The Prophet’s Camel Bell: A Memoir of Somaliland, by Margaret Laurence, is a rare, moving narrative account of the author’s memories of Somaliland in the fifties. The book was first published in 1960 – some ten years after her stay in the British Protectorate of Somaliland. Here is the 6th chapter, taking up from where Somtribune left off the serialization of the book.
At last the long-expected news – the tractors and scrapers for the job would be arriving soon. Berbera had no port facilities for unloading such heavy equipment, so the machines were being sent to Djibouti in French Somaliland. We set off for Djibouti to collect them.
Gus and Sheila and Musa travelled with us. Gus wanted to do some language research among the Esa people of Borama district and also among the Djibouti Somalis. When we arrived at Borama, however, a message was waiting – the ship had been delayed.
‘1 might have known something like this would happen,’ Jack said bitterly. ‘We may as well stay here until we hear from the shipping agent.’
His patience was almost at an end. He had been waiting for this equipment for months, and now was beginning to wonder if it would somehow elude him forever.
Gus and Musa decided to push on to Djibouti alone, while Sheila remained with us at Borama. They went on foot, hoping to catch a passing trade-truck. When they had departed, we were a dismal trio. The rest house was bare and cheerless, and we had nothing to do. Jack was depressed, feeling he would never get started on the actual construction of the ballehs, the sites of which had been chosen and the plans completed for some time. Sheila was worried about Gus, who had set out with enthusiasm but hardly any money.
‘What if they can’t get a lift? They can’t possibly walk – ‘ Already in her mind’s eye she saw him lying dead of sunstroke or dehydration on the scorching sands of the Guban. I would have felt exactly the same if it had been my husband who had gone, but as it was not, I had no doubt that Gus and Musa would make the trek in perfect safety. What I did feel, however, was a sharp sense of disappointment over their departure, for I had hoped we might continue at Borama the work begun at Sheikh, that of translating some of the Somali poems. Pessimistically, I felt they would arrive back at Borama just as we were leaving.
But one evening Gus and Musa returned. They were in poor condition, having been forced to walk a good part of the way back. Although they travelled at night when the sand was cooler, they had worn out their sandals and had almost worn out the soles of their feet as well. Plied with tea, food and questions, they made a rapid recovery and recounted some of their experiences.
‘We were lucky to get a ride to Djibouti with that English doctor’, Musa said, ‘but when we got started, we found he was taking along a young officer of the Somaliland Scouts, as well. Now this officer is a real sahib – you understand what I mean? We are driving along the road, you see, and an old man is crossing and does not get out of the way quickly, so the doctor slows down. The Army man says “Shall I get out and shoot him?” A joke, yes, but as I am Somali, like the old man, I am not greatly amused. Next we stop at a well, where many Somalis are drawing their drinking water. Our officer gets out and washes his hands in the well. Now, you know, to Muslims this is a very offensive thing. Gus and the doctor try to explain, but no. What does he care? The people at the well begin to threaten, and finally we manage to drag him away. When we reach Djibouti, the doctor goes off to the hospital. Gus and I go to the town. The Army man goes some- where – I don’t know or care, and I think I will never see him again. But such good fortune is not to be. Later, we are walking along the shore when we see the doctor. He is very angry, and we soon see why. The Army man has got drunk and has taken the doctor’s car away. He has left it on the beach while he went swimming. The tide has come up, and now the car is stuck. We help the doctor to get it out – what a business, wading in the sea, the water up to our knees. At last we get it going, and then the Army man comes floating in like a big fish, and says he does not see why the doctor is making such a fuss. The doctor then says some things which I shall not repeat to you. Next, we all go back to town. The doctor asks us to look after his car while he finishes his business. This we do, but the officer, who is still not very sober, stays also. The sellers in the marketplace begin to crowd around, offering melons for sale. These melons are not worth one rupee each, you understand, but I think. if the officer wants to spend a whole rupee on a melon, why should I say anything? He becomes rather confused, and takes one melon, then another, then another and another – one rupee, one rupee, one rupee. Never have I seen such spending. He cannot stop – more melons, more rupees. I almost say “Here is my head – one rupee.
Musa’s piratical moustache quivered with his deep laughter. To him, the poetic justice of this one episode was worth the whole wretched trip.
Now that Gus and Musa were back, we settled down to work on the poetry. It was a three-way process. Musa knew a great many gabei and belwo, and had a wide knowledge of the background and style of Somali poetry, but while his command of English was fluent, he had to discuss the subtler connotations of the words with Gus in Somali. Gus and I then discussed the lines in English, and I took notes on the literal meanings, the implications of words, the references to Somali traditions or customs. I would then be able to work on this material later, and attempt to put it into some form approximating a poem, while preserving as much as possible of the meaning and spirit of the original.
I had never before found Musa easy to talk with. I had been impressed by him – who would not be? He looked like a young sultan. But I had never felt at ease with him. For one thing, he was not accustomed to women who talked as much as I did, and sensing some constraint or disapproval in him, I tended to agree with him too often, mistakenly hoping to set the matter right in this way but in fact only making it more difficult for both of us. Now, one evening, discussing a long gabei by Salaan Arrabey, who was reckoned to be one of the best Somali poets, I was all at once aware of how easily we were talking and arguing. To- morrow, probably, we would once again feel ill-at-ease with one another. But for a while, discussing this gabei which interested both of us greatly, the awkwardness was forgotten.
