White Mischief in Somalia
by Joe Palmer
[ places - august 06 ]
The suicidal fighting spirit... is the paranoid quintessence of all fervent otherworldly movements that despise secular constraints. - Mark Crispin Miller
Miserere mei, Deus, secundum magnum misericordam tuam… Docebo iniquos vias tuas et impii ad te convertentur.
Have mercy on me, Lord, according to thy great mercy... I will teach the unjust thy ways and the wicked shall be converted to thee. - Psalm 50:3.15
Eight million Somalis lived by finding grass for their animals, by following the rains, as they had always done on the semi-desert plain of East Africa. Then Somalia became a new country the size of Texas, and they needed teachers to help them join the modern world. Until a coup during the Cold War, the United States Agency for International Development and Eastern Michigan University tried to start a normal school for training school teachers there.
The United Nations established Somalia in 1960 just as they had established Israel in 1948 - by decree. With civil wars waiting to happen, they went ahead and did it anyway. The Horn of Africa, the Land of Punt, Somalia is home to the only ethnic Africans who also live outside the boundaries set by Colonials, the United Nations, and their neighbours. British Somaliland in the north joined Italian Somalia in the south to become the Somali Republic. Somalis live also across their borders in Kenya, in Ethiopia, and also in Djibouti, formerly French Somaliland.
In Israel they imposed a people on a land. In Somalia they imposed a land on a people.
Their neighbours, the Christian Amhar in Ethiopia, are not congenial to the Somali. Furthermore, brigandage, banditry called shifta, similar to Janjaweed in Sudan, is common.
Colonialism was exploitation, the abuse of people and the theft of their natural wealth, their minerals, fuels, and food. The United Nations felt it had to be done away with. Instead of foreign commissioners and administrators in countries created by Colonials, the local people would run their own affairs, manage their own economies, enforce their own laws, and find their own ways towards wealth and civilization by themselves. The Colonials, except the Soviet Union, turned the running of the countries over to the locals, for the most part. So we got to know Idi Amin, Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, Mao Tse Tung, Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah Khomeini, Moammar Ghadafi, and other despots,
Colonials took away even the telephone wires and the wastebaskets from the Belgian Congo, leaving the locals to heaven, but, in contrast, Colonials kept Rhodesia productive until it became Zimbabwe, after which it reverted to savagery. Working through the United Nations, Christians and Communists imposed freedom and choice on people who often didn’t even know they had been colonized. On the other hand, the Koreans, Algerians, and Vietnamese, who felt they had been badly used, kicked the Colonials out.
Since 1969 when Said Barre seized power and declared the Somali Democratic Republic, all Hell has broken loose there. The great Ogadén Desert lies between Somalia and Ethiopia, inhabited traditionally by the Somali. In 1978 Ethiopians chased the Somali into Somalia. A million refugees suffered drought and civil war. In 1991the United Somali Congress deposed Barre, and the North seceded, declaring itself the Somaliland Republic. Civil war, drought, famine, and failed relief efforts culminated in an American attempt to kidnap Somali leaders in Mogadishu. During the ensuing firefight two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down. Most of the 120 Rangers were killed or wounded. Over 500 Somali were killed.
Following this failure, the US hesitated to intervene in troubled Rwanda, Zaire, Bosnia, Haiti, and Lebanon, to stick their nose in other people’s business and get their ass shot off.
In 1960 the Somalia Republic had fewer than 20 college graduates, no Somali teachers, and no higher learning, so with American money we built a teacher-training school. At a cost of millions we built a magnificent mission outpost not far from a junction town on the Shabelle River in the thorn-scrub savannah of East Africa, not a simple medical clinic and hospital like Dr Schweitzer’s where they saved lives, no, our mission was to eclipse the Russians and the Chinese and make the Somali love us Americans. We called it the National Teacher Education Center. The Somali called it the scuola, in Italian. We were showing the Somali how to run a school for training teachers. We were spreading western liberal ideals and the magic language, English, while others of us prospected for oil. We did not spread western liberal ideals, nor did we find oil, I think. You’ll see what I mean.
