We knew that there was an element of danger involved in packing up our lives to spend a year in East Africa. We’d heard about the British ex-pat who got stabbed to death months before our arrival. She hadn’t been doing anything remarkable – just sitting in her car with the windows open, when a man came up to her and plunged a large knife in her back. The driver ran after him instead of trying to get her help, but it was probably too late anyway. She died shortly afterwards from loss of blood.
Having a driver in Somaliland has nothing to do with luxury. The concept of insurance simply doesn’t exist here and everything is worked out between clans. The leaders of the two clans will get together to mediate a dispute:
“Faisal killed my goat and I want one of his in return.”
“Mohammed maimed my daughter and I insist on being compensated for it.”
We foreigners have no clan so we need to hire drivers who will bear the risk for us. But this turns out to be one of the blessings. Abdi Hakim is a big burly man; he’s only ten years older than me and already has nine children. He’s fierce and loud – everyone knows him and everyone listens to him.
I mean everyone listens to him. He can be parked illegally at the market and still talk the policemen down who come to confront him, and the conversation will end with the other party slinking away. With him, we rarely think about danger; our senses are dulled to complacency in the glaring sands, the roar of the truck and the beige concrete houses zipping by.
He takes us away from the city, out into the desert, so we can go jogging. For the men, this is a simple matter, but we women are unveiled and in sweat pants as we run along the sandy path, past the herd of tall camels with spongy feet. Abdi Hakim follows us slowly from the road, his eyes never leaving us; he is always alert to the nomads’ reaction, to potential danger as we run by, chatting and laughing.
There are other threats in Somaliland – a large scorpion idles its way across our concrete driveway; automatic rifle sounds burst suddenly out of nowhere, causing the people around us to duck through force of habit; a bomb explodes in the compound next door to ours. It has been set off in the middle of the night by someone who wants to retaliate against our neighbors. It shakes our entire compound and rattles the windows, but I am drugged by the fresh night air of the desert, and I sleep through the whole thing.
From the back of his pick-up, a young man yells at us to “go home!” as we walk quietly through the desert – we women veiled demurely according to local custom. Another car full of young blood swerves off the road to hit me as I am walking on the embankment. They only mean to scare me, but they knock the bag of groceries sharply out of my hand.
I’m naïve, impervious to danger, and I go up to the window to confront them and shame them, asking them “why?” in their own language. I stand there staring at them, resolute, until a policeman shakes off his afternoon lethargy, and spits out the khat he is chewing before sauntering up to investigate.
Abdi Hakim rushes me to the hospital early in the morning with Moguay, a nine-month old orphan ravaged by pneumonia, famine and dysentery. He has become very special to me over the months, and he’s barely clinging to life.
At noon he drives me back to the orphanage, Moguay’s tiny body wrapped in a white cloth and cradled in my arms. He watches me crying quietly in the back seat, risking small glimpses at my face through the rearview mirror. When we arrive, the workers at the orphanage come up to the car, talking loudly to Abdi Hakim. They take the body from me unceremoniously. Death is just death to them.
Abdi Hakim, in turn, has his own grief. We drive to the maternity hospital and come upon an older woman outside the gates, wailing loudly and wringing her hands. He jumps out of the car and confers with her, before climbing back in and announcing gruffly that it’s his aunt; his cousin has just died from eclampsia. We release him from work for a few days, and give him the use of the car.
We are starting up operations in the neighboring country of Djibouti when we get the call from our local adjoint that the Twin Towers have been attacked and have fallen. We have no TV, radio or Internet access, so we rush to a local café where we watch in disbelief what is happening to our home.
Who could have foreseen that we’d be sitting in the safety of a café in Africa while our home was falling to dust and ashes, or that the sense of security could be so oddly displaced? We are quickly evacuated from Djibouti with its Al Qaeda camp on the outskirts, to the dubious safety of Kenya to be reunited with the rest of our team.
From the comfort of the house where we’re staying in Kenya, I tell Matthieu about the man who attacked me in broad daylight in the city center of Nairobi. He laughs at me, his forehead wrinkling in concern, as I show him the kung-fu move that I used to ward off the attacker. I can feel fingers on the back of my neck, someone reaching out to grab the fake gold chain that I’m wearing, and I whirl around with an arm-block that sends him cowering away.
However, there is nothing to laugh about when we hear that Malinda – the one team member who loves Africa so much she always says she’s “living her dream” is set upon by a gang of young men in a poorly lit section of town, early in the evening. She is pulled off her feet with a plank under her neck and is choked while they strip her of her material possessions. She is not unscathed, and yet she stays on and marries an Ethiopian man. She’s still in Africa today, living her dream.
When we get the all-clear to return to Somaliland four months later, we are excited to go, even though the 8-seater plane has two false starts, with mechanical problems occurring at 15,000 feet – the red light blinking on the pilot’s dashboard and our hearts filled with dread. We limp back to our first love – Hargeisa – the city we first knew, beaten into submission by the harsh life of Africa. When we finally step off the small plane that scatters the goats off the runway, there is a team of friends there to greet us, headed by a beaming Abdi Hakim.
We float through those final months in quiet industry, almost accomplishing more in that time period than we have in our entire year on the continent. It is with mixed feelings that we watch our year’s sabbatical come to an end and prepare for our departure.
I ask Abdi Hakim to accompany me through the market in town, to tell me where I can buy the nicest, most expensive Muslim cap to give to a friend. I ask him to choose the koofiyad that he finds the most elegant. He obliges, choosing an expensive white one with silver embroidery throughout.
We climb out of the truck on the day of our departure, the back loaded with our luggage representing one year in Africa – suitcases and bags stuffed to the brim with incense, African goat stools, etched wooden bowls, cotton cloths. We stand facing Abdi Hakim, reluctant to say goodbye.
He shakes my hand, even though I am a woman and a foreigner. I hand him a parcel. It’s the silver and white koofiyad, carefully wrapped in tissue paper. I watch as he takes it, not daring to open it, but surely knowing what it is. He nods his head fiercely and yells at some boys in beautiful, guttural Somali to stop dilly-dallying and come and take our bags for us, hiding his emotions behind his gruff voice.
We step onto the larger airplane, Ethiopian Air, which will take us to Addis Ababa and then on to our final destination. The brown sands that stretch over this terrain we have come to know – the small brown mountain, peppered with green shrubs, the concrete buildings and houses, not one left untouched by the constant shelling of civil war a decade ago – all of these things become smaller and smaller until they are no more.