OUTCAST IN THE HORN OF AFRICA
A young Canadian adventurer’s African diary: Part IV (conclusion)
Between Mombasa and Djibouti the tramp from Toronto never knew when the crowd in a bazaar would start throwing rocks at the back of his head. At last he beat his way to the Gulf of Aden, and took his last look at Africa from the deck of a dhow setting for Arabia
I LEFT MOMBASA during Ramadan, which began that year in March. Ramadan is the month when Moslems fast, as the Koran says, “each day from the time when a white thread can be distinguished from a black one, and until nightfall.” I was heading up to Somaliland and Ethiopia from Kenya.
My first lift was from a Somali trader who was going up to Garissa, about a hundred miles from the border of what was then the Italian trust territory of Somalia. He was a Moslem, so we didn’t stop for food all day. By the time night fell we had left the coastal jungles and were into semi-desert country. That morning I had had coffee in Mombasa — with its bars, modern shops, and sidewalks. That evening, after sunset, the Somali and I sat down on the dirt track beside the truck and had stew and tea.
Soon after sunrise we crossed a bridge over a dried-out stream. There was a barrier across the road. The truck rolled to a stop before the sign:
NORTHERN FRONTIER DISTRICT OF KENYA CLOSED AREA
NO ENTRY WITHOUT A VALID PERMIT
On the other side of the barrier I could see Garissa.
This was the start of the Ogaden, which covers most of the Horn of Africa, including Somalia, British Somaliland and part of Ethiopia as well as much of Kenya. It is one of the wildest and most forbidding regions in the world, and I didn’t have a permit.
Every year, on March 15, all tracks in the Northern Frontier District are closed to the public until May. Officially the rainy season has started, but it doesn’t matter if it hasn’t started to rain. No civilians are allowed through. Not only was I without the pass necessary even for the dry season, but I had arrived on the morning of March 15. I climbed down from the truck. One of the guards at the barrier took me along to see the district officer. He was the most miserable Englishman I’ve ever met.
Only a hundred miles remained between me and Italian territory, where I could travel without restriction. The last truck had gone through an hour before. The sun was blazing and the road was as dry as a bone. But it was closed. The DO told me that since I had no pass I shouldn’t even have come to Garissa.
I explained that I hadn’t had time to take the three weeks or so required to get a permit. If I went back, I’d have to pay five pounds and take a five-day dhow ride up the coast to Somalia. By then the visa the Italian consul had given me would have expired. I was frantic. But the DO said, “Get on the first CONTINUED ON PAGE 32
CONTINUED ON PAGE 32
Outcast in the Horn of Africa
Continued from page 16
truck back to Mombasa or I’ll have you arrested.”
I went over to the police office and told an Indian inspector my troubles. “Look,” he said, “I doubt if that last truck that went through has passed our police post near the border. They have a radio there. I’ll tell them to hold the truck. Then you hire a Land-Rover to take you up.” After a lot of grumbling, but with the policeman on my side, the DO finally consented to the idea.
Down in the village the news of my problem had got around. The rental charges on Land-Rovers shot up. I was cornered, and they knew it. Finally, for four pounds, one of the Somali traders produced a pretty dilapidated machine and we set off for Liboi, the police post.
I had thought the truck would be driven by Africans. But when we arrived at the tin huts that served as a police post, I could see two Italians lying underneath their truck. I explained why they had been kept waiting and they said it was all right. They would give me a lift to Mogadiscio, 350 miles away.
There was no barrier at the border itself. The thorn trees are cut down in a straight line as far as the eye can see. Only a rickety old sign says: ITALIAN SOMALILAND. Customs and immigration were at the first village, seventy miles farther on.
Photographers aren’t welcome
The Somali is altogether different from the Bantu or West African. When you cross from southern Kenya to the land of the Somalis there’s as much change of race as there is, say, between Canadians and Pakistanis. The Bantu are rather merry and friendly people. Somalis are inclined to be clannish, even hostile. They are quick-tempered, and it doesn’t do to fool around with them. Many of them absolutely refuse to have their pictures taken. They feel that a picture is a graven image, and as such is forbidden by the Koran.
