The Ballehs – This is chapter seventh of the Book “The Prophet’s Camel Bell: A Memoir of Somaliland” by Margaret Laurence. The Book is both a fascinating account of Somali culture and British colonial characters and a lyrical description of life in the desert.


A Memoir Of Somaliland

By Margaret Laurence (Author)

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 A Memoir Of Somaliland



Chapter Title
1 Innocent Voyage
2 Footsteps
3 House in the Clouds
4 Jilal
5 Flowering Desert
6 Place of Exile
7 The Ballehs
8 Arrivederci, Italia
9 A Teller of Tales
10 Mohamed
11 Arabetto
12 The Old Warrior
13 A Tree for Poverty
14 The Imperialists
15 Nabad Gelyo
Glossary of Somali Words
The Prophet's Camel Bell A Memoir Of Somaliland
Jack, Author, and Gino. Photographer unknown
The Prophet's Camel Bell A Memoir Of Somaliland
This map shows the area of the Haud in Somaliland where Laurence and her husband lived

The Prophet's Camel Bell A Memoir Of Somaliland

The Bungalow at Sheikh. Photographer unknown.

Chapter 7

The Ballehs

The green of the good season had faded from the Haud, and the Somalis were wondering if the Dhair rains, which sometimes fell in autumn, would come this year. If the Dhair rains failed, there would be trouble here when the winter drought set in, for the Habr Awal from the Guban were moving up into the Haud plateau this year. Every morning we saw families of Habr Awal trekking past our camp, the women and girls leading the heavily loaded burden camels, the children and old people shouting at the flocks that trooped dustily along, and in the distance, the men whistling and singing, or blowing on the wooden flutes which were used to keep the shambling camel herds together.

“These people having bloody poor brains,” said Hersi, who was Habr Yunis. “They should not coming this place.”

Mohamed, being Habr Awal, naturally took a somewhat different view.

“Many Habr Awal camels come too much sick this time,” he said. “I hear it – Habr Awal people all saying must be they find some different-different grass, for make their camels get some healthy. Must be they come here. They never make trouble this place.”

The young camels were being weaned now. The Somalis had a sharply effective way of accomplishing this separation. They placed a forked stick over the small camel’s nose, and when the infant tried to get milk from its mother, the prong of the stick jabbed the she-camel, and she moved rapidly away, no doubt leaving the bewildered young one, who was unaware that it had a spear on its snout, to wonder why it had been rejected so peremptorily. Could it be that the foul tempers of full-grown camels dated back to this early traumatic experience? The Somalis remained unaware of any such interesting possibility. Cast into abrupt independence, the young camels nibbled sadly at the coarse grass, and the milk was saved for the people.

Happy to be back in camp, I pottered around our truck-home, arranging our meager furniture – bed here, table there, camp chairs next to the table, cases of tinned food stowed under the bed. Re-acquainting myself with the desert, I had a feeling of homecoming. Here at Balleh Gehli was the shallow pool, now only a shiny skin of cracked mud, where one morning just after the rains I walked down early and saw a child filling a water-vessel, and she, surprised, turned suddenly and gave me a smile of such radiance I could scarcely believe it was meant for a stranger. And here were the myrrah trees which a few months ago were covered with small yellow blossoms, the fragrance of which was subtler and sweeter than any bottled perfume. I was glad to see everything. Even the ember-eyed balanballis, haunting the truck at night with its black wings, seemed almost an old acquaintance.

Our camp had expanded to fairly large proportions. As well as Hersi, Mohamed, Abdi, Arabetto, Omar, Mohamedyero and the laborers, we now had the tractor drivers. Also, this time Gino was with us, for now that the construction of the ballehs was about to begin, Jack needed a foreman on the job. A middle-aged Italian, Gino was built like a wrestler, a man of enormous strength, but very gently spoken. He lived in a caravan which he had built for himself, a marvelous structure complete with screened windows. He had promised to bequeath it to us when he went on leave, and although I did not wish him to be gone, I could not help eyeing the caravan enviously from time to time. Only those who have never experienced anything except comfort think that physical comfort is unimportant.

But we, too, had a luxury now – a separate diningroom which the Somali laborers had built for us. It was a brushwood hut made of twined acacia branches and filled in with clumps of a plant called gedhamar, a kind of herb with a pleasant smell similar to summer savory. The woven branches allowed just enough sunlight to filter in, but the heat was kept out. Our water bottles, stored here, became chilled at night and remained cool until noon. When the sun was shining across the top of the hut, the bunches of gedhamar looked silvery grey, as though the ceiling had been hung with tinsel. During the days I worked in the hut, and it was the most agreeable place for work which I have ever had. I had finished with the translations of the Somali poems I obtained from Guś and Musa, and now I was collecting Somali tales, which were told to me by Hersi and Arabetto in their spare time.

The main cause for jubilation in our return to the Haud was that the excavation of the first balleh was about to begin. For us, this was a landmark, a historic occasion. The Somalis in camp, however, did not entirely share our excitement. They tended to be blasé about the whole thing. Having become accustomed to the sight of the heavy machinery while the tractor drivers were being trained, Hersi, Abdi, and the others now felt that these roaring giants held no mysteries. With a fine sense of onomatopoeia, they called the tractors agaf-agaf, and because they had no basic understanding of machinery, they took the earth-moving equipment completely for granted. Although they swanked a little when they showed it off to visiting tribesmen, they were not amazed at its performance. It was just one of those things. A balleh, after all, was only a hole in the ground – digging one should be a simple matter. They did not doubt that the agaf-agaf would accomplish this task easily, but they saw nothing to marvel at when the steel-clawed ripper successfully attacked the red Haud soil, which was almost as hard as concrete, and broke it so that the scrapers could follow and scoop it up. Jack was wryly amused.

