Somaliland Notes: Jilal – The Prophet’s Camel Bell


This is the fourth chapter of Margaret Laurence’s The Prophet’s Cemel Bell – Footsteps.

The book presents a view of Somaliland, its people, its administrators, its terrain in the 50s.

The Prophet’s Camel Bell was first published in 1963.mlaurence


In 1950, as a young bride, Margaret Laurence set out with her engineer husband to what was then Somaliland: a British protectorate in North Africa few Canadians had ever heard of. Her account of this voyage into the desert is full of wit and astonishment. Laurence honestly portrays the difficulty of colonial relationships and the frustration of trying to get along with Somalis who had no reason to trust outsiders. There are moments of surprise and discovery when Laurence exclaims at the beauty of a flock of birds only to discover that they are locusts, or offers medical help to impoverished neighbors only to be confronted with how little she can help them. During her stay, Laurence moves past misunderstanding the Somalis and comes to admire memorable individuals: a storyteller, a poet, a camel-herder. The Prophet’s Camel Bell is both a fascinating account of Somali culture and British colonial characters, and a lyrical description of life in the desert.

The Prophet’s Camel Bell has a timeless feeling about it that sets the work quite apart from the usual books of travel and adventure in distant and exotic parts.”—Canadian Literature

Innocent Voyage
House in the Clouds
Flowering Desert
Place of Exile
The Ballehs
Arrividerci, Italia
A Teller of Tales
The Old Warrior
A Tree for Poverty
The Imperialists
Nabad Gelyo





Praise be to Allah, Lord of the worlds. The compassionate, the merciful.

On the plains of the Haud, no rain had fallen for a year. No green anywhere, none, not a leaf, not a blade of grass. In stretches where the wind-flattened grass remained, it had been bleached to bone-white. The earth was red, a dark burning red that stung the eyes. The sun was everywhere; there was no escaping its piercing light. The termite mounds, some of them three times the height of a man, rose like grotesque towers, making part of the plain seem like a vast city of insects where the minute knife-mouthed abor reigned supreme. In other places the thorn trees stood, grey and brittle, and on the ground lay littered the broken skeletal branches that had been snapped off by the wind. The clumps of aloes were shrivelled, all their moisture sucked out by the sun. The antelope and gazelle – the swan-necked gerenuk, the small whitetailed dero, the light brown aul – most of these had gone further south in search of water. Only the people and their herds did not attempt to escape the Jilal season.

They shuttled between the northern wells of Hargeisa, Odweina, Burao, and the wells of the south, Bohotleh, Las Anod, Awareh. The two lines of wells were several hundred miles apart. Only dry grazing could be found now, and even this was not plentiful, so the tribes had to seek it continually for their herds. The camels moved along the road in a faltering line, the lean exhausted ones returning to the northern wells, the scarcely less lean ones coming back out into the Haud. The beasts’ humps were shrunken, and

hung flabbily on their bony backs. They moved silently, ploddingly, and the men beside them walked silently, not speaking. What was there to say? They knew that if they stopped, they would not be able to rise again. When we passed them in the Land-Rover, travelling as far in a day as they could go in a week, sometimes they held out their water vessels of clay or dinted tin. If we had any
water left in our spare tank we stopped. If not, we drove on. There was not much difference between the occasions when we stopped and those when we did not stop. A cupful of water might take them another half-day’s journey, but that was all.
The Jilal was a good season for the vultures. They swarmed and shrieked around the dead camels that had succumbed to the drought. They stuffed themselves with carrion until they were too full to fly. Their bloated black bodies would run a little, try to take
off, fall back again to earth. Their beaks and the dirty white ruff of feathers around their necks were crusted with red. Their snake-like necks craned interminably and their eyes searched for more dead flesh. Sometimes they could not wait for a camel to die before
they descended, picking first at the greatest delicacy, the still-seeing eyes.