The immigration inspector was an Italian-speaking Somali. One of my newfound Italian friends asked him if I could take a picture of his family. After a great deal of persuasion he brought out his wife and children. They lined up. He yelled at his wife as she modestly kept trying to cover her face. Then, while he pinched the cheek of one of his little girls to make her look up, I took the picture. But they weren’t very happy about it.
It took a couple of days to get to Mogadiscio. The rains had started and for a whole day we went through miles of mud.
It was night when we did arrive. I had nowhere to sleep, but one of the Italians had a friend who owned a restaurant.
I spent the night on the floor in the kitchen.
In Kenya, I had made friends with a couple of Italians. They wanted to come to Ethiopia with me, and we had arranged to meet in Mogadiscio, the capital of Somalia. The day after I got there I started looking for them. First I went to all the hotels and rooming houses I could find. Then I tried the restaurants. In the afternoon, as I was walking dejectedly down a road, a couple of urchins came up to me yelling, “Canadese! Canadese!”
I was puzzled, but I followed them. We went clear across town to the Somali and
Arab quarter, and stopped in front of a dirty-looking whitewashed building. It had a sign on it, Leone d’Oro •— the Golden Lion. One of the urchins hauled me through a door at the back of the restaurant. There, sure enough, lying on a pallet and looking very glum, was my friend Alfredo Mongardi. His brother Giulio walked in a few minutes later. It was Giulio who had organized the urchins to look for a blond white man with a long beard and dirty shorts.
When the Italians held Ethiopia, Somalia, and Eritrea on the Red Sea, Mussolini had the idea of joining Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, with Addis Ababa and Mogadiscio by a road. It was to be called the Strada Inferíala, the Imperial Road. Even before he captured Ethiopia in 1936, he had the road built from Mogadiscio to the border of Ethiopia ready for the invasion. It is a magnificent paved road, but the Italians never had time to finish it and it stops just over the border. A bus goes up as far as Belet Uen, twenty-five miles from the border. One morning we threw our gear up on the roof of the bus and set off along the Imperial Road.
The bus was a converted truck with no battery. At noon we made a lunch stop at Bulo Burti, more to cool off the engine than anything else. To get the bus started again, all the passengers had to push till
the engine turned over. Leaving Bulo Burti, I was in the front chatting with the driver. Suddenly there was a great commotion in the back. The passengers were all shouting. I could see several people punching some poor fellow who was leaning out the window.
The driver stopped. Then he went back and grabbed the fellow and smacked him a few times. The driver came back and explained. It seems that the bus had driven past the poor devil’s stop. He hadn’t thought to ask the driver to let him off—he was just going to jump. It didn’t reach him at all that we were going forty miles an hour and that he might get hurt. The driver told me that sort of thing happened quite often. He had to keep a sharp eye on his passengers. Some of them had stepped out the window and been killed. They simply didn’t understand speed. They spent most of their lives walking and had been in a motor vehicle only once or twice.
We arrived at Belet Uen, a stronghold of the Mad Mullah half a century ago. In former days there were three battalions of Italians stationed at Belet Uen. It is a sort of oasis, on an island, in the middle of the Shibeli, a river that at times dries up. The town had some strategic importance, since it is only twenty-five miles from the Ethiopian border. Nowadays it is the seat of the provincial governor, with a fort and a market. It’s a pleasant, sleepy sort of place — but I had some trouble there.
The day after we arrived, a Somali police inspector said that he would run us up to the border in his Land-Rover. Early in the morning, before we left, I strolled down to the market to take some photographs. The market was just a con-
“From somewhere in the crowd a stone hit me . . . I could feel a sinking sensation in my stomach"
crete floor without walls, and a roof to give some shade.