“They don’t know how difficult it is, nor how many problems we’ve had in actually getting to this point, so it doesn’t seem wonderful to them in the slightest.”

I could understand their naïve sophistication, for I had no comprehension of machinery, either, but at least I had shared some of the headaches involved in reaching this stage of operations.

The project, as originally conceived, was to have provided a chain of reservoirs to catch and hold rainwater along most of the southern boundary of the Protectorate. On paper the scheme had appeared relatively straightforward, but Jack’s initial reconnaissance over the west and central stretches of the area showed clearly that, like so many projects in Africa, this one would be anything but simple. The Haud was virtually featureless and such slopes as existed were generally long and gentle, particularly in the vicinity of the boundary. There were not even the rudiments of streams, stream channels or defined water-courses, however seasonal. Dams were definitely out, because there was nothing to dam. Some form of pond would have to be produced which, while basically nothing more than a large hole in the ground, would be scientifically designed and sited.

After miles of driving and tramping, working with compass and hand-level, after boring test-holes and digging test-pits, after examining rock and soil, after looking at the region’s few existing ballehs – the hand-dug shallow water holes of the Somalis, after pondering morosely on the possible and dreaming of the impossible, Jack at last got the pattern set. Each reservoir would be a large rectangular hole dug at the foot of a carefully selected slope. The earth which was removed would be banked up around the sides and lower end, making a huge U with the arms pointing uphill, although the slopes were so gradual that “uphill” was really too extreme a word. In order to reach out and gather the water that perhaps once a year, for a few brief hours, might come coursing down this slope in a thousand little rivulets, long walls would stretch out from the top of the U. Low banks of earth a thousand feet long or more, these wing-walls would check the water and deflect it very slowly towards the reservoir so that as little silt as possible would be carried with it. Beyond the ends of these walls, ploughed furrows would stretch further out and very slightly up, and would divert and channel the annual bounty on a front of over half a mile.

Rock too hard for a plough or a ripper existed no more than six or eight feet down, and so the reservoirs would be disproportionately shallow and evaporation would be more serious than one would wish. Ironically enough, although the rock was impervious to the attack of our equipment, it was not at all impervious to water, and no clay deposits were present here which could make the bottom of the ballehs water-tight. Fortunately, there was some clay mixed with the silt and sand, and Jack knew from observation that the Somalis would drive their camels into the water when it had become shallow, so little by little the animals’ feet would pack a natural cement bottom as the years went by.

Thirty ballehs were to be built, spaced about ten miles apart, along the waterless area three hundred miles long, just north of the Ethiopian border. Each balleh would have a capacity of about three million gallons and would provide water for approximately three months after being filled by rain.

The planning of the ballehs and the selection of sites had been a long and painstaking business, but although Jack had had a good deal of anxiety over it, he had also enjoyed it more than any other job he had ever done, for this was the first time he had ever been able to put his own ideas into practice. He had been impatient to get started on the excavation, but even after the equipment had finally been hauled here all the way from Djibouti, the actual construction of the ballehs could not begin until Somali drivers were trained to operate the machinery.

Easier said than done, this. Swarms of eager young men had applied for the jobs, and although a few of them had driven trucks, most had never even seen a tractor, and the scrapers were totally unfamiliar to them, for there had never been any scrapers in this country before. Six men were finally selected. Being aware that the tractors were virtually irreplaceable, and therefore having a strongly protective feeling towards them, Jack was apprehensive about them in the hands of the all-too-enthusiastic Somali novices. The Somali boys, for their part, were terribly anxious to hold their jobs and to do well, and so they would frequently demonstrate their talent by attempting to perform some outlandish feat which would strain even those machines, tough as they were. Or, out of ignorance, they would zoom gaily along in the wrong gear, and Jack would have to dash out to save the precious machinery. With three tractors cavorting around in this manner, it was not easy to keep an eye on all of them at the same time. They reminded me of boys on bicycles at home – Look at me, Ma! No hands!

But now, at last, the drivers were trained, in a manner of speaking, and the great day was here. The first day’s excavation went well. From the sidelines, Mohamed, Hersi and I watched while the ripper chewed at the soil and the scrapers began to shovel up the chunks of earth. The wilderness was quiet no longer. The tractors whoomed unceasingly. Around us, the dust was churned up and settled like red flour at our feet.

In the evening, Gino brought a straw-covered bottle of Chianti to the brushwood hut. This was the champagne with which the job was launched.

“Here’s to the ballehs!”

We were optimistic, re-charged with hope. All our troubles were over, we felt, knowing full well they were not, but willing to believe for a moment that everything would go like a song from now on.

