PEOPLE have often admired my long, loping
stride suggestive of Groucho Marx stalking a waitress. Know then that it
was created in the bushlands of British Somaliland, a parched and
quarrelsome corner of north-east Africa full of volatile, vehement
tribes and crazy, recalcitrant camels.
In that oven-hot, ant-hill-dotted, thorn-bush-flecked, territory,
with Beau Geste to the west, Biggles Flies South to the north, Prester
John to the south and Sinbad the Sailor to the east, I pounded an Army
.303, quick-striking, air-cooled Imperial typewriter in the service of
good King George VI.
As an old Somali hand, I sense what is afoot there and expect a
Ministry of Defence phone call asking for information and advice to
boost Britain’s role in a possible United States action against
al-Qaeda’s terrorist network in Somalia, a country that the Arabs claim
was made from left-over pieces when Allah created the earth.
I can reveal that your average Somali is a cracking good chap who
may not always play the straight bat, but knows how to hit opponents for
six. When I was in Somaliland, his occupations included eliminating
rival clansmen, stealing, feuding, praying and engaging in endless
litigation over camels and territory. Doubtless, little has changed
Described as "the Irishmen of Africa", Somalis are proud,
violent, romantic, imaginative and quick-witted - not unlike the natives
of Erin, a land of lush fertility and EU-boosted prosperity. A country
of bush, rocks too hot to touch and brackish water has created a
quick-tempered warrior race, fiercer, it is said, than Afghan tribesmen,
with a contempt for pain or death, who can pull the trigger, sometimes
before they are insulted.
Can you imagine the effect on a well-brought-up lad like myself
from Edinburgh, town of the tinkling after-noon-tea cups and
peppermint-sucking, Church Sundays, on being socially introduced to
spear-and-knife-carrying Somalis with fierce, rolling eyes under mops of
dusty, black, crinkly hair, many of whom regarded Britons as top of
their good feud guides. One talked and walked carefully.
What was then British and former Italian Somaliland was
garrisoned by the British Army where personnel, in outposts among desert
tribes who often flew into ungovernable rages about very little when
matters were sifted, felt themselves slowly slipping their regimental
moorings in the Army equivalent of Le Cafard, the Foreign Legion’s
Peacock-proud Somali males often insisted on being treated like
prince-lings and, if you had different views, could, socially, cut you
dead in more ways than one. Many, however, had an austere dignity about
them, best seen when walking, carrying only a spear while their women,
burdened with household loads, struggled behind.
The spear and curved dagger have been replaced by the
Kalashnikov, the hand-grenade and heavy machine- gun in a ravaged,
famine-stricken land - as desolate as Afghanistan - where the government
has collapsed and the two chief towns, Mogadishu and Berbera, are in
ruins after years of civil war and clan feuding.
In 1993, a US force, on a UN humanitarian mission, became
embroiled in Somalia’s civil war and ended up fighting street battles
against a Somali war lord whose forces shot down two American
helicopters, kill-ing 18 US Army Rangers. The Americans then withdrew
Despite its resemblance to one of Dante’s more uncongenial
circles of Hades, I became fond of that nomads’ land, its wilderness
silences broken by the khareef - the hot desert wind - the tinkling of
sheep bells, the passage of camel-borne caravans and its coastline
flecked with dhows, heraldic in the sun. I also developed an admiration
for the endurance qualities of the Twiglets-thin, poor but proud
Somalis, who claimed, against all evidence, that their land was a Garden
The bravest, most merciless but, when they accept you, the
friendliest of African peoples, the Somalis are also among the most
intelligent. If they could overcome centuries of mayhem and murder, they
could transform a dangerous African dustbin into a prosperous, modern
I wish it well and wish Uncle Sam better co-operation with its
people. If he, too, wishes my support, he can send a message in a cleft
stick. An old bush strider will be quick to answer.