Read an Excerpt
May they not just possibly be true, the tales of creatures as splendidly strange as minotaurs or mermaids? Will there be elephants old as forests, white peacocks with crests of azure, jewel-eyed birds as gaudy as the painted birds in the tombs of pharaohs, apes like jesters, great cats dark and secretive as Bast, men who change into leopards at the flick of a claw?
Nothing can equal in hope and apprehension the first voyage east of Suez, yourself eager for all manner of oddities, pretending to disbelieve in marvels lest you appear naïve but anticipating them just the same, prepared for anything, prepared for nothing, burdened with baggage – most of it useless, unburdened by knowledge, assuming all will go well because it is you and not someone else going to the far place (harm comes only to others), bland as eggplant and as innocent of the hard earth as a fledgling sparrow.
There you go, rejoicing, as so you should, for anything might happen and you are carrying with you your notebook and camera so you may catch vast and elusive life in a word and a snapshot. There you go, anxious, as you may well be, for anything might happen and so you furtively reassure yourself with pages from the first-aid book in which it says the best thing to do for snakebite is to keep the patient quiet until the doctor arrives – luckily, you do not notice that it does not tell you what to do if there is no doctor within a hundred miles.
And in your excitement at the trip, the last thing in the world that would occur to you is that the strangest glimpses you may have of any creature in the distant lands will be those you catch of yourself.
Our voyage began some years ago. When can a voyage be said to have ended? When you reach the place you were bound for, presumably. But sometimes your destination turns out to be quite other than you expected.
We could not have found a better-named ship than the Tigre to carry us away from a sleet-sodden English December and into the warm waters of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. She was a Norwegian passenger-cargo vessel, and we had crossed the bilious channel and were waiting for her at Rotterdam. She was delayed, and we, almost penniless, walked the slippery streets of the chilly port, turning up our coat collars against the blowing snow and searching near the docks for a sailors’ café where we could afford to eat. We found it in Die Drie Steden, but we also found that English was spoken only in the more expensive restaurants, and we did not have a word of Dutch. Fortunately, wiener schnitzel, that fine old Netherlands dish, was listed on the menu, but we had no luck with dessert. Finally, the impatient waitress beckoned us to the front of the café, past rows of weathered old pipe-sucking mariners who peered and chortled, and we were faced with a glassed-in cabinet containing a selection of pastries.
“Go ahead,” Jack said. “Pick one.”
“Slagroomwafel,” the waitress said, as I pointed blindly.
It was a waffle with whipped cream. For seven days, out of pure necessity, we ate nothing but wiener schnitzel and slagroomwafel.
We had plenty of time, during that week of waiting, to wonder where we were going, and why, and what it would be like when we got there. An advertisement in a London newspaper had started the venture.
‘H.M. Colonial Service. Somaliland Protectorate. A vacancy has occurred for a civil engineer to take charge, under the direction of the Director of Public Works, of the construction of approximately 30 earth dams over an area of 6,500 miles. The average maximum capacity of each dam will be 10 million gallons. The Engineer will be required to carry out all reconnaissance and detailed survey, to do all calculations and designs, to be responsible for expenditure and the supervision of staff and plant . . .’
Jack applied for the job and got it. It was no sudden whim on his part. As an engineer, he had felt a certain lack in any job he had in Canada or in England. We lived in an increasingly organized world, a world in which the most essential roads and bridges had already been built. He felt a need to work for once on a job that plainly needed doing – not a paved road to replace a gravel one, but a road where none had been before, a job whose value could not be questioned, a job in which the results of an individual’s work could be clearly perceived, as they rarely could in Europe or America. It may have been a desire to simplify, to return to the pioneer’s uncomplicated struggle. Or it may have been the feeling, strong in all our generation, that life was very short and uncertain, and a man had better do what he could, while he could. Perhaps these feelings were good and sufficient reasons for going to Africa; perhaps they were not. But they could not be shrugged off or ignored indefinitely.
After Jack signed the contract, the Colonial Office informed us regretfully that no accommodation for married couples seemed to be available in Somaliland at the moment, but perhaps Mr. Laurence’s wife would be able to join him in six or eight months. This arrangement did not suit us at all, so Jack explained carefully that his wife, being a hardy Canadian girl, was quite accustomed to life in a tent. In fact, I had never camped out in my life, but fortunately the Colonial Office was convinced by the striking description Jack gave of me as an accomplished woodswoman, a kind of female Daniel Boone, and I was permitted to go.
