The Chapter Two 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.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
|3||House in the Clouds|
|6||Place of Exile|
|9||A Teller of Tales|
|12||The Old Warrior|
|13||A Tree for Poverty|
|Glossary of Somali Words|
The Bungalow at Sheikh. Photographer unknown.
Sir Richard Burton, surely the strangest and most compulsive traveler of them all, had an extremely low opinion of Somalis. In his view they were stupid, dirty, and most damning of all, poor Muslims. As he had thought all along that they would be. Before he ever began the journey which he later described in First Footsteps in East Africa, his bias had been firmly set. As a scholar in Arabic literature and philosophy, and as a man who had found his true and inner home in the deserts and the bizarre cities of Arabia, Burton disliked the Somalis on sight, chiefly, I believe, because they happened not to be Arabs.
Every traveler sets foot on shore with some bias. Not being a scholar in Arabic literature or anything else, I had no specific pre-conceived ideas of what the Somalis would be like, or ought to be like. My bias lay in another direction. I believed that the overwhelming majority of Englishmen in colonies could properly be classified as imperialists, and my feeling about imperialism was very simple – I was against it. I had been born and had grown up in a country that once was a colony, a country which many people believed still to be suffering from a colonial outlook, and like most Canadians I took umbrage swiftly at a certain type of English who felt they had a divinely bestowed superiority over the lesser breeds without the law. My generation remembered the last of the “remittance men,” languid younger sons of country families, men who could not have fixed a car nor driven a tractor to save their souls and who looked with gentlemanly amusement on those who could, men who had believed they were coming to the northern wilds and who in our prairie and mountain towns never once found occasion to change their minds.
The first Englishman I met in Somaliland was Alf. In his middle thirties, he was a lean sharp-faced man, slightly stoop-shouldered, with a straggling moustache and a rather anxious look, pessimistically anxious, as though he were certain that his was the foot destined to skid on the banana peel over which thousands had passed in safety. He was a P.W.D. foreman and a bachelor, and he offered to put us up for the night.
“Of course, the telegram you sent from Aden only got here an hour or so ago,” he said morosely, in his strong midlands accent. “That’s why no one went out to the Velho to meet you. It never fails. It’s the only thing you can really depend on, here – nothing ever happens in the way it’s meant to.”
He lived alone in a high barn-like structure of truly antique appearance, a two-storey house with enormous windows and heavy wooden shutters. Somali knives and spears were tacked up on the walls, but apart from these meager decorations, the dwelling had a bare and almost unlived-in look. Geckos, tiny lizards transparent as gelatine, raced restlessly across the ceiling, displaying their palpitating vitals and their spines, staring with cold eyes on the humans below.
“What’ll you have to drink?” Alf asked.
In England, we had been able to afford only the occasional bottle of cider, and we had smoked Weights or Woodbines, half the price and half the size. Now, seeing Alf’s amply stocked liquor cabinet and the open tins of full-size cigarettes sitting casually around on small tables, we had the feeling that whatever the drawbacks of this country it would not be entirely without its advantages.
Alf had been here for twenty-one months without leave, and that was a long time in Berbera, too long, especially during the kharif, the hot wind of the monsoon season. Telling us about himself and his work, he would suddenly begin to stammer a little and his words would peter out, as though he had forgotten what he was going to say. Sometimes he did not hear us when we spoke.
“Sorry,” he would say, with a bewildered frown, “I’m afraid I missed that.”
Wandering around the house after dinner, before we all settled down again to talk, he sang in a hoarse tenor, and talked to himself quite naturally and unaffectedly, telling himself he ought not to smoke so much or that he must remember to tell Jama to get cracking on the Police Land-Rover.
Alf was a plain and practical man. He liked to see things done properly. Mostly, here, they were not done properly, and it was always hard to see whose fault it was. He had become saddened and discouraged by what he called the Somalis’ “obstructionism.” He wanted to show them how to look after machinery, how to build and repair roads. Why wouldn’t they let him? He did not know. He knew only that he had to keep on with his job and try not to let things get in too much of a mess. He was not bitter, only overworked and frequently mystified by the fact that the Somalis did not take the work as seriously as he did. But he was careful not to group Somalis together. When he spoke of his staff, he grew keen once more – Ali was a promising mechanic, and you wouldn’t find a better driver than Farah.
