Ali Omar, te vediamo, papa
by Joe Palmer
[ places - april 02 ]
Ali Omar was a half-caste, the handsome son of a Somali woman and an Arab trader. That this situation was bad enough must be acknowledged. Furthermore, his mother was the daughter of a blacksmith, a Tumal. There was only one caste lower, except for beggars, that of the prostitutes, peddlers, and soothsayers, Yibir.
Ali Omar was a joy to us. He was an intercessionary presence. He looked like a Beiruti shopkeeper whose unctuous smile reflects his intentions. He understood everything that went on between the Americans and the Natives. He had survived to the age of thirty by having quick wits and a profound knowledge of how everything worked in that rigid society.
Someone who was always there to help, he was the counterpart teacher to my dear friend Al Corn, who taught technology - iron, wood, plastics, printing - to the students of the National Teacher Education Center, NTEC, back in the Sixties. A counterpart's role was to learn the job, and then to go to the United States to get a BA or BS degree, and then to return to teach at the college.
The College had been constructed of native coral stone and mortar in a cleared stretch of savannah scrub twelve miles east of the coastal city of Mogadishu in 1964. In the center was a mosque built of concrete blocks, with its white minaret an imposing building that had a reflecting pool at the entrance next to the troughs where the faithful washed their feet before prayers.
The campus was three groups of buildings connected by tarmac roads. The cleared sandy soil was ringed with savannah scrub trees that covered this part of the country. The trees made a wall around the campus. Not even the natives walked out into them unarmed, for they were full of danger.
At one end stood the houses of the foreign teachers, low stone bungalows with courtyards in the middle between the bedrooms and living areas, then the tennis courts and basketball courts, and the football field surrounded by dying cashew trees, then the mosque, the refectory, the office and classroom buildings and dormitories, and then to the east the houses of the native teachers, the native help, and the powerhouse with its diesel engines, and the water tower.
Here was a modern community placed in the middle of a desert through the beneficence of the United States Agency for International Development. Such generosity! The fact that the Russians were supplying the Somali army and the Chinese were constructing public buildings, notably a National Theater, and donating school supplies, might have had something to do with it.
Without Ali Omar our lives would have been more full of frustration. Living was not easy. There was electricity twelve hours a day, from six to noon and midnight, usually. The water nearly saturated with Epsom salts was undrinkable. We drank bottled water and the water from dehumidifiers and arangiata and Danish beer and Italian wine. The well water was pumped from a depth of three hundred feet. It must take centuries for rain to seep to that depth. Yet the physical frustration, the heat, the mildew, the sun, the snakes, the creeping scorpions, the wild dogs, the baboons, the monotonous food, the ennui of days ordered by Sun and wind, did not compare in degree to the problems of being there with people.
Across the road from us lived the Egyptian sheikh, Abdulkaddir, who was the spiritual leader of the school. Every morning, after no doubt saying goodbye to his wife, dressed in a long grey robe and white turban, he walked in a stately manner to his office beside the mosque, accompanied by his little blackamoor slave who carried the sheikh's books and papers and a large black umbrella that he used to shield the sheikh from the Sun.
Sheikh Abdulkaddir was not a friend. I never exchanged one word with him. He held us in contempt. I had not known of such a person in years since I was a boy among Southern Baptists in Indiana.
Then it happened that we were out on a hunt. The Friday hunt was our way of seeing the country, learning about the people, and filling the larder, a kerosene-powered refrigerator. We went out regularly on the Sabbath to take a gazelle or two in order to provide fresh clean meat for the families and unmarried teachers and their servants at the college. As often as not, Ali Omar went with us. A short, broad-shouldered Mohican scout, with a rather pretty face and a direct, unblinking, kind gaze, Ali Omar could speak, in addition to Somali, English and Italian, also Arabic and the Bantu languages of the river valleys, and Chimini - the Farsi language of the coast, and Swahili. I never heard him speaking Galla, another Cushitic language like Somali, or Amharic, the language of the rulers of Ethiopia, but I would not have been astonished.