There were so many poems which could have been done, and we had such a limited time that we were able only to skim a little of the surface. Still, it was something. When Jack and I left Borama, I had a sheaf of notes to work on, several gabei and perhaps a dozen belwo.
Near Borama were the ruins of an ancient city, or perhaps several cities built on the same site. One might have been pre-Islamic, although nothing much seemed to be known about it. The more recent one, we were told, was believed to be about a thousand years old. It had been built originally by Arab traders, and why it was deserted was a mystery. In his book Somaliland, Drake-Brockman suggested that these ruined cities, which were to be found in several places in this country, were abandoned by the Arabs when they found the ivory and ostrich-feather trade was falling off, or when they discovered that the local Galla people would bring their goods to the coast and sell just as cheaply there. To what extent this theory would be supported nowadays by archaeologists, I do not know. Many of the walls of this particular city still stood, and where they had crumbled it appeared to be due to time and to the crowding in of foliage rather than any sudden devastation.
Amoud was the name the Somalis had given it. The word means ‘sand’, and the name was apt, for the city had returned to the mountains and the desert. When it was alive, Amoud must have spread up the hillside, the brown-yellow houses mellow in the sunlight, among the stiff acacias and the candelabra trees. In the marketplace, the donkeys and camels would have been laden with the sacks of aromatic gums and ivory, the bundles of ostrich plumes, and would have set out for the coast, where the goods would be taken by dhow to Arabia. The young Arab traders would have brought back. to Amoud their dark-skinned Galla brides, those women from whom came the beginnings of the Somali race. The town would have been a babble of noise, shouting and haggling, the scuffling of feet along the rough stone roads, the uproar of camels.
But now, as we walked through it, Amoud had been dead a long time. The walls were falling away, and the mosque was desecrated by birds and small wild animals. The candelabra trees had grown inside the houses, their bright green tapers looking as though they had been here always. Generations of the galol tree had grown old and fallen, and their boughs were strewn around the ground. Blue flowers the colour of kingfishers grew in the tangled grasses, and the trees cast long shadows on the skeleton of Amoud.
On the way down the shale-littered hillside, we saw three young Somali girls on their way back to their huts at the foot of the hill. The girls paused and stared at us, calmly, disinterestedly. Looking at them, I felt they had something of the same timeless quality as the hills and the sand. The Arabs came and went, and they left their religion and their sons. The British came and soon would go, too, leaving, for what they were worth, some ideas of an ad- ministration different from the tribal patterns, some knowledge of modem medicine, some ability to read and write in a European language. But the bulk of the Somali people were not greatly affected by these things. They still built their round grass huts, and herded the camels, and told tales around the fires at night, and scorned the settled life, just as they did before the Arabs came, a thousand years ago or more. Change had been slow here. Maybe it would quicken its pace soon. Perhaps their own leaders would be able to think what to do with a country that was so largely sand and thorn trees. Within the next few generations, the nomadic tribal ways might splinter and break, and from their breaking a new thing might grow. Or perhaps their leaders would wrangle interminably, unable to discover a way of overcoming the desert. But whatever happened, for a long time the people would go on as they always had, herding their camels between the wells and the grazing, the grazing and the wells.
Looking at Amoud, and then at the nomads’ huts crouched at the bottom of the hills, I could not help thinking of the western world with its power and its glory, its sky-scrapers and its atom bombs, and wondering if these desert men would not after all survive longer than we did, and remain to seed the human race again, after our cities lay as dead as Amoud, the city of the sands.
At Abdul Qadr, a very small village, the only. one between Borama and Zeilah, the hills were completely bald. A heat haze shimmered glassily from the black rock, and the village coiled around the hillside like something out of a science-fiction story, an earth settlement with a precarious foothold on a hot and empty asteroid. When we drew closer, however, we were astonished to see a procession of women and girls coming to meet us, all of them carrying vessels filled with fresh camel milk. Where did they feed their herds? Milk. was always a problem for us. Our staff, like all Somalis, craved it, and in the Haud, the best grazing area in the land, even after the Gu rains we had difficulty in obtaining enough. How was it that at Abdul Qadr we found plenty? Mohamed expressed the belief that the Abdul Qadr people left vessels of water in some magic place and when they returned they found the water turned to milk.
‘The dry thorns in this place,’ Omar suggested, ‘give better milk than the finest camel.’
They were joking, but only half. We were all in agreement – the people of Abdul Qadr must be the personal friends of Allah.
Our lightheartedness disappeared as we left the hills behind and crawled in convoy, Land-Rover and trucks, out onto the Guban. Our map of Somaliland classified the roads as ‘Roads, principal; Roads. other; Tracks (motorable in some cases)’, but in fact there were no ‘Roads, principal’ in our sense of the words, no smooth highways where driving was easy. Most of the roads were ‘other’. and a good many of them fell into the third category. When we emerged onto the coastal plain. the track meandered through the sand and frequently disappeared altogether. All we could do was head in the right direction and hope for the best. The Land- Rover bumped over the rough desert, and we were shaken like seeds in a gourd rattle. The heat was so intense that I breathed
raspingly. gulping at the air. Whenever we stopped the Land-Rover and got out, the sun was like a hammer blow on my head and the nape of my neck. Headache trammelled like hooves through my skull. We drove on and on and on, seeing around us only the rusty sand and occasional clumps of coarse grass.