The Center was to be a sort of high school for boys, and later girls, who had got elementary schooling in English or Italian, the languages of the colonists. While construction of the campus went on, the students had had to cook for themselves on open fires in the sand, and to live hand to mouth while they were attending classes. During the first year, when no food and no allowances had come from the Ministry of Education by courier (there was no postal service) for weeks, they turned in their books and went on a sit down strike at the Ministry office building in the capital city, Mogadishu. The Minister suspended them, but afterwards he allowed all but the three ringleaders to continue in school.
The first group of 56 students, half from the north (English) and half from the south (Italian), completed teacher training in 1964, and at the graduation ceremony the Minister promised them teaching certificates and jobs. When nothing happened – no certificates, job assignments, or salaries – the whole student body of 157 students demonstrated at the Ministry of Education. They were arrested and thrown in jail for five days. We, the American “advisers,” sent all the food we could find from the scuola to the prison in Mogadishu (Mogadiscio). Those students who apologized were allowed to take a civil service examination at their own expense in order to qualify for teaching jobs. Most of them succeeded.
That is the mess I stepped in when for two years in Somalia I taught English to young men who would go on to teach the rudiments of modernity in the elementary schools of their poor country. The formal teaching and learning they had experienced for the most part was rote memorization, for they had spent years with their sheikhs learning the Qur’an, which makes the ideology of slavery natural and proper to them.
To them, learning was repeating but not necessarily understanding the meaning of the exact words of prayer and text in Arabic, their first foreign language. In 1960 the Somali language was not yet written; they could not agree on which alphabet to use, Latin or Arabic. Somali do not naturally agree about anything, for they have very little to share in their nomadic lives. The fundamental truth they learned is the necessity of submission to authority, but they rebel against it, being by nature quarrelsome. They form mobs naturally. They love to get excited about any injustice or slight and then raise hell. The Somali mind is part of someone else’s mind, as if they are sleepwalking. Then they wake up angry.
They did not want to be like us Americans, infidel and materialistic, yet they knew that the future was going to take place in English, so we taught English according to the method they were used to.
Teaching is acting, and I was good at playing teacher. When I began teaching English to foreign students I learned from the master teachers to treat students according to their ethnicity and sex, to give correction, and praise in different ways, the tricks of the trade (which I may not divulge except to members of my guild, under pain of death). Do not ask me about them. Of course, the first step is to determine the students’ roles in relation to one’s own. They know what they expect in a teacher.
I was a pleasant, unattractive man, a mild-mannered Clark Kent, sensitive and sincere. If I were a butch, matronly woman, I would play the role of mother superior. If I were a gay, effeminate man, I would have to play the scholar and the students’ best friend. And so on. An attractive woman has the most difficult role to play; neither male nor female students can see her as a teacher at first. We had no women on the teaching staff. The second hardest is to be an attractive man. Physically unattractive teachers have it easier. That’s why priests wear black uniforms and have bad breath. Having one bad eye, I was well equipped and suited to the classroom.
The classroom and other teaching situations become even more complex when you add the typical character of your students into the mix. For example, as a general rule, you must treat Persian students, that is Iranians, as if the men were women and the women men. From our western point of view, normal sex roles are reversed in their society. The men weep and take offence easily. They bruise with any reprimand, and they carry grudges forever, but Persian women are tough and can take correction and direction. Persian women run the show at home, and so they treat the men like little boys. So do their teachers.
Many Asian students, in contrast, are like kamikaze pilots in training. They often have a compulsion as if it is their last chance to succeed, a do-or-die situation. Latin Americans, usually overwhelmed by their personal problems, can make an effort to learn only on occasion. French speakers find English pronunciation impossible to master, and so they refuse to try, and so on. Teaching a mixed class of foreign students is like driving a big, fully laden truck in the mountains. You are continually shifting gears so that your motor stays cool while you deliver the goods. Not in Somalia.