We had to consult an atlas to discover exactly where we were going. This ignorance was not unusual, we later found. Once we saw a gloomy note in the Protectorate News Sheet commenting on the delays in mail owing to letters having been mis-sorted by the Post Office in England, and explaining that “this arises, no doubt, from the fact that very few people outside this country seem to know where it is.”
What do you take to such an out-of-the-way place, when you have no idea what life will be like there? Tents or topees, evening dress or bush boots, quinine or codeine, candles or sandals? The Colonial Office provided us with a pamphlet designed to set at rest the minds of persons like ourselves. It was firm and clear in its advice. We must take a year’s supply of tinned goods and a portable bath. Fortunately, we were also given the name and address of an administrative officer from Somaliland who was on leave in London. He roared with laughter.
“Pay no attention,” he told us. “Those pamphlets are always half a century out of date.”
The booklet also warned us against “woolly bears,” a ferocious cloth-eating insect. In Somaliland we never once encountered a woolly bear, nor did we ever meet anyone who had heard of them. What a wily pamphleteer, focusing our attention on mythical beasts – had he warned us of the actual difficulties, we might never have gone and so would have been the poorer all our lives.
Even the history we ferreted out from libraries had a limited meaning for us, despite its power to stir the imagination with past glory or disgrace, the tramplings of time over one corner of the earth. We were going to the same country where Sir Richard Burton had gone so long before, when he believed his footsteps were the first that really counted for anything in East Africa and when, disguised as the merchant Haji Abdullah, he preached in his superior Arabic at the Zeilah mosque, and was commended by the local elders, none of whom knew the Qoran as well as he.
But he had come late in the roster of explorers. That desert land was known to the ancient world as Regio Cinnamomifera, when ships from the Far East went there with cinnamon which they exchanged for frankincense and myrrh, greatly valued in those days and sometimes purchased by well-to-do Magi to bestow as gifts. There the forty saints from the Jadramaut landed, proclaiming the Word – There is no God but God, and Mohamed is His Prophet. It was a land of warriors, too, brave cruel men like Mohamed Granye, the Left-handed, the Somali king who in the sixteenth century very nearly conquered all of Ethiopia, until at last he fell to the intruding Portuguese, indomitably armoured, who had come to rescue the Coptic Christian emperor in the belief that he was the fabled Prester John, white knight in the black continent, and who were most perturbed when they discovered he was not.
For many men and women, princes and commoners from the distant forests and from the river lands as far away as the Niger, Somaliland was the end of a bitter journey and the beginning of a lifetime of bondage, for there the Arab slave routes had emerged at the sea, and from there the dhow-loads of slaves had once been shipped across the Gulf of Aden to be sold in the flesh markets of Arabia. In that same land, early this century, Mohamed Abdullah Hassan, the so-called Mad Mullah of Somaliland, had fought the British for years and was defeated only when at last his forts were bombed.
We read of these events, and pondered them. But they could not tell us what we would find there now.
At last the Tigre steamed into Rotterdam. About time, too. We were disgruntled and irritable after a week of having been snubbed by hotel clerks who had rapidly discovered our penury. We tramped on board dully, expecting nothing. To our amazement, we found we were the only passengers, and there, spread out before us, was our accommodation – the owner’s suite, an unbelievably spacious three rooms, full of polished brass and green plush and shiny mahogany, and best of all, paid for by the Crown Agents. When we had recovered from the initial shock, we set ourselves to adjust to our altered status.
“We mustn’t act surprised,” Jack said with a grin, as he sprawled luxuriously on the Edwardian velour sofa. “The idea is that we take it all completely for granted.”
But I could not get over the wonder of it, especially the fact that we had our own bathroom. In our year in London, we had lived in a bed-sittingroom and shared a bathroom with so many others that the nightly bath schedule was like a railway timetable.
