Amazing but is it Africa?
By Richard Dowden,
Somalis. People times ten. From grief to laughter, from love to hate Somalis seem turbo-charged. Hyper-driven with life force.
It is easy to see Somalis as a product of their landscape. Most of Somalia is a desert of rock, stone and sand, flat as the sea from horizon to horizon with a sudden explosion of mountains flung skywards, like a bunch of fists punching defiantly at the sky. For most of the year that sun allows nothing to grow except cactus and vicious thorn scrub. Yet when rain comes, the plains and hillsides and valleys gently green and flower, and camels, sheep and goats gorge themselves on grass. That too reflects another side of the Somalis, their tender, witty poetry about love and the beauty of their camels and women.
Before the digging of wells and bore holes for irrigation, Somalis were nomads, searching for grazing for their herds in perennial wanderings. Other nomads who live on Africa’s desert fringes may share their toughness and individualism, but few have that extra dimension, the Somali’s idiosyncrasy. Africa is a tough place and life’s cruelties often evoke laughter, but Somalis meet misfortune head on and stab back at disaster with barbed, black jokes.
At the beginning of the last century, Britain fought a war against Mohamed Abdille Hassan, Somalia’s resistance fighter against colonialism, known to the British as the ‘Mad Mullah’. The story goes that a wounded Somali staggered into the British-held town of Hargeisa from a battle nearby. He had a bullet wound on his leg and a spear stuck in his stomach. The doctors examined him and pronounced they would operate on his leg first because it was going gangrene. ‘No, no,’ said the man, fix my stomach first. It hurts when I laugh’.
That spirit lives on in Somalia. One abiding, horrifying, but typical image stays in my mind: a young Somali dressed in T-shirt, flip-flops and macawiis, the traditional skirt-like wrap, running at an American armoured Humvee firing an AK47 from the hip. Bravery ten points. determination, also ten points. He was cut to shreds. Most African people do not like fighting and avoid it. Somalis have created culture of war. Their poetry reveres bravery. One of their songs composed during the 1978 war with Ethiopia run ‘If I do not wash the face of the land with the blood of the enemy, I am not a Somali’. Gerard Hanley, who tried to survive there during the second world war, called his book about the Somalis, Warriors. It opens with a harrowing account of Hanley finding a murderer standing over the bloody corpse of his victim and demanding that Hanley carry out immediate justice and shoot him on the spot:
I never saw a Somali who showed any fear of death, which impressive though it sounds, carries with it the chill of pitilessness and ferocity as well. If you have no fear of death you have none for anybody else’s death either, but that fearlessness has always been essential to the Somalis who have had to try and survive hunger, disease and thirst while prepared to fight and die against their enemies for pleasure in the blood feud or the Ethiopians who would like to rule them or the white men who got in the way for a while…… The Somali really did want to, totally satisfied with himself after waiting for his enemy for over a year. Instead of being about a camel, this death was about a woman.
When you first hear Somalis talk you think they are having an argument. They usually are. Their language sounds ‘as if they have swallowed sound’, as Nurudin Farah the Somali novelist says. It is as harsh as their arid homeland. But is not just words. When people argue they listen to other person’s point of view and without conceding their main point, try to establish a common understanding. I once tried to argue with a Somali friend who runs a human rights organization. As the ‘discussion’ developed she simply reiterated her argument more stridently. She changed down a gear and tried to drive straight over my argument, crushing it under a pounding of words that grew louder and louder. Later, after I had spent longer in Somalia, I realized she was not being rude, she was being Somali. Challenge, fight, win. Only when you have used up all ammunition do you begin to look for accommodation.
For every generalization about Africa, Somalia is always the exception. And Somalis know it. Somalia is one of two countries on the continent that has only one race, one ethnic group, one language, one religion and one culture. It is possible to talk about Somali race. I wonder if their distinctive and often extraordinarily beautiful physiognomy has been preserved by their xenophobia. Their creation myth goes something like: God created the white people and was quite pleased, then he created black people and was quite pleased. Then God created Somalis and he laughed.
Somalis are Cushitic speakers like the Afars and Saho people of Ethiopia-all very different from their bantu-speaking neighbours. In a continent in which so many names of countries were invented by the imperial powers, Somalia is at least named after the Somalis. In many parts of Africa people lack a sense of identity, ethnic or national. They are culturally uprooted, unsure of who they are and what they want to become. The old ways forgotten, many Africans have not yet worked out new ones. Somalis know who they are. They are born with self-respect. The nomadic life engenders self-sufficiency.
When the British took over their northern coast in order to provide food and other resources for Aden, the port across the Red Sea and a vital imperial staging post on the route to India, they found the Somalis made excellent travelers and recruited thousands of them into the British merchant fleets. That is why today they are substantial and long-standing Somali communities in British ports like Liverpool, Cardiff and east London. Somalis also became drivers on the fleets of trucks that ply the routes into Africa from the continent’s eastern ports. I met them when I hitch-hiked from Uganda down to Southern Africa. They all carried clubs and daggers. Nobody messed with them.
Apart from war, camels and themselves, Somalis love poetry. Unsurprisingly their poetry is largely about love, war, camels and themselves. Camels come top. On poem by Cumar Xuseen ‘Ostreliya’ says:
A Somali may gather great wealth
Diamonds he may have and houses too…
But he has no legacy to leave behind him
Unless he rears the beast whose necks bear wooden bells…..
A man who has no camels will always be a pauper
Richard is a teacher, a journalist and Executive of the Royal Africa Society in London