These are the third, fourth, and fifth chapters of 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.

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 3


At the topmost part of that world, in the hills that jutted blue-brown and jagged out of the flat hot plain, Sheikh stood, a few dwellings scattered along the slopes and across the valley where the grey twisted fig trees were nested in by green pigeons. The settlement took its name from a revered sheikh who lived here long ago. On holy days the devout walked out and said prayers at the white tomb.

Once Sheikh was the administrative capital during the hot season, in the days when Berbera was the government headquarters, but now the old Government House was rarely used. Its garden was a tangle of purple bougainvillea, and in the dried pond where once the goldfish glinted, now only the sleek striped lizards slid and hid themselves under the fallen flowers.

We were based in Sheikh, and lived in a small dark-green house on a ridge away from the main settlement – the bungalows of the few English schoolmasters and their wives, and the Somali boys’ school, the country’s largest. Our house had sandbags on top of it so the roof would not be blown away during the kharif wind. These imparted a look of patchiness to it, like a child’s house fashioned of colored blocks and daubed with plasticine. The floors were gritty concrete, inadequately covered by our one thin cotton carpet, purchased in Aden, patterned with oriental flowers in blue and magenta, and labelled Made in Amsterdam. The stone fireplace, wonderful in appearance, did not draw. Our house was lighted with paraffin pressure lamps that puffed and spluttered, and our scanty water ration was kept in galvanized buckets. To my eyes, however, this house was perfect, for it was the first we had ever had. Always before we had lived in apartments or bed-sittingrooms.

I rushed around, re-arranging the plain furniture, hanging our few pictures, swiftly sewing curtains from cheap flimsy cotton, making cushions for the chairs and embroidering them with giant snails in olive and yellow wool because this was the only design I could draw and the thick mending strands made the shape appear quickly. I had flair, but no patience. Everything had to be done right away, this minute. Mohamed watched and shook his head, impressed and distressed by my fever to be settled.

I stopped my buzzing after a while and looked around, and then I noticed that everything was calm. The land was not aware of me. I might enter its quietness or not, just as I chose. Hesitantly at first, because it had been my pride to be as perpetually busy as an escalator, I entered. Then I realized how much I had needed Sheikh, how I had been moving towards it through the years of pavements, of doom-shrieking newspapers and the jittery voices of radios.

At night we went to sleep to the shushing sound of the wind, and in the morning it was the only sound we heard when we wakened. I rose and looked out the window – the whole valley was filled with clouds. The dawn light was still wavering and uncertain, and the sun had not yet climbed Sheikh Pass. We walked out to explore our territory, and found that the early clouds swept so low that we were actually walking through them. They billowed around us like cloaks or gusts of smoke, and I was amazed that such a thing was possible, to walk in the clouds.

Later in the day, when the clouds disappeared, the air was dazzlingly clear, like spring water. The Jilal, the dry season, was at its height, but at Sheikh the hills were still speckled with green acacias and pepper trees that grew along the gullies and gorges. Looking out our front door, we saw the line of hills dark against the sky, and flocks of sheep like white dots on the slopes. Across the valley, the sheikh’s tomb, in reality mudbrick and whitewash, shone like pale marble in the sun. Near our house the sheep and goats grazed. The sheep would eat only the coarse stringy grass, but the goats would eat anything. They craned their necks to nibble the leaves from bushes, and we could see why they were called “the scourge of Africa,” for they were like locusts and no plant was immune from their insatiable mouths. The animals were tended by a placid brown-robed woman with a scarlet headscarf. Sometimes she was assisted by a little boy who carried a switch of dried grass which he used to round up the stragglers.

By day, the only sounds other than the wind were the fragments of bird song, the minor-key chanting of Mohamed and Ismail as they worked, a shrill cry from the herdboy as he leapt over rocks and bushes to trace the sadly bleating lamb or young goat that had become separated from the flock. No telephone or radio, no traffic or crowds.

We had a plentiful supply of crises, but they were of a mild variety, and even the terrors were not really threatening.

“It’s an unlucky house that doesn’t have a gecko.” If this common saying was true, our house must have been exceedingly lucky, for whole tribes of geckos dwelt with us. At night they chased each other around the walls, playing hide-and-seek behind our pictures, chittering continually.

“Chik-chik-chik –”

My eyes followed them in their peregrinations. I was afraid to look away, certain that if I did, they would immediately be on the back of my chair or struggling in a reptilian panic in my hair. They were quite harmless, but my flesh crawled all the same. In corners, stuck to the walls in clusters, we found their eggs, pink and china-like. When the infant lizards hatched out, it took them a day or so to learn how to cling competently to walls and ceiling. In the meantime, they twitched and wriggled across the floors, creatures no larger than a needle but lively as tadpoles. Mohamed noticed my fear and capitalized upon it. He carried in buckets of hot water for the bath and suddenly shrieked as though he had just discovered a cobra.

“Memsahib – come quick!”

Cautiously I approached, and found that several full-grown geckos were stretched out languorously, for coolness, at the bottom of our concrete bathtub. I recoiled, and Mohamed bent double in a paroxysm of silent laughter. Imagine anyone being frightened of a gecko! Helpless with mirth, he staggered out to the cookhouse, and I heard him regaling the yerki, his young helper, with the tale.