By the roadside were the graves of people who had not reached the wells. So little stone existed here that grey acacia branches and piles of brushwood were used for the marking of graves. People were buried in a shelf jutting from the pit, in the hope that
this might protect the bodies from the hyenas. The body was faced towards Mecca; the prayers were spoken and the tribe moved on for no one dared linger to mourn the dead. At the wheel of the Land-Rover, Abdi’s hands tightened whenever we stopped or did
not stop beside the stumbling herdsmen. His face was set and rigid. His wife and younger children were out here in the Haud, with his tribe. Hersi’s family was out here, too, his wife Saqa and his two young daughters. His myopic and enquiring eyes expressed now only resignation.

“Allah has placed a hard situation on His people. But if He is willing us to live, we will live.”

At dusk, when the evening prayers were said, Hersi led the others in the low-voiced chanting. The Arabic words seemed to be suspended momentarily in the still air.

Bismillahi’rahhmani’rrahheem –
In the Name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful –

How could they? Like Job, they could find it within themselves to say – Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him. We had to accept faith’s intense reality for them. They lived in the palm of God’s hand. If His hand crushed them, so be it. Only in this way, in this
land, was the heart saved from breaking. They were not a passive people. They struggled against terrifying odds to get through to the wells. But always in their minds must have been the feeling that if Allah intended them to make it, nothing would prevail against them, and if He did not intend them to go on living, no effort of theirs would be any use. This fatalism did not weaken them. On the contrary, it prevented them from wasting themselves in fury and desperation.

But for myself, it did not apply, this faith, perhaps because I had never needed it the way they did. I viewed it from the outside. As far as I was concerned, God was deaf. If we did not hear the sound of each other’s voices, no one else would. The situation at the Awareh wells was said to be “very tense.” The tribes in the Protectorate were not allowed to own rifles, but a certain number were smuggled in.

The Ogaden who dwelt in the protected area of Ethiopia were said to obtain arms from the Ethiopians. Most of the tribes in British Somaliland belonged to the large tribal group of Ishaak, whereas the Ogaden belonged to the tribes of Darod. Feeling had always run high between the two, but now the ancient animosity was greatly enlarged by the fact that the Ogaden were selling water at the Awareh wells for ten rupees a drum. If the incoming Ishaak tribes did not have the money, they and their herds died. The government feared a full-scale tribal war. In the manner of this country, there were any number of additional factors – tribal and personal jealousies too complicated for us to penetrate. But the main factor in the warring of the tribes could be expressed in one
word. Biyu. Water. Each day the clouds drifted in shreds across the sky. But no rain fell.

“In sha’ Allah,” the Somalis repeated, eyeing the clouds. “If God wills it.”

One day Hersi showed me an abor, the insect which made the towering earth mounds on the plains. They used only the red soil and their saliva, he told me, and they worked only at night. The creature was half the size of my smallest fingernail, and its mouth
was equipped with a blade, for I put it on my hand and although I could feel nothing, in an instant there was a little slash and the blood was oozing out. Hersi removed the bug and turned to more serious matters.

“Memsahib – will you asking the sahib if he allowing us to go hunting evening times? We have no meat in bloody this place, and the men saying they cannot working without some little strength in their stomachs. Abdi is very good shot. I think maybe he  is succeeding for some gerenuk or dero.”

Just before dusk we set out in the Land-Rover, Abdi and Jack and myself in front, Hersi and one of the labourers in the back. The canvas top of the car was down, and as we bumped across the desert, over hillocks and clumps of grass, Jack on wild impulse
stood and took a pot shot at a fox. Astonishingly, from the moving vehicle, he hit it.

Hurrah – fantastic jubilation! The Somalis shouted themselves hoarse. A good omen – now, obviously, we would get a gerenuk.
Although so few gazelle remained in the Haud, we sighted one almost immediately. We were all terribly excited. Abdi seemed to be trying to drive softly, crouched over the wheel in deep concentration, as though he could coax the vehicle to make less noise.
The gerenuk, like a shadow, slipped from the tangle of thorn bushes. We saw its beautifully arched neck, and as it leapt it seemed to be held there for an instant against the pale sky, an image of perfect proportion. I was struck, hypnotized almost, by the
unbelievable grace of it. Not so the Somalis. They were too meat-hungry to consider anything else.

“Shoot, sahib!” Abdi hissed urgently, halting the LandRover.

With this weight of responsibility heavy on him, Jack fired. He missed. The gerenuk darted away.