The Tigre was our home for a month, and we developed a high regard for Norwegians. As passengers, we must have been a nuisance to them, but they never resorted to mere cold politeness. They were warmly friendly, and gave us the run of the ship. We were invited up to the bridge, and allowed to peer through the Captain’s binoculars. We chatted with Johan, the wireless operator, about modern American writers, feeling ashamed that we knew nothing of modern Norwegian writers. Hemingway was his favourite – there was a writer a man could understand.
At night sometimes we went up to the bridge and talked with the second mate while he was on watch. He was a burly, laughing man, who had sailed in the West Indies a great deal. Once he did not see his wife for ten years, he told us. In Montreal, on one occasion, he and a companion smuggled two girls aboard. The men had adjoining cabins, and suddenly through the wall had come an enquiring voice.
“Marie, are you doing any wrong in there?”
“No, Germaine,” was the virtuous reply, “I’m not.”
“Well, then,” called Germaine, “pray forgiveness for me.”
These French-Canadian girls, the second mate said. His laughter went booming out over the dark sea.
We were on the Tigre for Christmas. The Norwegians celebrated mainly on Christmas Eve, when there was a mammoth dinner and gifts all around. Jack was given a bottle of Scotch, while I received a little marzipan pig with a verse attached to it.
To our little sporty guest,
A happy sailors’ julefest!
That evening we sang carols in Norwegian, with the aid of aqua vite and songbooks, although the only word Jack and I could understand was “halleluja.” Johan, who had discovered that Jack’s people came from the Shetland Islands, originally settled by Norsemen, leaped to his feet and proposed a toast.
“To our ancestors and yours – the vikings!”
“Skol! ” shouted everyone. It was a fine Christmas.
At Genoa the ship stopped for several days, and we walked on the hills and saw the harsh port town softened by distance, the pink and yellow walls looking clean and pastel although in fact they were dirty and garish, the harbour with the big rusty freighters packed in prow to stern, and the tugboats skimming around like frantic water-beetles. At the Staglieno cemetery, where marble angels loomed like spirits of vengeance among the green-black cypress trees and where the poor rented graves for seven years, we met two Englishmen who said they wondered if they had not been foolish after all to visit sunny Italy in mid-winter. The day was piercingly cold and we were needled by a sharp unceasing wind. We walked along with them to find a place where we could get shelter and a warm drink. The Englishmen had surely read somewhere how the English are expected to behave in foreign lands, for they were loyally true. They ordered tea.
“But first –” one of them said anxiously to the proprietor, “tell me, please – can you really make it properly?”
The Mediterranean, that time of year, was truly the wine-dark sea. High up on the Tigre, whipped by the icy winds, we watched the wild hills of Sicily pass by. At night we saw a far-off red glow in the black sky, Mount Etna in eruption. And sometimes in the darkness we saw a phosphorescence, plankton perhaps, frothing up suddenly in the waves and seeming to run along the surface of the water like sheet lightning. I wrote in my notebook – “for the first time, I can believe we are in southern waters.”
Port Said, and my first view of the mysterious East was a Coca-Cola sign in Arabic. But the dhows were there, too, with their curved prows and triangular sails, shabby little fishing dhows with the nets slung to dry between the masts, and big trading dhows from the ports of the Red Sea and as far away as the Persian Gulf, coming here with their cargoes of dates and millet or marvellously patterned carpets woven in Basra or Sheraz, perhaps, by weavers who learned their craft as children and were said to go blind young over their looms.
We went ashore and walked the crowded and intricate streets where stained mud buildings stood side by side with slick stuccoed apartment blocks in florid pinks and greens. Rows of ragged palms fringed the roads where horse-drawn carriages unbelievably rattled along like old engravings come to life. And the people – merchants waddling slow and easy in long striped robes and maroon fezzes, nimble limping beggars who trailed the tourists, girl children with precociously knowing eyes, self-styled guides who hovered around us like the city’s flies, wizened and hunched labourers wearing only a twist of rag around skinny hips, boys in flapping cotton pyjamas, business men in draped suits and shiny tan shoes, police in sand-coloured breaches and black jack-boots, thin stooped Egyptian women all in black and wearing the thick veil of purdah, westernized Egyptian girls with long black hair and short white skirts and high rhinestoned heels, the conjuring gully-gully men who would clench an empty fist and then open it and presto – there was a live chick.