Wallahi! Memsahib –”

A spate of Somali, gulped and hilarious. I could not understand the words, but I could imagine them well enough.

“By God, you never saw anything like it in your life –”


On the hills we saw dik-dik, deer scarcely larger than rabbits, with short grey-green hair on their backs and pale rusty hair on their bellies. They merged perfectly with their surroundings of scrub bush and rock, and we were never able to see them until they suddenly darted up like fearful birds at our approach. They were almost too shy and timorous for this world. John, one of the English schoolmasters, told us how his dog once chased a dik-dik.

“The little thing dropped before the dog touched it. You may not believe it, but I swear it died of fear.”

To die of fear – there was something pathetic and repulsive in that death.

Mohamed called us out one morning to see a herd of hairy wild pigs led by a bristling and evil-tusked old boar.

“Somali bacon,” he said, grinning at his own wit, for no Somali would touch pork in any form, and even the Ingrese, such as ourselves, who ate unclean food, would not eat the diseased and worm-infested wild pigs.

We sighted a family of baboons, and chased them far across the slopes in an attempt to see them at closer range. They were big grey-furred animals, agile and dog-faced, with hairless crimson buttocks. The young perched comfortably on their mothers’ backs. The males glanced back at us over their shoulders, leered and barked a little, then loped on. When we told John of the encounter, he laughed and frowned.

“That wasn’t a very bright thing to do, actually. Those fellows will turn on a dog sometimes, if it chases them, and tear it to pieces.”

If the baboons had turned on us, I could not have said I will now wake up, as one does sometimes in nightmares. How absurd it was to be frightened of geckos, harmless as butterflies, and yet to be totally unafraid of a baboon pack. I began to see that these hills in offering their quiet also required a person to tread carefully.

To tread carefully with wild creatures is relatively easy. With people, it is not so easy. Jack drove to Burao, and in his absence three Somali elders came to see him. I undertook to explain Jack’s work to them, feeling that although I knew little of the technical aspects, they knew even less. Summoning all possible graciousness, I invited them in and asked Mohamed to bring tea. The three old men sat on the edges of their chairs, their hands clasped around the knobbled canes they carried. Mohamed clattered in with the tea tray and stayed to act as interpreter. He seemed ill at ease, and fidgeted from one foot to another, avoiding both the elders’ eyes and mine, focusing his gaze on a ceiling beam.

The old men were exceedingly polite. They nodded their heads at everything I said, but made no attempt to ask questions or discuss the matter. One of them observed that never in his entire long life had he known such a fine memsahib.

For the sake of decency, one always pretends not to be pleased by flattery, but underneath the hopeful question lingers – perhaps he is telling the truth? I ushered them out, finally, poured myself a cup of lukewarm tea and sat down among my snail-embroidered cushions to review the visit. I handled that pretty well, I think; yes, I’m sure I did.

Mohamed blew in like a wind, agitated.

“Memsahib – never do so like that, never no more.”

“What?” I was startled, uncomprehending.

He sighed deeply, wiped his sweating forehead, and told me in consternation that a woman alone in the house must never invite men in, not even if they happen to be about eighty years old. To do so was a terrible breach of etiquette.

Further, the elders could certainly not discuss any serious matter with a woman.

The elders’ flattery, I saw now with painful clarity, was pure tact, directed at what they felt must be my feeling of awful shame at having thoughtlessly committed such a series of errors.

The next time the elders came to visit, Jack was at home, so all I had to do was to stay well in the background, which was not so easy for me, at that. The elders walked in and settled themselves in the armchairs, with none of their former reluctance.

Haji Abu Jibril was a heavily built man, big-jowled, with the hennaed beard permitted to those who have made the haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. His embroidered turban was slightly askew. Over his long white robe he wore an incongruous khaki jacket with bulging pockets. His boots were tremendous and unlaced. In one hand he brandished a silver-headed cane. I tried to size him up rapidly, imagining this ready-reckoning process to be feasible. A man of power, I thought, but not to be trusted. Was there not something evasive, almost shifty, about his eyes? So much for my cleverness. In later months I discovered that he was in fact widely regarded as one of the wisest and worthiest elders in the country.

Haji Yusuf followed close behind, as though in attendance. He was a scrawny and shrewd-looking man, wearing a mauve and beige striped sweater over his skimpy pink robe, a man with a sly face and a habit of winking one eye sagaciously. I tabbed him at once as the lion’s jackal, and this assessment turned out to be not totally wrong.

The third looked just as an elder should. From the corner where I sat silently, feeling almost as though I were in purdah, I glanced with complete approval at Haji Adan. He strolled in, neither boastfully nor apologetically, a tall old man with a well-trimmed grey beard and strong handsome features. He had a neat red and yellow turban, a green and spotless robe, a courteous and dignified manner. I trusted him at once, charmed by the suitability of his appearance. He turned out, however, in the following days, to be something of a business shark, and used to send his emissaries to sell me beaded mats and carved wooden spoons at exorbitant prices. I never lost my initial liking for him, though, for he had a quiet sarcasm that appealed to me. He harked back often to the old days and mocked the young men, who did not have, he claimed, the courage of their sires. When we heard rumours of lions in the Sheikh hills, Haji Adan told me scornfully that every time a young man saw a rabbit he thought it was a lion. It was different in his day. We had men then.