“Hell and damnation! Well, let’s go after it, Abdi.”

Off we went again. Even I was infected now with the spirit of the hunt, and would have seen the creature destroyed for the sheer triumph of scoring, even apart from the need for meat. Miraculously, we sighted it again. This time Jack handed the rifle to

“Here. You try.”

Abdi, who was by no means a young man, jumped lightly out of the Land-Rover and began to stalk the gerenuk. We waited, hardly breathing. At last he fired. The gerenuk, untouched, bounded away and was lost in the gathering twilight.

Abdi swore under his breath as he started driving once more, but Hersi was philosophical.

“Allah is not intending we should have meat this day.”

On the way back to camp, Abdi all at once swerved and headed off in another direction. When we asked him where he was going, he refused to reply. Finally we found ourselves in a Somali encampment, a few brown grass huts, a camel or two, a boy herding the sheep into the brushwood enclosure for the night. Abdi jerked the car to a halt, climbed out grimly and launched into a long harangue with an old man who appeared from one of the huts.

“He is buying one sheep,” Hersi explained. “He will paying with his own money, sahib.”

“He mustn’t do that,” Jack protested.
“He is wanting to do it. This gerenuk business is a heavy matter for Abdi.”

Abdi came back with the live sheep, its forelegs tied together. He shoved it into the Land-Rover, practically on top of Hersi, and it bleated all the way back to camp. Mohamed came rushing out to greet us.

“Meat!” he shouted ecstatically.

He grabbed the sheep and tugged it away. We heard its cries, fainter with distance, and then silence. Precisely fifteen minutes later Mohamed appeared with our dinner, two steaming plates of rice with large slabs of meat at the side.

“Liver,” he said, smacking his lips, “and some small steak.”

When he had gone, I looked at my plate and I seemed still to be hearing the revolting sound of that shrill bleating. The interval between life and death, creature and meat, had been indecently slight, from my point of view.

Evenings in camp were quiet. We sprawled in our canvas and leather-strapped chairs outside the tent, watching the dance of the moths around the lamp. The Somalis talked around the fire, or chanted songs. Sometimes we heard the high-pitched voice of
Mohamedyero, ten years old and excited to be here among the men. The night was softly black, the stars white and startling. I felt I had never seen the stars before I saw them here. In cities and towns the electric glare detracted from the sky. Here there was
nothing except our few faint lamps and the orange embers of the fire. If we walked past the edge of the camp, the human lights were lost and there was only the blaze of planets beyond ours.

With the arrival of dusk, the hyenas began to emerge, long shadows sneaking from bush to bush, prowling around the camp in wide circles that would narrow as the night wore on. They were scavengers, not fighters, these giant bastard dogs with massive
shoulders and jaws that could have broken a man’s neck in a single snap. They had strength but no heart, as a lion has, or a leopard. They would not venture inside our bushwood fence unless our campres died untended and all humans slept. The great
pale-furred throats gave forth their eerie groan as the wide nostrils caught the scent of the sheep guts with which our steel traps had been baited, just outside the camp. And the Somalis squatting around the re heard the cry and grinned with anticipation, for they
loathed the hyena who killed their sheep and young camels and sometimes even children but who would never stand to face a man with a spear unless thirst had given the beast the courage of madness. When the sudden yelp of pain came, every one rushed
out to see the trapped animal and deal it the last blow. Another hyena would trouble the flocks no more. Praise be to Allah, who delivered this evil one into our hands.

Jack went away from camp every day, looking for the best sites for ballehs, drilling testholes to determine the nature of the soil. I remained, writing to whoever was left in camp, trying to learn Somali. One day when he returned he had a story to relate. On the
Wadda Beris, the Rice Road, he had come upon a mud-and-wattle hut, of the type called by Somalis “coffee shop,” although in fact the only drink sold in such places was tea, usually thickly laced with spices. An old Somali with a ragged white beard had come out
to greet him, and would not let him go.

“Wait, wait – I have something to show you.”

Jack waited impatiently while the old man rummaged in his hut and finally emerged with a piece of paper, a letter worn with being folded and unfolded, and now almost falling to bits. Jack read it, and was so struck with it that he copied it down. It was
dated the 15th of April, 1931.