Somalis do not question or censor their own behaviour until it is too late to put out the fire. Typically manic-depressive and paranoid, they can die for a cause as simple as vengeance or the will of Allah. Their emotional minds, half full of the Qur’an, accept every command. It is as if their intellectual, critical faculties are hidden, waiting to justify violence. They have skipped the most important part of mental development, which is the understanding that truth is an artificial, mythical, factitious thing, a mental construct, a notion held in common by their group, and so truth fails every test but that of belief. They cannot see that what they believe is not true for others. For them, if it is not true for others, it should be. They are addicted to showing off their arrogance, to strutting their stuff, and to being indignant. Such pride goes before a fall.
They are just like us, with a difference.
In every oasis and village of Somalia, wherever there is water, you will find grey, weathered boards the size of a child with Arabic inscriptions written in charcoal. Each board has a carved finial, a knob on top, to mark it as sacred, for on it are words from the holy book, the Qur’an. The first verse, Sura # 1, is Al-Fâtiha, the Opening, an invocation analogous to the Lord’s Prayer and to the Gâyatrî Mantra of Hinduism. An elderly man, a sheikh, leads the drill over and over again:
In the Name of Allah,
The All-Merciful, the Mercy-giving
All praise and thanks be to Allah,
The Lord of the Worlds.
The All-Merciful, the Mercy-giving.
Which art in Heaven
The Master of the Day of Recompense.
Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.
You (Alone) we worship,
And You (Alone) we ask for help.
Give us this day our daily bread…
Guide us to the Straight Path.
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
The path of those on whom You have bestowed Your Grace,
Not (the path) of those who earned Your Anger,
Nor of those who went astray.
Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory...
The Muslim prayer says nothing about forgiving debts and trespasses, as does the Lord’s Prayer. If you turn the other cheek to a Somali, it will be the last time.
We too had charts and pictures, but they were for practicing English words and phrases at the National Teacher Education Center: “She wants an iron. He wants an iron. I want an iron. You want an iron. They want an iron. We want an iron. My mother wants an iron. The cat wants an iron.”
While the students’ attention was held by a card with contrasting words like WANT/WANTS, the teacher pointed to drawings of people and things - a man, a woman, men, women, a child, children, a cat, two cats, an iron, two irons, boys, girls, pencils, and so on, for practicing patterns and pronunciation.
It sounds as if we were all simple minded, but nobody among us teachers could speak Somali. Nobody knew anything about the Somali’s world. There they were, the poorest, proudest, most beautiful people in the world. To the Somali the crucifix looks like a sword. He carries his shoes so as not to wear out the soles. Of western ways he knows a few, in order of importance: shirt and trousers, ballpoint pen, eyeglasses, trucks and cars, radio, movies, machine guns.
We cannot know all the major differences between languages or what the needs of the students will be. Many differences among languages are not apparent to us. For example, does the word for we include or exclude you? Where is the verb, the head of the utterance, in relation to the other words? And even when you know the fine distinctions, such as words showing relative age and social status, you cannot speak correctly if you have to think about it. You have to know unconsciously, and it is best to learn by doing, but the classroom does not allow tutoring, so we had pattern practice, an artificial compromise that does the students some good if they do not know how to string words together. Otherwise, a language class with no focus on the language is simply chaotic. Of course we naturally learn our first language with no focus on the language. In that fact the mystery lies. Baby talk is what mothers speak to babies. Children learn their first language from other children, not from parents and teachers.
We lived on that remote campus bulldozed out of the thorn scrub, my wife, four young sons, and I in the shadow of the minaret in a little stone house open to the wind and sun, next to the sheikh’s house, a short walk from the mosque. Sheikh Ali, who called the faithful to prayer five times daily, never once greeted me as we passed each other on our way to our work, he to call the faithful to prayer, I to get the faithful to call out English sentences, which they did with the enthusiasm of cheer leaders.
The students’ greatest joy was to understand why a phrase was incorrect and to point out the error. They learned the structures of English by rote, the way I learned as a child to sing Jesus Loves Me in “Chinese”: “Shung jung ego ee woo.” I still do not know whether “Jesus” is shung jung, or ee woo, or ego. Or maybe it means, “The Bible tells me so.”
