the decks of passenger ships to watch the "Fuzzy-Wuzzies"
loading food and fuel for the run to Bombay.
navies melt away- Rudyard Kipling
On dune and headland sinks the fire -
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!"
When Aden was fortified
during World War II, Farley was sent there as an intelligence officer
because having lived there for a time he had considerable Arabic and
Somali. Glowering and mustachioed, and hardly judicious in his private
dealing with individuals, he held the post of judge advocate for the
United Nations, for the judicial commission, an attempt to establish
the rule of international law, or any kind of law, a judiciary for the
Somali, who had none but their own ad hocery and sharia,
Muslim traditional law.
Farley lived by himself,
by choice, and one of his servants was a perfect, beautiful example of
the Somali practice of inbreeding. Somalis are often said to be
beautiful, that is, to be ideally proportioned, tall, with smooth,
clear skin, and a patrician mien. The carriage is remarkably aloof and
proud, even regal.
My friend Ali Omar, who
was a half-caste Somali Yemeni-Italian, who had learned his English
with the Seventh Day Adventists, used to argue that the noble Somali
are as beautiful as the Jews are smart, the result of a hundred
generations of intermarriage and selective breeding. Among the Somali,
the best, strongest, and smartest survivors of a rugged way of life
chose the most beautiful women. Among the Jews, the smartest boys are
trained to become rabbis, and then are supported by the community and
urged to have many talented children. By contrast, the Catholics make
their best and brightest children remain officially celibate as
priests and nuns. It all adds up, Ali claimed. Of course, this
conjecture about the genetic basis of beauty and intelligence ignores
the fact that Muslims clerics have many children too.
After a year or two among
the Somali, you can tell a person's clan, and sometimes their tribe,
by their appearance, a skill useful in dealing with groups of them.
Preference must be given to individuals because of their place in the
pecking order. Somalis defer to one another in ways that are opaque to
foreigners at first, until you realize that discrimination is what
gives balance and value to every group. For example, a team must be
made up of members of the same clan, and preferably the same tribe,
because even within the clan, some tribes are better than others. Two
opposing teams must be made up the same way. Otherwise, the socially
inferior group will refuse to try to win.
Judge Cocks, Farley,
immediately inquired about our sexual preferences when we arrived at
his home, introducing us to his favorite girl, the tall, beautiful
Amina, showing her off, having her pose in her printed-cotton native
costume, a coantino, four yards of stuff tied over the
shoulder and draped around the waist, with a matching snood that
covered part of her long, wavy hair.
"She's a bit of all
right, wouldn't you say?" he asserted.
"I should say
With big cow-like eyes
lined with kohl, slim and graceful in her sari-like dress, she was to
serve dinner in her position as head housekeeper. Willy was amazed and
fascinated by her, his dog-in-heat demeanor as apparent as a wagging
tail, she, in turn, keeping an amused smile that seemed to show that
she was enjoying the attention as her due. As we drank gin and tonic
on the verandah, Farley explained how one got along alone in such a
"My only want is
people to talk to," he said. "Take Amina here, for example.
She's nil, zero, cipher when it comes to politics. But otherwise,
she's worth a holiday in Paris. I bought her from her old da, you see.
They belong to their fathers and then to their husbands. And they're
not randy, not tempted to stray. Their old aunties cut off their
things when they're babies before they sew them up. Perfect women.
Said I wanted a sweet, clean girl to see to me kip and me supper.
She's first-rate in bed too."
"You mean you
make love to her?" Willy exclaimed. You could see him thinking
that Farley was an old goat.
"Well, having sexual
relations is not the same as making love, is it? Not to put too fine a
point on the matter, not a legal matter, anyway."
"I don't believe it,"
countered. "Go on. Try her out," he demanded. He called
Amina aside and whispered a favor in her ear. Giggling, she led Willy
by the hand into the house.
As they left us, Willy
asked over his shoulder "Aren't you afraid of disease?"
"No, not at
all," said the judge. "When you've finished, go in the loo,
and wash the old wank off with a bit of Dettol. Works fine for me."
While Willy and Amina were
away, Farley asked me whether I wanted a turn, and I demurred, saying
that although I did not disapprove of promiscuity, I was still afraid
of colored people, a consequence of growing up in the southern United
You're not some damned
poof, are you?" asked the judge half-seriously.