“Salaam aleikum, Haji Elmi. I am very glad to hear again from you after so many years. After I left you in Djibouti many years ago, I was for a long time very ill with fever, and after, I went on a long voyage around the world. On my way back I stayed in western Canada and did not return to England again, which is perhaps why I never had your letters. I do not remember quite all about Mohamed Hassan. I remember he stole the double-barrelled 303 rifle which Lord de Clifford told him to bring me in Abyssinia. I
think I made a complaint to Captain Cordeaux. I do not see why you should have to pay any money to him. All that we shall talk of when I come (Insh’Allah). Canada is a very ne country and I had good shikar there, principally bears and big antelope. I came
back for the war to England and was nearly killed in France, and then I went onto the sta in Palestine. I tried to get back to Somaliland, but could not get leave. I am very glad to hear you have seven sons. I have one – he is now thirteen years old. I wonder if
there is still any kudu or oryx left, and any bears at Bijeh. Aleikum salaam –”

Some feeling of restraint had prevented Jack from copying down the name, so it is lost. So many echoes appeared in this letter. Where in western Canada had he found such good hunting? The Rockies, it must have been. As for Somaliland, there were
practically no kudu or oryx left, and if there were any bears at Bijeh, we never heard of them. We wondered what had finally happened to him, and if his son was still in England or had been killed in the last war. We would never know. Here was a man who
had belonged to that race of wandering Englishmen who had once roved the world as though it were their own backyards, and who were now tokens of an age that was gone.

They were odd men, perhaps, difficult, doomed never to t in anywhere, but of a uniquely individual calibre. We wondered where such men could go now, with the world so mapped and known. The Somalis from nearby encampments often visited our camp. When Jack was away, I tried to speak with them. I made an effort to communicate in Somali, but usually they did not understand what I was attempting to say. Mohamed, beside me, squirmed in embarrassment.

“I think you let me speak, memsahib.”

Invariably I gave in, unable to bear their blank looks, Mohamed’s tortured expression, my own sense of verbal inadequacy. A delegation of Habr Awal, one morning, was particularly suspicious. Through Mohamed, we struggled to convey thoughts back and

“If the officer is here to dig ballehs,” they began, their voices gru and their faces surly, “why does he not dig them? What is he doing? We see no ballehs.”

I tried to explain that the sites had to be chosen, and that the machinery for the work had not yet arrived in the country.

“Why are the Ingrese making ballehs at all,” they asked, “if they do not intend to use the water themselves?”

I tried to meet fire with fire. They were always saying the government should help them, I remarked, and now that the government was actually embarking on a scheme to provide ballehs, they still complained. Their talk surprised me, I told them blandly. They
answered, however, by evading the issue entirely.

“Why does not the government leave us alone?” they enquired plaintively, and then they added, somewhat paradoxically, that they really wondered why the government did not send out twenty truckloads of water to each Somali camp during the Jilal season.
With a growing sense of futility, I replied that only the rains could provide enough water for all, and that was in Allah’s hand. The ballehs, however, would hold water at least during part of the dry season, once they were built, but such things took time to
build. The Habr Awal men threw up their hands and looked at the sky, and Mohamed refused to translate their comments. But I knew enough Somali now to catch the gist.

“What does she know of it, the fool? She is insane, like all English. They are shaitans, devils –”
They went away. But they did not wish me peace. They went in silence, with malevolent eyes. It was not to be wondered at, that I had failed to get across anything to them. My grasp of Somali was too limited, and so was my understanding of the country. And for their part, they were men who deeply resented the British and their families and herds were now dwindling in the drought.
The rumours about the balleh scheme grew with each passing week. The tensions in the Haud were severe, and it would not have taken much to set the desperate tribesmen at each other’s throats, or ours. Hersi came to Jack one day with a disquieting report.

“Sahib – one man coming last night to see me. He is my cousin. We are both Musa Arreh, and his camp is not greatly distances this place. He telling me what he is hearing recently times –”

A group of tribesmen, it seemed, had spent the better part of a night outside the thorn-bough fence of our camp, fondling their smuggled rifles and debating whether they should raid our camp or not. We were saved by only one thing – the Somalis’
inclination towards oratory and argument. In whispers they had discussed the question so heatedly that the day dawned before they had reached a decision.