The evenings were cold. After dinner, we sat in the brushwood hut, shivering in our sweaters and jackets, and listening to the squeaky trembling voice that issued from Arabetto’s old gramophone. He had a few well-worn Italian records, and he and Gino would listen nostalgically to Santa Lucia, one of them remembering Mogadisciou and the other remembering Milan. Arabetto was the only Somali who had a taste for this foreign music – the others pronounced it an abomination to the ears. Arabetto told us with amusement about the reaction of one of the laborers to the gramophone.

“He never see such thing before. He say – is it some devil, or is some small man inside?”

Another evening entertainment, if it could be called that, was watching the insects grimly battling. The large black crickets, noisy as a calypso steel band, emerged at sundown from the ground. We saw them digging their way up – plop! plop! – and there they were, hundreds of them crawling around at our feet. Then the sausage flies began buzzing through the air, their plump bodies clumsy and hardly able to fly, looking exactly like miniature sausages. An English sahib of local legend was reputed to enjoy eating these creatures – at parties, he would pluck them from the air and pop them in his mouth, and all the ladies would bleat and shriek to see him chewing. It struck me that there must surely be easier ways to establish one’s reputation as a character.

The next insects to put in an appearance at the evening battlefield were the killers, the black jinna or stink-ants, with their voracious jaws. When a sausage fly dropped bumbling to the ground, or a cricket faltered, the jinna would be upon it instantly, and within seconds it would have been devoured. We tried to avoid stepping on the jinna, for when we did, they gave off the most rank odour imaginable.

The Somalis had an enigmatic tale about the stink-ant. They said that if you went to the jinna and asked him why he was so thin in the waist, he would explain – “It is a result of riding a great deal on a fine horse. Anyone knows that riding draws in the waist.” And if you asked him why he had such a foul stench, he would answer, “Because I once visited a woman who had a stinking birth.” And if you asked him why his jaws were open so wide, he would reply, “Because I used to go with a group of boys from village to village, dancing, and I was the one who went in front, shouting that we did not come to beg food or money, but only came to dance.” I do not pretend to understand this story, but the Somalis considered it uproariously funny.

The brushwood hut in the evening was a place of contentment. In the navy-colored sky, the white clouds scudded silently across the moon. Outside the thorn-bough fence that enclosed our camp, we heard the low sullen moan of a hyena or the yapping of foxes. Many hyenas came snooping around our camp at night, and from the half-joking comments of the Somalis, I began to suspect that there was some magical significance attached to them. When I enquired if this was so, Hersi shook his head in emphatic denial.

“Our religion is forbidding such magical things absolutely,” he said. “We are Muslims, memsahib, Muslims.”

I begged his pardon and the matter was dropped. But one day Mohamed told me that the night before they had heard a scuffling out beyond the camp, where our hyena trap was always set, and when they went out to see, they found that the hyena had pushed a stick into the trap and in this way had avoided being caught itself.

“Hyena is very clever,” Mohamed said, tapping his forehead. “He think just like a man.”

Then he told me that the Esa people around Borama were reputed to be able to talk with hyenas. This idea, I recalled, was expressed in a belwo.

I ask the stealthy hyena
That prowls past Dumbuluq’s fires,
If he in his wide wandering
Brings back one word of you

Mohamed told me that many people believed that every so-many years the hyenas lost their cowardice and became man-eating. There was a basis in fact for this belief, for in the dry Jilal the hyenas roamed the streets of the towns at night, looking for water, or going to the meat market in search of offal, and when they came in packs they sometimes carried off a small child. The supernatural powers attributed to hyenas might have been some survival of the totem idea, identifying tribes with animals in order to obtain the benefit of the animal’s powers. Perhaps the beliefs were also encouraged by the fact that hyenas always disappeared completely and mysteriously in the daytime.

I took a keen interest in these magical beliefs, and then one day I was paid back in full measure for my unintentional condescension. Gino had made a miniature wood stove of cast iron, complete with oven, a perfect replica of the kind of stove I remembered from my childhood, and he said I might use this intriguing toy. It took a whole morning for me to bake a cake, for the stove was so small that it had to be fed with chips and shavings, and the cake took twice the usual time in the oven. On the first occasion, Mohamed was gloomy and disapproving.

“I think you no bake today, memsahib.”

Why not, I asked him.

“Today Friday,” he said. “If you make cake today, must be it will not come good.”

I disagreed. Friday might be the Muslim sabbath, but it was not mine. Besides which, I was not superstitious.

I went ahead, and the carefully tended cake fell flat. Mohamed could not resist beaming broadly at this fulfillment of his prophecy. I never baked on a Friday again. And after that day, the cakes rose beautifully, just as Mohamed had known they would.


We drove out at twilight across the great plain, looking for gerenuk and dero, for we had a lot of men in camp now and they needed meat. All at once, we saw an appealing sight – a huge she-ostrich, very fussily maternal, with no less than eighteen young ones, all traipsing solemnly behind her, single file. She craned her neck and looked back to inspect her little troop – yes, they were all there, and safe. We drew up the Land-Rover and waited quietly until they had marched past. Young ostriches were often snatched by hyenas, but a mother ostrich would stand up to a hyena and could deal it such a powerful blow with her feet that it would go off yelping across the desert. In Hargeisa, a neighbor of ours had a pet baby ostrich, which was cared for by the stable boy, a tall Somali youth whose nickname was Aul and who was as graceful as the deer of that name. When we went back to our house for an occasional weekend, we saw Aul every morning leaping lightly into the ostrich’s pen.

