Camels and Classes in Somalia


Haroon sat under the lone acacia tree that spread out like a huge umbrella shielding him from the hot sun. He looked across the dreary Somali nomad settlement that was now home.

Those round huts look a lot like the piles of grass I used to see donkeys bringing to market in Mogadishu, he thought. His eyes held a faraway look. What’s Dad doing now? he wondered. I wish I could be sitting with him at home, enjoying the sea breezes and eating Mom’s tasty bariis iyo maraq (rice with meat stew). Our house is big enough to live in. Here I must stoop to enter the aqal (huts). They’re just big enough for several of us to sleep in.

The land reaching to the horizon in every direction was as flat as the shallow winnowing basket he had watched Amina weave with strips of bark. Nearby there were a few low bushes around which the goats gathered like baby chicks around a mother hen. Farther away he could see the large herd of camels belonging to the settlement.

Everything was quite still as Haroon continued to think of home 500 miles to the south. Then he recalled the words of President Mohamed Siyad Barre. He had told the students before they were sent out to participate in this literacy campaign, “Haddaad taqaan bar, haddaadan aqoon baro (If you know, teach; if you don’t know, learn).”

Haroon had been sure he had much to teach the nomads. He was eager to take the skills of reading and writing the Somali language to the nomads who made up over 70 percent of the Somali people.

The Somali language had not been written, only spoken, until October 21, 1972, when the three-year-old revolutionary government announced it would be written.

Haroon still found writing and reading Somali a bit strange. Reading had always involved a foreign language. His experience was like those who speak English at home but must use French everywhere else. There would be no books or magazines in English, for everything to read and write would be in French.

Haroon was only four when he began going to school to study the Koran, the Muslim’s holy book. He chanted the Arabic words with his classmates, but he didn’t understand them.

At seven he began learning English.

“This is a book,” the teacher at that school said.

And thirty voices repeated, “This is a book.”

All Somalis who had gone to school in the past had to learn a foreign language, but there was no chance to learn to read and write their native tongue. Only about 5 percent of the people could get a proper education. Different ones had tried to write the Somali language, but before 1972 none were successful.

Haroon remembered the excitement of the day the announcement was made that the language would be written with the same alphabet he used to study English. Airplanes had dropped leaflets all over the city to tell the people the good news.

People began learning to read and write Somali at once.

Three months later Haroon’s father, who was a clerk in a government office, told him, “Next week I must pass a literacy test in Somali in order to keep my job.”

That same week Haroon and three of his friends sat at a sidewalk cafe sipping a spicy beverage. Jama ran up to them, waving the first edition of the Somali daily newspaper.

“Just look at this!” he shouted. Proudly he read the name “Xiddigta Oktoobar (October Star).”

Soon five heads were bent over the pages, sounding out familiar words that looked strange in print.

Radio Mogadishu began broadcasting literacy lessons daily. Everyone in town was learning to read now. Classes sprang up all over the city.

In August of 1974 the literacy campaign was taken to the nomads in the bush country. All schools, except technical schools and the senior classes, were closed for the year. Students fourteen years and older were sent into the bush to teach the nomads to read and write Somali.

Thousands of students were assigned to various sections of the nation. Haroon was one of these. He had stepped up to the official handing out the supplies. “Nabad miyaa,” he greeted.

“Haah waa nabad weeya,” came the cheerful answer. “Here is what you’ll need, Haroon: a blanket for cold bush nights; a folding blackboard that is also a box for the eraser, pens, pencils; a textbook; and a class register. Nabad gelyo. llaah ha ku barakadeya. (Go in peace with God’s blessing).”

Haroon began with great confidence, but he found the nomad chief was not interested in learning anything from a city youth who knew nothing about camels. Only the children and some women attended classes—sometimes.

Haroon longed for the comforts of his father’s house, especially plenty of water for showers. He longed for a chance to talk with friends, for most of the men here ignored him.