“The sun rising,” Hersi said with a sour grin, “so it was too lately times for all their considerations.”

The next time, they might make up their minds sooner. What attitude could one possibly take towards people who, understandably enough, were liable to turn in their despair against the first person who happened to catch their attention, when that person might be oneself? I was filled with doubts and indecisions. Jack asked himself the same questions, but he had to consider another thing as well. I was here in camp all day, with only Mohamed and several labourers, while he and the others were away surveying.

“You’d better learn how to use the rie,” he decided, adding as casually as possible, “not that I think for a minute you’ll need it.”

Sombrely, followed by Mohamed, Abdi, Hersi and all the rest, we walked out to the edge of camp. Jack loaded the .303 and showed me how to hold it. I had never red a gun of any description.

“Hold it close to your shoulder,” Jack said. “Okay. Now fire.”

Whoom! Stunningly, I found myself sprawled on the ground, the rie beside me. In the background, the Somalis were quietly guffawing.

“For pete’s sake,” Jack said, trying to hold back his laughter, “I told you to hold it tightly – why didn’t you.”

My pride was more damaged than my shoulder. I went back to the tent by myself. At last Jack poked his head in through the tent doorway.

“Maybe it would be safer, at that, for you to rely on your gift of the gab. You’ve got that in common with the Somalis. If there’s any trouble, you can send Arabetto out in the truck to me, and try to keep them talking until I get back.”

So, in a manner of speaking, the problem was solved. The matter of the rifle was never mentioned again. Either luck was with us or else our fears had been exaggerated, for although we had many more delegations of tribesmen, some of them riled or suspicious, we never saw a suggestion of a rifle nor heard any more rumours about a raid on the camp.

As for the question posed by the possibility of an attack, that was not answered. I doubt very much if there is an answer.
Some report of our vulnerable camp filtered through to the District Commissioner, and we were assigned four Illaloes to accompany us. They were the “bush police,” tribesmen to whom the government gave uniforms and ries and a certain amount of training. They remained close to their tribes, for their duties were mainly concerned with patrolling the country to keep down fights at the wells, the looting of camels and other forms of inter-tribal bickering.

Our Illaloes were very enthusiastic. They watched over us like gauche guardian angels in khaki shorts and pugrees. Indeed, at first it was difficult to persuade the Illalo corporal that when I set out across the desert at night in search of a nearby thornbush, I did not welcome an escort.

Jack left three of the Illaloes in camp each day when he went o surveying. The corporal came to me one afternoon and complained that he had an excruciating earache. The tin box that contained our first-aid kit was my special province. I had selected the medicines and bandages with care and I had the satisfying feeling that we were well-equipped. But I had nothing for ears. The Illalo stood there with a quiet and expectant face. It was obvious that I must do something. But what? I asked Mohamed to bring me a bowl of warm water. The Illalo watched with interest while I added a drop of Dettol. Ceremoniously, I stirred and the water turned milky. I swabbed out his ear and he thanked me profusely. It would not do his ear-ache any good, but at least he might feel that I had tried. If his ear continued to bother him, we could send him to Hargeisa the next time the truck went in for water. That evening Hersi came to see me.

“The Illalo corporal wishing me to telling you, mem-sahib, that the ear medicine is highest qualities. His pain, it is gone, absolutely. He says a thousand thanks.”

I gaped at him. How could it be? Faith, which could move mountains, could also cure ears, apparently. Surprised and delighted, I pretended to shrug it off.

I had a regular sick-parade some days. Gashed fingers, thorns to remove from hands and feet. Abdi’s eyes became sore with the constant blown grit and dust, and I bathed them for him with boracic. Courteously, he thanked me.
“I pray Allah grant you a son, memsahib.”

I was moved by his gratitude and his prayer, and I felt a growing sense of confidence in my medical skills. I doled out aspirins and “number nines,” the standard Army laxative, usable only by those with bowels of steel, and I bandaged away with a will. What I had not noticed, however, was that nothing serious had yet come my way.