When we finished tea, the elders questioned Jack closely and suspiciously. Mohamed, acting as interpreter, became nervous at the amount of tact necessary to convey one side’s words to the other without offending anyone.

“We have heard that the Ingrese are going to make ballehs in the Haud,” Haji Abu Jibril said, a balleh being the Somali term of any dug-out pit that would hold rainwater. “What we want to know is – why are they doing this thing?”

Jack was anxious that they should understand. He explained that the government had undertaken the project because the Somalis needed watering places in the Haud. The elders’ eyes narrowed and their faces crinkled into small cynical smiles. They did not believe a word of it.

“We have heard,” Haji Adan said, “that the Ingrese plan to build large towns for themselves beside these ballehs, so there will be no room for our people there.”

How to deal with these three maddening old men? Jack, who was logical himself and sometimes impatient with people who were not, asked them if they could really imagine large numbers of English living permanently in the desert areas of the Haud for no reason at all. They looked at him blankly. They could imagine it quite well. It would be no more insane than anything else the English did. Jack was annoyed, and annoyed at himself for being annoyed. He would not let them see it, not if it killed him. He became exaggeratedly calm. This session of gabbing seemed a waste of time to him. He wanted to get on with the job, not talk pointlessly and in circles. But here, this kind of talk was necessary, and the elders were not in a hurry.

“The rumours are false,” Jack said. “There will be no European towns beside the ballehs.”

Haji Yusuf, the sly winking one, insinuated himself to the fore, with a sidelong glance at his master. Haji Abu Jibril’s face remained impassive, but almost imperceptibly he nodded his head. Had they planned their entire approach beforehand? Very likely. We were no match for these accomplished plotters.

“Some people are saying,” Haji Yusuf suggested, “that the Ingrese plan to make ballehs and then poison the water so all our camels will die.”

Mohamed, translating that one, was in an agony of apprehension. Who would be angry, and at whom? He looked as though he wished he were a hundred miles away.

“What interest could the English possibly have in poisoning your camels?” Jack parried.

Back and forth, back and forth – the talk was like a tennis ball. It seemed never to get anywhere. Indeed, this was probably the elders’ intention. They might or might not have believed the rumours. All they were after, really, in this game of wits, was Jack’s reaction – how did he argue, and what manner of man was he?

Finally, and surprisingly, as though upon an agreed signal, the elders nodded their heads. All right. The rumours were false, they conceded. But if this was so, why did the government not simply pay Somalis to dig their own ballehs?

“The ballehs will be made with machines,” Jack said. “No man could make a balleh of that size by hand.”

They appeared to be satisfied for the moment. They rose and ceremoniously bade us farewell.

Nabad gelyo – may you enter peace.”

Nabad diino,” we replied. “The peace of faith.”

But as they went out, we wondered for the first time if it really would be peace. The gist of Jack’s words would be conveyed to nomads all across the Haud. How would they interpret what he had said? Would the meanings become distorted and lost? We had assumed that the Somalis would naturally be pleased at a scheme to provide watering places in the desert. Now we saw that they were by no means convinced that the project was designed to help them.

We both sensed that this same scene would be reenacted, in different places, time and again. It was not a cheerful prospect.

A stroke of luck. We met two people with whom we could discuss anything, freely, not worrying what we said. Jack was better than I, at simulating the English reserve, an extreme caution in speech, but it did not come naturally to either of us. Now we could occasionally shed it.

Guś (whose real name was Bogomil and whose nickname was pronounced “Goosh”) was Polish, a tall man with an expensive and almost oriental face, high cheekbones, faintly slanting eyes. He was a poet in his own language.

“Of course, it is useless,” he said with deep Slavonic melancholy. “My poetry can’t be published in Poland, and in England who is interested in publishing poems written in Polish?”

His moods would swing like a pendulum. Suddenly he would be laughing, regaling us with Somali jokes or his own brand of slightly macabre humour. He spoke Somali more fluently than any other European in the colony, for he was here to do research into the Somali language and its phonetics.

“Listen to this Somali joke about a Midgan. His wife had a miscarriage, and the man was very angry. When his friends asked him why he was so furious, he replied – There! That will teach me not to pour anything into a vessel that’s upside down!

Guś’s wife, Sheila, was an attractive and capable English girl. She did everything with so little fuss that only gradually did it dawn on us that she was probably the only English woman in the colony who did her own cooking.

“I like cooking,” she said, “so why not?”

Guś ate compulsively but never gained any weight. During the war, when he was escaping from Poland, he was close to starvation many times. When he finally got to England, he joined the Free Polish Forces, and after the war he went to Oxford. Now Sheila cooked for him with a kind of tenderness, as though she hoped to make up for whatever hardships he had suffered once. She cooked everything on a tiny primus stove, and even ingeniously managed to make cookies, known to her as biscuits, by fixing up an oven of sorts with a saucepan.

“I don’t really feel I was cut out to be a memsahib,” she admitted.

This was my exact feeling, too. We were heartened to have discovered one another.