Gorayo! Is ka warran! ” He greeted it always in the same way. “Ostrich! Give news of yourself!”

But the small ostrich, who was exceedingly dowdy and draggle-feathered, did not utter a sound.

One day in the Haud we found an ostrich’s nest, with its two layers of gigantic eggs carefully covered with sand. The Somalis were overjoyed, as they loved to eat the eggs, one of which would make an omelette sufficient for several hungry men. We took one of the eggs for ourselves, and Jack blew it out so that we could keep the shell. To do so, he had to drill into it with a hand-drill, for it was of the consistency of thick bone china. When we had it cleaned out, and on display in our truck-home, the Somalis began to make optimistic remarks.

“I think you get small boy now, memsahib,” Mohamed said confidently.

What was this? What did he mean? Hersi obligingly explained.

“Soon you will be conceiving,” he said gravely. “This ostrich egg is very helpful for such considerations.”

This was the same Hersi who did not believe in magic. The ostrich egg, it appeared, was a powerful fertility charm. The Somalis had been concerned for some time about my childless state, and they knew quite well that I was concerned about it, too. They regarded the ostrich egg hopefully – aid had arrived. Only Abdi did not have sufficient faith in this object. Perhaps he felt that being Ingrese, I would require to double the usual quantity of helpful magic.

“Lion fat,” he informed us. “I think you needing this thing. If woman eating fat from the libahh, soon she get child.”

When he was out hunting gerenuk, he searched in the thickets and thorn bushes, but alas for my unborn children, he found no lion. Occasionally we heard their voices, rumbling and coughing in the night, and once or twice we saw pug-marks in the morning sand, but the beasts remained cannily hidden.

One day Abdi found something else, however, almost as good. Although of no magical use, this catch was a triumph. He returned to camp with the Land-Rover horn blaring, his victory music, and everyone dashed out to see. Springily as a boy, the old warrior leaped out and showed us what he had brought back – two cheetahs.

It was against the law to shoot cheetah, and Abdi knew this as well as anyone. But he had seen four of them under a qoda tree. Old marksman that he was, he had been quite unable to resist the temptation. He shrugged and threw up his hands – how could anyone fail to comprehend his predicament?

“I never no think,” he said. “I see them – one, two three, four harimaad. Quickly quickly, I taking rifle – bam! bam! I get two. You think sahib coming angry?”

“No, I don’t think so, Abdi.”

Who could be angry? He was a hunter. He simply could not help shooting. But I could see, nevertheless, that these cheetahs would be an embarrassment to us. For all official purposes, they must be said to have been shot on the other side of the Ethiopian border. And who could prove they were not?

One of the beasts was still alive when Abdi hauled it out of the Land-Rover. With the Somalis’ usual nonchalance about a wounded animal, all the men in camp stood around, poking at it, tormenting it, laughing. Beautiful and destroyed, it crouched on the ground. It was bleeding terribly, and its strength was almost gone, but its eyes still shone with menace. Jack and Gino were both out at the balleh site, and I could not cope with this situation. When I asked Abdi and the Illaloes to kill the cheetah, they paid no attention. They were enjoying this too much. Why cut short their pleasure?

The cheetah, panting and nearly dead, suddenly put every vestige of its remaining strength into one last effort. Incredibly rousing itself, it lashed out and tore a laborer’s leg from knee to ankle.

Outraged shrieks all around. Wallahi! Shaitan! I stood aside, looking at the shocked and bleeding laborer, and could feel nothing but coldness. Fortunately, Jack arrived at this moment, fetched by the nimble Mohamedyero, who had raced out to the balleh with the news. He took one look, then fetched a crowbar and immediately killed the cheetah. I bandaged the laborer’s leg, which was not seriously damaged, for the rip did not go deep, but I remained aloof.

Why should they have any mercy for the cheetah, who killed their sheep when it could? Life was too hard, here, for any such sentimentality. I knew this very well, but I could not help admiring the desperate courage of the animal. The Somalis thought I was foolish to want the cheetah put out of its pain at once, and I thought they were cruel to want to prolong its agony. Neither of us would alter our viewpoints.

The laborers skinned the animals and pegged the skins out to dry in the sun. The Somalis had no way of curing animal hides, other than sun-drying them. Later, several laborers spent the entire day working the skins with their hands, as Eskimos do with their teeth, to soften them. One skin was sold in the Hargeisa market, and Abdi and the Illaloes who were with him shared the money. The other, Abdi gave to us. It was a light yellow pelt with well-defined black spots. The cheetah, we learned, was the fastest animal on four feet. It was considerably smaller than the leopard, and the leopard’s tail always ended in black, whereas the tail of the cheetah ended with light fur. We kept the cheetah skin, and at last smuggled it out of the country. It stayed on the floor of living-rooms in many houses, for many years, in England, West Africa, and Canada, a hazard to unwary feet, and a reminder to me of different points of view. Ultimately, it became a legendary beast, for our two children, when they were old enough to enjoy stories of the “olden days” before they were born, somehow developed and would not relinquish the belief that it was their father who shot this cheetah as it charged at him in the wilds of distant lands.