Then the Somalis from nearby encampments began to come to our camp in the hope of obtaining medicines. The gashes were deeper now, the thorn-slivers infected. Once it was a woman who had been bitten on the arm by a camel. The teeth had gone in on
either side, and the festering arm looked as though it had been punctured right through. Camel bites frequently caused blood poisoning – this much I knew. I told the tribesmen with her that they should take her to the doctor in Hargeisa. They could not possibly do that, they replied. They had a small camp, and if two of them went in to Hargeisa with her, there would not be enough men left to care for the sheep and camels. So I bandaged her arm, uselessly. She thanked me, and I felt sick.

A Somali herdsman came to our camp one evening. His emaciated body, every bone showing through the dried and aking skin, trembled as though with chill. He crawled like a shot deer under a thorn tree and lay there, breath uttering only faintly in him. I
stood aside, for I did not have any idea what to do. Hersi and Mohamed and the labourers knew, however. They did not give him anything to drink right away. First they bathed him with water, and then they gave him a very little water in a cup, refusing to let him drink more until later. If they had allowed him all he wanted, he would have been twisted with cramps and would probably have died. When he had recovered sufficiently, we heard his story. He had been down at Awareh and had been travelling back alone with his camels. Thirst had almost killed him, and he had managed to survive only by the appalling process of killing one of his camels every eight days and sucking the moisture of the beast’s guts.
What had I known of life here at all? I recalled the faith-healing of the Illalo’s ear, and the simple boracic treatment of Abdi’s eyes. It seemed to me that I had been like a child, playing doctor with candy pills, not knowing – not really knowing – that the people I was treating were not dolls. Had I wanted to help them for their sake or my own? Had I needed their gratitude so much? For a while, after that day, I could not stand to look at my toy potions and powders. I shoved the tin box under a camp cot. I would have no more to do with it. Then I saw that this way, too, was an exaggeration. Would I do nothing simply because I could not do everything? The searching sun of the Jilal exposed not only the land but the heart as well. Practical considerations forced me to dig out the inadequate tin box once more.

Mohamedyero had sliced his finger with a butcher knife and was yowling as though he had just had a limb lopped o. I bandaged the small wound, thinking that all a person could do was what they could, but at least in the knowledge that it was only slightly more than nothing.

“Some she come to see you,” Mohamed announced.

They stood hesitantly at the edge of the camp, several women from the bush and desert, clad in their drab brown and black rags, their faces unveiled, for purdah was never worn by those who spent their lives leading the burden camels. Among Somalis, only the women knew how to set up the portable huts, how to place the frames of bent roots in the earth and cover them with the woven grassmats. When the tribe set up camp, the women had to assemble the huts before they could rest. This division of labour was not as unfair as it sounded. The men protected the tribe with their spears, and led the herds to new grazing grounds, often going ahead to nd the way.

Men had to reserve their strength for their own demanding work. But the women’s lives were harsh, and after marriage they changed from girls to lean and leather-skinned matrons in the space of a few years. The women approached, eyed me penetratingly, whispered between themselves, and finally asked. Could I give them anything to relieve their menstrual pain? Somali girls underwent some operation at puberty, the exact nature of which I had been unable to determine, partly because in our early days here every Somali to whom I put this question gave me a different answer, and partly because I no longer questioned people in this glib fashion. The operation was either a removal of the clitoris, or a  partial sewing together of the labia, or perhaps both. But whatever was done, apparently a great many women had considerable pain with menstruation and intercourse, and the birth of their children was frequently complicated by infection. In the opinion of an educated Somali friend of ours, this operation was one custom which would take a very long time to die, for the old women would never agree to its being abandoned, he believed, even if the men would.

I did not know what to say to these women. They were explaining, almost apologetically, their reasons for asking. Walking with the burden camels, at such times, especially during the Jilal season – it was not easy to keep going. What should I do? Give them a couple of ve-grain aspirin? Even if they had money to buy future pills, which they had not, the lunatic audacity of shoving a mild pill at their total situation was more than I could stomach.

“I have nothing to give you. Nothing.”

This was the only undeceptive reply I could make. They nodded their heads, unprotestingly. They had not really believed I would give them anything. Women had  always lived with pain. Why should it ever be any different? They felt they ought not to have asked. They hid their faces in their cloths for a moment, then spoke determinedly of other things.