Women were sitting on the floor selling goat’s milk from skin bags. When 1 took out my camera the noisy marketplace fell silent. The women hid their faces. Then I felt a couple of stones hit me on the back. I turned around. A circle of men and young boys had formed around me. From somewhere in the crowd a good-sized stone hit me on the shoulder. I could feel that sinking sensation in my stomach. This didn’t look like a good place for me at all.
More stones hit me. They kept coming from behind and I couldn’t see who’d thrown them. Then one hit me on the head and I got mad. I had seen this fellow. I picked up some stones myself and nailed him right on the neck with a rock as big as my fist. He went down. I pushed my way through the crowd to a clear space, turned around to face them and, with stones in each hand, started backing away slowly.
When I got to the main road, a LandRover came along. It was the police commissioner. I said, “These people are throwing stones at me!” He said, “Don’t you know they are dangerous?” Then he shut the window and shot off down the road. I turned around and ran to the resthouse where we were staying. Fortunately the crowd didn’t follow.
Right on the border between Somalia and Ethiopia is a village called Ferfer. We spent the better part of three days there. First there is the Somalia barrier across the Imperial Road, then the Ethiopian barrier a hundred yards farther on. Just past the village a beautiful stone bridge carries the Imperial Road across the Shibeli River.
We spent most of our time underneath the bridge with the villagers. During the day it’s the only shady place. There are several spans to the bridge. Under some, there were card games; under others, people were sleeping. We had a span to ourselves. There was no fresh water in Ferfer, so we dug a hole in the
dried-up river bed for water. We set up camp under our span the first night, but a soldier told us that if it rained upcountry the river could become a torrent. We moved out.
One afternoon I asked Alfredo to take my picture standing beside a camel. As he was focusing the camera, a Somali came rushing over. In broken Italian he spoke to Alfredo. The conversation went something like this:
Somali: “Is that your camel?”
Alfredo: “No, I only want to take a picture of it.”
Somali: “Do I come into your house and take pictures?”
Alfredo: “No, but. ...”
As it turned out, that Somali didn’t even own the camel. They’re funny people, the Somalis.
Just beyond the bridge at Ferfer, the Imperial Road becomes a dirt track winding through the thorn trees of the Ogaden. This is a parched land of wandering Somalis, lions and bandits. Every vehicle is obliged to carry at least two armed Ethiopian soldiers.
On the morning of the third day a trading truck came to Ferfer. It was from Diredawa, a town on the Djibouti-Addis Ababa railway, four hundred miles to the northwest. We were excited. This was the first vehicle that had come from Ethiopia. The driver wanted money and there was nothing else to do but pay. We left that evening. I climbed up on the back and fell asleep. I awoke around midnight. The truck had stopped. It was bogged down in sand.
In the Sahara I had learned one thing. If you get stuck in sand the best thing to do is to get out and push. These people didn’t seem to feel that way about it. They got shovels and started digging^ After twelve hours of digging it began to look as though either they were going to build the Imperial Road by themselves, or discover China. Every once in a while the driver would try driving out.
Giulio, Alfredo and I got the other
passengers in behind the truck to push. But they all wanted to push at a different time. If the truck moved an inch or so, they would relax completely. The three of us wound up trying to push a ten-ton truck by ourselves.
Of course the two armed guards wouldn’t even shovel. They sat around with their rifles and had a swell time. I thought myself lucky to get something to eat during the wait. There was a tall t Somali woman who kept coming up to me and saying, “Hah, Inglese! Hah! Gamal Abdel Nasser—he fix you. Hah!” I wasn’t too sure of the connection. She didn’t seem to be either, for she made some good spaghetti, and made sure I got some.
When finally we made Scillave, the first post, we were tired and thirsty. While I was drinking a skin of sour goat’s milk, a policeman came up. He wanted to see my passport. I was to find that everywhere in Ethiopia it was the same. Everyone wants to see your passport. You have to stop at every police post you pass through to have it checked. They write something in it in Amharic script. By the time I left the country there were three full pages of this kind of thing. Of course, the Ogaden section of Ethiopia is disputed territory. The people who live there are Somalis and the new Somali Republic, which is made up of the old Italian and British Somalilands, claims it. The Ethiopians are very sensitive about travelers.
