Tag Archives: Somalia

In Search of Lost Time*

On the Horn of Africa, prior to changing our survey location, Jean-Pierre Jacquard would meet with the headman of the local area to which we were moving—probably a good public relations move, even in the Somalia of 1975.

I recall one time when we landed on the edge of a very small village. The headman’s minions came out to greet us and we were shepherded to the center of the village where we were introduced to the headman. We were then seated on the ground and offered chai.

I looked up at the glass of hot chai as it was handed to me. Cloves, what looked to be crushed cinnamon stick, and un-dissolved rock sugar were evident. There was also a fly suspended in the middle of the glass of tea. I figured that the fly must have been boiled with the water, since it wasn’t floating on top of the tea.

Of course I drank it, since it would have been considered an insult had I not.

What I remember most clearly, tempered by time, is this: That was the best tea I have ever tasted. It was spicy, it was sweet, it tingled the palate, and it went down like fresh water. I couldn’t believe chai could taste so good. Whether or not the fly contributed to any of this, I have no idea.

When we departed, the entire village, dressed in their finest and most colorful clothes, had come out to see us off. It remains a picture (that I unfortunately do not have) that I will never forget.

I’ve been trying to duplicate the taste of that tea ever since. I think I almost have it now.

*À la recherche du temps perdu—with apologies to Marcel Proust. (Link updated September 2017)

Bugging out

Around mid-March, Marc Pigeon arrived in camp. George Krois and Earl Lozo were already there. John Juke arrived not long after. As I was cleaning out my kit from the helicopter, Jean-Marc walked up and asked if he could keep my compass, map and signal mirror. I was happy to let Marc have the compass and Michelin map, but I kept the mirror. The Silva Ranger compass had a mirror attached to the lid and he could use it for signaling if needed.


There would be no more desert caravans in my life.

I had done my agreed-upon time, and I would now be heading home, via Nairobi, Amsterdam and London. I was in a good mood when I climbed aboard the Somali Air DC-3 heading south to Mog. A couple of days later I was headed to Nairobi, and then onto an East African Airways flight north.

I spent a little time in Amsterdam chasing Dutch girls riding bicycles, but it was too cool and rainy after my time spent near the equator. I was chilled the entire time. I left for London but the weather there obviously wasn’t any better.

I walked around London seeing the sights and generally doing the tourist thing. On a couple of occasions I stopped to ask people for directions, but I gave that up when I discovered that no one out in the streets actually spoke any English. I can’t begin to think what it’s like in London today, but I can’t help imagining that there isn’t a single soul residing there who speaks English now.

To make matters worse while in London, when I finally met the native varieties who could speak English, every damned one of them made an automatic assumption that I was American. It goes without saying that pissed me off to no end. Finally I got tired of explaining, gave up and agreed wholeheartedly with the stupid bastards each time it was mentioned. By the time I left that miserable island in the middle of nowhere I had professed to be a resident of every American city the silly buggers put me in.

My taxi-ride to the airport sums up my London experiences. At about the halfway mark on the way to Heathrow, one of the rear tires came off the axle and went rolling down the highway in front of the cab. I considered it a perfect conclusion to my stay in the city.

After arriving back in Canada, I did my check ride and headed off on a contract with Manitoba Hydro at Conawapa.

John Juke left us in 2011.

Nomads and evacuation plans

Somalia's semi-arid desert landscape in drought mode

My urban North American background wouldn't have enabled me to survive for long without help in this environment.

On the Horn of Africa I had the only map of the area–a Michelin road map, believe it or not–that showed no actual roads, but only trails. To this very day my faith in Michelin maps remains inviolate, particularly as their accuracy pertains to that part of the world.

Occasionally, in a book store I’ll pull out the most recent version of that old Michelin map, open it up and discover that the old routes haven’t changed any. They’re still marked as trails, and trails they were, heading mostly north and south and plied by camel caravans and nomads on foot migrating from point to point depending on the season, passing by our campsite, stopping only for water.

I remember one occasion, while waiting for Jean-Pierre Jacquard and the umbrella-boy to return to the idling helicopter. I was tapped on the shoulder by a solitary man. (I flew with my door removed.) To put it mildly, I was incredibly surprised. He was grinning, aware of my shock at seeing someone else in this quiet isolation.

The nomad made a sign that he wanted a drink, so I deplaned and got one of the water jugs out of the back. He rinsed his hands, and then I let him drink his fill. By then I had learned a few words of Swahili (the local language was Somali), but beyond that, we were unable to communicate verbally. He made the sign for a cigarette, so I gave him a couple. He smiled, nodded, and was off on his quest.

Here was a man, alone with only his walking stick and his kit, who had been traveling great distances on foot. Where he was from and where he was headed, I had no idea, but I knew instantly that he was a better man than I was. In his environment, I would be but mere fodder for the hyenas that thrived on the weak.

While it never came to fruition, we did have an evacuation plan to get us and the helicopters out of the country in the event the stability of the Somali government become a problem. The plan wasn’t elaborate.

