A Journey Thorugh Somaliland

Sire,Dear Gentlemen and Ladies,The Somalis' Country, of which I have the honour of relating, stretches along the entire East Horn of Africa and is called "Bar-as-Somal" in the Somali language. The Somalis belong to the Mohammedan religion of the Shafi'ite sect and are a nomad people made up of Galla and black Arabic elements. This people, exposed to a patriarchal regime, is divided in various tribes that have no connection with each other and live in a permanent struggle, rarely manifested through a real war, but rather through singular duels, plundering and assassinations. Except for their priests, called mullahs, few Somalis are learned, their language is not written, and the prayers are said in Arabic, whose religious terminologies penetrated the Somali language. The masculine population is very indolent. All difficult works and many other undertakings are performed by women. They look after and walk the cows, carry the water and the logs, and they also carry their younger children in a wooden little cradle hanging over their back; they weave from the fibres of a small tree water carafes, oiled on the inside with a greasy substance that makes them impregnable, and they also weave from the fibres of a tree called galol shaggy quilts, which are placed under the load of the camels, used as bed for people, and as cover over the dwellings. These dwellings are transportable, built from wooden circles, in a conical shape and do not rise more than 4 or 5 metres above the ground. Women are well treated. I noticed many times, when haggling, that they interfered in men's talks and they often had a very sharp tongue, managing even to impose their own will. The Somalis have two or four wives, according to their status. Men buy the women from their parents, paying a price called ierad. The Somalis who don't have the money to pay the ierad join others in order to plunder a caravan or to steal the cows they need to make up the ierad. Such undertakings are very well regarded and praised in the national songs.They Somalis are very susceptible and easy to hurt in their pride, and in some circumstances they can become even dangerous. In our caravan, it happened twice for the Somalis, belonging to different tribes, to start fighting seriously, with spears they pulled out one against the other. Duels like this, between members of different tribes, are very frequent, and I saw many Somalis, even youngsters of 15 to 17 of age, wearing a small ostrich feather in their hair, as a sign of the fact that they had killed a man in fight. Besides a dignified appearance, the greatest quality of a Somali is his irrefutable bravery. Seeing an Englishman, lord Delamyr, being attacked by a lion that had got wounded, its hunter threw himself with no guns over the lion, gripped it by its mane and, pushing it aside, held it tight until the wounded lion dropped dead due to the effect of the bullets. Both the lord and the hunter had serious wounds at their hands and legs. My hunter, Gheli, when he was a youngster of 17, got near a lion that was sleeping and killed it with his spear. My second hunter, Aden, was overturned by a rhinoceros and got up immediately, laughing and waving at me to show that he was not hurt. The Somalis' wealth consists of huge cattle herds: cows, horses, donkeys, and especially sheep, goats and camels. Their sheep are white and black-headed, they do not give wool and have a very thick and curly tail. Their meat is very good and it is appreciated by the Somalis. As there is intemperance with liquors in Europe, so is in Somalia the one with food abuse, and it is sometimes frightening to see the huge quantities of fat and meat a Somali can eat, especially at a wedding or a funeral.Beyond Shebeli, at Dur Etame, in the Aulihans' country, I witnessed the burial of one of their chiefs. The ceremony was very simple, and consisted only in reciting some verses from the Koran. Two deep holes were dug in the ground, at three metres distance from each other, and joined underground by a gallery. The deceased was laid in this gallery, without a coffin, enwrapped in his robe, facing Mecca, having a still layer of earth above him. Both diggings were filled up with stones, and two big stones were laid above, the bigger one at the head and the smaller one at the feet of the deceased. A Somali never passes by a grave without reciting a short prayer and throwing a stone or a twig over the deceased, to show that he wants to contribute as well to its consolidation. Such isolated graves can be found all over the country, especially in stony places and nearby roads.Marriages are concluded by paying the ierad and by a simple statement in front of the mullah, and at Berbera, before a qadi. The Somalis, with a few exceptions, do not live on agriculture, both because of their indolence and because of the uncertainty of their property. The country gets, by natural means, all the food necessary to the cattle. Their export trade consists especially in cattle skins, resin of different species, and ostrich feathers. The import consists especially of American cotton, and England has the greatest profit by the