All of the students had a few English words. They needed to be able to put them together correctly, among other skills.
Six American teachers and their families were set down in the bush between the capital city and the river that runs dry in the sand at the spot where the Italians had built a concrete pillbox, a machine-gun nest to defend themselves against the British advance from Kenya in 1940. In its beneficence and wisdom, America had built a campus for the center, doing things backwards as usual.
Somalia consists of two former colonies, an English one in the north and an Italian in the south. Someone in the Ministry of Education had said to an American functionary that Somalia needed a high school to train teachers in English, in addition to the Italian school in Mogadishu – the Magistrale. So, instead of forming a college, a group of able and like-minded people, of men and women dedicated to a grand pursuit, and then providing a place designed for scholarship and collegiality, they had gone to Nairobi to hire an architect, and on a forty hectare plot with thorn trees, snakes, wild dogs, and scorpions, they built a powerhouse for generating electricity with diesel engines, laid out asphalt roads connecting separate groups of compounds for the menial workers, the houseboys, cooks, cleaners, and drivers, the Somali teaching and administrative staff, and a separate area for the foreign teaching and administrative advisers, and then the major buildings, the mosque and minaret, the student dormitories, the refectory and kitchen, the playing fields, and the classrooms. It was a painted ship in a real desert, waiting for a flood so it could sail.
Each group or family had its little compound, a walled courtyard connecting two screened buildings made of coral stone and concrete, one for bathing and sleeping, the other for cooking and living. The campus resembled a white-collar prison back in the States, a country club for rich felons, except for the minaret, the only minaret ever built by the US government. After the campus was constructed, they thought to look for water so that they would not have to truck it from Mogadishu fifteen miles away. After dozens of deep, dry wells, they found an archaic puddle of water hundreds of yards beneath the sandy regesol. They had sunk a well to bring up water laden with Epsom salts,
The thick thorn scrub is everywhere home to snakes, scorpions, wild dogs, warthogs, hyenas, leopard, innumerable birds, gazelle, and noxious insects that swarm in clouds. The Somali are tall because the short ones already have got eaten. They carry spears for good reasons. You learn to shake the scorpions out of your shoes before you stick your feet in them.
When the diesel engines of the electric generators that powered the campus failed, as they did occasionally, we went camping in place, without leaving home. As it was, we often had electricity for twelve hours a day from six to twelve o’clock, enough to light our way.
There was a bulldozer and its driver, a cousin of our foreman, who kept the electric generators malfunctioning and who also kept the grounds clear of the encroaching brush and thorns so that wild beasts could be seen and so were less likely to approach the buildings and walkways. Clearing thorn scrub and acacia trees by hand is laborious work, and it is dangerous because it disturbs the noxious beasts, the snakes and wasps that live there, so they used a bulldozer, the heavy tractor that had been at the campus since its inception. Then a Gikuyu from Kenya took care of the generators and the bulldozer on contract with the company that supplied the fuel oil, but he quarrelled with the Somali and then quit, fearing for his life.
The bulldozer and its driver went missing one day. The police found the bulldozer some twenty miles away on the road to Baidoa, a town in the general direction of Ethiopia, its engine burnt out from lack of oil. The driver had taken extra fuel in jerry cans, but he forgot to check the oil. He had taken a joy ride to show his bulldozer to a girl he was sweet on.
There was little need for electricity in the afternoons because everyone went home and took a siesta, as is done where the climate is sultry, and besides, the Somali who could afford it were always high on qat by that time of day. Fresh qat leaves, delivered daily by air, can be had throughout Somalia. Chewing them produces green spittle and narcosis, including hypersensitivity to sunlight, so the stoned Somali took a nap then. Aid givers should hire the qat sellers to distribute their largesse along with the qat. They have a network of dope dealers already in place.