"No," I replied,
"but I work among professors of education, the queerest, most
emotionally twisted, most vindictive bunch of back stabbers you'll
find anywhere, and I wouldn't let my colleague Willy get a step up on
me, not that I don't trust him. But who knows? I have to work among
people I would not invite to dinner."
"Well said, young
In five minutes Willy came
back to the verandah, zipping up his short pants. "Wow! You
oughta try that little pistol!" he breathlessly said to me.
time," I said, sharing his relief.
It is no sin to sin in
secret. And to this day I have kept Willy's fornication sinless. If
anyone deserved Amina's favors, it was Willy.
* * * *
The 26th of June, 1960 was
the day of independence of Somaliland from Britain, and the 1st of
July the day of independence of Somalia from Italy. Later the 27th of
June was to mark the independence of Djibouti from France. Such
diversity suits Somalia very well. Now they can quarrel over which
date to use as the national holiday. In the North in 1967, the 26th of
June was the holiday. There was to be a grand parade of the army units
in Hargeisa, with President Shermaarke reviewing the troops.
It fell on a Thursday,
which meant that we had a long weekend ahead of us, the weekend
usually being only Friday, the Muslim holy day. Fabian stopped by the
hotel after dinner and was happy to drink a beer with us. He had come
to Hargeisa from Aden to hear the confession of the local Roman
Catholic Englishman who said Mass at the tiny Anglican church with the
assistance of the Anglican priest, and to cheer him on, his
congregation numbering only six people. Anyone who believes in magic
may say Mass, according to Ephesians 4: 11-13, and even
"a layman may ordain a Bishop," Cranmer wrote. Vatican II
was having an effect in Africa, although Fabian could not get a visa
to go to Ethiopia because the Christians there were all Copts.
We gathered there in the
hotel bar to hear Fabian's version of the attack in Aden the week
before. Bwana Don and Bill had already left for Marsabit to start
their safari among the Turkana. Of course, Mitford, Tony, Mick, and
Farley had heard in detail about our experiences, so Fabian's story
added to the points for discussion of which group of revolutionaries
might be behind the violence.
The next morning we found
our friends Mick and Tony on the street waiting for the parade and
enjoying watching the crowds of people. They had agreed to join us for
lunch at the Indian restaurant after the parade. It seemed the entire
local population and villagers from nearby were there, and nomads had
come for quite great distances to celebrate Independence Day. Many
weddings had been scheduled for that morning, with dancing and singing
the popular Somali pentatonic melodies on the street, like a child
playing on the black keys. Occasional rifle fire in the air marked the
end of a wedding when the bride was led away by the husband's women
for disinfibulation. Guns were not allowed at public meetings, for
Song" could be heard everywhere: "Manta, manta,
manta, waa malin weyne manta," today, today, today is day
big today, up and down the five-tone scale. The women wore their gold
jewelry openly, as is the custom. It is just as risky there to steal
jewelry as it is chastity. They wear colorful, long, billowing dresses
with petticoats, and the hijab or scarves. Nearly everyone,
men and women, usually wear the toob, a giant shirt without a
collar. But on special occasions they put on their finery. Nomads were
there in their ma-awis kilts, all with knives in their belts,
and a few carrying long spears. Men wear pants and shirts with shawls,
and turbans or embroidered caps, koofiyad. Somalis talk to
each other with exaggerated gestures, their hands twisting and fingers
A temporary reviewing
stand had been erected across the street from the hotel in the middle
of the city. When President Shermaarke arrived in one of three
Mercedes automobiles preceded and followed by policemen and soldiers
on motorcycles, to take his place on the stand, a great ululation
arose, starting down the street and following the motorcade along.
Policemen in blue and soldiers in khaki were protecting and guarding
the president, perhaps against each other. Shermaarke was to last
another 10 years as president.
It was there on the
sidewalk in front of the hotel, one of the two sidewalks in Hargeisa,
that we met Foka's wife Klavdia and his body guard, Salim, a Syrian
When they ran into us on
the street, Foka exclaimed to her "Here my friends,"
delighted to see someone he had met before. The Russians did not mix
with the other Europeans, except on the rare opportunity.
I put on my best Russian,
which I had learned from my father's parakeet when he was learning
Russian in order to translate patents from Russian into English. He
had repeated phrases over and over as his teacher urged him to do, and
in his study he kept a parakeet, Billy Boy. When anyone entered the
room the bird said "Zdravstvuyte, Billy Boy," hello.