Then I saw, dancing in the air just ahead of us, a dozen pairs of yellow wings. Sun-drugged and dizzied by heat, I nonetheless took particular note, for these birds were the first pleasant sight since we came down onto the Guban. I pointed them out to Jack and Abdi. Look – yellow canaries!
Jack and Abdi, whose eyes were better than mine, said nothing. I would discover my error soon enough. The dozen pairs of wings became two and three dozen, a multitude, and I saw that the creatures were not little yellow canaries but large yellow locusts. They were in the middle stage of their growth. When they were fully mature, their wings would be scarlet, with a span as wide as a man’s hand. Soon we were driving through a swarm of them. They fluttered blindly in through the Land-Rover windows, and launched themselves like bullets at our heads. They were armoured, their bodies having the horny texture of sea-shells. Their fan-like wings were fantastically strong. We closed the windows hastily, even at the risk of stifling, and managed to rid ourselves of the insects inside the car. Outside, they clattered like rain against the canvas roof. The radiator became clogged with them. The windscreen was so splattered with their dead and oozing bodies that Abdi could hardly see.
Somaliland was one of the countries in which Desert Locust Control operated. Bait was set mainly, we had been told, for the young hoppers, in the hope that these might be poisoned before they grew wings. Some day, if sufficient control work could be done, locusts might no longer be a threat throughout the entire East. But that day was a long way off.
The swarming locusts moved like the surge and flow of a tidal wave. Nothing could stop them. Their wings were a shadow all around us, and they even darkened and obscured the sun. In the land where they passed, no leaf or blade of grass would remain – they would devour everything. They were a plague, a scourge. Burdening the air with their thrusting flight, their terrible wings of gold, they seemed like the giant locusts of the Apocalypse – the sound of their wings was as the sound of chariots of many horses running to battle.
Stunned by this onslaught, half suffocated in our airless enclosure, we drove grimly on. After an eternity of battering our way through the battalion of wings, we overtook their front ranks and passed them. We flung open the windows and breathed freely at last, and now the scalding breeze across the Guban seemed cool and wonderful.
At the extreme western edge of the country, close to French Somaliland, Zeilah stood, almost with its feet in the sea. We sighted it from a long way off, and it had the quality of a mirage, a shining city, the mosque minarets white in the sun, and the tomb of the local saint appearing to be a dome of pure and scintillating ice. The yellow sand gleamed all around, and beyond the city one could see the long silver ribbon that was the Gulf of Aden.
Close by, the view altered. Zeilah was not a city but a small and almost deserted town. The tomb of the Hazrami saint was made of whitewashed mudbrick, stained by rain and goat dung. The shops and houses were decaying, the soiled plaster falling away in shreds and chunks. Many dwellings had been abandoned entirely. The streets were narrow, the houses jammed in together, their walls sinking into the sand and their grey bone-dry doors askew. They had a sad and rakish appearance, as of dead bones not decently buried but left exposed to the plain view and curious stare of alien onlookers. Around the flat sunbaked roofs, the sea- birds screamed. The Somali huts at the edge of the town had a neater appearance than the crumbling shops and tea houses. Made of woven branches and twigs, the huts had a thorny and thatched look. A few children played in the cobbled streets, and sometimes a donkey ambled into the town, bearing water vessels to be filled at the Zeilah wells. Over the whole place clung the reek of the sea, a warm salt smell mingled with seaweed and rotting fish.
Zeilah was once a great city, although nothing of the opulence it then knew remained here now. It was known to the ancient Greeks, who called it Aualites. According to Drake-Brockman, this coast was known at the beginning of the Christian era as Barbaria, from which the name Berbera may have been derived. Zeilah at that time was one of the most flourishing ports in East Africa. Like Babylon, that mighty city, its trade was in gold and silver, cinnamon, frankincense, pearls, beasts and sheep, and the souls of men. It was a slave port, for many centuries one of the largest. According to legend, Sheikh Ibrahim Abu Zarbay, one of the Hazrami proselytizers who came to this land with Sheikh Ishaak (the ‘ancestor’ from whom the Ishaak tribes traced their descent), preached at Zeilah and was buried here. Zeilah reached its zenith in the sixteenth century with the rule of the Somali king Mohamed Granye, and after his defeat by the Portuguese, the city was for several centuries in the hands of the Arabs, until the country came under the administration of the British.
Once there was a pearl industry at Zeilah. The pearls were small and pink, highly valued in Arabia and along the Persian Gul£ But the pearl beds were all depleted now.
We saw the mosque where Sir Richard Burton, in his Arab merchant’s disguise, preached so skillfully. A small mosque, it was, the disintegrating walls repaired with bunched-up thorn twigs. It might not even have been the same mosque. It was the oldest one in Zeilah – that was all we were able to discover. No one here had ever heard of Burton. Perhaps an old man dozing in one of the huts had heard the tale, but he did not emerge to talk with strangers like ourselves.