The next stop was Wardair. This is a good-sized village around a whitewashed mosque. It was festival time. The fast of Ramadan was over, and the inhabitants were celebrating. They formed long lines and chanted. We didn’t dare go close and watched from a distance. There was an Italian civilian staying at Wardair. He had lived in Ethiopia for years and was putting up some buildings in the Ogaden. After three months at Wardair he still never went into the village alone. The morning Alfredo and I went through it, the children threw stones. In fact, I was hit pretty hard that day.
We left the truck at Wardair. An Ethiopian engineer who had studied in the U. S. offered us a lift all the way to Harar in his Land-Rover. Harar was close to Diredawa, and it wouldn’t cost anything.
The engineer’s name was Abdul, and Abdul’s Land-Rover never did make it. It started to rain and the Ogaden became a sea of mud. According to Abdul, it hadn’t rained in this part of the Ogaden for five years. It certainly made up for the five years—the rain came down in sheets. Dried-out wadis became roaring torrents.
We came to one of these watercourses just before a place called Gabredarre. There was a ford and Abdul stopped the Land-Rover to wade out and see how deep the water was over the ford. I was close behind him and grabbed him just before he was washed away.
We decided to move upstream until we came to a bridge. A couple of miles before the bridge the Land-Rover slid into a mudhole. Fortunately, Gabredarre wasn’t far away. We left the car with a broken axle and walked.
We waited for a few days in Gabredarre. The rains stopped, and the tracks dried. Abdul fixed us up with a lift in three army trucks going to Jijiga, not far from Harar. As he would have to wait several weeks for the spare part, he decided to come with us.
There is a good deal of wildlife in the Ogaden. But except for hundreds of dikdiks, a tiny antelope, and the occasional gazelle, I didn’t see much. But on our way to Jijiga we stopped beside a waterhole early in the morning for a wash. As we came up to it, a couple of lions wandered off into the bush.
One night we got lost. As the Ogaden is fairly flat, whenever a driver decides the road is getting bad, he just branches out and around through the thorn trees to make his own track. In some places, as a result, there’s a maze of tracks.
I was sitting up on the back. It was a beautiful, clear desert night and I was watching the stars. We had been bumping along a track that seemed particularly twisted. I had to keep a sharp eye ahead. If we went under a thorn tree and I wasn’t careful, I could easily lose an eye to a three-inch thorn. It struck me that we had already been along this stretch of road. I recognized a huge anthill, and realized we had been past it a few times.
That was the only time my small knowledge of the stars was useful. In Mogadiscio someone had explained to me that the knife on Orion’s belt points south.
With that little bit of information we managed to find the right track again.
At Jijiga we went as usual to have some more things written in the passports. I remember very well the procrastinating individual who finally signed them. He was hanged not long ago in the late uprising against the Emperor.
After the Ogaden. Jijiga is quite a metropolis. There are a few Italians living there and even a British vice-consul. There is a large Ethiopian army base and a colonel gave us permission to camp on it. Giulio and Alfredo set up their tent, and I put together the small safari cot I had brought from Kenya.
That night it got cold. My friends were all right inside their tent, but 1 nearly froze. I went into one of the barracks. The Ethiopian soldiers were friendly. They gave me a bed and piled blankets and army greatcoats on me. Now I have been bitten by a wide variety of bedbugs, lice, and other insects, but that night I was bitten by the daddy of all fleas. The wound didn’t heal for more than a month.
Not only the Somalis are touchy about photography. The Ethiopians are just as bad, maybe a little worse. The difference is that though the ordinary Ethiopians don't seem to object too much, the army
and petty officials get upset. I was to find that almost everything in Ethiopia is a military secret. Between Jijiga and Harar I stopped at a small roadside market. I got my camera out to take a picture. As I looked through the camera to focus I could see a soldier aiming his rifle at me. I put my camera away.