Gasoline lanterns attract more bugs and stinging, flying things than candles and weak electric bulbs. At night the creatures came out and hunted for our warm blood. The refrigerator burned kerosene, so the kitchen corner where it sat was always smoky and hotter than the rest of the hot and airy building, open under the eaves with screen wire keeping a few of the bats and slinky, wormy, buzzing things out of the living-dining room and bedrooms. Did you ever return a flying mouse to the wall with a tennis racket? Backhand? It gives a feeling of accomplishment.
We filtered the water through a huge ceramic purifier, and then didn’t drink it because it caused diarrhea. We drank water from the dehumidifier and the drip pan under the refrigerator, and we drank Italian wine, and Danish preserved beer called Tuborg, and other bottled and canned waters like San Pellegrino aranciata. When you are hot and sweaty, there’s nothing like a cool glass of powdered milk reconstituted with dehumidifier water. There was no enclosed space to dehumidify, so we made distilled water with the machines.
Like preachers describing Hell, experts of the Agency for International Development in Washington who had never been to Somalia told us during our orientation there to be resourceful and clever.
A pregnant wild dog, attracted by the baby smells of Nancy Hussey’s two small children, was lurking around her compound, waiting for a chance to get through the gate. After shooting it at her request, I asked our neighbour and gardener, Nur, to dispose of it, so he carried the body into the bush for the carrion crows, the vultures, and the marabout storks to eat. The scavenging birds congregate for days, eating the many dead animals on the roads until the job is finished. The marabout are four foot tall, standing by the mess of large birds like conductors of busy orchestras. Driving along you usually smell the dead before you see the swarm of birds, unless a marabout or two is there, standing tall like a signpost. And there are many dead animals on the road, those killed by passing cars and trucks, and those being driven to market that have expired from lack of water. A dead camel takes two weeks to disappear, so the smell of Somalia comes from the putrescence of decaying flesh, wood smoke and urine, rather like that of India but sweeter, with frankincense and myrrh, formerly a major export.
Nur brought his camel every day to carry water in jerry cans from our house to his house, a grass shack in the bush surrounded by a fence made of dense thorns to keep out dogs and leopard, where he lived with his wife and children and their families. Nur’s delight was to spill and waste water, to pour it on the scrawny flowers surrounding our compound, and to rake the sand clean.
Nur came to me bruised and bloody after a fight, asking me for first aid, telling me that I was a doctor and so I must know how to help him. Since I was only an Eagle Scout with a degree in English, I took him to the infirmary in Mogadishu, a hospital built by the Italians in 1960 when Somalia became an independent country. Nothing but his nose was broken. I never found out why he was in a fight.
One day he came to Nancy Hussey, the nurse, with his eyes swollen shut after an encounter with a cobra. She kept our supply of anti-venin and syringes in her refrigerator, and was able to drip enough of the stuff into his eyes to counteract the poison and to inject a dose so that after a few days he recovered his sight. She sent him walking home, holding a child’s hand, with his eyes bandaged in new white gauze, a sure cure for snakebite.
White gauze is a panacea for most maladies and wounds in Somalia. The stark contrast with brown skin causes everyone to notice the affliction and so they know that the psychic energy of others gathers on the wound, causing it to heal. The center kept a man, called a “dresser,” whose job it was to give first aid and to bandage every cut, scrape, sprain, strain, and pain. Because the body heals itself until it stops, the first principle of medicine is to encourage the body and mind with tender, loving care, and then with aspirin and morphine if you must.
Our children were at home among the many animals they found around them - the warthog, gazelle, birds, camels, cows, sheep, goats… On our son Shelley’s eleventh birthday, I asked Nur to help me get a donkey as a gift for him. We walked out to the road, the pavement, in those days the only paved road outside the large cites of Mogadishu and Baidoa, and waited for a herd of animals being driven to the city and its markets to come along. We found a young Equus asinus, an African ass, the father of all donkeys, full grown and fat. After some haggling, which I did not understand except that the seller would owe a favour to one of Nur’s relatives, I gave the delighted herdsman one hundred shillings, and we drove the donkey down the tarmac to our compound, where Shelley named it Pedro.
