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Fitness and Photography for Fun - A blog on staying fit by hiking and doing photography by David Mendosa


April 18th, 2009 · 23 Comments

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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):

Somali Headrest

Somali Headrest

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.

Approaching the Tuna Canning Factory

Approaching the Tuna Canning Factory

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.

Unloading Tuna

Unloading Tuna

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:

Camel Bells

Camel Bells

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:

Meeting Somali Officials

Meeting Somali Officials

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:

Modern and Traditional

Modern and Traditional

More typical, however, was this woman getting water from the Juba river, when we went back to southern Somalia:

By the River

By the River

Back in the capital, I wandered all around the city. In those days it was peaceful.

Mogadishu in 1963

Mogadishu in 1963


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Posted in: Africa

23 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Ilyas // May 31, 2009 at 3:32 pm

    I am beyond amazed that you still have peaceful stories and memorabilia of Somalia, specialy such a long time ago. I am somali and I would love to hear from you again. I will show this to many people. Its nolstagic to say the least.

  • 2 David Mendosa // May 31, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    Dear Ilyas,

    Thank you. I have such great memories of Somalia and the Somalis I met.

    Where do you live now? You are welcomed to contact me by email at [email protected]

    Best regards,


  • 3 Abdiaziz // Aug 11, 2009 at 3:53 am

    I am really grateful to see these beautiful photos. My home town is Alula, Cape Guardafui where you had nice testy fish meals. But unfortunately to day is a home of pirates which is bad name to all of local community. Thank you again your nice photos.

    Abdiaziz musse

    E-mail [email protected]

    Auckland New Zealand

  • 4 David Mendosa // Aug 18, 2009 at 7:14 am

    Dear Ahdiaziz,

    Thanks for your message. What a small world!


  • 5 mohamed ahmed // Oct 8, 2009 at 9:18 am

    This is beautiful, rich culture of ours. Thank you for showing it.

  • 6 Bana Ali // Oct 30, 2009 at 5:55 am

    Dear David,
    You can’t imagine how I felt when I saw the picture and read your stories. it really reminded me how beautiful our country was in 1960 and how it is now. My eyes were really on tears and I wonder whether one day I would be able to tell my children how great country and nation we were. Do you still have more pictures about Somalia.

    Kind Regards

  • 7 David Mendosa // Oct 30, 2009 at 7:26 am

    Dear Bana Ali,

    I am sorry but those are the only slides that I have scanned into my computer.

    Best regards,


  • 8 ubax // Mar 18, 2010 at 10:43 am

    mashallah it is a beautiful pictures. i love the beach and i love my people and my woderful country. so we all need to change and rebuild our homeland country and please people forget it about the TRIBES because it destory our country and we all muslims and don’t forget where u came from because our culture is very important to all of us. i am wishing all of u the best of luck. have nice day!!!!!!!!!!

  • 9 ubax // Mar 18, 2010 at 10:52 am

    i wannna see my people grdauate from unversity from all over the world because they are hard worker and i came to the united state when i was 6yrs old and grow up in DEtroit Michigain. i graduate from high school in minnesota, i was the first somali student to get awards and first person to grdauate and after that i move to seattle Wa to go to college and i am doing very well at school. i love to study all the time, but honestly the reason why i went to college is because of my beautiful daughter she is almost 3yrs old and i am proud myself for making this far. so my advice to all my somali people is that education is the key in the life and it is very important because ond day our country will rebuild again so that we can teach our children how important school is (inshallah) always beleive in yourself and keep your head up ok bye.

  • 10 Vlad Chistyakov // Apr 27, 2010 at 9:29 am

    Thanks for your fine photos. When I was the child our family lived in Mogadishu (1975-1977). Your photos have caused very pleasant memory of the childhood.
    Greetings from Moscow.

  • 11 Abdirahman // Jun 17, 2011 at 10:29 pm

    Hi David
    Thank you for this information which most of us don’t know, I enjoy and really appreciate you information about diabetes all of you sites, newsletters, As diabetic more than 10 years information which I got from your site revised my Hb A1c from 8.9 to 6.6 within three month and the good part is that I reduced my oral medication, low carbohydrates and exercise is working for me well and I pass this information many friend back home(Somalia) who don’t have advanced medical technology Diet and exercise is working for them
    Abdirahman misan Dubai,UAE

  • 12 Adan // Sep 27, 2011 at 9:06 pm

    i really like ur memories, that was wonderful. Somalia is like that before the civil-war. Your momories are really very amzing. i like the photos never before seen and specially the officer and the governor. Now it’s sad and different story.