From Jijiga the road goes up a steep slope. You are entering hilly country— and what I thought of at the time as really Ethiopia. But of course Ethiopia is made up of all kinds of peoples and countries. There doesn’t really seem to be any such thing as an Ethiopian. As we climbed out of Jijiga, I looked back. Behind was the flat, waterless Ogaden. Ahead was the walled city of Harar.
Harar is built on a hillside more than 5,000 feet above sea level. When you come into it from the Ogaden you get the impression of having arrived in some medieval Turkish capital. There are few places in the world that look exotic after you have arrived. Most cities with romantic names turn out to be bustling metropolises such as we have in Canada.
Harar sounds romantic and Harar is romantic. Harari girls do wear dresses, but under them they have long velvet pantaloons. There are some motor taxis in Harar but the cheapest way to get around is by two-wheeled, horse-drawn vehicle. I had never been in a buggy before and got a great kick out of flying up the main street beside the driver. I would pay a few cents extra and he wouldn’t spare the horse. I usually walk everywhere, but this was one time when I would think up excuses to ride.
We stayed in a small hotel across from the Coptic church. Even though the Harari are Moslem, Ethiopia is primarily a Christian country. The hotel cost one Ethiopian dollar a night — forty cents Canadian—and was the social hub of the town. On the other corner was the cinema. The police fort was next door. In the evening the cinema blared out wailing Harari music. On the Sabbath I was awakened by an equally wailing Coptic service that was blasted out over a loudspeaker.
My friends and I had trouble in Harar. Alfredo’s diaries were stolen from the room. He swore it was the secret police. It is true that a police lieutenant had made a habit of running into us at odd times. It seemed strange that although there were cameras and other valuables in the room nothing else was taken.
Near Harar they grow a plant called chat. It is a stimulant, and chewing the leaves is a popular habit. One evening there was a great ruckus when I took a flash photograph of two girls selling the stuff. Nobody seemed to mind much except a couple of young men who weren’t even in the picture. These two fellows caused a small riot. It was lucky for me that my inquisitive friend the police lieutenant was around. The troublemakers spent the night in jail. I saw one of them the next morning. He smiled sheepishly and we shook hands.
Near Harar is Diredawa. From there, a road runs to the coast at Djibouti. 1 had intended getting on a truck and going out that way. But according to the truckers 1 talked to, few people use that road. A tribe called the Issis lives along it. These people have a strange habit. It seems that in order to marry they have to present a pair of human testicles to a girl to prove their courage. This discourages the truckers. I said goodbye to Giulio and Alfredo, bought myself a thirdclass ticket, and got on the train.
The conductor, a French Somali, had no use for Ethiopians. He mistook me for a Frenchman. When he saw me cramming my pack into a third-class coach,
he asked, “Are you a globetrotter?” When I replied that I was, in my own small way, he said, “You don’t want to ride with all those people. They’re a pack of thieves.”
He took me back to the coach carrying the train guards and said, “Go on. you can ride in there. If you like, you can climb up on top. I know you people — you like to see everything.” And so it was that I rode 150 miles into Djibouti on top of a boxcar.
The native quarter of Djibouti is very cosmopolitan. The town is a port of call
for the Arab dhows that ply the coast. I had to wait three days while looking for a dhow going across the strait of Bab el Mandeb to the Aden Protectorate on the Arabian coast. In the evenings I had my meals with Somalis, Adeni Arabs and Yemeni sailors. With their conical caps and skirts, the Yemenis all looked like Sindbad himself. We ate delicious meat stew and bread on long tables set up in the streets. We drank real mocha coffee, from Mocha, a town in the Yemen.
I will always remember the day I left Africa. A young Somali police inspector
found me a dhow going to Arabia. I hauled my pack down to the quay and put it on board. There were other passengers. Some were Somali pilgrims on their way to Mecca. Others were Yemeni going home. I was the only one going to Aden. The Arab captain hoisted sail and cast off. The young police inspector had come down to say goodbye to me. We waved to each other as the wind picked up and the dhow slowly moved out of harbor. After almost two years tramping that great continent, I was just a little sad to go. ★