I first went to Somalia in the late 80s at the request of Ben Brown, a former Peace Corps volunteer and UN Development Programme official who had hired me to design small farmer credit projects in a number of countries in Africa. Ben and I worked in a number of dangerous countries over the years, but ironically he was killed in Phoenix, Arizona, when he surprised a burgular in his brother’s apartment.
In Mogadishiu, we usually pitched up in the Al-Aruba Hotel, which was right on the coast and had a fabulous view of the Indian Ocean from its seaside rooms, a feature which helped to leaven the hotel’s other not-so-charming aspects. Thrown up hastily to house officials from a Pan-African conference that never happened, the hotel had only a handful of rooms where everything — the A/C, the water, the electricity — worked, and even these could hold surprises for the unsuspecting guest. Like the rat I awoke to find eyeing me hungrily from the foot of my bed.
Other fond memories of Somalia include sitting on the porch of our guest house in the middle of the desert when a huge owl flew out of the night and smacked squarely into my colleague, sending his whiskey flying. Or driving along side a herd of goats who, inexplicably, began charging ahead at a full gallop, only to find them a half kilometer down the road with their thirsty snouts plunged deep into the muddy waters of the Shebelle. Or walking on the beach at night, through a herd of bedoins and their camels, and then awaking an hour later at my dump of a hotel, my body covered with silver-dollar size camel flea bites. It reminded me of how every other chapter in T.E. Lawrence’s “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” ended: “And the fleas delighted in the fresh meats served to them.”
I didn’t stay in the Al Aruba that last trip, because it was deemed too dangerous. I stayed instead in a small pensione near the UNDP office, where I was kept up most nights by the crackle of automatic weapon fire.
A few weeks after I left, Barre packed his wives and loot into a 727 and fled to Nairobi. His government fell a few days later, and Somalia has been in chaos every since.