But there were so many difficulties. Equipment was always breaking down, and the spares took months to arrive from England. There was never sufficient money in the department’s allocation to get enough new equipment. And there was always trouble with the gangs of laborers. Often it was impossible to see what their current grievance was, for everybody talked at once. The Somalis were the damnedest talkers, he said – they’d argue all night if they could find anyone to listen.
How to explain such a person? It is easy enough to label someone from a distance, but how could you possibly think of a man as an imperialist when he told you, sorrowfully and in perplexity, that he tried to start a football team but the Somalis didn’t seem to take to the game?
Alf’s frayed moustache, his worried eyes and pale untidy hair became a familiar sight to us in the next few months, when we drove from Sheikh to Berbera to get supplies. Gradually I came to believe that if he had ever fully realized how difficult his job was, he would have given up. He had no gift for analysis, however, and perhaps that was just as well, for in trying to turn camel herders into truck drivers, desert tribesmen into town-dwelling mechanics, he was trying to construct a bridge that would cross centuries and oceans in a single span. He went on speaking to them in terms of one culture, and they continued to hear and interpret his words in terms of quite another. Small wonder he was at cross purposes with them half the time.
His business was with solid tangible things, lorries and road-graders, and yet a host of intangibles plagued him like malarial mosquitoes. What did the road gang mean when they complained that the headman was like a hyena in the dry season? Was Jama telling the truth when he said the spanner got lost? Did Abdillahi really understand the gearshift on the new three-ton, or did he only claim to understand, thinking it best to be agreeable? Who was the weird old bearded geezer who had come along and talked non-stop for an hour yesterday, and why had he presented that petition on behalf of Omar, sacked three months ago? There were never any answers.
In later months, we overheard a few of the young English administrators speaking with Alf. Good old Alf – the tone was jovial when they were asking him to give priority to the repair of their vehicles. But they did not invite him to their dinner parties.
He became depressed sometimes and would mutter irritably about both the Somalis and the administration. But he did not give up. The roads got repaired, ultimately. The lorries got serviced. The transport section often had an air of almost lunatic comedy about it – instructions wildly misunderstood, tools lost or broken, vehicles giving up the ghost – but it kept going somehow.
Alf was not unique. He was not even unusual. In other years and other places, we met many other foremen like him, men who were not socially accepted by their better-educated fellow expatriates and who were regarded by Africans as impossibly finicky.
I came at last to see a kind of heroic quality about the man, something which he would have denied utterly and with embarrassment. He was an ordinary bloke – he never pretended to be otherwise. The job was all right, in his opinion, better-paid than jobs at home, but he could never feel he was making much headway.
There are roads that crisscross Africa, not good roads but at least passable ones. There are trucks on the roads and a generation or two of Africans who know how to operate and maintain those trucks. A great many Europeans do not know and a great many Africans do not consider one aspect of this network, and it really matters very little that they do not. But sometimes I wonder if even Alf himself realizes who put the roads there and showed the village boys and the young camel-herders how to drive.
In a borrowed and bone-rattling truck, we made our way across the scorched plains of the Guban to Hargeisa on our second day in the country. Only a few wizened and prickly bushes grew in that expanse of desert, and sometimes one could see a murky waterhole or a dried-up river bed. The land was incredibly empty, the sky open from one side of the horizon to the other. The light brown sand glistened with mica and slid down into long ribbed dunes. It seemed to be no place for any living thing. Even the thorny bushes, digging their roots in and finding nourishment in that inhospitable soil, appeared to have a precarious hold on life, as though at any moment they might relax their grip, dry up entirely and be blown clean away.
But the land was not empty. A figure appeared, standing against the sky, a Somali herdsman, very straight and calm, looking at us with a haughty detachment. He wore a brownish orange robe, cotton that once might have been white but had taken on the color of the muddy water from the wells where the camels drank. He carried his spear across one shoulder. Around him his sheep clustered, spindly-legged creatures, white with ebony heads and no wool at all, only short hair like a deer’s hide. He did not move or turn his head as we jolted dustily past him. To him, we might have been as ephemeral as dust-devils, the columns of wind and sand that swirled across the desert and then disappeared without a trace.
