When I toured Somalia in 1963, it was much different from the failed state that it is today. I was working then in the State Department building in Washington, D.C., as the assistant desk officer for Somalia in the U.S. Agency for International Development.
I loved my job, the country, and its people. I learned everything I could about Somalia and the Somalis and had a huge library of everything written in English about them. Now I’m sad to see how terrible the lives of Somalis have become, but I retain my fond memories.
The American aid mission in Mogadishu put me up in a house complete with a support staff. Mohammed took good care of me including shopping, cooking, and drawing my bath. But he had to start by killing hundreds of huge cockroaches that had made their home in my house.
That was my home for a more than a month. But during that time I traveled all over the country, both by jeep and single-engine airplanes.
The most memorable jeep trip was to Baidoa, about 160 miles northwest of Mogadishu. When I spotted a Somali carrying his headrest, I asked the driver, who doubled as our interpreter, to try to buy it for me. Now I keep it in my bedroom, but seldom use it as a pillow (it’s a bit too hard):
In that December it was the rainy season and the “road” had expanded to about one-fourth of a mile wide as each vehicle drove further out into the bush to avoid the muddy tracks left by those that had come before. We got stuck once and were humiliated when we had to get a tow from a group of Russians in their Russian-made truck.
Even worse, however, was being held up by a small group of bandits. But when our driver pulled a gun on them, fortunately they backed down instead of shooting. I imagine the scene would be quite different today.
The most memorable flight was to the north coast along the Gulf of Aden and all the way to the very horn of Africa, Cape Guardafui, where the gulf mets the Indian Ocean. We went to visit a tuna canning factory manned by Italians and incidently to carry their mail. The Italians lived there for six months of the year and seldom had any visitors.
Figuring out why wasn’t difficult. No roads led there. The nearest airport was hundreds of miles away.
But our little plane simply landed on the beach. Fortunately, the tide was out.
The four Americans on the plane stayed for three days as guests of the Italians running the cannery. The group consisted of the deputy director of the AID Mission, one of the mission’s advisors, myself, and the pilot.
The Italians were welcoming and fed us well. Tuna for breakfast. Tuna for lunch. Tuna for dinner. While they varied their presentation, after three days we had had enough tuna. Imagine having nothing but tuna for six months as they did! Talk about a low-carb diet!
During our visit I walked down the coast for six miles to the nearest village. The Somalis there could not have been more hospitable.
“You, American?” one young man greeted me in English.
When I admitted the truth, he invited me to his hut. And showed me how with-it he was by offering me a can of Coca-Cola that a dhow had smuggled in from Aden.
He also commiserated with me. It was only a few days after President Kennedy had been assassinated, and the sad news had penetrated to one of the most isolated places on the planet.
Later on the same trip we stayed for a couple of days in Hargeisa in the northwestern Somaliland region of Somalia. It was the colonial capital of British Somaliland before it merged with Italian Somaliland in 1960. While the town had no hotels, we stayed in a pleasant rest house that the British government had built.
One of the books that I loved most about the Somalis was The Prophet’s Camel Bell by Margaret Laurence. So I made sure to buy a set of new camel bells in a Mogadishu market. But when I spotted beautiful set of old camel bells on some camels being driven near the road, I asked my driver to make a trade. The Somali camel driver was quite willing to get new ones, and I was delighted to get used ones. Almost half a century later these old bells remain some of my most prized possessions:
The bells for male camels are properly bigger and singular; female camel bells are smaller and double. The camel bells and the headrest above are, of course, made from wood. Here that wouldn’t be remarkable, but Somalia has very few trees.
Continuing our trip in Northern Somaliland, we visited a police outpost and met these gentlemen. The one in uniform is a police officer; the other one is the governor of the province. I am the 28-year-old European with a flattop haircut and sunglasses:
We helped the Somalis in various ways, including building roads. The U.S. Department of Commerce liked the contrast between the modern Caterpillar and the Somali in traditional dress so much that this became my first published photo:
More typical, however, was this woman getting water from the Juba river, when we went back to southern Somalia:
Back in the capital, I wandered all around the city. In those days it was peaceful.