The days went by, and the clouds gathered, but still it did not rain. Ahmed Abdillahi, a young chieftain, visited the camp and offered his assistance.

“I have heard much about the ballehs,” he said to Jack. “If you want me to go with you across the Haud, and guide you, and speak with the people, I will do it.”

The first sign that the balleh scheme might be gaining some acceptance. Jack was encouraged and accepted the oer. Ahmed  Abdillahi stayed with us for some time, travelling along the border with Jack, everywhere talking with people, arguing, explaining. He looked rather like Robeson must have looked as a young man, very tall and broad, with strong features and muscular arms. He had a poise that seemed never to be shaken. Whatever questions or suspicions were raised by his fellow tribesmen, Ahmed Abdillahi replied in the same deep firm voice, never losing his temper.

I drove with Jack and the others to Lebesegale. While Jack examined the possibilities of the place as a balleh site, I looked around. It was a tiny settlement, dark brown huts, a few camels, a mud-and-wattle tea shop with roof of flattened paraffin tins. The
inhabitants were thin and in rags, haggard with the long Jilal. The water hole, once a large one, had dried to a small pool of muddy liquid which somehow sustained the few people here, but could not have done so if even one more family had arrived. Beside me, Hersi trudged.

“Nothing here, memsahib. The people are very poor presently times.”

I nodded. There was certainly nothing much here. Only the bare red Haud soil, hard as stone, and incredibly, these few people, the old man who had come out of the tea shop to greet us, his two young grandsons, the three women with the ock of blackheaded
sheep. The rest of the villagers had left with most of the camels, to seek water and grazing elsewhere. Then I saw a small round brushwood enclosure within the almost-empty village. I asked Hersi about it.

“That is the mosque,” he replied.

I looked again at the thorn boughs that formed the place of worship. It seemed to me that more genuine faith might reside in this brushwood circle than in the jewelled and carved magnificence of the Blue Mosque at Istanbul.

Driving along the Awareh-Hargeisa road, we saw two burden camels laden with the crescent-shaped hut-frames and the bundled mats. They were halted by the roadside, and as we drew near, we saw one of the beasts slide to its knees, sunken in the apathy of
thirst and exhaustion. Beside them, squatting in the sand, was a woman, a young woman, her black headscarf smeared with dust. She must have possessed, once, a tenderly beautiful face. Now her face was drawn and pinched. In her hands she held an empty tin cup. She did not move at all, or ask for water. Despair keeps its own silence. Her brown robe swayed in the wind. She carried a baby slung across one hip. The child’s face was quiet, too, its head lolling in the heavy heat of the sun. We had a little water left in our spare tank, and so we stopped. She did not say a word, but she did something then which I have never been able to forget. She held the cup for the child to drink first.

She was careful not to spill a drop. Afterwards, she brushed a hand lightly across the child’s mouth, then licked her palm so that no moisture would be wasted.

To her, I must have seemed meaningless, totally unrelated to herself. How could it be otherwise? I had never had to coax the lagging camels on, when they would have preferred to stop and rest and die. But what I felt, as I looked into her face, was undeniable and it was not pity. It was something entirely different, some sense of knowing in myself what her anguish had been and would be, as she watched her child’s life seep away for lack of water to keep it alive. For her, this was the worst the Jilal could bring. In all of life there was nothing worse than this.
What we could do here was only slightly more than nothing. Maybe she would reach the wells. Maybe she would not. She might with good reason have looked at us with hatred as we began to speed easily away, but she did not. She was past all such emotions. She knew only that she must keep on or she would perish, and her child with her. As we drove away, we saw her rise slowly and call the burden camels. The beasts struggled up and began to follow her.

Across the great plains of the Haud, the wind swept the sand up into spinning dervishes of dust. The red termite-mounds stood like tall misshapen towers of the dead.
On the carrion of camels the vultures screeched and gorged themselves. In the afternoons, the wisps of cloud formed raggedly in the sky.

“In sha’ Allah,” the Somalis said. “If Allah wills, it will rain.”

We, too, said the same thing now. What else was there to say? All other words had ceased to have meaning in the Jilal.



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