The landmark of Hargeisa is the pair of hills called by the Somalis Nasa Hablod, the girl’s breasts. As we drew into the town I realized the meaning of oasis – after the interminable rock and sand, after the barren places where no water could be found and no trees grew, the sudden sight of greenery and the walls of human dwellings.
The Hargeisa Club actually meant the English Club, for no Somalis and very few Italians were ever invited in. It stood, like the European bungalows, at a considerable distance from the magala or Somali town, and was a low rambling building surrounded by feathery pepper trees and flat-topped acacias. In the front garden, the staunch zinnias grew, the only familiar flower one can be certain will take root in alien soil, although even these plants had been altered here, their colors faded or diluted into an assortment of muted pinks and muddy yellows.
When we wakened in the early morning we heard a harsh squabble of bird voices, and looking out we saw birds whose wings of peacock blue and breast-feathers of gold seemed out of place in the dull-toned land.
“Morning tea, sahib.” Mohamed knocked at the door and entered with the imposing tray, and once again we had to explain that we did not like tea in the morning.
“I think you no be same as other sahibs,” he said in a puzzled voice.
It was a remark he was to make often. Sometimes he meant it as a compliment. More often, it denoted a kind of confusion. In the relationships of servants and employers here, the patterns of behavior were formal, clearly laid down. If one broke with the traditional patterns, how could anyone know what to do or how to respond? It was not easy for us to become accustomed to colonial life, and it was not easy for Mohamed to get used to our departures from it. Ultimately he discovered a satisfactory explanation. We were neither Ingrese (English) nor Italiano. We came from another and unknown tribe.
“Canadian peoples different,” he would say, and this covered a multitude of lapses.
Jack spent several days making plans for the commencement of his work. I, in the meantime, was introduced to the European community through that time-honored institution, the morning tea party. At these gatherings, some of the English women of the station were kind enough to impart to me various pieces of advice. My only trouble was in knowing which to follow, for there was a marked lack of unanimity. The adages ran something like this:
Always lock the storeroom door, or you will be robbed blind by your servants.
Never lock the storeroom door, or your resentful servants will find other ways to pilfer food.
On no account be so foolish as to advance pay to your cook or houseboy, for it encourages them in financial carelessness.
It is quite acceptable to advance pay, provided they understand clearly how much is to be paid back each month.
Never eat curry puffs made in the town, or you will get enteric dysentery.
Curry puffs are perfectly safe, for the curry acts as a preservative.
Never buy Kenya bacon; it is too expensive and will probably give you trichinosis.
By all means, purchase Kenya bacon; it is excellent and reasonably priced.
Never hire a Somali ayah to care for children; such girls all have loose morals – otherwise, as Muslim women, they would not take employment.
Always employ an ayah; children are in deadly peril from snakes and scorpions and must be watched over constantly.
I told them I had no children yet, but that if I had I would certainly not entrust them to the care of anyone else, not even a trained English nanny.
“Oh well,” they said, eyebrows lifting only slightly, “in that case –”
Their explanation of me was in essence the same as Mohamed’s. I was from another country. They shrugged and smiled, a trifle stiffly, perhaps, but politely. Later, it seemed to me that in those early days of our tour quite a few mem-sahibs must have looked upon me with a greater generosity than I afforded them. At the time, I saw only the distance which they put between themselves and the Somalis, whom they tended to regard either patronizingly or with outright scorn. I did not appreciate then the really desperate boredom of some of these women, the sense of life being lived pointlessly and in a vacuum. Nor did I perceive the need many of them felt to create a small replica of England here in the desert and the enormous effort they put into a task that must inevitably fail.
In only two pieces of their advice was a general and immediate agreement evident. I decided it would be prudent to follow these two.
Boil all drinking water.
Take an anti-malarial pill every day.