Djibouti was a mere 700 kilometres (430 miles) northwest of our camp. The simple plan was to load up the back of the 500s with two drums of fuel, climb in, light up and head for the Gulf of Aden.

We never had reason to put the plan into action.

Mad Mullahs and American oil companies

Updated February 2011: As of February 8th I have located this fort on Google Earth at 8°08’47.91″ N  50°02’26.36″ E. Image data dated 11/3/2004, or 12/14/2004. It’s not visible from the most current satellite imaging due to cloud cover obscuring the ground.

The location is nowhere near Eyl, which is far to the south, but is at Gabbac, Nugaal.

The fort from Google Earth, 2004 imagery

The fort from Google Earth, 2004 imagery. It's located at Gabbac, Nugaal in northern Somalia. Over the intervening decades it has obviously deteriorated.

One of our return flights from an Indian Ocean R&R brought us past this fortress, possibly constructed during the Dervish war in the early 1900s. I’m not sure if it’s Somali, Italian or British. The British did build a number of forts to guard access to the interior of their territory. In that case, the location of this fort is ideal, constructed as it was on the high ground overlooking the river in many directions.

A British fortress in the Mad Mullah war

The location of this fortress is now known. See above for information.

The Dervish State was an early 20th century Somali Muslim state that was established by Muhammad Abdullah Hassan – known to the British as the Mad Mullah. Hassan was a religious leader who gathered Somali soldiers from across the Horn of Africa and united them into an army known as the Dervishes. This Dervish army enabled Hassan to carve out a powerful state through conquest of lands claimed by the Somali Sultans, the Ethiopians and the European powers.

The Dervish State acquired renown in the Islamic and Western worlds due to its resistance against the European empires of Britain and Italy. The Dervish forces successfully repulsed the British Empire in four military expeditions, and forced it to retreat to the coastal region. As a result of its fame in the Middle East and Europe, the Dervish State was recognized as an ally by the Ottoman Empire and the German Empire. It also succeeded at outliving the race for Africa, and remained throughout World War I the only independent Muslim power on the continent. After a quarter of a century of holding the British at bay, the Dervishes were finally defeated in 1920, when Britain for the first time in Africa used aircraft to bomb the Dervish capital city.

Europe replaced by America

In more modern times, it would appear that British and European dominance of the region has been replaced by U.S. oil company dominance. Ongoing oil company exploration in the region has perpetrated the fantasy believed by successive Somali governments that oil is just one next step away from being discovered. Why this charade continues to be foisted on this broken, poverty-stricken third world country is beyond explanation. America’s decided lack of a cohesive foreign policy, and one consistently based on the availability of oil, is no doubt one of the reasons for this sad debacle in Somalia.

This series of documents details continued Conoco oil exploration in the various regions of Somalia and an ongoing history of oil fraud. In my opinion, the fraud is intended to keep current and future Somali governments under the thumb of the United States. These early ’90s documents were obtained through a U.S. Freedom of Information Act request, and were released in 2006.

As detailed in the link’s PDF files, Conoco’s continued involvement with the U.S. government in claiming that oil may – or may not – be discovered, and that if it is – or is not – it still has some bearing on funding future exploration. Even if the wells come up dry – and they have for decades since we were there in the mid-70s – the financial well has not come up dry for successive friendly members of succeeding Somali governments.

There’s nothing quite like American foreign policy based on oil. You can’t beat it for the entertainment factor to this very day. Unfortunately, it’s at the expense of yet another country in an ever more impoverished and civil-war-ravaged region of the world.

Canadian company joins in the fraud

Even Canada feels the need to insert itself into the equation. A Canadian oil company attempted to inflate its share prices on the London stock market by pretending to look for oil on the “promising geological and other data that Conoco had left behind.” Canadian penny stocks and their fly-by-night promoters and companies are everywhere.

Ass-kicking not allowed

We had been down in Mog on an R&R for four or five days. When we returned to camp we learned that one of Conoco’s agents, Bob Johnston, a tall gangly young guy, had been removed from the camp and sent packing.

It seems that some time after we all departed for the bright lights of the big city, the Muslim contingent of the camp – which was obviously substantial – had set up a prayer circle in front of Bob’s tent. It wasn’t so much the prayer circle that annoyed Bob, however. What bothered him the most was the human alarm clock that was wailing in front of his tent every morning as regular as sunrise.

To me, it appeared as though the camp’s Muslims had it in for Bob. And true, Bob’s manner could be just a tad obnoxious and abrasive at times. This time, he should have been smart enough to admit defeat and have the boys move his tent to a more distant and quiet location, but that wasn’t Bob.

Finally he had enough, and one morning the over-exuberant Bob got out of bed, put on his boots and kicked the praying ass of every man that was bent over in front of his tent. Needless to say, even in 1975, Bob’s ability to kick Muslim ass went over like a lead balloon.

Conoco played it smart and hustled his ass out of the country post haste. Considering that at the end of January ten religious sheikhs had been lined up against a wall and shot [1] by the Somali government for religious interference, I figure Bob got off pretty light in the punishment department.

We never saw him again.

[1] Political Islam in Somalia, Georg-Sebastian Holzer, p.24.