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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 1 - That cleft-stick call to arms


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 since then.

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 desert madness.

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 from Somalia.

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 of Eden.

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 state.

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.


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