Just when he felt especially low in spirit, he met Osman, a former schoolmate, traveling with another group of nomads. Osman was bubbling with enthusiasm about the literacy campaign and all that he was learning from the nomads. “I even helped load the camels for this move,” he said with a grin. “I’d never touched a camel before. And what do you know?” Osman continued, stroking the flank of the animal near him. “This animal actually obeyed my command to get up after we had put on its load.”

After they parted, Haroon reflected on Osman’s words and obvious enjoyment of his experience. I guess I’ve just been thinking of one part of the president’s challenge. I think I know so much the nomads should learn that I haven’t thought about learning anything from them. He softly repeated the president’s words, “Haddaad taqaan bar, haddaadan aqoon baro.”

That night he moved closer to the men around the campfire. He was captivated by the stories Chief Abdi told of Somali heroes of the past. Just before he fell asleep, he thought, I ought to write those stories in Somali. But the next day there was no time for classes nor for story writing, for the clan had to move to find more pasture.

Haroon tried to be helpful. By the time they got settled in their new location, he was feeling as though he were almost a part of the group. However, he was also feeling sick with a fever. He did not complain, but when Chief Abdi heard about his sickness, he was concerned. He sent a young man to find a special plant that was used for a fever medicine. To Haroon he said, “Perhaps you want to return to your father. Life in the bush is hard.”

But Haroon was determined to remain, now as eager to learn as to teach. After his recovery, when the chief observed Haroon’s genuine desire to learn of the nomadic way of life, he became more friendly. He ordered his people to attend classes.

Sometimes in the afternoon when the youths gathered under the spreading branches of an acacia tree, the camels shared the shade. It was very different from the classroom in the city where Haroon had studied English. Here the blackboard hung on a tree. And the strong, acrid odor of camels hung on the dusty air.

Some of the nomads were keen students and helped others. Little children chanted the alphabet as they herded goats. They wrote the letters in the dust while goats nibbled whatever they could find.

One evening when the full moon shone over the settlement, Haroon read to the group a story the chief had told some weeks earlier. The men sat enthralled, realizing in a way for the first time that these marks could tell a familiar story.

Chief Abdi was thoughtful as Haroon finished. “That is good, Haroon,” he said. “If we write our history, our children will not forget. I must learn this writing also.”

He became an earnest pupil, and with his constant encouragement, others came more regularly.

Later in Mogadishu, there was a big celebration when Haroon and thousands of other boys and girls returned to the capital after eight months among the nomads. Crowds lined the streets to welcome them and to celebrate the completion of one more phase in the fight against illiteracy.

The schools opened and these youths returned to being students again. But there was a difference. The experiences in the bush had changed them and increased their appreciation and understanding about some of the problems their country was facing. Many now had a growing respect for the skills of the nomads who could survive in the harsh desert. They also had a greater appreciation for the Somali nomadic culture of their ancestors.

Six months later Haroon was walking home from school one day through the noisy city streets when he suddenly caught the strong, unmistakable scent of a herd of camels. Memories rushed into his mind. Then he saw the herd come around the corner at the end of the block. They jostled each other as cars and taxis honked their horns. A bushman was bringing a herd to the slaughterhouse. Haroon went to talk to the nomad and found he knew Chief Abdi’s clan very well.

The man handed Haroon a letter showing sings of being carried many days in the folds of the man’s skirt. Haroon opened it and read greetings from many in the clan. It was written by the hand of Chief Abdi himself. He thanked Haroon for teaching him and his people.

Haroon was happy to know that Abdi was also following the president’s words: “If you know, teach; if you don’t know, learn.”

[photos] Photographed by Mary Gehman

[photo] A city boy learning to load a camel.

[photo] Somali students ready to begin literacy work in the bush.

[photo] An attentive class of nomads.

[photo] A Somali nomad girl writing the alphabet.

[photo] Outdoor classroom with camels looking on.

[photo] Old men learning to read for the first time.

[photo] Crowds line the streets of Mogadishu to welcome literacy teachers home.