Reading about Somalia’s agony caused me to reflect back on my last trip to that country in 1990. I had been doing a number of consulting trips to the country over the past three years, advising the Commercial and Savings Bank of Somalia on a small farmer credit program in the Shebelle River Valley. There had been questions back in New York at the HQ of the UN Capital Development Fund as to whether it was safe to make this latest trip: rumors were that the President, Barre, was about to be overthrown. The UN Resident Representative, whom I met at Mogadishiu airport on his way out, confirmed this.
“The rebels are closing in on the capital from three directions,” he told me. “I’m going to New York to advise them on whether we should evacuate or not.”
I asked, naturally, whether it was safe for me to be there.
“Oh, you’ll be fine!” he assured me.
I met with the farmers, most of whom grew rice, the next day, in a town on the banks of the Shebelle River. “They said that maybe we wouldn’t see you again,” the President of the cooperative told me when I arrived. “I told them ‘No, Scofield will come’.”
Growing rice in Somalia was a challenge. You had to deal with the vagaries of the irrigation provided by the river, but by far the biggest threat was from the massive flocks of birds who arrived at harvest time. A big part of the loans the bank provided went for a line item called “Bird Scaring”. It was labor intensive: the farmers paid for women and children to stand in the rice paddies all day and wave rags at the sine waves of birds who assaulted the crops. Others were dispatched to try to find where the birds nested at night and burn them out. Many of the farmers were women, who had done quite well by it, and wore gold, filligree ear rings and watches by Longine. I really liked the Somalis. They were fearless, and the meekest of them would tell the President himself to go to hell if he insulted them.