Guś’s Somali assistant was Musa, a thin and strikingly handsome man with a pirate-like moustache. He was something of an orator, and was a well-known poet in the Somali language. He had a fine and subtle sense of dramatic irony that could overturn an adversary in an argument. In the evenings, we all used to gather and discuss Somali customs, language, poetry.

“Somali is a difficult and complicated language,” Guś told us, “but very expressive.”

A language well suited to poetry, I discovered, for so many of its words were of the portmanteau variety, containing a wealth of connotations. One word described a wind that blew across the desert, parching the skin and drying the membranes of the throat. Some words were particularly lyrical, some were acutely specific. A low bush with soft broad leaves and delicate purple flowers was called wahharawallis, which meant “that which makes the little goats jump.” There was a word for anything tasting sweet, even the fresh air. The word expressing a state of well-being meant literally “to have enough water in one’s belly.” A risk or any dangerous situation was saymo, the net of God.

Marooro is a plant,” Musa said, “that has an acid taste in the morning but tastes sweet in the evening.”

Sheila and I, sitting like acolytes, listening to his words, possibly in the hope of total enlightenment, had to question that one. So what? What was so expressive about that? Musa grinned wickedly.

“Well, you see, the Somalis often use the word as a nickname for a woman.”

One evening an idea came to me. Could some of the Somali poems be put into English?

“Absolutely not. Impossible.” Musa’s deep decisive voice. He felt protective towards his own literature. No one could do justice to it. He did not want to see the poems mangled in translation. He felt no English person could comprehend them, anyway. They would be wasted on the cold and unemotional English. As he was unacquainted with English poetry, he found it hard to believe that English people ever felt despair or exultance.

“But listen, Musa –”

Think of all the English here who had no idea that the Somalis had ever composed poems – think of showing them some of the epic gabei, the lyrical belwo. This was my line of persuasion. Guś saw the possibilities immediately. But Musa had to have time to consider.

“Well, I don’t know –”

We dropped it then, not wanting to press the issue. But we would return to it. I knew that I had found what I would like to work at, here. But I could not do it alone. Would I be able to find people who would help me? I was certain that I would. As we walked home across the valley that night, I was filled with enthusiasm.

“Take it easy,” Jack said, wanting to protect me from disappointment. “It may not work out.”

“Oh, I know that.”

But I did not know. What I really knew was that it would work out. Incredibly, and much later than I would have thought, it actually did. What I did not at all suspect, however, was that it would be an “imperialist” who would make the publication of these translations possible.

Hakim came for tea. How handsome he was, hawk-nosed and deep-eyed, wearing his Somali robe and an embroidered cap like a white tarboosh. With him came Nuur, dressed with scrupulous neatness in khaki trousers and white shirt, and carrying a folder which contained some of his paintings, birds and twisting trees and flowers that looked as though they had been delicately transplanted from some Persian tapestry.

I felt I must discover everything about Somali beliefs, customs, traditions. I assumed that these young men, who were teachers, would be delighted to tell me. What did the Somali bride-price actually involve? Did men love their wives or merely regard them as possessions? Could a woman divorce her husband for infidelity? Did Somalis believe in magic? Did the clitoridec-tomy make it impossible for Somali women to enjoy sex? When a man was enjoined by the Qoran to marry his deceased brother’s wife, how did he feel about that? Hakim and Nuur smiled and said they did not know. All at once the brash tone of my voice was conveyed to my own ears, and I was appalled.

Hakim told me about faal, the way in which the future could be foretold by the counting of beads of the tusbahh, the Muslim rosary. It never occurred to me to attempt to glimpse the future myself, in another way, by asking Hakim what he hoped would happen here in his lifetime. Independence seemed a long way off then, but longer away to me, probably, than to Hakim. He implied as much when he offered to teach me a few verses of Somaliyey Tosey, the song of the Somali Youth League, which was becoming a popular national song.

Somalia, awake!
Unite the warring tribes.
Give help unto the poor
And strength unto the weak

If one of your camels is stolen,
To save it you risk your lives.
But for our whole lost land
No man even raises a stick

The tribes were at constant loggerheads with one another, but they were unanimous in their resentment at being governed by infidels. When independence came, it would be men like Hakim who would be the leaders. There were not many educated Somalis in the Protectorate, men who had some knowledge of the world outside their own land. When Hakim set foot on that path, it would not be a straight nor an easy one, for he was divided between two ways of thought. One day we chanced to talk with him about insanity. A common Somali belief, he told us, was that insanity is caused by the possession of a person by evil djinn.

“Sometimes,” he said with a smile, “a mad person is told by an elder to slaughter a white sheep and wash in its blood, to drive forth the bad djinn.”

I, too, smiled, and was astounded when the young Somali turned to Jack with a slightly puzzled frown.

“Can you tell me,” Hakim asked, “what does science think of these djinn?”

But the events of the future, like the drought in the Guban and the Haud, were still only far-off murmurs to me. The reality was the peace I felt at Sheikh, and the interest in all things new and strange, customs and costumes and the country itself with its weird candelabra trees or the lizard I saw sunning itself on a rock, its head a piercing yellow, its body an iridescent teal-blue, its legs a greenish gold.