The Hargeisa magala looked best at night when the milky moonlight was spilled over the town, blanching its stained daytime countenance. The festering gutters, the leprous white-wash of the mosque, the jaundiced mud walls of the tea shops that squatted around the market-place – by moonlight the sores of all these places were made to appear sound. The Somali dwellings, hive-shaped huts of coarse woven grass steeped in smoke and brown-splattered by past rains, were mellowed then, and even the cloth-merchants’ shops, stony hags whose angularity showed through their purdah of grey shutters, seemed softer and more benign.
In the hard glare of the sun it was another matter. Soon after our arrival, I decided I would go to the town and look through the shops. I had no transport, so I walked, for it was only about a mile. Mohamed accompanied me. At first he had been reluctant.
“You no go there, memsahib.”
But when I asked why not, he would not say. He hinted at unspecified danger.
“May be some small trouble –”
I could not take his warnings seriously. With a shrug he resigned himself and shuffled with some embarrassment beside me along the dusty road.
By day the town was a vivid and shabby conglomeration of people, a tumult of voices. In the marketplace, shriveled old men and women sat, gossiping under the thorn trees. Hordes of children, quick and nimble as geckos, darted among the crowds. Camels plodded and sneered. Men from the interior plains of the Haud stacked up the piles of dried sheepskins they had brought in to sell. Somali laborers chanted a high-pitched song as they worked to repair the road. An Indian merchant, dark and plump as a damson plum, sipped spiced tea in the shade. Somali girls walked enticingly in their scarlet or green robes, flicking their eyelashes at the young men. Some of them affected purdah, never worn by the desert women but only by women in the town, and these would coyly hold their gauzy veils just above the bridge of their noses, leaving only their eyes to be seen by passers-by. But so expressive were the eyes that the girls seemed to have no trouble in making their meaning plain to the grinning boys who lolled in the doorways.
“Baksheesh! Baksheesh! ”
The eternal appeal for alm. All at once I was aware of them, the ranks of beggars whining their monotonous plea outside the shops. The old and withered among them smiled with senile serenity, forever hoping for the miracle forever denied, the grace of Allah forever withheld. Their tattered remnants of robes fluttered like ancient prayer flags from a mosque, and the claws that held the wooden bowls were separated from skeleton only by skin as crinkled and brittle as charred paper. One dragged himself along with two blocks of wood strapped to his hands, because he had no legs.
Many of the begging throng were children, the marks of their profession plain upon them – running sores on twig-like bodies, a twisted shoulder, a stunted stump of a leg dragged heavily, patiently, through the dust. They were the misshapen ones, the weak in a land where life came hard even to the strong. Muslims, traditionally alms-givers, look after their poor and afflicted where they can. Here they could not.
“Baksheesh,” the children chirped, “baksheesh.”
What does a person do? I gave them money. The blessings of Allah were placed upon my head, and I was mercifully released, enabled to get away. I could not deceive myself that the giving of alms did anything except momentarily soothe the conscience of the giver, permit him to leave and turn his eyes away. What happened to those who did not receive even these occasional coppers? What happened when there was no money? If they could not live, they died.
When I returned to the Hargeisa Club, I discovered that I had unwittingly caused a scandal. European women did not go to the Somali town alone, and no European ever went on foot. It simply wasn’t done. Many European women, I was told, were afraid to visit the Somali town at all, and never did so. I asked why. Well, stones might be thrown, names called. The Somalis could be very awkward. It transpired that someone had reported me to the police, and all afternoon I had been unobtrusively trailed by two Somali policemen. I was amused and angry. “Perhaps it is the sight of poverty that the memsahibs shrink from,” I wrote in my diary. And of the police, “much ado about nothing.”
I did not then know how much the Somalis resented the Christian conquerors, or if I suspected it, I felt somehow that I would be immune from their bitterness, for did I not feel friendly towards them? Surely they would see it.
But they looked at me from their own eyes, not mine. Later, when I had seen the thronging beggars again and again, and the half-starved men of the desert who brought their lean camels to drink at the town’s shrunken wells, I wondered if all the well-fed ones of this earth, of whom I was one, did not have reason to fear the dusty streets of the crowded town. The hands would not always be stretched out in blessing over the giving of the easily spared coin that made life possible today but tomorrow.
To Be Continued
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
MARGARET 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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