All other utterances from the bird were random.
Foka said "Good
morning" to us, and Klavdia said, with a cheerful smile that
raised the color in her pale cheeks, "Privyet!" hi!
I managed "Zdravstvuyte."
She countered with "Dobroe utro," good morning. To
Salim I said in Arabic "Marhaba, assalam alaikum"
hi, with peace. Foka explained to her that he knew us Americanski because
we were the teachers of the teachers at the army camp, and that he
would show her my book for teaching like Billy Boy. He put his arms
around her and kissed her cheek. She tossed her black curls and
blushed like a little girl.
At that moment Fabian
appeared like a gray-bearded snowman among us. I introduced him to the
Russians and Salim, with polite handshaking all around. "Praise
God," said Fabian. "It's a glorious day!" The Honor
Guard approached, marching in front of the Army Band, one hundred men
playing "Colonel Bogey" as they marched, playing
surprisingly well with four bass drums and a brace of glockenspiele.
Ranks passed: riflemen
armed with World War I Moisin-Nagant bolt-actions, ancient, wheeled
machine guns drawn by pairs of gunners, trucks and jeeps, half-track
troop carriers, field guns, a camel corps with blue and white
trappings, mounted cavalry with lances, all they would have needed to
fight the Turks 50 years before in a different war.
When the last of the
ambling children who brought up the rear of the parade in echelons of
Boy Scouts, military cadets, and school groups of boys herded by their
teachers, the crowds went their way, and Foka asked us to pose for a
photograph. He had a Russian-made single-lens 35mm reflex camera. We
stood for him with Klavdia in front of some Bougainvillea in the tea
garden next to the hotel. Then with his camera I snapped a picture of
him and Klavdia together near the lion cage next door. As I looked for
Mick, Tony and Willy in order to go to lunch with them at the Indian
restaurant, Foka posed Klavdia in front of the cage near the lion,
which had come out of the shade to see what was going on.
steny," he said, closer to the wall. She backed up against
the bars and smiled sweetly.
Suddenly the lion reached
both front paws through the bars, grabbed Klavdia by the throat and
breast, and jumped up kicking with its hind legs through the bars,
tearing again and again.
She couldn't scream. Foka
howled in anguish as she fell face down in the dirt, unconscious and
bleeding out into the sand. He dropped to his knees, turned her face
up and embraced her as she died. In his rage, he rose covered with
blood, and demanded Salim's pistol from the holster under his arm. He
cocked the pistol, and fired five times at the lion, hitting it twice
in the side. The lion roared and retreated into its packing crate lair,
and lay whimpering, licking the bullet wounds in its side. Overcome
with grief, Foka lay down next to Klavdia's body, embraced her, and
wept. A large crowd gathered around, shouting curses and spells.
Salim took a spear from an
on-looking nomad, and with it prodded the lion, enraging it so that it
came out of its box, and as it did so, he stuck the spear hard in its
neck and twisted it, fatally wounding the lion, which then lay down
gasping and spitting blood.
Fabian walked over and
lifted Foka by the shoulders, and put his arms around him, to comfort
him and share his grief, muttering prayers. Foka wept like a lost
* * * *
Needless to say, Guelleh
was very unhappy about losing the lion he had not yet been paid for.
His day-guard, Nuur, and his friends took on the job of disposing of
the dead lion. I asked Nuur if he would sell me the lion's skin,
thinking I could get an interesting souvenir. He asked 50 shillings,
but without the claws. He could sell those separately and make as much
from them as talismans.
That evening Nuur brought
the washed skin to me at the hotel, so I had two houseboys sew it up
inside an old bedspread after sprinkling it with Dettol against decay.
I intended to carry it back to Mog with me on the airplane, and then
give it to a neighbor, a Dutchman operating a commercial tannery for
the United Nations, for him to turn into a lion-skin rug. Three days
later the old DC-3 smelled like rotten lion, to the discomfort of
Willy and me, and I don't know what the pilots and other passengers
thought. You get used to putting up with anything in Africa. They were
polite, and said nothing about it, but it was too late to save the
pelt when we got home. The hair and mane slipped out of the skin when
it was processed, and so we had a large piece of light-blue,
chrome-tanned lion leather, the right color for a Somali flag.
Article copyright 2003