The Zeilah people had always been a mixture of races – Somali, Galla, Danakil, Arab. Political and religious prisoners used to be brought here from Arabia, and the town’s name in the original Arabic meant ‘a place of exile’. The present inhabitants were the last clingers-on, descendants of the Arab traders, the slavers, the pearl-divers. They sauntered the sandy uncluttered streets, seemingly indifferent to their fate. I recalled what an educated Somali friend in Hargeisa had told us about his experiences in Zeilah, when he was here for a time on a government administrative
job. The Zeilah people, he said, could talk of nothing except the sea – the hazards of taking a dhow across to Arabia, how to deal with a shark when you were diving, the art of handling a dhow in the mad kharif wind. These things they still knew, but all else seemed to have vanished. They did something which he felt had a subtle horror about it – they chanted songs whose meanings they had forgotten. The words were Galla, or Danakil, mixed with Arabic or archaic Somali, all so blended and changed that they were unrecognizable. They would chant them over and over, the mysterious words and phrases of a dead past, possibly imbued now with a magical significance. Our friend said he could hardly believe it at first, and thought maybe it was only the young people who did not know the meaning of the songs. He asked the elders of the town. They smiled gently and said no, they didn’t know the meaning of the words in the old songs, either. These were just the songs their people had always sung, that was all.
The town was quiet. The coastal tribes came here for water, but few people lived here permanently any more. When we attempted to find some of the famed Zeilah mats, small circular grass mats beaded in marvelous designs and edged with cowrie shells, we could find no one who made them nowadays. The old skill seemed to be lost. Everything here had been shrunken by time and the sun, grown pale, faded to shadows. It was harder here than it was at Amoud to imagine the way the city must once have been, hard to believe that the caravans had ever poured in here, the camels bellowing and complaining, the wooden bells around the beasts’ necks clanking in the hot briny air. Hard to believe, too, that here the slaves boarded the dhows and said their last farewell to Africa and to everything they knew, or that once the bazaars and streets echoed to the shouts of Mohamed Granye’s armies. All gone now. On one side of Zeilah the still and tepid salt water lay, and on the other, the sands of the Guban stretched away and were lost in the heat haze.
We resided at the Residency. Heaven only knows how old this place was. Possibly it was built when the British first took over the administration of this country. It was in constant use as long as a district commissioner lived here, but now there was no D.C. at zeilah and the Residency served only as an occasional resthouse for travellers such as ourselves. Reputed to be the only three-storey dwelling in Somaliland, it was enormous, built of rough stone blocks of brownish coral colour, with grey wooden verandas around the middle tier. Many years ago it might have been luxurious, but now it resembled a mausoleum with a view. It faced onto the sea, so we could sit on the long shuttered veranda and watch the tides come and go, which they did silently, for the water here did not lap or murmur or beat in waves against the shore. The sea was sluggish, eerily quiet. The garden contained only a few dwarfed palm trees, dwelt in at the moment by locusts who chewed clickingly at the leaves all night.
The inner portion of our apartment consisted of a main room, a bathroom and a wide hall. The builder obviously had some deep obsession with doors, of which there seemed to be hundreds. Sitting inside the main room, a person could not face all these doors at the same time. There was no solid wall for one to get one’s back up against. Always a door was there, behind you. Above us were the empty rooms and the blank windows of the top storey. An open stairway led up, but We never went to look there.
The floor boards in our apartment were bare and dusty, and cobwebs hung like grey ferns on the walls. The furniture was bizarre – a long table which was oddly covered with green felt, now frayed and stained; a sideboard in which none of the doors or drawers would close; a corner cabinet with swirls of wood at the bottom, elegant in its youth, possibly, but now looking like an aged tart grubbily furbelowed in the finery of another era; a curious little cupboard with two sections, the top portion glassed- in and looking as though it had been designed for false teeth in a tumbler of water at night, the lower shelf looking as though it were meant to harbour a china chamber pot, no doubt one that bore a crest or coat-of-arms in gilt. The slightest noise echoed. When a piece of paper was blown across the floor, it sounded like the rattling of sabres. The bathroom boasted a galvanized tub which had evidently for some time been a favourite nesting place of spiders and scorpions.
The second tier of the Residency had two apartments. The other was occupied by Ugo, the Italian foreman who was accompanying us to Djibouti and whose special responsibility was Alfie, the great lumbering diesel truck which would be used to transport the tractors back. Alfie was something of a curiosity, for the Italian mechanics in Hargeisa had ingeniously built it out of discarded pieces of Italian wartime trucks. Jack. had explained to me what a remarkable creation it was, with its Alfa-Romeo chassis and gearbox, a Fiat engine with its own gearbox (the combination of the two sets of gears giving a great range of speeds), and a Lancia front axle and steering gear. Ugo was sturdy, staunch-hearted and cheerful, and would have been an excellent companion except for the fact that he spoke practically no English and we spoke practically no Italian. On the veranda we chatted with him, after a fashion, over an evening drink.
‘Somaliland – fenomenale,’ he said. This was his favourite phrase. He believed that all Somalis were incomprehensible and probably insane, and they in tum believed the same about him. Ugo offered to teach us Italian, but for some reason, possibly the climate, we managed to pick up only two words, rampicanti and piroscafo, neither of which was much use to us, there being neither vines nor steamships at Zeilah.
We sat in the darkness, for if we brought a lamp onto the veranda, the locusts would immediately begin an invasion. We finally said goodnight to Ugo, but then we found that we could not bring ourselves to sleep in that huge dusty stifling room with all the doors. We moved our bed out onto the veranda and tried to sleep there. Now that the human voices were quiet, the house could be heard. Everything creaked, like the timbers on an old ship. The doors could not have been oiled in decades. The salt wind had corroded the hinges and locks, and in a sudden gust of wind every door in the place would blow open and slam shut. Through the veranda the wide-winged bats hovered and swooped, from rafters to eaves, down across our bed and over to a niche in the wall. Small unseen creatures of the night made mild rustlings in the woodwork and around the decrepit furniture. The heat was relentless. We lay wearily open-eyed in our sweat-soaked sheets, and at last, uneasily, we slept.