Bustling up to us came a plump and jazzy character, gabardine-suited, looking like a smaller edition of King Farouk in sunglasses and Panama hat. Port Said was a city of thieves, he informed us. He personally would see to it that we were protected from these undesirables. He called himself Billy the Kid, and told us he could get us anything we wanted for a reasonable price – binoculars, cameras, watches. We thanked him, but declined. He pattered along beside us for a while, and finally departed for greener pastures, singing “Rum And Coca-Cola.” We heard, echoing back to us, a voice jaunty as a sparrow.
“Working for the Yankee dollah!”
In the course of the afternoon, we shed many of his kind. We were a little pleased with ourselves. To avoid the clutches of the sharks and sharpers – that is not such an easy thing. We wandered through bazaars hung with cotton carpets horribly embellished with scarlet pyramids, blue camels, tigers yellow as egg-yolk. We looked at crocodile handbags, some plainly imitation and some possibly genuine, and all manner of cheap jewellery and souvenirs. Then, in a back-street shop apparently unvisited by tourists, we saw inlaid cigarette boxes. The inlay was ivory, the man told us. We were not deceived. We knew it was not ivory but bone. We liked the patterns, however, so we dickered over price and finally bought. We carried that cigarette box around with us for years, and ultimately in its old age it became a crayon box for our children. When it was left outside in the rain, not long ago, a small illusion was shattered. The inlay was not even bone – it was lacquered paper.
Who would ever suspect that the air would be so cold going through the Suez Canal? We put on all the sweaters we owned, wrapped ourselves in coats, and from the Tigre decks we watched the nearby shore where camels were squashing stoically through the beige sand. The water was a deep blue, so strong a colour it looked as though it had been dyed, and the sky, filled with particles of dust, was an astonishing violet. Villages of square clay houses slipped past us, and tattered children, and black cattle, and women in purdah.
The bleak stretches of the Sinai desert, then, and the distant peak of Mount Sinai where Moses received the stone tablets of the Law. And I recalled what I had chanced to read only a short time before.
Jack had foresightedly brought War and Peace, and in Rotterdam he had settled down to read it. But I had gone ill-provided with reading material and had paced the hotel room until I discovered in a dressing-table drawer the ubiquitous Gideons Bible and read for the first time in my life the five books of Moses. Of all the books which I might have chosen to read just then, few would have been more to the point, for the Children of Israel were people of the desert, as the Somalis were, and fragments from those books were to return to me again and again. And there was no water for the people to drink – and the people thirsted. Or, when we were to wonder how the tribesmen could possibly live and maintain hope through the season of drought – In the wilderness, where thou hast seen how that the Lord thy God bare thee, as a man doth bear his son, in all the way that ye went. Or the verse that remained with me most of all, when at last and for the first time I was myself a stranger in a strange land, and was sometimes given hostile words and was also given, once, food and shelter in a time of actual need, by tribesmen who had little enough for themselves – Thou shalt not oppress a stranger, for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Aden at night. The shore lights seemed frail and wavering in the black vastness of sky and water. This was the parting of the ways, for here we would leave the familiar, the clean and wellventilated world of the Tigre, and move into something entirely different. From now on, we were committed to a land and a life about which we knew nothing.
We leaned over the railing and watched as our crates of books and dishes, our trunks of clothing, were carried off the Tigre and onto the small launch wobbling in the water below. Everything was carried on the heads or the backs of coolies. One very tall labourer, clad only in a loincloth, bent himself and braced his broad bare feet while the others heaved onto his back our largest trunk. His legs were so thin and reed-like, his sweating and trembling body so emaciated, that he looked as though he must buckle and break under the load. No one seemed concerned. The only anxiety was that the trunk might slip off and plunge into the harbour. Goods were more expensive than men, here. There were millions like him, in every city throughout the East, men with names and meanings, but working namelessly and with no more meaning than any other beast of burden. It occurred to me that Markham’s lines were more applicable here now than in Europe.
How will it be with kingdoms and with kings –
With those who shaped him to the thing he is –
When this dumb terror shall rise to judge the world,
After the silence of the centuries?