We hunted with great pleasure. It was a relief to load up a Land Rover and Jeep with food and ice-boxes and houseboys, and to pick up our tracker Sidu, who knew, or pretended to know, of the whereabouts of game, and how to go into a region in order to see what was there. He was a professional hunter who lived in a small village on the Shabelle River just ten miles from NTEC. His people were Riverine Bantus, settled farmers who were looked down upon with scorn by the Somalis. They lived near their fields in clay and wattle huts in squalor, poverty, and disease. They laughed a lot, though. And they were gracious, affectionate people. They always jumped up and down when they saw us, and then they offered us tea that we always refused. We gave them cigarettes and candy.
On that hunt we came to a village and stopped to rest. A young man told us that one of the children had been attacked and killed by a troop of baboons that were raiding a garden. The truck gardens around the villages were guarded by little boys who perched in treehouses and gave alarms when marauding animals approached by pulling strings to which were attached tin cans that rattled.
The baboon live in a marauding group called a troop. There is always a scout who makes sure the way is clear. He climbs a tree and directs the movement of the troop. Twenty to 40 large dog-like beasts reduce a truck garden to waste in a few minutes. They are rightly feared.
The young man asked us to kill any baboon that we saw. Leaving the village we saw a number of baboon crossing the unpaved track in front of us. We stopped and watched. I got out of the jeep with my shotgun, an Ithaca Deerslayer, a 12-gauge pump gun with rifle sights that could shoot a .69 calibre slug with some accuracy. Twelve baboon furtively crossed the track. Then a big old male, twice as big as the others, stepped out and looked up and down the track. He sat on his haunches and looked at us. I laid the shotgun on the open door of the Jeep, and I sighted above his head, and fired. The slug caught him right in the chest.
I paced it off. One hundred and forty-six long paces.
Two of my sons cut off his head and later buried it in our garden so that after the maggots had done their work, the boys could have the teeth.
That safari was otherwise uneventful. We decided against taking warthog. Three guinea fowl were enough. On our way back to NTEC we talked about the lack of meat at the college. The principal had cancelled a contract with a butcher who had been sending spoiled and inferior meat for the kitchen. The kitchen was run by four large cooks who prepared three meals a day for two hundred students. The meals were simple: bananas, bread, boiled meat, milk, tea, oranges, and rice sometimes. The students always tore open the bread, the Italian panini, and scooped out the soft interior and threw it on the floor (in the heat of baking the weevils always fled to the interior of each small loaf), for the Somali have an aversion to eating insects. When Karen Blixen's Kikuyu workers were roasting and eating locusts, she asked her Somali foreman Farah if he would like some. He replied, "Madam, I eat not such small birds."
The students had had no meat for four days, and the idea arose that we should take back a gazelle, in the interest of common sense and nutrition. So we made a detour to the river where we could always find waterbuck, a dumpy large animal with long curved horns, the size of a small horse. We drove a few minutes, saw a herd, got out of the trucks, shot a big male, dressed it out, and went back to the college. We gave it to the cooks, who with great enthusiasm boiled water in iron pots suspended with block and tackle over charcoal fires, chopped up the beast and fixed supper.
After prayers, the students formed a line as usual, waiting to get their grub. They were dressed in soiled shirts and sarongs or black trousers, barefoot, hoping that there would be something better to eat. When the serving cooks told them that there was meat and broth, they cheered "Al-Hammdullilah!"
That was a fast-moving line. Soon slurping and chewing were the only sounds. The students' concentration on the ingestion of protein was suddenly interrupted.
I don't speak Arabic, but I can understand it, sometimes.
The sheikh in all his dignity stood at the door, his hand raised in admonition.
He said that this was the flesh of an animal killed by infidels, that it was a mortal sin to eat this flesh, that no true Muslim would subject his physical frame to the spiritual contamination of such a sin.
Bowls dropped to the tables. It was as if the host had announced that they had been eating the flesh of a dog. Stunned silence.