We kept our thoughts secret for a while, feeling apologetic and faintly ridiculous at having apparently yielded to the place. Only after several days here did Jack and I discover that we both had the same strong impression that the Residency was occupied by some- thing other than ourselves and the bats, mice and insects. We did not believe in ghosts. Yet here and now, in this place and at this time, we could not even in broad daylight rid ourselves of an overpowering conviction that something existed here which we were unable to explain, some residue of anguish. We did not expect to see a long-dead Englishman walking through one of the many doors. This was no horrific ghost, nor did it threaten us at all. This occupancy was quite different – a sense of mourning, of inexpressible sadness. Whoever it was whose sorrow still clung around this place, he must have been English, we were certain, and young and – what was the right word to describe him? – be- wildered.
We were vaguely ashamed of our feeling. We would not have dreamed of mentioning it to anyone else, but we began to notice how the others were reacting. Mohamed was always glancing back over his shoulder. Mohamedyero refused to sleep inside the building – he took his sleeping mat outside.
‘I am thinking we should be proceeding Djibouti right away and awaiting there for this ship,’ Hersi said. ‘This Zeilah place no good for us.’
But when we asked him why, he would not say.
Weeks later, when Jack returned to Zeilah to collect the last of the tractors which had been stored there, he chose to stay in the cramped and airless P.W. D. shack rather than the Residency.
‘I know it’s crazy,’ he told me afterwards. ‘I’ve never felt like that before, but I just couldn’t force myself to spend a night alone in that place.’
Then one evening in Hargeisa, we got talking about Zeilah with the wife of an administrator. Her husband was stationed there many years before, and they had lived in the Residency.
‘A rather peculiar thing occurred to me there,’ she said. ‘My husband was out on trek and I was alone in the house. I heard footsteps very clearly on the stairs, but when I went to look, no one was there. This happened several times during the evening. When my husband came back, I told him about it, and he informed me, rather reluctantly, that there was a legend about the place being haunted by a Somali policeman who had been murdered there.’
She laughed a little. ‘Believe it or not, just as you choose. I hardly believe it myself, now. But when you’re there-‘
We could see perfectly well what she meant, for we had felt the same way, there. Obviously, we must have been mistaken, however, to have felt that the occupancy of the house was connected with an Englishman. We thought no more about it until a few years later, in London, when we chanced to meet a man who had been stationed for a time in Somaliland after the war. doing investigations for the War Graves Commission. He had been at Zeilah and knew the old Residency. In the course of our reminiscing. we mentioned the story of the murdered Somali policeman.
‘Yes, that was the legend devised for local purposes’, he said, ‘but when I was investigating there, I turned up a good deal of information from the past. What actually happened was that a British administrative officer killed his wife there and then shot himself!’
How implausible such a tale seems, at a distance. How hackneyed, even. Nevertheless, there it is. I cannot entirely dismiss it, nor deny the overwhelming sense of occupation we felt in the tall grey house at the edge of the leaden sea, where the locusts flew with the silken wings of destruction, while out on the shore the whorled and fluted sea-shells, pearl white or gaudy as paints, inhabited by living claws, scuttled across the wet sands like creatures of fantasy which only in that one place could exist.
A message was brought to us at Zeilah – the ship had docked. It hardly seemed possible, after so many delays. Thankfully, we left the Residency and drove to Djibouti, thirty miles away.
In camp, I had often felt I would not care if I never saw a city again. Yet I was delighted to see Djibouti, overjoyed at the sight of pavements and paved roads and office buildings of contemporary design. For one thing, Djibouti afforded an opportunity for me to change from my trek clothes, old dirndl skirt and blouse and the necessary but unflattering headscarf, and put on my best cotton dress and my broad-brimmed straw hat with the velvet ribbon. Thus attired, and strolling as gaily as the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo, I discovered that I was the object of quizzical and disapproving stares. Finally, I perceived the reason – all the French women in Djibouti were wearing mushroom-like topees and seemed to have the impression that I in my flimsy straw might drop at any moment from sunstroke. It took me less than five minutes to decide I would rather risk sunstroke than wear a topee.
On the Djibouti streets, we saw a wide variety of people. Small stunted Arabs in rags, begging. Indian merchants in white linen suits. Young Frenchmen with sunburnt skins, clad in open-necked shirts and attractively short shorts. Older Frenchmen, stout and red as Santa Claus, with bulging thighs, clad in open-necked shirts and very unattractively short shorts. Somali and Danakil women wearing mission-style dresses with clumsy bodices and hideous puffed sleeves, a contrast to the women who wore traditional Somali dress, graceful robes of scarlet and blue and gold, and the long Kool, a necklace of amber. A scrawny yellow-skinned Arab sprawled on top of a cart loaded with wood and charcoal, beating his thin grey donkey languorously with a stick. The short wiry Yemeni dockers looked as though they could be knocked over with a feather, but they had the reputation of being very tough. Italian mechanics in blue denim overalls shouted at one another. The many priests all wore long beards and white robes tied with a black cord at the waist. Some of them rode bicycles and looked like sails in the wind, their robes flapping around them as they veered down the crowded street.