Minor adventures provided just enough excitement. We drove to Berbera to get petrol. When we returned, the hills were black and tigerish, crouched above the plain. We wound our way through Sheikh Pass, and as we looked at the narrow road and the sheer drop, we felt apprehensive, for behind the Land-Rover was hooked a trailer loaded with drums of petrol. The fifty miles seemed five hundred. As we climbed and twisted, our old driver Abdi smiled sardonically and told us gruesome tales of the lorries that had gone over the edge.

“Were many people killed?” we asked, as he related the most recent calamity, for the trade-trucks were always covered with people who swarmed all over the top like ants on a sugar-bowl.

“Oh no,” Abdi replied, surprised. “Nobody get kill. They jump.”

They became accomplished jumpers, it seemed. The trade-truck drivers had a gay recklessness about them, more verve than mechanical know-how. If their lorries broke down, they always managed to fix them up with a bit of string or a piece of wire. At the top of Sheikh Pass we crawled past a truck which was plastered at the front with handfuls of ripe dates to plug a leaky radiator, and Jack, who had a feeling for machinery, at first stared in cold disapproval and then burst into incredulous laughter.

The sweeping out of houses was not done by Somalis. This menial work was carried out by Midgans, an outcast tribe. They had a separate language, and long ago they were the hunters of the country, using their poisoned arrows on the elephants that used to roam here, much in the same way as the pygmies further south still did. The Midgans did most of the leatherwork, sandal making and suchlike, and were often attached to Somali rers, or tribal groups, as servants. Once they were slaves of the Somalis. They were still looked upon disdainfully and regarded as inferior, despite the fact that the Midgans had always been more skilled in crafts than the Somalis. The supposedly dim-witted Midgan was a favourite figure in Somali jokes.

One of these Midgan jokes concerned a family who journeyed out at night to fill their water vessels at a well. With them they carried a baby. When the vessels were filled, they discovered they could not possibly carry the baby and the heavy water jars at the same time. They decided to leave the child and return for him later. But where, in all that unvarying desert country, could they leave him in a place sufficiently well marked for them to be sure of finding it again? Finally they thought of a wonderful idea, and went off happily, having left the baby right underneath the moon.

Another outcast tribe was the Yibir, who were magicians and sorcerers. These were an ancient people, tracing their ancestry far back into pre-Islamic times. When a Somali child was born, the parents gave a gift to the local Yibir, for if they did not, the child would be followed by bad luck all his days. After receiving the gift, the Yibir in return would give an amulet to the child, which was worn always, a protection against the evils that are seen and the evils that are unseen.

The Qoran, usually referred to by Somalis simply as the Kitab – The Book, warned against sorcery and against “the mischief of women who blow on knots” to make magic spells. Somalis, I discovered, were reluctant to speak of such matters. Mohamed and Hersi, our quick-thinking and stutter-tongued interpreter, denied all knowledge of anything pertaining to the black arts.

Would a man go to a Yibir to have him make faal to predict the future? Mohamed’s face assumed a total blankness at my question.

“I never no hear such thing, memsahib, never at all.” Apparently shocked to the marrow, he raised both hands to heaven as though seeking divine confirmation for his words. “Only Allah know what will happen. Man, he don’t know.”

Hersi’s answers, on the other hand, were always lengthy and ornate. He spoke slowly and with great emphasis, making every speech sound like a sermon.

“Memsahib, I wish to telling you – this Yibir matter is not for our highly considerations. We have no use for bloody these people. We are Muslims, memsahib, Muslims. These Yibir matters, they are going against our religion – absolutely.”

The same answers applied to prostitution or any other subject which might be thought questionable. No such practices went on in Somaliland. Their virtue, as self-declared, was remarkable. They belonged to a nation of paragons. I was somewhat irritated at their pretence, and then amused. But finally I perceived that it was no more than I deserved. People are not oyster shells, to be pried at.

Hakim, the sphinx-eyed, when I no longer bludgeoned him with questions, offered to tell me more about the outcast tribes. The Yibers were still widely consulted, despite the necessarily concealed nature of magic among people so strongly Muslim. Some of the old warlocks still made clay figures and stuck thorns in them, in order to injure those whose effigy had been pierced. But the Yibers also knew of herbs with genuine powers of healing. A common belief was that no one had ever seen the grave of a Yibir.

“When they die,” Hakim said, “they vanish.”

The third outcast tribe was the Tomal, the workers in metal, who made spears and knives. One of the Tomal came around with his assortment of hardware for sale, and Mohamed and I looked over the weapons carefully. I decided to buy a torri, a sharply pointed knife in a leather case. Mohamed badly wanted a knife also, but he had a problem.

“All this knife –” he said, fingering them, “too long. Must be police will see I am wearing this one. Then – wallahi! – big trouble.”

He ordered a shorter knife from the Tomal, one that the police would not be able to see.

I persisted in my attempts to learn Somali, but found it slow going. A constant difficulty was that most Somalis, when I spoke to them in what I thought was Somali, appeared to have the impression that I was speaking English or another totally unknown tongue. The old watchman, Hussein, was convinced that I need learn only one Somali word.

Rob – rain,” he said to me. “Somali call rain rob.”

I prepared a few Somali sentences carefully in advance and delivered them like a campaigning politician, ringingly. But Hussein was unimpressed.

Rob – rain,” he repeated.