import and export duties levied in its harbours at Berbera, Zeila and Bulhar. The Somalis are of a very tall stature, with a well-built torso, with long and rather thin legs, having Arabian features, but sometimes resembling the blacks more. Their complexion ranges from all shades of chocolate to the darkest black. Men wear cotton coats, white or light brown-reddish, draped in many ways and very gracefully round the body. The Somalis always carry a sword with scabbard, called bilova, with two spears and a small, round, oryx or rhinoceros leather shield. Married women wear the hair hidden in a sort of black "chignon" (the French for "loop"), and the girls wear it braided in hundreds of small pigtails hanging on both sides of the face. The women and the girls have the right shoulder and arm uncovered, and the rest of the body, down to the heels, is covered in a cotton tunic draped in a pleasant shape. Almost all of them have thick nose and lips. Their walk is flexible and the waist swings on delicate extremities, which gives them, especially from afar, a gracious appearance. They do not cover their face. A Somali never eats the meat of an animal unless, while it was still alive, its throat was cut in the name of God, a procedure called halal. Among the Somalis, there is a class of people called migdans, despised by the others, because they do not obey with the same rigour all religious customs. They eat non-halal animals, and were not against pulling the teeth out and taking off the skin of the wild boars we had shot, whereas a Somali that carried my camera, which I had used for taking pictures of a pig, rushed to wash in order to clean himself of the awful sin of having worn the portrait of a pig. Another Somali from our caravan, touched accidentally by a drop of cognac, threw his coat immediately, and, since he had no water, rolled over the sand and walked without clothes until he was given enough water to clean himself. The migdans are also Somali, they speak a dialect of the same language, they believe in Allah and in Mohamed; they are professional hunters though, that hunt with poisoned bows and arrows, which, from ancient times, prevented them from complying with the halal ceremony, being used to eat the dead game they found, poisoned by themselves. The bows are very poorly manufactured and do not throw the arrow with precision farther than 30 metres. However, they manage to kill with these bows the oryx antelopes, to which we cannot get closer than 200 metres, as well as the ostriches, to which we cannot get closer than 800 metres. The migdans, with great dexterity, know how to make a donkey look like an oryx, binding a pair of antelope horns to its head and, with this disguised donkey, they attract the oryx near the bush where they lie in wait with their poisoned arrows. When they hunt the ostrich, they use a domesticated female ostrich. Ostriches are worth a lot, from 1200 to 1500 lei, and I noticed many times how the domesticated ones were strutting with comic solemnity in the middle of a sheep herd. Although inland access is facilitated by the possibility of using camels, the inside of this Oriental Horn of Africa remained almost unexplored till 1884 because of the savageness and fanaticism of the inhabitants who, until the time when England transformed the coast into its protectorate, had got used to plundering and murdering all the Europeans that fate had thrown on these inhospitable shores. In Ogo I met and shot almost all species of gazelles and antelopes which can be found in Somaliland, Gazella spekii or naso, so named because of some small turn-up it has at the nose; Gazella soemmeringi, which lives in open lands, where there are no trees; Gazella walleri (the present-day name: Lithocranius walleri), which eats leaves from the trees and lives only in the bushes; Oryx beisa, a beautiful antelope from which the Somalis make their shields; this antelope, when hurt, may become dangerous and may attack the hunters. Our Somalis always approached it very carefully; its meat is very good; kudu, of Strepsiceros imberbis species (small kudu: Tragelaphus imberbis, big kudu: Tragelaphus strepsiceros), the smaller one, with long horns, twisted in a spiral; kudu, of the bigger species, which, aside from its size, can be distinguished from the former by a tuft that the male has under the chin. The female kudu doesn't have horns. We also met three species of a Madogua antelope, called dik-dik in Somali, having the exact shape and colour of our chamois. (dik-dik are 30-35 centimetres tall antelopes. The three species are: Neotragus moschatus, Rhynchotragus guentheri and Madogua phillipsi). This dwarf-antelope is a real wonder of nature, due to its gracefulness, and it barely reaches the dimension of a middle-size rabbit in our country. My son met and shot, in Ogo, a species of fox with very long ears, called fenek, Canis zerdo (the present-day name: Fennecus zerda), and rabbits of the same species as those we have, with the only difference that they are a little smaller and shaggier. We also saw the spotted hyena (Hyena crocuta), waraba in Somali, and the striped one (Hyaena hyaena), didar in