Pedro joined the several neighbour children, American and Somali, in play, and followed them about the campus, and soon Pedro was known to everyone. When he strayed, someone always brought him home to spend the night in the compound.
The children put the donkey turds on the rose bushes, an offering. When visitors came, Pedro became a watch donkey, pushing them out the gate with his forehead and biting the ladies on the butt to discourage them from coming into the house. The students soon learned that ass has two meanings, at least, and so to everyone’s delight whenever they met my wife Jane Palmer, they would politely greet her, “Hello, Mrs Balmer. How is your ass?”
On one of our regular trips to the markets in Mogadishu the boys bought a bushel of millet for Pedro to eat, thinking he deserved a treat. After supper we found him on his back, bloated, foundered, blown up like a balloon, his four legs sticking straight up, farting and whinnying in pain. What to do with a donkey about to explode? Our houseboy Dahir ran to fetch Nur, who without hesitating stuck Pedro in the gut with his knife, and with a big whoosh of fermented gas Pedro deflated. He was then not a wiser donkey, but alive and well.
Sportsmanship, that is, applauding a good effort by one’s opponent and sharing the joy of victory, is not in the Somali’s repertoire. Each Somali is first of all a member of a family, a tribe, and a clan, and his clan is related to other clans in a strict order of nobility, marking descent from a common male ancestor. They have always fought each other for grazing land and pride. Three-quarters of the Somali people belong to those families. Other Somalis are settled Bantu farmers or tradesmen who do not count in the social scheme, outcasts who are merely tolerated. Co-operation is very difficult for the proper Somali. They have to take into account the status of each individual, like a little prince, in every social activity, in government and games.
The major clans are the Darood, Dir, Isaaq, and Hawiye. They are the real Somali who share a common ancestor. The other tribes, the Digil and Rahanweyn, enslaved the Bantu who live between the rivers, and then settled down there in the region between the Juba and the Shabelle, which come down from the mountains of Ethiopia, making farming possible. A Rahanweyn youth stands out because he teases his hair into a giant ball that is not cut until he marries. He sleeps with a wooden neck brace to protect his coiffure.
There are a few descendants of Persian, Italian, and Arab traders in the towns, but they along with blacksmiths and prostitutes do not count. Only noble Somalis were chosen to attend the teacher center, of course. The Somali threw stones at Negroes, including American Negroes, including our school secretary Jacqueline Henderson, a pretty quadroon, whose Renault 2CV was daily pelted with stones as she drove to and from the school.
When the physical education teacher at our little American college tried to organize team sports, he was astonished to find that play always consisted of one-on-one, one member of a tribe against another member of the same tribe. Preference must be given to one’s betters. One could pass the ball only to one with equal or higher status. Even in tennis the matches were always intra-tribal, among equals. So there was no football, that is, no soccer. Everyone was more equal than someone else. American football with its teamwork was unthinkable. During the second year of operation we planted cashew trees on the football pitch, so that the cleared land might be of some use. They died, along with our work. The sandy regosol of the Somali Plain absorbs all human effort.
One day as I was correcting papers at home in our compound, one of the wives of Sheikh Ali, our next-compound neighbour who kept the mosque at the college, started screaming from the harîm, “Hay-ya, hay-ya!” Snake, snake!
I had never been invited to the Sheikh’s home. Indeed, he had never spoken to me even though we lived side by side in a perfect Hell. [Just like Jesus who died and came back to life, I lived in Hell once and then returned from that place.] But a woman in distress is a universal plight not to be ignored. I ran to the compound as a second and third woman joined in the screaming from inside the dark house, “Hay-yaaa, haay-yaaa!”
I halted at the gate to the courtyard, realizing that I might break a taboo so strong that it might break me. When an Arab invites you to his home, he treats you like a king, but what if you intrude? I wasn’t exactly being invited by screams of “Snake, snake!”
Then I saw it, the black cobra coiled in a corner of the courtyard. It looked menacing and as scared as the women, its head bobbing around. They had put on their black street clothes. They looked at me through the screened door, and they shouted, “Yallah! Hay-ya!”