The Velho, which had been chugging from Aden to Berbera and back again for more years than anyone knew, was a ship inhabited by ghosts. The presence of Englishmen long dead clung around the saloon, where the bolted-down tables were once glossily veneered but were now chipped, their surfaces ringed with the wet glasses of innumerable greetings and partings. Behind the bar, a gilt and curlicewed mirror reflected leadenly the bottles of gin, orange squash, Rose’s lime juice. The air reeked heavily of tobacco smoke, curried soup, foul dishwater. The brass bar-rail was worn with decades of boots, men leaning there lazily, joyously, on their way to Aden and then home on leave, or heavily, tensely, on their way back to Somaliland again. In some cases, it would have been the other way around, men who went on leave only because it was compulsory, men who could hardly wait to leave London behind and get back to an exile that had become beloved. They were all there that evening, as we sipped our gin-and-lime and reflected on the place and those who had passed this way before us.
A firm of Bombay merchants owned the Velho, which had room for nine first-class passengers, eight second-class and an indefinitely large number of third. She was the flagship of the fleet, our fellow passengers informed us. Her sister ship, the Africa, was not so grand. We found our first-class cabin something of a contrast to our suite on the Tigre. The room was approximately the size of a matchbox, and the Indian clerk who had accompanied us on board had advised us to cram as much of our baggage as possible into the cabin with us.
“Otherwise, sar, you might enquire after it next morning quite in vain, oh my goodness yes.”
The mattresses on the narrow, rough-plank bunks were straw, and of an indescribable skimpiness. The grey hue of the sheets suggested that they had been used for the last dozen voyages or so. I had an unpleasant suspicion that we were not the only living creatures in this cabin. I would have preferred to encounter the bar-room ghosts in any visible form rather than the host of winged and many-legged things which my imagination assured me were ready to attack from every crack in the timbering, every straw in my palliasse. The rustlings and faint scratchings went on all night, and I remained stiff as bronze, open-eyed.
Jack, with his usual calm logic, decided that nothing constructive could be done about the cabin, so he crawled into his bunk and went to sleep immediately. As a result, the next morning he felt fine, ready for anything, while I felt queasy and jangled.
“In this part of the world,” he said, recalling the years he had spent in India during the war, “you have to learn that if you can’t change something, you might as well not worry about it.”
He was right, but it was many months before the time came when I could curl up on the seat of the Land-Rover and quietly conserve myself in sleep, when the road had somehow got lost in the desert and we had no idea where we were. That night on the Gulf of Aden I could not have conceived of a time when the bunks of the Velho would have seemed like the silken beds of a sultan’s palace.
The vessel’s mate had a lean intense face and a flaming beard. His eyes must surely have been penetrating, but they were always concealed behind sunglasses. He stalked silently around the boat not exchanging a word with anyone. Maybe he communicated with the captain, but we never observed them speaking together. The captain was an elderly Scot who had worked in the East for many years. He was dressed meticulously, a contrast to his grubby craft. What had brought him here, to skipper this pint-sized wreck from Aden to Berbera and back to Aden, eternally, under the blazing sun? We would never know. When I talked with him, he spoke of only one thing – his last leave in Scotland. I imagined he must have returned from there only recently.
“Oh no,” he replied, when I asked him. “That was seven years ago, lass.”
The wireless operator was a young Egyptian, a Coptic Christian. He led a lonely life in Aden, for he belonged in neither the Christian nor the Muslim communities there. He was fond of jazz, and homesick for Cairo. When we were a short way off from Aden, he laughed ironically.
“I can hear them now,” he said, “but they can’t hear me.”
His wireless set with its spark-gap transmitter was so antiquated that he could communicate only when the vessel was within a mile or so of shore. As soon as we decently could, without appearing too obvious about it, we went up to have a look at the lifeboats. There did not seem to be very many of them.
Among the Europeans on board were two Army sergeants, reluctantly returning from leave.
“This your first time out?” one of them said, gloomily gloating. “You’ll hate it. Nothing there but a bloody great chunk of desert. It’s got the highest European suicide rate of any colony – know that? Good few blokes living very solitary there in outstations, that’s the reason. They go round the bend.”
Another fellow passenger was a civilian, a member of the administration. He told us, confidentially, to watch out for the Public Works Department.
“It’s really gone beyond a joke,” he said sorrowfully, “the way those p.w.d. fellows look after their own people first. They corner all the best furniture and the most workable plumbing. Shocking.”