When Gino went on leave, there was no one in the camp who could work with metals, so Jack hired a man of the Tomal, the traditional blacksmiths to the Somalis. Mohamed Tomal was a wisecracking but hardworking young man, full of arguments and always eager to prove his point. One day he and Jack got into a long discussion about khat, a leaf widely used throughout the Muslim world, where alcohol was forbidden, and chewed for its narcotic effects. In Somaliland, it was against the law to sell khat, but truckloads of it were constantly smuggled in from Ethiopia. Mohamed Tomal put the old question to Jack.

“You Ingrese drink whisky and gin, but you say Somalis must no chew khat. How so?”

“I didn’t make the laws,” Jack said. “Personally, I don’t care whether you chew khat or not, except that it would probably make you sleepy and you wouldn’t be able to work as well.”

“Oh, no!” Mohamed Tomal was shocked. “Khat never make man sleep. It helping he for work. A man which chewing khat, he work all night. All night – I swear it. And he never feel tired.”

“Oh?” Jack was skeptical.

Mohamed Tomal gave him an offended glance, but said no more. The following day, however, the blacksmith came to Jack with two gifts – a short spear, double-barbed like a fish hook, the shaft gracefully bound with brass wire, and a long knife with a wooden handle decorated with burned patterns. He had fashioned both these weapons during the night.

“I work all night,” Mohamed Tomal said triumphantly, “and I chew khat all night – you see, sahib? You see now?”

Jack, laughing, had to concede the point. But he still had to forbid khat in the camp, not that this edict ever stopped anyone.

We were becoming acquainted with the new men in our camp. Apart from Mohamed Tomal, there were six tractor drivers. One of the two men who had had some previous experience on tractors was Mohamed Magan. In his late twenties, he had a bulky, almost chubby appearance. His round face was impish and confident. When he walked, he had a swaggering sailor-like gait. He had never held any one job for long, for he was decidedly temperamental. Once, he told Jack, he suddenly felt fed up with his job, so he simply stopped his tractor and walked away. In the beginning, he was much the best operator of the crew, but the others began to catch up with him, for he tended to be too sure of himself and was often careless. Nevertheless, he had more feeling for machinery than the others, more dexterity and a better sense of timing in handling the Cat and scraper. But he hated to be told off about anything. One morning he was late for work, and Jack called him down about it. Mohamed Magan did not say anything, not a word. But that night we were wakened by a sudden noise.

Jack sat up, jerked into consciousness. “That’s one of the Cat’s starting engines!”

He had a shrewd suspicion of what was going on, so he did not hurry unduly to go and have a look. By the time he reached the balleh site, there was Mohamed Magan, beginning work. It was exactly four a.m.

“You tell me not to be late,” he said.

Jack did not know whether to be angry or amused, especially when Mohamed Magan put on an elaborate pantomime to show how he had to get off the tractor and feel the scraper with his hands to determine whether or not it was fully loaded, for he could see nothing in the enveloping darkness.

A complete contrast to Mohamed Magan was Ismail Ahmed. An extremely handsome boy with straight well-cut features, he had attended Qoranic school in Hargeisa and could read and write in Arabic. He was unusually serious about his religion, and this, in a country where everyone took religion seriously, meant that he had almost a sense of vocation. He seemed cut out for the religious life and perhaps should have been an imam, a priest.

“Ismail Ahmed is not like other people,” Hersi said of him, and this was true. There was about him a quietness and a reserve which the others did not have. But he was always the first to offer to help Jack if anything needed fixing on a tractor. As a driver, he was not as good as some of the others, for he worked almost too carefully.

The one whom Jack thought would ultimately become the best driver of all was Isman Shirreh. He was an Arap, which was a tribe looked down upon by most of the others, but despite this handicap, Isman was one of the most popular men in camp. He was friendly to everyone, quick on the uptake and yet not over-confident. He and Arabetto became close friends, and in some ways they were similar. Both were, in a sense, outcasts, and both had an irrepressible laughter. Sometimes at dusk, when the Illaloes were going through their drill routine, Arabetto and Isman would march up and down nearby, burlesquing the whole performance.

Does every group, inevitably, choose a clown for itself? Ours was Ali Wys, who looked more like a Frenchman than a Somali. Slender, almost delicate, with a thin face and a long mournful nose, he wore always a quizzically humorous expression. He had a high hoarse voice which many times a day rose above the drone of the engines, as Ali shouted his comical complaints. He walked in a slow, loose, ambling fashion and seemed to take pleasure in his role as jester. And yet there was something sad in his subtly expressive face. He had to endure a good deal of mockery from the others because he was neither deft nor strong enough to shift the Cat gears without apparent effort, and when he struggled at it, the others were quick to notice and taunt.

The tallest man in our camp was Omar Farah, who was called Omar Wein – Big Omar. Lank, gangling, rather awkward, slightly hunch-back, Omar looked like a country boy astounded to find himself in a mechanized society. He was not a boy, actually, at all, being older than most of the others and having a wife and children in Hargeisa. He was the steadiest of the drivers, solid, plodding in his work, conscientious. He had none of Ismail Ahmed’s other-worldliness, and yet he was always one of the first to go out to the brushwood mosque as sundown approached and the time for evening prayers arrived.

Jama Koshin had worked on tractors before, and this was why Jack had picked him. But he wore a dull expression and seemed unresponsive to explanations about the work. The others made fun of him mercilessly, calling him stupid, and he tended, perhaps not unnaturally, to be sullen and unsociable. We were never able to penetrate his mask at all.