The smell of that spicy broth filled the refectory. Hunger in the middle of its appeasement is less easily satisfied than before the satisfaction is begun
Then Ali Omar hiked up his sarong, his face glowing with pleasure, and spoke eloquently in Somali. He said that he was there when the animal was killed, that he had approached it while it was still alive, that he had pointed its head toward Mecca and had slit its throat - and that therefore it was "Hallal", ritually proper to eat.
The sheikh retreated, glowering at us, the students ate, and the sheikh hated us more than ever. And Ali prepared his own apotheosis.
Ali Omar always spoke of the "foot-markers" in the sand. How that brilliant man had learned his English was always a question to me.
"But, Professor Sam, I just talk to English. It's simple," he said.
I missed him before he went away, in many ways, having grown to depend on him. I have known people with no pride, and, indeed, I, like you, must work with them, but I had never before met such a politician as Ali Omar, a man to whom honor had only been something less than nothing.
And then one Friday, during an Id, we went north on a three-day safari. We did not want to travel near Mogadishu on the coastal plain in order to take gazelle. It was too easy, and the beautiful animals, Clarkes, Spekes, Hartebeests, would run upon the plain until they were exhausted and it was no sport to kill them. That's where we took visitors who wanted only to shoot animals. With some disgust we took functionaries from Washington or from foreign embassies to kill beasts. We also took our children in order to bloody them, to get them used to killing and dressing game animals. But it was no challenge. It was a chore to hunt upon the coastal plain.
On that safari we went north up the Shabelle Valley to see more of the savannah plain. We arrived at a village and talked to the people through Ali Omar. They had not had meat for a month. There were more than three hundred people living on sugar and tea, when they could get it. We cannot begin to understand that sort of squalor: miserable sweet people who cannot bathe, who are eating anything they can find, netting birds, digging roots, pounding bark, surviving much of the time.
"Where are the gazelles?" Ali asked them. They all pointed to the plain to the west.
We drove for ten minutes and saw hundreds of Soemmering's gazelle grazing.
We shot four of them, gutted them, conserving the livers, and took them back to the village, where they filled ten cooking pots and hundreds of bellies.
"Who would rejoice, should rejoice in the Lord," St Paul said. Indeed.
Qui gloriate, in Domino gloriatur.
Ali lived on the campus with his little wife, Amina, and two small daughters, and with his wife's aunt and with some other people whose relationship I never figured out. Such are the ways of most people in this hard world. Sharing is the only virtue, the one thing that makes us better than dirt. What else is love? And Ali Omar shared his all with many people. He gave to his family whatever he could get.
And we shared with Ali Omar. Not much really. Our salaries were going to banks in the United States. But we had the American Commissary, with its cheap imported food and booze, some of which was sufficient to keep him prospering as a supplier of contraband and luxuries. I'm certain that Ali Omar made a small living off our largesse. Can you imagine a country without alcohol? Yes, you can. But would you want to live in it? Many who do don't.
Ali Omar was always on call. He was the one who could understand the problems. And in return, when I bought cigarettes, I bought cigarettes for Ali Omar too. And whisky. And candy. And such exotic products as laundry detergent and condoms.
We supposed rightly that Ali Omar was supporting several people on a teacher's salary without the help of an extended family and clan. For he was an outsider on the inside. In effect he was an untouchable and a foreigner at the same time.
Ali Omar was educated at the Seventh Day Adventist school in Beled Weyne, a sugar-mill town on the Shabelle River. American missionaries had given him a special power to achieve a secure place in a society that should have had no room for him. Polyglot and literate, Ali Omar was able to impress the Minister of Education, Abdul Shermarke, such that he was given the post of counterpart teacher at the National Teacher Education Center at Afgoi.
And more is the wonder that Abdul Shermarke, the president's cousin and a member of the Dir tribe, the most prestigious of the proper Somali clan -- families, should have chosen Ali Omar to fill a salaried position in a country of nearly three million people where there existed only a few hundred salaried positions at any given time, a country where it was impossible to calculate average income because of the lack of records, a census, or much income at all. Yet the minister of education chose Ali Omar, a man not even from a bad tribe.