When he learned that Jack would be associated with the P.W.D., his manner became slightly withdrawn for a time, but he later grew friendly once more and told us how much better the trip from Aden to Berbera was than the return voyage.
“Going back to Aden,” he said, “the boat’s full of camels. They ride with the Somalis, down on the third-class deck. They bawl and groan the whole time, and the stench is terrible.”
The Somalis crowding the third-class section slept out on the decks that night. They were tall gaunt men, most of them, their features a cross between negroid and Arabian. They wore tunic-like robes called lunghis, knotted around their waists and reaching just below their knees. The cotton materials of their robes were of every shade and variety – splendid plaids, striped or plain, green and magenta and mauve. Around their heads were loosely constructed turbans, pink, white, blue. The few Somali women on board seemed a contrast to the brash, assertive men. They had soft features and enormous liquid brown eyes, and many of them had lighter skins than the men. The young unmarried women wore long robes of many colours, but the married ones were clad in black and red. All wore headscarves that billowed out behind them in the breeze. The women walked so shyly, so lightly, with downcast eyes, that I imagined they must be very meek and gentle creatures.
Beautiful a great many of them certainly were, and gentle they certainly could be when it pleased them. But meek – meek as Antigone, meek as Medea. I did not then know Safia, or Shugri and her mother, or proud Saqa, or the old woman of Balleh Gedid.
Berbera from the water looked beckoning. The sea was calm and turquoise, and the level shoreline was yellow sand. A few palms and pepper trees grew around the town, and the houses appeared pure white, their blemishes concealed by distance. The sharp thin minaret of a mosque rose above the squat dwellings. Beyond the town the blue-brown hills looked softer, less treacherous than they really were. Berbera had no harbour, so we anchored off shore and a government launch came out. Jack went ashore to discover what arrangements, if any, had been made for us, and I stayed on the Velho to guard our belongings. After a while Jack returned, accompanied by a Somali boy.
His name was Mohamed, and he looked about eighteen, a boy of unprepossessing appearance, clad in a purple robe and a clean white shirt, and sporting a small black moustache that looked incongruous on his youthful face. He was to be our houseboy. I felt, uneasily, that he had been hired too quickly. We didn’t know the first thing about him. He might be the most cunning crook in Berbera, for all we knew.
“The P.W.D. foreman knows him,” Jack reassured me, “and thinks he’s probably okay. I’ve only taken him on trial. He’ll do for the moment.”
It still seemed absurd to me. I could not see why we needed anyone so soon. With dwindling patience, Jack tried to explain.
“This isn’t Winnipeg or London. You don’t tote your own luggage here. It just isn’t done. Maybe we don’t agree with the system, but there it is. Another thing – he’ll be useful in the shops. If you buy anything by yourself, before you know what’s what, you’ll likely get cheated by the local merchants.”
Mohamed’s function in the situation, apparently, was to look after our interest, and that day he put on a wonderful display of enthusiasm, for he obviously was anxious to have the job. He carried suitcases, conveyed Jack’s instructions to the Somali coolies, cautioned me as I climbed down into the waiting launch.
“Memsahib – must be you step carefully-carefully –”
The whole performance amused and distressed me. I could not face the prospect of being called “Memsahib,” a word which seemed to have connotations of white man’s burden, paternalism, everything I did not believe in. Furthermore, I was not sure I would be able to cope with servants. We had a series of “hired girls” when I was a child in a prairie town, but they could not have been called servants – they would have been mortally offended at the term. Mohamed’s deference embarrassed me. I need not have worried, however, for he was not humble in that detestable way, nor was any Somali I ever met. But I had no way of knowing that at the time.
Mohamed, employed so hastily and on a temporary basis, was the first person I met and spoke with in Somaliland. It would have surprised me then to know that many months later he would also be the last person we saw when we left.
The launch set out for Berbera, and I held onto my broad-brimmed straw hat and felt the warm salt spray on my arms. Perched on the prow was a Somali coolie, and as the boat rode high, caught in a sudden swell of waves, I saw his face against the sky. It was a face I could not read at all, a well-shaped brown face that seemed expressionless, as though whatever lay behind his eyes would be kept carefully concealed.
I wondered if his was the face of Africa.