The Cat operators worked in two-hour shifts, spelling each other off, for the work was heavy, the sun was hot, and the dust was hard on the lungs. Jack, however, like the Cats, was at the site most of the day, from six in the morning until six at night. Even after dinner, his work was not finished, for it was a rare evening that did not bring at least one dispute to be settled. Men out in camp, cut off from their families and thrown constantly into one another’s company, disagree violently and often.

“Some small trouble, sahib – I think you must listening to these informations.”

Hersi’s familiar voice, and there they would be, a dozen men grouped and ready for a shir, the traditional Somali meeting at which the two opposing men stated their cases at fiery length, and everyone else then gave his own version of the case, holding forth with all the passionate appeals and detailed verbal reconstructions of a skilled lawyer.

A laborer had lost a purple cotton robe and swore he had seen another laborer wearing the identical garment. The accused swore by Allah, by his entire tribe, and by his mother’s life that he was innocent. Did Nuur Ahmed imagine this was the only purple lunghi in the whole of Somaliland? But Nuur Ahmed maintained his cloth had a tear in one corner, and when Hersi Jama, acting as mediator, examined the cloth worn by Yusuf Farah, lo and behold – there was the torn place, plain as dawn. Terrific shouting followed as the assembled company took sides. The evidence of each side was always diametrically opposed, and it was never possible to obtain any clear picture of what had actually happened.

“You know, I really wonder,” Jack said after one of these sessions, “whether they hold these shirs with any intention of settling the matter at all, or if it isn’t merely a form of entertainment.”

But as they expected him to participate in the shirs, he could not very well refuse. He was concerned mainly with keeping some kind of equilibrium in camp. If these disputes were not settled in some fashion, they grew and assumed grotesque proportions.

With Gino gone, Jack was now the only one in camp who knew how to fix anything that went wrong on a tractor, so he often had this type of work to do in the evenings as well. Only gradually did I realize what a strain he was working under and how difficult it was for him, sometimes, to maintain an even temper. Occasionally, it was impossible.

One late afternoon, Jack dropped into the brushwood hut for a quick cup of tea before going back to see about changing the oil in the tractors. All at once, he dropped his cup and shot out of the hut like a man gone berserk. What on earth had happened? I stared out, but all I could see was Ali Wys, driving a tractor and scraper to its usual nighttime place in the camp.

“Stop that engine!” Jack bellowed. “My God, man, what do you think you’re doing?”

Stunned, Ali stopped and looked at Jack with blank incomprehension.

“I think you want the agaf-agaf over there, sahib –”

For a moment Jack could not trust himself to speak. Then he nodded brusquely and began to explain. When he came back to the hut, he gave me a wan grin.

“That was a narrow escape.”

“What did he do?”

“The oil was drained out,” Jack said. “If he’d run it any longer that way, the motor would have been ruined. He didn’t realize. The oil pressure gauge still doesn’t mean anything to him. He wasn’t there when I told the others not to move the Cats. He thought he was being helpful. But damn it all, he might have wrecked it.”

The blunders made by the Somali drivers were not done on purpose, as many Englishmen here believed, nor did they indicate any lack of intelligence – another belief common among Ingrese. They were simply the actions of men who had virtually no mechanical experience. How would we have fared, if we had been given a dozen camels and told to wrest a living from the desert?

“I remember, as a kid, taking an old Model-T apart and putting it together again,” Jack said. “I was always tinkering with radios – all kinds of things like that. But men like Ali Wys and Omar Farah learned as kids how to throw a spear and how to recognize the tracks of their camels in the sand.”

We realized, more and more, the complications caused by this difference in accumulated knowledge. Yet, under the tensions and demands of the moment, it was not easy to remain patient. Sometimes Jack would explain a point at great length, and the drivers would all nod and say “Oh yes, we understand,” and immediately go and do the opposite. In the evenings, Jack would go over these difficulties endlessly, trying to puzzle out reasons for them, trying to discover ways of communicating with men who spoke his language only slightly and who had none of his technical and mechanical background.

“I was explaining the design of the ballehs to some of them today,” he said, “the fact that the wing walls will have to jut out in a straight line, and I realized from what they said that they don’t have any real concept of what a straight line is. Why should they? There aren’t any straight lines here. There isn’t a tree that doesn’t grow crookedly.”

Every culture in the world passes on knowledge to the next generation, but the nature of that knowledge suits the survival requirements of each particular place. The significance of this difference was borne in upon us one morning when we heard a flock of birds crying nearby. Jack and I paid no attention, for the sound had no meaning to us. But every Somali in the camp dropped what he was doing and rushed out, shouting.

Wa mas! Snake!”

Sure enough, there it was, a big diamonded Russell’s Viper, its thick body raised and tense, its flat evil-eyed head swaying, holding the birds horribly enchanted. Abdi killed it with a stick, and Jack asked him how he knew a snake was here. The old warrior looked surprised at our ignorance.

“When the shimbir speak that way,” he said, “the snake is there.”

So, piece by piece, both ourselves and the Somalis accumulated a little of this new knowledge, this knowledge not our own, the things that had not been handed down to us.