The Somali magala was a shantytown, hovels of flattened paraffin tins and wooden boxes. The stench and the hordes of flies were indescribable. Europeans were not encouraged to come here, as it gave an unfavorable impression of the city. The French residential sections were what one was supposed to look at- comfortable bungalows and apartment blocks, in both contemporary and Eastern styles. The contrasts between the African and European standards of living were the same as those found in Hargeisa, but here they seemed slightly sharper, more emphasized.
The magala was a worse slum. the European cantonments more polished and sophisticated.
Djibouti was surrounded and almost overpowered by the strong glare of the sun. The buildings and the dark green palms seemed to waver before our eyes. The colours blurred and glowed – the turquoise sea, the buildings of soft ripe yellow like the melons that grew in the salt flats outside the city. A really incongruous note was the famous’ railway, the only one in this part of the world, that chugged between Djibouti and Addis Ababa three times a week.
We had iced German lager at a bar called Le Palmier En Zinc, where the metal palm was said to have been the first tree in Djibouti. One difference with British Somaliland struck us as refreshing – here, French people worked as shop clerks, waiters, barmaids. The barmaid in Le Palmier looked young, old, very pale. Her hair by nature was brown, and this shade showed at the roots, but it grew progressively more blonde until at the ends it was nearly colourless- it resembled those paint-colour charts the hardware stores had at home, showing how many variations of yellow it was possible to obtain.
Most of the shops were Greek, with a few French and Indian ones. The Italians sold excellent ice cream. One of the buildings in the central square looked like an illustration from a book of sorcery, a design for a warlock’s residence. Its basic shape was indiscernible, for it was covered all over with gables and pagoda-like protuberances, and verandas flowered from it in clusters. Its walls were robin’s egg blue, its roof a bright orange slate. Grey shutters, latticed in a crude wooden filigree, were tacked onto windows the shape of mosque windows, tapering gracefully upward. The eyes of many women in purdah seemed to be peering from behind these shutters, or so we imagined, peering out at a world which they were never allowed to touch. Was it an old-style eastern brothel, or the house of a sultan whose fifty concubines were kept in strict seclusion, or a Chinese establishment that sold potted lilies in the front and opium in the back? More likely it was an importing firm that dealt in paraffin or soap, but we never found out, and I was not sorry.
A striking feature of Djibouti was the large number of churches and missions. Only one state school existed, we were told, and many Somalis sent their children to mission schools. The Somalis with us were deeply shocked by this situation, for in the Protectorate no missionaries were allowed. They referred to the mission priests as ‘child stealers’, and Hersi told us why this name was used. In times of famine, here and in Italian Somaliland, many Somalis took their children to the missions, where they were fed – at the price of relinquishing Islam. Whether or not this was actually ever made a condition of receiving help, I do not know. The significant thing was that the Somalis believed it.
The police in Djibouti were among the most magnificent men I have ever seen anywhere. They were Senegalese, huge men with muscular necks and legs which resembled carvings of the ancient Assyrians. They wore crimson fez and smart khaki uniform, and were tall, broad, handsome, completely self-assured. Hersi, Abdi, Mohamed, Arabetto and the others did not share my admiration of these Senegalese. They were extremely apprehensive about them, and I soon realized why. The French administrators here followed a stunningly simple policy – if the police were recruited from another colony, and did not have tribal or family connections in the country where they worked, they would have no objections to strong-arm tactics in dealing with the locals. The Somalis and Senegalese were completely alien to one another, and their mutual mistrust could easily turn to hatred. Divide and rule.
Whatever one could say against the British administration in colonies, this was one gimmick they did not use.
‘I am fearing we getting into some trouble here,’ Hersi said. ‘If so, who will believing be us in this place?’
Hersi relied, always, on his verbal skill, for he was of a slight and slender build. Here his oratory would not serve him, for the Senegalese did not speak Somali or English, and Hersi did not speak Senegalese or French. Jack and I shared his nervousness. The trouble could be real, or it could be trumped up. We did not want any difficulty with the authorities at this point. We could see ourselves flung out of the country, going back without the tractors for which we had been waiting so long.
‘For God’s sake, be careful,’ Jack cautioned everyone. ‘And whatever you do, stay away from those Senegalese.’
Yes, yes, of course – they would be extremely careful, they promised.
‘1 go softly-softly,’ Mohamed said fervently. ‘1 swear it.’
His idea of going softly-softly was to raise a thunderous h o w l – ‘Thief! Thief!’- when my purse strap was neatly cut away with a razor blade one day and Mohamed managed to snatch it back. We narrowly escaped a riot. The hefty police glowered but providentially did not pounce. On another occasion, Abdi reckoned some Djibouti Somalis were speaking derisively about him, and once again we avoided disaster by a hair’s breadth. The old warrior was quite prepared to take them all on at once, all two hundred of them, and only through the concentrated efforts of Jack and Arabetto, one on each side of him, did we manage to drag him away.