Absent was the little blackamoor slave who lived there and held the sheikh’s umbrella against the sun and carried his books for him as he walked to his duties at the mosque. He would have killed the snake.
There are varieties of cobra. Some of them spit in your eyes, blinding you. I hesitated again.
“Rujumu!” one of the women shouted at me in Swahili. “Stone it.”
A good idea, I thought.
“Ittbach al-hayya!” Kill the snake, Cawar.
The students called me Cawar “One-eye,” that is, Louche, sounding like the word hour.
The courtyards had walls of stone eight foot high, perforated so that the constant warm breeze could flow through the buildings. I found a concrete block, and carried it up the wall to the top of the outside corner where the cobra was coiled. Without stereoscopic vision, I dropped the heavy block right on the cobra, squashing it. It writhed in its agony, and I looked at the building where the women had fled, expecting thanks or praise. Nothing. Not a sound. The women had retreated from the doorway.
I never heard a word of thanks from Sheikh Ali, or from anyone. I thought I deserved ululation of the sort I always got when I went through the villages and fields along the river. Ululation preceded and followed me, telling everyone that the hero was coming. Everyone remembered the rogue hippo I once killed as a public service, to stop him from chasing the women from their work. Ululation is anonymous praise, and it is not done solo. All the women join in.
I felt thirsty much of the time, and so it is not hard to imagine how thirsty an elephant gets. One night a practical joker put a bushel of elephant turds on the tennis courts. I know it was exactly a bushel of turds, and I knew where to find elephant digging holes for water in the bottom of the river during the dry season. African elephants are not friendly; in fact, they are dangerous, and so the Somali avoid them with panic. The turds on the tennis courts caused general excitement and a lot of speculation about where they came from and where the elephants that had left them had gone, and so on. We then had conversations in English about elephants. That is called the Direct Method of language teaching, the only method that works.
At the celebratory dinner when we graduated our first class, the first prime minister of Somalia Abdirashid Ali Shermaarke spoke in gratitude for our contribution to Somali life. Recently elected president of Somalia by the National Assembly, there being no way of holding a popular election, Shermaarke was willing to accept the status quo, the artificial boundaries imposed by the United Nations, for the greater good. That is, he knew that modernity requires change, and the new borders implied a new identity for Greater Somalia.
During the introductions, after an al fresco dinner of michoui, roasted mutton, in the courtyard served on individual plates at tables set in the western style with brand new plates, cups, and saucers from China right out of the box with the paper labels still attached, the students had applauded as the principal introduced each member of the staff. They gave me a standing ovation, and to my embarrassment and delight, President Shermaarke proclaimed me a sheikh of the Darood clan, his own prestigious family, an honor not unnoticed by my colleagues, and further cheered by the students.
The following year was one of desperation because the autumn rains did not come. While accompanying relief supplies up country on October 15, 1969, Shermaarke was assassinated. The killer, Abdilkadir Abdi Mohamed, a policeman of a rival clan and one of his bodyguards, was quickly executed by the police. The Somali’s prayers do not include the Paternoster.
A week later the army and the police took over the capital city, dissolved Parliament, and arrested the members of the government. They changed the name to The Somali Democratic Republic. The Somali News became The October Star.
The following summer the United States and West Germany cut off their aid to Somalia, giving as cause the fact that ships flying the Somali flag had been seen trading with Hanoi during the Viet Nam war, and it was against US law to give aid to any country that allowed ships with its flag to deal with Cuba or Viet Nam. The Somali did not have a navy, not one ship, not even a pirate ship of the sort that later preyed on cruise ships off the Somali coast.
Compelled by our humanitarian faiths, we try to solve problems for the poor, to inoculate them, to feed them, and even to prevent their enemies from killing them, yet all our largesse is no more than a pat on our own backs. We all want to be Mother Teresa. We want to help Médecins Sans Frontières cure the halt, the lame, and the blind. We would live for love although it kills us.