I recalled hearing some of the sahibs and memsahibs speaking very loudly to Somalis, as though a greater volume of sound would be bound to pierce the language barrier. Now, some of the Somalis, humouring me in my determination to learn their language, raised their voices and bellowed manfully, shaking their heads in bewilderment when still I did not comprehend their words.

While in Hargeisa and Berbera, at the morning tea parties and the evening gatherings at the Club, numerous expatriates still persisted in the belief that the Somalis were of an inferior mentality because they did not speak English as well as the English did.

Jack prepared to go off on trek into the Haud.

“I’d rather you stayed here,” he said. “I want to travel with as few people as possible, and as little equipment. I have to make a rapid preliminary survey along the Ethiopian border. Mohamed can stay here, and I’ll take Ismail with me.”

We had decided to let Mohamed be cook, and had hired Ismail as houseboy. Ismail was young, but he had worked in domestic service for a long time and had a fantastically strong sense of what was fitting. This insistence upon formality seemed to protect his own status. No Somali wanted to work for an Englishman who did not know the proper thing to do – this was Ismail’s attitude. For trek, everything had to be correct – sheets, pillowcases, two pairs of pyjamas, six handkerchiefs. All these had been ordained ages ago, apparently, by some higher power.

We were sitting in the livingroom after dinner. In the kitchen, Mohamed and Ismail were packing the cooking utensils for the journey next morning. Suddenly – chaos. Loud and furious shouting. Wild accusations. Pained denials. We rushed out to the kitchen and found a domestic war in progress. Ismail was sitting on the floor, surrounded by every pot and pan we possessed. Mohamed was screeching like a madman.

“Ismail, he take all my pans. How I can do my work? He is shaitan, a devil!”

Ismail sat there unmoving as a statue, clutching the aluminium ware as though it were his hope of heaven. He shrieked back at Mohamed.

“How we go on safari if we never got nothing?”

Jack tried to calm the pair. No use. Finally he lost all patience and shouted louder than either of them.

“Stop this nonsense! Cut it out right this minute! My God, I wish I could just go off quietly to the Haud by myself, without all this damn silly fuss.”

They gazed at him in astonishment. What on earth could he be annoyed about? This argument was perfectly normal procedure. Jack succeeded at last in wrenching some of the utensils from Ismail, and pacified him by telling him he would be able to get any really essential pieces of extra equipment when they stopped at Hargeisa. Ismail instantly reeled off a lengthy list of things essential for safari – pans, spoons, another charcoal burner, egg-beater, china cups, glasses, soup-strainer.

“All sahibs have soup on trek,” Ismail said, over and over again.

Several weeks later, when Jack had returned from the trip, he told me of the sequel to this evening. At Awareh, he found he had forgotten his shaving mirror. Ismail remedied the oversight by borrowing one from an English major stationed there.

“I never told him you forget,” Ismail said triumphantly. “I tell him yours get broken on the way.”

Alone at Sheikh, I never felt afraid in our isolated house, for I had a kind of faith that nothing could harm me here. The other bungalows, however, were about a mile away across the valley. Mohamed’s quarters were down the road at a distance from our house, and although old Hussein occasionally plodded past the windows in the evening, as he made his watchman’s rounds, there was usually no one within hailing distance.

“Some very bad thief staying in Sheikh now,” Mohamed informed me one morning.

They were well-known thieves, it appeared, and the knowledge of their presence quickly spread.

“You’d really be better to have a watchdog there with you,” John, the schoolmaster, said to me. “Would you like to borrow Slippers?”

Slippers was a good-natured black dog of undeterminable breed, and I was glad to have him with me. The only trouble was that he refused to stay. Each day he went back to his old home across the valley, and each evening John patiently fetched him back again. Then John became ill with malaria and was unable to bring Slippers back. At dusk I set out to fetch him, although it seemed to me rather odd to be wandering around at night by myself in order to find the watchdog that was supposed to be protecting me.

The sky was a dark shadowy blue when I started out, and the clouds scudded across the moon, making it look as though it were hurtling through the sky. This was my first solitary nocturnal trip, and when I started back with the dog, the darkness was complete and the moon was hidden. The valley was full of thorn trees and bushes, and there had recently been rumours of lions in the vicinity.

Then the moon came out from behind the clouds and lighted the whole valley. The stars were clearer than I had ever seen them. The only sounds were the faint dry rustling of the trees and the scraping of my sandals on the stones. The mountains could be seen in the starlight, looking blacker than the sky. I felt the splendour of the night, and fear seemed trivial.

But when the alien noise came, fear returned with a rush. A scratching in the bushes, the sound of breathing, a low cough. I stood absolutely still, certain that the next instant I would be face to face with a lion. Then I heard a tiny voice which seemed to be coming out of a bush.

“Good morning!”

It was a small Somali boy, and this was the extent of his English. He emerged and gravely put out his hand for me to shake. I did so, and replied “Good morning” to him. Perhaps he had imagined I was a lion, too. We smiled and went our separate ways, having reassured one another in the darkness of the valley.

