Somaliland: Colonial and anti-colonial discourse in Margaret Laurence’s The Prophet’s Camel Bell

The Canadian writer Margaret Laurence and her civil engineer husband Jack, lived for seven years in Africa, two of which (1950-52) they spent in Somaliland. Margaret wrote a book of travel-memoir entitled “The Prophet’s Camel Bell”, based on her experiences in Somaliland. According to her, working in Africa was Jack’s idea, and the main reason he sought the job of building water dams for Somali nomads was that he felt dissatisfied with most jobs he held in England and Canada and wanted to work where he could make a difference. But after telling the reader about the source of the idea of going to Somaliland, she immediately stresses that she shared some of those very reasons that were behind Jack’s interest in Somaliland: “It may have been a desire to simplify, to return to the pioneer’s uncomplicated struggle. Or it may have been the feeling, strong in all our generation, that life was very short and uncertain, and a man had better to do what he could, while he could.[1]

By appealing to overarching categories such as “pioneers”, “generation” and “man” Margaret Laurence is trying to establish a common ground, a shared category.
In this paper, I argue that:

(1)  Margaret Laurence uses both colonial as well as anti-colonial discourses in The Prophet’s Camel Bell.

 (2)  Categorizing Somalis as unchanging and different from Westerners and the manipulation of categories is one of the main ways in which Margaret Laurence engages in colonial discourse. Conversely, Margaret Laurence’s anti-colonial discourse is often expressed through registering some of the changes taking place in Somali individuals and Somaliland’s society.
The ability to manipulate and even create categories, is an advantage that Westerners had over Africans in colonial discourse. Margaret Laurence had, and used, that advantage.
In order to give the reader some idea of her attitude towards colonialists and colonialism before she arrived in Somaliland, Margaret Laurence writes, “I believed that the overwhelming majority of Englishmen in the colonies could properly be classified as imperialists, and my feeling about imperialism was very simple – I was against it. I had been born and had grown up in a country that was once a colony, a country which many people believed still to be suffering from a colonial outlook, and like most Canadians I took umbrage swiftly at a certain type of English who felt they had a divinely bestowed superiority over the lesser breeds without the law.[2]
Whereas in the earlier example, Margaret Laurence chose to emphasize the categories that showed what she had in common with her husband such as “pioneer”, “generation”, she now emphasizes her difference from the English colonizers. A Somali is even produced to corroborate Margaret Laurence’s differentiation of herself from the English as in this episode at the Hargeisa Club:
“‘Morning tea, sahib.’ Mohamed knocked at the door and entered with imposing tray, and once again we had to explain that we did not like tea in the morning. ‘I think you no be same as other sahibs,’ he said in a puzzled voice. It was a remark he was to make often. Sometimes he said it as a compliment. More often, it denoted a kind of confusion. In the relationships of servants and employers here, the patterns of behaviour were formal, clearly laid down. If one broke with the traditional patterns, how could anyone know what to do or how to respond?[3]
Margaret is using her Canadian identity to loosen the grip of her identity as a Westerner. By temporarily rejecting one identity and upholding another she raises her moral standing as someone who is troubled by, and is struggling with, the moral dilemmas of the colonial situation. But as she is creating this positive picture of herself, she is chaining Somalis to a category that marks them as inferior: that of a servant who is threatened by her non-conformity to colonial practices. Furthermore, his position as a servant is portrayed as part of “the traditional patterns.”
One can make two observations about the situation of the native with regard to the categories: first, the native inhabits mostly negative categories; two, the change in the category which he projects often does not depend on his will but on the will of the Westerner.
The Laurence’s Canadian nationality, however, is not always deployed to show them in a positive light. Jack Laurence’s reaction when he sees his wife carrying her own luggage, and his insistence that they needed the Somali servant he had just hired is illustrative in this regard: “This isn’t Winnipeg or London. You don’t tote your luggage here. It just isn’t done. Maybe we don’t agree with the system, but there it is. Another thing – he’ll be useful in the shops. If you buy anything by yourself, before you know what’s what, you’ll likely get cheated by the local merchants.[4]
By aligning Winnipeg with London in opposition to “here” (i.e. Somaliland), Jack is drawing her attention to their changed status once they had arrived in Somaliland, and that from now on they must act in accordance with colonial rules, regardless of what they think of those rules.  The category “Canadian” as signified by her husband is “colonial” though her initial act of carrying her own luggage, an innocent act under ordinary circumstances, could be construed as a subversive and anti-colonial act. The decision to emphasize or de-emphasize this or that aspect of the category of being Canadian, of course, belongs to her, a privilege conferred on her as a Westerner by the colonial set up.