But the difference in the heritage of facts was not the only reason for a disparity in outlooks. We looked at the whole of life through different eyes. Our basic outlook came from science; theirs, from faith. We put our confidence in technical knowledge. They appeared to put their confidence in ritual.

One evening, doing some repairs, Jack told Isman Shirreh to clean a pipe on a tractor, for a lump of dirt was clinging to the outside, and if it fell in it would clog the pipe. Isman obligingly snatched up a rag and cleaned vigorously – holding the pipe so that the dirt fell straight in. To him, it was the act of cleaning which was important. The concept of keeping dirt out of motors was meaningless. The same was true of greasing the tractors – the important thing seemed to them to be the faithful application of grease almost anywhere, not the fact that the grease had to be forced into bearings, however difficult to get at, for it to do any good.

A few snatches of mechanical information, imparted as the need arose, could never be sufficient to change a man’s total outlook. The drivers maintained their belief that there was a mysterious virtue in the repetition of certain acts. They cleaned the tractors conscientiously, following the same procedure each evening, and as long as nothing altered in the situation, all was well. But if one factor was different, they did not adjust their actions to meet the changed requirements. Even if they were told to do something differently, they often seemed compelled to continue ritualistically in the same way as before.

The soil of the Haud was so hard that the ripper’s steel teeth became bent and twisted. Jack found it necessary to borrow a heavier ripper from P.W.D. and to use it with additional weights attached. Every day something occurred to tax the ingenuity. But the technical problems, however many or however tricky, were much more easily solved than the human ones.

Whatever the day’s difficulties, the arrival of dusk brought a feeling of peace to the camp. The tractors and scrapers came lumbering in, big dusty yellow machines, driven by dust-covered men. At one side of the camp, the Illaloes were going through their drill, with much slapping of rifles and snapping to attention. On the other side, the rest of the Somalis were facing Mecca and chanting the evening prayers. Above the shouts of the corporal and the low roar of the tractors could be heard the chorus of Amiin – Amen.

To guard, to work and to pray – in these ways our camp was related, after all, to the camps of the Somali tribesmen throughout the whole land.

When the first balleh was completed, we moved to Balleh Gedid. For the Somalis this process – packing up, heading off, re-settling – was one which involved a great deal of excitement. The camp was like a circus, with its air of noisy festivity, its songs, its tents, its crowd so busily exuberant.

Helleyoyhelleyoy –”

None of the songs were sad today; all were eager and elated. The Somali equivalent of the English “Hey!” was warya, and the camp was loud with this reiterated cry, as the tents were dismantled and the equipment gathered.

Warya, Abdi-o! Warya, Mohamed-o!”

Everyone yelled at everyone else. Come and give a hand with this tent-pole! Who has seen the other baramile? Where does this water drum go?

Finally, the parade moved off, an imposing array of vehicles and shouting men. The small speedy Land-Rover led the way, followed by the yellow Bedford three-ton, with its brown canvas canopy mumbling in the wind. Next came the water truck, a three-ton fitted with a big tank, and towed behind it was the diesel-fuel trailer. Then the bulldozer chugged along with majestic slowness as it pulled the heavy workshop trailer containing the tools and spare parts and the generator, which we now used to supply the camp with electric light. Next in line was Gino’s caravan, now our home, towed by a tractor with scraper. Finally, at the end of the parade came the other Caterpillar and scraper, pulling the ripper and plough. The scrapers were piled high with tents and petrol drums. Our numerous water drums were wedged onto every vehicle where any space could be found. Men were perched all over, some on the trucks, some on the scrapers.

Jack and I could not help wondering what the Somali herdsmen thought as they watched our crawling but thunderous trek. We knew very well what the Somalis in our camp thought about it, however, and we were in complete accord, for this was one feeling we shared spontaneously with them – an upswinging of the heart for no reason other than merely to be going somewhere, to be on our way.

At Balleh Gedid, we found ourselves with some camp followers. The camp of one Somali family traveling by itself was known as a jes. Jack and I became aware of the nearby presence of such a jes, in which dwelt one rather disreputable-looking man, an attractive girl of about sixteen, an old woman, and a little girl. New licenses for desert tea shops were not being issued by the government at this time, but when we questioned the Somalis in our camp about this jes, they told us blandly that it was “just a small tea shop,” or else they pretended complete ignorance of it.

In the evenings, the drivers and laborers drifted over in that direction in ones and twos. When they returned, the next batch ambled over. If the jes was a tea-shop-cum-brothel, we did not mind. But one thing we had to be concerned about – the jes was using water from our drums. We had a camp of thirty men, and although the water truck went into Hargeisa once a week, we always had to be careful.

“What is happening,” Jack said in annoyance, “is that they are taking water on the sly, to give to the jes. I’m not going to have it that way. I’d rather give an understood daily ration. I suppose it’s fair enough. The jes provides amenities of one kind and another.”

So the jes received its allotment. The old woman sometimes visited our camp. She had a high and whining voice, and whenever she saw me she began her monotonous plea for alms.

Baksheesh! Baksheesh!

Asha, the little girl, who was about eight years old, had a curiously vacant and withdrawn look. Then, from Arabetto, who was more frank than the others, I learned that she was a child prostitute. There was a special name for such children, which meant literally “a small opening.”