Each morning Ali Ma’alish’s wife climbed our hillside to bring the allotted two donkey-loads of water, our day’s ration. Soon after dawn I would hear the clonking and rattling of the old paraffin tins which were used for water containers, and the sloshing sound of the precious liquid being emptied into our buckets. Ali was the school gardener, and Ma’alish was a nickname, an Arabic word which meant “never mind” or “it doesn’t matter a damn,” applied to him because he habitually shrugged off all events in this manner. If the ants devoured the two puny cucumbers he had been cherishing, he said “ma’alish,” and if the news arrived that the Ogaden had raided the camps of the Dolbahanta, his comment would be exactly the same.

Ali’s wife always carried her baby on her hip in a sling tied around his bottom, so that his back was bent like a half moon. His legs stuck out of his queer cradle and occasionally landed an outraged kick at his mother’s spine. He was about nine months old and was named Ibrahim. He had a fat firm little body, and skin a soft cocoa colour. Usually he wore only a string of white and silver beads around his neck, and looked like a water-baby clad in a necklace of shells. I decided to take his picture one day, as he sat on the ground, so placidly, sifting the dust through his fingers. I brought out my camera, but Ibrahim’s mother hastily picked him up and covered his nakedness with her headscarf. No Muslim man, however small, her reproachful glance seemed to say, could possibly be peered at through the camera’s eye when insufficiently clothed. Was not modesty next to piety?

Modesty of women, of course, was even more essential. European women, as far as I could gather, were not really regarded as women at all but rather as some kind of hybrid creatures who could, on markedly rare occasions, conceive and give birth to their young by some unusual means, possibly parthenogenesis. This view was confirmed by the odd way in which European women dressed. Bad enough that they shamelessly displayed their legs, but when they sauntered around in trousers – the Somalis could only snicker at it; their imaginations boggled at the thought of what sort of hermaphroditic features the shocking garments must conceal. I was wandering around in the garden one morning, wearing slacks, when some Somali women paused on the road to gawk at me. I could understand enough Somali by that time to catch their remarks.

“Look, Dahab! Is it a man or a woman?”

“Allah knows. Some strange beast –”

I went back into the bungalow and put on a skirt. Never again did I wear slacks in Somaliland, not even in the desert evenings when the mosquitoes were thick as porridge, not even in the mornings when the hordes of glue-footed flies descended.

“Two she come to see you,” Mohamed said.

The visitors were the wives of two of the local elders. Both were extremely young. Zahara was small and slender, with lovely features which showed to advantage only when her mouth was closed, for she had very bad teeth. Her robes were blue and maroon, and in the long folds of her skirts her little daughter, a shy three-year-old, tried to hide.

Hawa, the other, seemed more a girl than a woman, a tall and awkward girl, dressed in robes of blue and white, with a pale blue headscarf. She wore lightly musical gold bangles on wrists that seemed gauche, as though her long slim hands were an inconvenience, appendages that would not yet move gracefully to her bidding. She had no children, which might partly account for her lack of ease. When I told her I had none yet, either, she seemed to loosen a little. We said to one another the traditional prayer.

In sha’ Allah – if God wills it, you will have a son.”

She had been married only a year. Her husband was a man old enough to be her grandfather. What her chances were of bearing the children she wanted so much, I did not know. I wondered how a girl her age, which could not have been more than fifteen or sixteen, felt about being married to an old man. I had no way of knowing that, either, but the look of resignation in her eyes said that her life was a bitter one. When she walked through the town, if her glance caught a group of the young men, she must forever look away from the one she would have chosen if the choice had been hers.

I had brought with me from England a number of tubes of textile paint, and had done potato-block prints on unbleached cotton for our curtains. Zahara and Hawa fingered my curtains with interest, for the bold and simple designs caught their eyes. I explained to them how the work was done, and they were enchanted. It seemed enticingly easy to them. Their own embroidery, the stylized birds and flowers which they put on pillows or coverlets, took a long time to finish. Touched by their eagerness, I offered to teach them how to do block-printing. I would buy some more cotton, I told them, and let them know when to come for lessons.

Shortly afterwards, I talked with the wife of the Director of Education. She had spent several years in convincing the local elders that some kind of education was desirable for Somali women, but not the highly theoretical education which at this stage of the country’s development would inevitably separate a woman from her people and turn her into a prostitute. She had a class of Somali girls now, the first in the country to be educated.

“When they were nomads, the sanitation problem didn’t exist. They packed up their huts and left all the debris behind. But in a settled community such as Sheikh, new ways have to be learned.”

She was teaching them how to care for their houses and children in this different kind of community. In her class, the girls worked with materials they would find available to them when they left school and got married.

I went home and put away my imported paints, and no more was said on the subject.

Jack returned from the Haud. He was sunburned and smelled attractively of sun and wind. But when he walked into the house, his khaki bush-jacket and his old grey fedora thick with red dust, I saw how tired he looked.

“Didn’t it go well?”

“Oh yes,” he said. “I got the data I needed. But it was pretty grim.”

And then he told me. I could hardly believe it. In the Haud he had met Somalis who were dying of thirst. He had a spare tank of water in the Land-Rover, but no containers with him in the car, so he put the hosepipe directly into people’s mouths and let them drink that way. It was, as he pointed out, merely a spit in the ocean. All along the road were the bodies of camels that had died before they could reach the wells. Most of the nomads were on their way back to Hargeisa, the nearest watering spot. Jack had been troubled at the apparent improvidence of the Somalis.