None of the Somalis with us had ever seen Djibouti before, and their feelings were very mixed. For one thing, the openness of the love game here was both shocking and exciting to them. In Djibouti there was a belief that it pays to advertise. Outside door- ways were large signs – Club Des Jeunes Femmes Somalis et Dankali and Club des Jeunes Femmes Arabiques. One place, especially anxious to impress, said ‘Established 193 s’, but failed to state whether or not the same jeunes femmes had frequented the establishment since that date. Collections of postcards sold in the shops were entitled ‘Views of Djibouti’, but the title was not entirely accurate, as the views were mainly concerned with unclad Somali womanhood. We received a variety of reactions to the city from the Somalis who had accompanied us. Abdi virtuously maintained that the young men could not work as hard as he, an old man, and the reason was quite plain.
‘Man he get woman too much, he no get strength,’ Abdi said, flexing his biceps.
Mohamed refrained from mentioning this aspect of Djibouti, at least directly. But he, too, claimed to dislike the city.
‘Djibouti too cost,’ he said with a regretful sigh. ‘All thing cost too much.’
Hersi, always conscious of his status as a mullah, had yet another point of view.
‘People in this place, they are not proper Somalis,’ he said. ‘They never showing us proper hospitality, as the Kitab commanding. They are thieves, these people, and also bloody poor Muslims as well.’
Only Arabetto, less divided or more frank. than the others, admitted he liked the city.
‘Just like Mogadisciou,’ he said with a grin. ‘Plenty girls.’
All were united in one respect, however. They believed that great wealth could be obtained by buying goods cheaply here and selling at an enormous profit when they returned to Hargeisa. Mohamed, Abdi and Arabetto purchased large quantities of cheap perfume, which they subsequently disposed of at a small profit. Hersi, inexplicably, decided to go into the sweater business. He bought a dozen thick wool sweaters and later could not sell them at all, for by the time we returned to Hargeisa it was the height of the hot season.
The British consul, who was also the manager of an export- import firm here, kindly offered to put us up. His wife and child were away during the hot season, he told us, so he would be glad of the company. We accepted gratefully, and moved in. The bungalow had electric ceiling fans in every room, and the blades whirred night and day but seemed only to whip the air into an invisible froth without ever cooling it. The heat felt worse here than it had on the exposed Guban. The house thermometer read 115 one day, and after that I refused to look at it. The consul was at his office all day, and Jack was down at the docks, getting the tractors unloaded, so I was alone in the bungalow. I wanted to work on the Somali translations, but all I could think of was the oppressive heat. Finally, I discovered a way to escape it. The consul’s bathroom was enormous, with a sunken blue-tiled tub like a small swimming pool, and great flagons of eau-de-cologne standing invitingly around. Each morning I filled the tub with cold water and perfume, and spent most of the day there, emerging at intervals to re-fill my pint glass of orange squash. I felt a few qualms, true, as I sat in the cool depths of the consul’s bathtub and worked on translations of desert poetry. But these misgivings were never sufficient to make me seriously consider moving to more uncomfortable surroundings for the sake of atmosphere.
In the evenings we went out, often for dinner and then on to a nightclub. No one in Djibouti attempted to sleep before two or three in the morning. The nightclub we visited most often was on the seafront, hemmed in with potted palms and surrounded with an air of gloomy nostalgia. The orchestra was composed of Italians, and as the night wore on, they became fed up with the dreary waltzes and foxtrots. Abruptly they would leave the dance floor and go out on the veranda, where they would sing Italian songs, slow and sad ones. The same people came to the nightclub every evening. There was a kind of esprit de corps in Djibouti at night- the misfits, traitors, outcasts, smugglers, wan middle- ageing prostitutes, the colonial service men in their immaculate whites, the perspiring commercial men whose sallow faces were pimpled with prickly heat- they were all the same here in the nightclub. No difference existed between any of them now. There was no feverish gaiety, no pretence. A few of the younger dancers asked for jazz, and the orchestra obliged, but half- heartedly. Most people preferred to dance more languidly. Conversation over the drinks was low, subdued. The evening was too hot to permit raised voices. Life was an existing from one whisky-and-soda to the next, and home was a place you would never see again.
Once when we got back to the consul’s bungalow, we found the Livingroom filled with locusts. The entire front of the house was like concrete lace, open to the air in geometrical patterns, a design which ensured a maximum of breeze but also a maximum of insects. The locusts were everywhere – the sound of their wings was louder than the steady chunking of the ceiling fans. But we, exhausted and full of gin-and-lime, couldn’t have cared less. Jack and the consul got out rackets and used the locusts as tennis balls.
‘How many do you make it?’ the consul puffed cheerily, swiping away at the locusts.
‘I haven’t a clue – I lost count after the first couple of dozen.’
IIS THE PROPHET’S CAMEL BELL
Victory was achieved at last. The Livingroom floor was strewn with locust corpses, and we retired and slept fitfully under the eternally whirling fans.
For Jack, the days were a nightmare. The equipment consisted of two Caterpillar D-4 tractors with scrapers and a D-4 bull-dozer. When he first went to the docks to supervise the unloading, he discovered that the machinery was packed down under everything else in the ship’s hold, crated in gigantic wooden boxes, one of which was jammed solidly behind a pillar. No one had the remotest idea how to get them out. In the port, there were no cranes heavy enough, so the job had to be done mainly with the ship’s limited equipment. Jack toiled like a coolie on the docks all day and every day. When the boxes were finally lifted out, the task of uncrating the tractors remained and then loading them one at a time onto the old diesel truck, Alfie, and getting them back to Zeilah, where they would be temporarily left until they could be transported one by one back to Hargeisa. Ugo and Jack, in a situation filled with all kinds of technical difficulties, were forced to communicate in a tortuous manner. When Jack wanted to say something to Ugo, he gave Hersi the message in English. Hersi told Arabetto in Somali, and Arabetto passed the information on to Ugo in Italian. The reply came back in the same way. Considering that Hersi and Arabetto knew nothing about tractors, and that the words for various parts of the machines did not exist in the Somali language, it was little wonder that Jack and Ugo frequently had to make wild guesses about what the other was trying to say. As if these difficulties were not enough, the crane operator at the port spoke only French, which none of our party could speak.