Asha sometimes came alone to see me in camp. She wanted me to give her a comb, which I did. This comb was the only thing she ever asked from me. Her hair was unkempt, and her face was unwashed, an unusual sight here, where children were normally well cared for. We did not talk much, Asha and I, for I did not know what to say to her. I never asked her about her life. My knowledge of Somali was too limited, and who would I get to translate? She sat quietly in the brushwood hut, and when the afternoon shadows began to lengthen, she went away.

Nabad gelyo,” she said. “May you enter peace.”

But I did not reply, for I found myself unable to say nabad diino to her – the peace of faith.

I did not know what to do. If we forbade the jes to stay near the camp, the crone would only move her trade elsewhere, so the child would be no better off. Here at least Asha got enough water. Possibly many Somalis felt the same as I did about children such as Asha, but how would they feel about my meddling? I had a strong suspicion that I might easily make Asha’s life worse by interfering. I could not take her away from the situation entirely, and what else would do any good?

So, whether out of wisdom or cowardice, I did nothing. The jes remained with us for several months. Then, in the Jilal drought, it vanished one day, and we heard no more about it. But Asha’s half-wild half-timid face with its ancient eyes will remain with me always, a reproach and a question.

The Dhair rains failed, and the Jilal began again. The dry winter months crawled by, slow as the giant tortoises that outlived the droughts of a century. On the great plain, what was left of the grass lay wind-flattened and white. The vultures could be seen again, on the thorn trees, waiting.

Each year it was the same. In the Jilal, the Somalis were a dying people in a dying land. The dust filled their nostrils like a constant reminder of mortality. The wind whistled through the dried seed pods on the thorn trees, and the aloes plants dwindled and wilted, their shrunken brown flesh stinking in the sun. But neither the people nor the land would die, although the weakest of every species would not feel the rains of spring. There was a toughness deep in these people, like the fiber of desert cactus, the ability to eke out life, the refusal to die easily. At the times of prayer, they knelt, for they were the People of the Book, the People of the Right Hand. They were not forsaken but judged by the Lord of men and djinn. They did not understand His will, but they bowed before it. Though the rains of compassion would not fall for a long time, yet was He the Compassionate. When He willed it, the land would be reborn out of the dry womb of death. Fresh water would be sweet in the mouth again, and there would sound once more the songs of men and the laughter of young girls. But nothing could make it happen sooner, nothing could hasten the day, neither rage nor tears, neither curse nor prayer. It would happen when Allah willed it, and not a moment before.

With the onset of the Jilal, we expected an upsurge of rumors about the ballehs, but these appeared to have tapered off permanently. We no longer heard that the tribesmen were saying the ballehs would contain poisoned water, or that the water would be sold by the government at enormous prices. Now that the actual construction was going on, the tribesmen might be reassured by the sight of what was being done. Or more likely, their attention was diverted from us by the fact that so many Habr Awal were still in the Haud, and the other tribes were complaining about their presence.

Sometimes a group of nomads came to watch the work. Usually, they did not say anything. They stood at a distance and watched the noisy tractors snorting through the dust, and then they went away. We did not know what they were thinking, nor whether they realized that next year these ballehs would be of some use to them.

Then one day Ahmed Abdillahi, the young Eidagalla chieftain, came to visit our camp. He was as handsome and deep-voiced as ever, and had it not been for the drought he would have been perfectly happy, for his wife had just borne him his first son. Through Hersi, he questioned Jack about the almost-completed balleh.

“When the rains come, this balleh will be full of water? So large a thing?”

“We hope so,” Jack said. “We think it will be.”

Ahmed Abdillahi nodded approval and then produced an outsize camel bell, which he had made himself, out of galol wood, and presented it to Jack.

“Some of my people are too proud to say now they think the ballehs will be a good thing,” he said. “But after the rains, In sha’ Allah, they will say so.”

This camel bell ranked as Jack’s first, last, and only presentation. It was a strange and unwieldy creation, with a hank of handwoven rope at the top. But we valued it greatly, for it signified the first real acceptance of the ballehs.

Almost imperceptibly, the work changed and became less a matter of perpetual crises. The tractor drivers were growing more accustomed to the machines, more adept in operation and maintenance, less liable to make the mistakes which plagued the first months of excavation. Also, where Jack once felt he was constantly talking at cross-purposes with them, now some kind of understanding had grown between them and himself. They seemed to feel themselves part of the camp now, and in their work they operated as a crew a great deal more smoothly than they once had. The misunderstandings and the immediate problems presented by the desert terrain – these did not cease. But they were settled somehow. The work was getting done.

Balleh Gehli. Balleh Gedid. Balleh Hersi Jama. Slowly, the line of reservoirs was emerging across the waterless Haud.

To Be Continued

Previous Chapter


Margaret LaurenceMARGARET LAURENCE (1926–1987) was a Canadian author of short stories and novels. She is best known for The Stone Angel, which was made into an award-winning film in 2007. Other novels in her Manawaka cycle include A Jest of God and The Diviners, both of which won Governor General’s Awards, and The Fire Dwellers. In 1972, Laurence was named a Companion of the Order of Canada. From 1950 until 1957 Laurence lived in Africa, the first two years in what is now Somaliland, the next five in Ghana. During this time she translated Somali poetry and prose and began writing fiction set in colonial Africa. In 1962, Laurence moved to England; she returned to Ontario in 1974 and continued to write reviews, children’s books, and essays.

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