  • 13 Soomaali // Mar 9, 2012 at 7:37 pm

    It is a wonderful to see again our country looked like in its early years of independence. On behalf of Somalis, I do appreciate posting those images online.

    If you have any more images, please do post so.

  • 14 Elmi // May 5, 2012 at 10:04 am

    Thank you Mr Mendosa for sharing with us your great memories. This makes us happy and sad at the same time, happy that we have a great country called Somalia, sad because people ruined it, but we hope one day it will go back to its glories and you will get more photos to share it with the world.

    if you have more photos, please scan it and share it with us.

    Thank you again.

  • 15 Waaaaw this really great and nice memory. It remains the Old somalia and Mogadishu. thanks Alot // Jun 12, 2012 at 3:29 pm

    Waaaaw this really great and nice memory. It remains the Old somalia and Mogadishu. thanks Alot

  • 16 Abdulrahim // Sep 16, 2012 at 1:44 pm

    what a beautiful country was

  • 17 Leslie C // Dec 9, 2013 at 6:44 pm

    Nabad da David! I almost cried when I found your site! I googled “old Somali camel bells,” as I was curious about my OWN collection of Somali camel bells, and you popped up! I was 6 in 1963 and was living in Mogadishu with my American family. I too have very rich and endlessly happy memories of my youth in Somali, and my heart breaks for the country today! My father, who was a photographer, created entire books of photos which I cherish to this day. Perhaps you knew him? He died when I was 10 and I miss him to this day. He worked for the US state department in the AID communications division. His name was Herb Campbell. We were (and still are) friends with the John Craig and the Williamson families, who were all american families working there in the early 60’s. It would be amazing if you knew the same people! I also have many old somali artifacts that my father collected in the 4 years we lived there…including the camel bells, a headrest, spears, drums, bow and arrows and many more items. I hold these objects as sacred. Thank you soooo much for sharing your story and hearing me out! Nabad galyo, Leslie

  • 18 David Mendosa // Dec 9, 2013 at 6:53 pm

    Dear Leslie,

    I worked with Somalia and traveled there half a century ago, but many memories of that country remain fresh in my mind. I loved Somalia and its people. My camel bells and headrest still have prominent places in my living room where I see and admire them every day that I am home. Actually, your father’s name does sound familiar to me after all these years. Do you have any records of where he served during what time period?



  • 19 Leslie C // Dec 9, 2013 at 7:13 pm

    Wow…that was fast! I’m impressed. I just sent you a Somalia/family Christmas card photo from 1963, to your email address, in hopes that it may jog your memory. He was also a Foreign Service Officer in the Mogadishu communications department from 1960-1964ish and his boss was actually actor William Hurt’s father! Prior to that we were in Liberia from 1958-1960. Sooo fun to have overlapping happy memories! :) ))

  • 20 David Mendosa // Dec 9, 2013 at 7:24 pm

    Dear Leslie,

    So of course I knew your father! I sure knew his boss, the mission director (but had forgotten that he was the actor’s father). Years after my work with Somalia, I became the Officer-in-Charge, Liberia Desk in Washington, and traveled there too. How sad the horror that the peoples of both of those countries had to go through, and in Somalia’s case are still suffering.



  • 21 David Mendosa // Dec 9, 2013 at 7:30 pm

    Dear Leslie,

    The mission director’s name comes back to me know, I think: Al Hurt. Right?



  • 22 Leslie C // Dec 9, 2013 at 7:41 pm

    I will have to ask my mother and get back to you! This is truly fun for me. Not many people can relate to my early days in Africa…and there is NO WAY I can go back to visit the happy home I grew up in!!! Tbc…

  • 23 David Mendosa // Dec 9, 2013 at 8:12 pm

    Dear Leslie,

    No, none of us can return to Somalia. It is of course even harder for the Somalis who had to leave their country, probably permanently. I had actually just been reflecting that I could never return to Kenya or to Malawi, the two African countries where I lived in the 1960s. They have changed too much and that would destroy all the wonderful memories I had of them.