‘I know now,’ Jack said heavily, ‘exactly what the tower of Babel must have been like.’
The sun blazed down on the docks, and the harsh glare of light never let up for an instant. One afternoon, Jack arrived back at the bungalow and hesitated in the doorway.
‘Peg – give me a hand, will you?’
1was immediately alarmed. What was the matter?
‘I can’t seem to see,’ he said, his voice tight with anxiety.
He had suddenly gone blind. He had a splitting headache and everything had turned to darkness. I was frantic with worry, but the consul remained unperturbed.
‘Sunstroke,’ he said calmly. ‘Bound to happen sooner or later, working out in the sun all day. It’ll probably pass off after an hour, or so.
What if it didn’t? I had the momentary unreasonable conviction that every doctor in Djibouti was incompetent, irresponsible and probably alcoholic. Later, when all was well, I recalled this feeling with some shame, and could no longer maintain the same comfortable scorn at the Hargeisa memsahibs’ delusions about the country, the host of dangers they conjured up to frighten or entertain themselves.
After a few hours, just as the consul predicted, the mist lifted from Jack’s eyes, and the next morning he was back at the docks again.
We were as glad to leave Djibouti as we had been to arrive. When the last piece of machinery was unloaded and ready to be taken to Zeilah, everyone climbed aboard and we were off. The Land-Rover and trucks drove for the last time through the paved streets, past the misshapen old buildings, past the slickly shining new apartments, past shuttered mysterious dwellings, past the clean whitewashed walls of the Pharmacie de la Mer Rouge, past Le Palmier En Zinc, past the Italian gialotto shop, past the rotting shanties of the magala, past the date palms with their bunches of orange-brown fruit, past white-robed priests on bicycles and chalk-faced women looking forlorn under the small umbrellas of their topees.
Farewell to the homesick city, the shabby Paris of the Gulf of Aden. Nabadgelyo, Djibouti – may we never see you again.
From Zeilah, we set out onto the Guban in the late afternoon, when the heat was not quite so severe. As usual, we moved in convoy – first, the Land-Rover with Jack and myself and Abdi; next, Ugo driving Alfie, which was loaded with a tractor and was towing a scraper; then the Bedford truck, driven by Arabetto and carrying Mohamed and Hersi as well as the gang of labourers; and finally the old P.W.D. tractor from Zeilah, which we had borrowed to go part of the way with us, through the worst of the sand, in case the heavily loaded diesel got stuck. Jack did not want the new tractors driven back to Hargeisa under their own power, as the trek might wreck them and would in any event take too long.
Seven miles out of Zeilah, the diesel got bogged down in the sand. Everyone piled out and began digging, poking thorn boughs under the wheels, shoving. The P.W.D. tractor finally hauled Alfie out, but at that moment the diesel’s steering broke. Ugo and Jack ingeniously managed to fix the steering with bits of wire, a job which took two hours. When we got going once more, it was growing dark. We forged ahead and reached a dry river- bed where the loose sand lay thick and treacherous. The diesel sank down once more and almost turned over. This time it was seriously stuck. Even the old tractor could not budge it. Alfie’s wheels spun furiously, unable to grip in the slithering sand. Even if the diesel could be dragged across the riverbed, the danger area extended for several miles ahead, the sand lying soft and crumbly as brown sugar.
Then, all at once, the night arrived and with it a sand storm. We were on the Rat treeless Guban, with only a few clumps of grass to stop the blowing sand, and the wind was careering across the desert. Arabetto shifted the Bedford so that work could be done by its lights, and Abdi did the same with the Land-Rover. Fortunately, Jack had insisted upon bringing the boards from the tractor crate, thinking they might possibly come in useful.
‘We’ll try making a portable road,’ he decided.
Everyone seized a board. These were thrown down in front of the diesel’s wheels, and as Alfie began to heave out of the sand, towed by the old tractor, the wheels gripped on the boards and crunched slowly ahead. For some distance the moving road of boards continued. As the wheels came grinding forward, someone would pick up the last board and run with it to the front of the diesel. All the time the sand was whipping against us, peppering our limbs as though with buckshot, filling our eyes and mouths with grit. The wind howled and shrieked.
‘Wallahi!’ Mohamed gasped. ‘I think this wind is some shaitan, some devil’.
By midnight we had been travelling for eight hours and we had gone exactly twenty-five miles. Jack and I slept at last in the Land- Rover, while the Somalis and Ugo went to sleep in the trucks. We were all so tired we hardly cared whether we lived or died.
But something had been changed by this tussle with the desert. After this night, when Jack managed somehow to devise ways of getting our unwieldy caravan across the shifting sands of the Guban, the attitude of the Somalis was subtly different. They began speaking, for the first time, of ‘the balleh camp’ or ‘we be- long to the balleh job’, as though the work now possessed an entity. And they began to call Jack odei-gi rer-ki, the old man of the tribe.