Margaret Laurence does not only manipulate the category of “Canadian” to suit her purposes, sometimes she can drop it completely and pick up another identity. An example of this occurs on board the ship that was taking them to Aden. Recalling her discussion of American literature with Johan, the Norwegian wireless operator on board the ship on their way to Aden, she says she felt ashamed of not knowing modern Norwegian literature, but does not mention the most likely reason they were discussing American instead of Canadian literature: the likelihood that Johan knew Canadian literature was about as much as she being well versed in Norwegian literature, given that neither literature had international prominence (with the exception of Ibsen in Norwegian) at the time, and with Canadian literature suffering from the additional disadvantage of existing under the shadow of the literature of the USA, a political and economic super power. Instead of feeling embarrassed about Canadian literature’s lack of international stature, Margaret Laurence drops her Canadian identity and appropriates the more globally known American literature. Thus placing herself in a superior position vis-à-vis Johan.
Anti-colonial discourse
Although Margaret Laurence uses colonial discourse in the Prophet’s Camel Bell, she also deploys anti-colonial discourse in the same book. The anti-colonial discourse comes through most clearly in situations where she contradicts one of her initial assumptions regarding Somalis, that Somali society has not changed since times immemorial, and starts noticing some of the changes taking place around her. She mentions, for instance, that the process of her cook Mohamed’s breaking away from his clan started with his father who became a seaman many years earlier. Another example is Hersi, the interpreter, who openly expresses apprehension about the educational changes taking place in Somaliland. He is afraid that the generation younger than him, particularly the ones studying at Sheikh, would have more years of schooling than was available to him,  and that once they graduate, he would be at a disadvantage in the job market.
The uncertainty and anxiety over change is also one of the main sources of Abdi the warrior’s problems. It is why he hates Mohamed the cook and Arabetto:
“‘young men no good,[5]’ he told Jack frequently, speaking not only of Mohamed and Arabetto, but of all the young men whose changing views threatened him.”
 But despite Abdi’s projection of himself as a warrior and his berating of Mohamed and Arabetto for what he considered their suspect values, the fact of the matter is that even he must have made some adjustments in his values for him to work for Mr Laurence, a man of different religion and culture than himself. But adjusting their value system to deal with the British colonialists and European expatriates is not the only challenge facing Abdi and other Somalis. They had to also deal with people like Arabetto a half-Somali half-Arab man. Because his father was Arab and the Somali clan system is traced through the father, he was a man without Somali clan identity, and this lack of clan identity is an obstacle in the way of his gaining full membership in Somali society. But despite his incomplete integration into Somali society, when Abdi tries to get him fired, Hersi, who shares clan affiliation with Abdi, objects, and takes Arabetto’s side. Hersi justifies his action by saying that although he and Abdi are cousins according to the clan system, Arabetto, as a fellow Muslim, is entitled to fair treatment. This is an example of how Somali identity is not fixed and it can change depending on the situation. In one situation, a Somali might emphasize his clan, while in other situations he might put forth his religious or some other aspects of his identity.
Arabetto’s situation also provides hints that Somalis are making room to accommodate those who do not neatly fit into the clan structure. For example, they created a category that Margaret Laurence called “nin magala di[6]” (a man of the town) identifying people like Arabeto with the town as a new form of identity that acts as a substitute for the clan identity that they lack. Although this category of the man of the town or city was created by Somalis to find a niche for marginal figures, it was not totally without basis in reality. People like Arabetto were after all a product of the new urban social environment which made cross-ethnic marriages possible in the first place.
If Somali society would only meet Arabetto halfway. So did Arabetto. For he, too, had reservations of his own about Somali culture: “Arabetto felt closer to the Arabic culture than to the Somali, which he regarded as old-fashioned and unsophisticated.”
Despite the differences in the aesthetic outlooks of Arabetto and Somalis, when it came to politics Arabetto was very much a Somali nationalist and looked forward to political change in the form of Somali independence. Not only that, but although he had shown disdain for traditional Somali culture, he was very much swept by Somali nationalism and was enamored with nationalist songs such as Somaliyeey tooso (Somalis, awake) and often sang them. Anti-colonial discourse, or the nationalist variety of it, provides a new ground on which Arabetto and Somalis could identify with each other.
Margaret Laurence’s views on Somali culture were more nuanced than Arabetto’s. Still, she had her own problems with Somali culture. But just as in the case of Arabetto, Margaret Laurence’s anti-colonial discourse creates common ground between her and Somalis. Part of this common ground is that she becomes able to see herself through Somali eyes, for example, when she realizes that to their servant, “We were neither Ingrese nor Italiano. We came from another and unknown tribe.[7]



All quotes are from The Prophet’s Camel Bell, McClelland and Stewart, 1965 edition.



[1] Margaret Laurence, The Prophet’s Camel Bell. P.11

[2] ibid, p.25

[3] ibid, p.31

[4] ibid, p.23

[5] ibid, p.204

[6] Margaret Laurence misspells the phrase. The correct Somali version is “nin reer magaala

[7] Margaret Laurence, The Prophet’s Camel Bell, p.31



By Jamal Gabobe


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