“I know they couldn’t do very much in the situation, but even the slight precautions they could have taken simply weren’t done. I met one family beginning a hundred-and-fifty-mile trek across the desert, and only twenty miles away from the Awareh wells they were already out of water, or hadn’t taken any with them.”

Hersi had tried to explain.

“You see, sahib,” he had said, “it is no greatly use for them to taking water. If Allah wanting them to reach the Hargeisa wells, they get there. If not, they die.”

To us, this point of view was at first incomprehensible. Our lives had placed us in very few situations in which we had been virtually powerless. The Muslim fatalism was essentially foreign to us for other reasons as well. Our roots were closer to Luther’s “Here stand I; I can do no other” or Brigham Young’s “Trust in the Lord but keep your powder dry.” Individualism and self-reliance had been woven into us all our lives. The total subservience of the individual judgement went against our deepest grain.

But Islam means “submission to God.” Gradually we began to see why Islam is a religion of the desert. Even had the tribesmen taken full water vessels with them on their trek, it would have made little difference in the long run. Some would still have died on the way and some would have reached the wells. The Somali tribes had always been dependent upon moving from place to place, seeking grazing for their herds and flocks, dependent upon brackish pools of water hundreds of miles apart. When they had watered their animals and filled themselves with water, they moved on to grazing grounds where there were no wells. This was the inevitable pattern of their lives.

A cruel saying of the Arabs used to be that Allah had created the Arabs, and then He had created all other peoples, and then He had created the Somalis, and then He had laughed. This country’s irony began to be apparent to us – a forceful and imaginative people in a land that had no resources. We recalled the comments of some Europeans in Hargeisa and Berbera – the Somalis were stiff-necked, recalcitrant, difficult, hard. Yes, they were hard. They had need to be. And yet they maintained their faith – or were maintained by it.

A few days after Jack returned from Awareh, Hakim came to see us.

“Oil will be found someday in Somaliland,” he said with confidence. “You wait and see.”

Why was he so certain, we wondered.

“Because,” he said, “Allah, who is merciful, could not have been so merciless as to create a country with nothing of wealth in it.”

Jack’s reports from the Haud were such a contrast to our life at Sheikh that I found them difficult to grasp. Even the nomads dying in the desert were distant and insubstantial. I spoke the words – how terrible that people should die of thirst. But the imagination is depressingly limited. I had not seen them die, and so I did not really know at all.

My gentle introduction to this land was drawing to a close. At the peak of the dry Jilal season, we left Sheikh and went out south into the Haud. At the time we planned to return from camp fairly often, but as it happened we returned only once.

We came back to Sheikh after the rains, when all things had been renewed. New grass sprouted from every rock crevice, and the mountains were covered with a haze of green. The fern-like boughs of the pepper trees were pale green with unfolding leaves.

The cactus plants had put forth yellow waxen blossoms, and on the hills all kinds of wild flowers grew. The wilted aloes had filled with moisture and become succulently firm again, rosettes of broad pointed leaves mottled green and brown, edged with rust-coloured barbs like a shark’s teeth, and in the centre a thin stalk culminating in a scarlet flower, really a cluster of innumerable tiny flowers. Weird insects emerged – a crimson beetle patterned in gold and black, looking like a small heraldic shield, and another that looked like a piece of Italian mosaic, a delicate turquoise with pastel markings in coral. Near the stony river-bed the green pigeons had returned to the gnarled fig tree.

Early one morning we began to climb Malol, the highest mountain around Sheikh. The path was covered with fissured rocks and piles of rock rubble, and the climbing was hard. We did not reach the top of Malol, but when the afternoon heat was at its height we came to a hidden valley. Clambering through a narrow rock pass, we came upon it suddenly, a green place where the grass was thick and soft, hair-like, and where mauve flowers grew.

This valley was full of clumps of euphorbia, the candelabra trees, the milk of which was poisonous. Their trunks were creased and dark, almost like oak, but instead of branches they bore a collection of thick stalks, green and smooth, uplifted like long tapers. The trees were curiously filled with shadows. Vines had threaded themselves through the stalks and hung down like lace around the heavy candelabra. The loose heaps of rock and shale that littered the ground could almost have been the decayed remains of some temple or court that died ages ago, before any Somali voices came to break the silence once more. That Somalis had been here was proven by the little brushwood zareba, which seemed out of place, as though a nomad’s hut had found itself by mistake in the garden of a sultan. The clouds were swept along by the wind, and their moving shadows gave flecks of shade to the hills. Further into the heart of the mountains we could see Sheikh Pass. Far away and lower down was the settlement, the bungalows and the sheikh’s white tomb, all miniature at a distance. Around us, the swallows darted and the cream-winged butterflies trembled lightly on the flowers. The only sounds were the whirring of the insects and the stirring of the wind.

We rested for an hour or so in the valley of the candelabra, among the forgotten enchantments. Then we went back, down the steep slopes, back to our house. When we got there, the dusk had come and the lamps were already lighted. We went to sleep that night to the sound of the wind that was never still. We would know other winds, some of them blowing like flame, whirling the dust-devils across the desert, moaning like the voices of the uneasy dead. But the wind at Sheikh, however deep its voice, never seemed to carry any threat.

We did not go back again to our house in the clouds. But we carried the memory of its peace with us as a talisman.

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