Somali, and panthers called schebel in Somali (the present-day name: Phacochoerus aethiopicus). A species of wild boar (Phacochoerus aelianus), dofar in Somali, can be distinguished from the European one by four glands that the male has above and below the eyes, as well as by the very big teeth. Finally, we met in Ogo our first lion, actually a lioness shot by my son at Rusbali. The Europeans hunt the lion by tracking the fresh traces up to the thicket where he is lying. The aboriginals have an extraordinary talent of distinguishing how recent a trace is even on the driest lands and they are able to detect it through weeds and thickets. This system of hunting is very dangerous, since a lioness, which has whelps nearby, might attack the hunter, even without being wounded. The lioness from Rusbali, chased at mid-day and woken from her shelter twice, became angry the second time, without being wounded, and ran after my son, who didn't realise she was coming until she was a few metres away, when, fortunately, he managed to kill her, shooting her in the face with one bullet that penetrated under the chin and into the body. However, the hunt doesn't always end with such luck. In our inexperience, we often wandered at nightfall, in the first days of our expedition, and we noticed with surprise that the Somalis always accompanied us with loaded guns and lit torches. We laughed at these precautions, but shortly we became aware of the seriousness of the danger. At Gaburo, a lion followed my son to the camp, signaling at times its position in the ticket by terrible roars at a few metres' distance. The same lion, on the same night, jumped over the enclosure of our camping, where it was driven away again, with spears and lit torches. At Der Marodile, two lions tore off one of our camels, only 50 metres away from the camp. Although the lions grew fewer in Ogo and in Gabon, there are still very many on the Haudul plateau, in Agadenul and beyond Shebeli, as it is proven by the fact that we could shoot four lions, without stopping for this more than one day, during our entire trip. From Leferug, passing by Dalad, Gamat and Buhalgachan, we reached, in five days of marching, Hargeysa, a permanent Somali settlement, situated on the edge of Haudul, at 1288 metres altitude, and the residence of a very kind sheik. After we received the visit of this sheik and returned it, we left Hargeysa going westward, travelling on the northern extremity of Haudul. We passed Horogurgur, Doboio, Rusbali, Idjara and we reached Udjiwadji in five days of marching. At Dobolo we experienced a tropical rain, which lasted for only half an hour. However, in this time, the lightning struck in the middle of our group and the valley, in a few minutes, was turned into a 30-to-50-metre-deep lake, in the middle of which a deep torrent was flowing, and I was on the verge of drowning in it. I had no idea about the condition of the caravan and my sight could not make out farther than 30 metres through the water torrents that were pouring from the sky. At Udjiwadji, leaving Ogo for the south-west, we entered the high and waterless plateau of Haudul, and passing by Zeburo mount, the highest peak reached by our caravan, which separates the waters between Shebeli and the gulf of Aden, we arrived at Jigjiga in 4 ½ days of alert marches. Haudul, in this area, on a surface equaling a third of Romania, looks like a large winding prairie, in which the grass is up to the knee. This part of Haudul, named by the Somalis Ban de Mararu, offers a beautiful view for the hunter. On areas where the eye can fathom up to 20 or 30 kilometres, you can see the entire plateau covered with huge flocks of hundreds of ostriches, gazelles, antelopes, and I shot eight exemplars of hartebeest, Bubalis swaynei (the present-day name: Alcelaphus buselaphus). A new species, discovered only six years ago. At Jigjiga we visited the Abyssinian possessions in front of Marda pass, at a distance of only 2 days of march from Harar, which is the residence of Ras Makonen. Here we met 16 Abyssinian Christian soldiers in European uniforms, armed with Remington guns, lead by a Mohammedan Arab, in Arabian attire, who, upon approaching us, hid the soldiers in the bushes and came alone, unarmed, before us. Having all the armed escorts around us, we invited him to call his soldiers, so that we could see them closer. I held their guns and I noticed they were of high quality. This chief urged us very politely to stop for a couple of days in Jigjiga, and wait there for their general, a certain Banagusse, who, on hearing about our coming, would have left Harar to welcome us. However, finding out on the same night, from the local Somalis, that a trap was being laid for us, and that Banagusse was preparing to come with several hundreds of armed men to seize our weapons and ammunitions, we left at night, heading south-east, down Jehrer valley and, crossing Dadi, Gaho, Harakale, Jiele, Tuli and Uile resorts, we reached, in seven days of marching, Dagahbur, 10 kilometres north-north-east of Sabatwejn mountains. 13TH MAY, 1896Excerpted from: Extraordinary Journeys, CD Press, 2001

by Dimitrie Ghica-Comăneşti