"He is a bad tribe" is the comment that you heard over and over again whenever most individuals were mentioned, for the one sure thing a Somali knows is who he is in relation to everyone else. There is a rigid pecking order that is based on the clan-families of the noble Somali whose ancestors came from Arabia to drive out the indigenous Christian Amharic people and to subjugate the indigenous Galla and Negro and Bantu. The proper Somalis, the Samaale tribes, are the Dir, the Isaq, the Hawiyz, and the Darod. They live as nomads in the northern two-thirds of the country where they covet each other's grazing land and water and animals. They compete fiercely, and keep violent feuds going for years. The tribe is a group of related kinsmen who share blood-money, which is to say that they pay collectively the debts of any of their members, and they share whatever is paid to any of them. This practice is called dia. It makes all tribesmen beholden to their own in pride for identity. The basic unit of value is a man's life. It is worth 100 camels. Everything else is proportionately valued.
About one quarter of the population belongs to the inferior groups. The southern Digil and Rahanwein are not noble. They are mixed with Galla and Negro and Bantu, the last of whom are sedentary farmers and so are far down in the caste system. Non-tribal town-dwellers don't even count. "He is a bad tribe" prevented David Hussey, the physical education teacher, from organizing team sports. They could not play, for example, basketball, because everyone on the court knew in advance which player would be allowed to shoot the ball, since they could only pass the ball to a player who was of their own or of a better tribe, and they could not defend against a player of a better tribe, so the only play possible was to send in two players of the same superior tribe, who then played one-on-one while the other eight players stood around and looked on.
Tennis, volleyball and badminton, organized along tribal lines, were the popular sports.
Racial and tribal prejudice does not rear its ugly head in Somalia. It is Somalia.
Two American blacks among us then, a secretary and a warehouseman, continually complained of being spat upon. Their automobiles were dented all over from stones the Somali threw at them. Their Negro blood must have made them look different.
Jim Edwards, the black warehouseman from Macon, Georgia, told me that when his government job application was accepted and he was offered a post in Khartoum, the Sudan, East Africa, he was so ignorant of geography that he could not make up his mind which of the three posts to accept.
Europeans, Egyptians and Arabs were shown deference and contempt at the same time. We were like visitors from outer space -- which, indeed, we were. Because we dispensed money, for rent, for food, as gifts to our indigent students and colleagues, we were given the status of a Dir Sheikh. Because we were mostly Caucasians, we were owed nothing, no freedom, no dignity. We were invisible.
But Ali Omar was there to explain why we must go on giving and helping, before he went away and left us.
One day, it was time for Ali Omar to go to the United States to earn a degree in industrial arts and English, so that he could return to Somalia to help in the development of his country. He was to go to Ypsilanti, Michigan, to get a combined BA/BS degree in reading, and making physical things. There at Eastern Michigan University he would improve his skills and increase his knowledge to the benefit of his people.
We were all somewhat sad and happy at the same time. So, it was over for us with Ali, that dear, kind man. But it was just beginning -- his American experience! And the skills and knowledge he would bring back to the country to which he did not quite belong would be precious.
We formed a convoy of six automobiles to carry all of us and Ali's extended family to the airport in Mogadishu. We all piled in, and on our arrival we arrayed ourselves in groups in front of the customs check-point, the Americans before the Somalis in family groups
As the Somalis were arranging themselves to say goodbye to Ali Omar, they found that suddenly there were many other Somalis among them who were strangers to them.
Several conversations were begun while Ali Omar presented his tickets, and baggage, and passport.
Ali's other family, the one he kept in Mogadishu, had come to say goodbye to him. "Papa," the children called.
Before anyone rose to the occasion, to do what might be done, Ali calmly walked through customs, boarded the Alitalia airplane, and waved to us from a window.
He never returned to Somalia.
I remember his wives meeting each other. Amina? Miriam?
His Mogadishu chudren called "Te vediamo, Papa!"
Ali never returned to Somalia.
"Te vediamo, Papa!"
"We'll see you, Papa!"