Abdi Latif Ega
The Water Bearer
The journey to the well was long and scary when Twosmo was younger. She would start before the shadows cast, and would usually reach the well when there was a significant shadow in the day. It was scary because the land was an endless darkness. Her camel, a ten foot beast, would not avail her any form of protection from the many dangers lurking out there – the wild animals in search of a succulent morsel before they returned to their dens.
Twosmo, at this tender age, felt she was being thrown to the hyenas in the darkness, shrouded ominously before the break of dawn. Whenever she felt she could not possibly go through with it, the voice of her mother in her head would sternly urge her on, resoundingly stating how it was her duty to the clan, family, and a further duty to her own homestead of the future.
In the light of the day, brought on by an unrelenting sun, the land assumed an indistinguishable form. Every thorn looked like the others, every ant hill looked identical, there were thousands of well-trodden foot paths all around. The small foot paths in the sandy earth, marked by spaces of grass in the ground resembled a translucent head of thinning hair. The trees were mainly thorn trees – all emaciated and small in stature from a sparse diet of nothing butvery little rain-fall. The trees had this incommon with every living thing in this desolate abode of collective harshness.
It was a most barren part of the world. Everything that grew here had to put up a great fight to merely exist. Plants were as fierce as the rest of the environment; they abounded with thorns to ensure life. The lay of the land was unforgiving, cruel as if still despondent from its volcanic eruptions of long ago. Sand-lodged in places where seasonal rivers once flowed. Barren volcanic mountain ranges in the background presided over everything, stoically, aloof to the daily proceedings, as they unfolded. A flat enormity of semi-arid land was dashed here and there by thorn trees too short to hide or give shade to anything. Mingled with thorny shrubbery, that translucent head of hair grass resembled hay growing out from the earth, what perhaps used to be long luscious grass when this was a savanna.
The ten foot camel followed obediently through a nose lead. This animal with all its clumsy glory reigned supreme to the fierce pastoralist. This animal was the end and beginning of all things. There was conflict as to which was more important: water or the camel. Disputes were always over water rights for the camels, goats, sheep – in that order -which invariably involved bloodshed. Only the camel sufficed as payment for the disputes, often heralding the end to hostilities, although there were those rare individuals who chose a life for a life instead.
The currency of the camel was used in all manner of occasions. It was used for bride price. Since marriage was oneof the most important events in a Somal’s life and procreation, the objectof the nomad’s very existence, the fierceness of life without the camel demanded large congeries of sons to protect the wealth and general well-being of the family from other such families and from treacherous often barren lone operators, barren precisely as a result of the lack of this clumsy currency in abundance.
Wealth in this part of the world is truly in the eyes of the beholder. The camel is the most rugged and austere of the domesticated animals, reflexively soare the wealthy in these parts. If you seea rather gaunt, lanky red and dusty man, he could be rich in camels and sons, or he could just as well be impoverished.
Twosmo would often hear her Awowo describe many such men of many sons and camels. She cut a picture of one in the throes of death induced by sustained hunger brought on by his own miserliness.
After a long solo journey, Twosmo would arrive at the well, as did many of the girls, having walked a quite lengthy distance, exhausted. They would then wait for the men, usually their kin, to draw the water for them. The wells were very deep in the earth and, as the men worked, there was a chance for a slight reprieve for the girls before the arduous journey back home, leading a camel now laden with fifty litres of water on each side. The water was rusty in color approximating apple juice, a color which permeated everything. It seeped into the clothes, fingernails, and was red, being the color of the loose sand of this region.
After the journey, there were other chores awaiting her return. She would tend to the needs of Awowo, filling his abolition water container full before the night prayer, bringing him milk and most of all–the tea before he would retire for the night. By this time, Twosmo had kraaled the livestock for the night, surrounding the encampment with thorn tree branches as an impenetrable defense against would be wildlife intruders.
YUSUF WAS ASTOUNDED BY THE CITY ITSELF. He was exasperated with the desire to break the monotony of the perpetual moving, grazing and general animal husbandry of it all. It was here in these desolate places of nature’s barren garden that he would first hear of the larger world outside.This eventually kindled his desire to see beyond the confines of the limited world of the harsh plains, a world of constant movement in search of pasture and water.A world existed beyond this utter desolation, he had heard, and it had cities that abounded with people who never moved. Incredibly, they stayed put for years.
Yusuf was determined to become part of the city and identified as such, but he had to shed his much ingrained camel ways. For this, he looked to Commander Ali for questions. In Ali Deray, his commander, he saw one who wielded the respect and fear of his fellow city dwellers.Yusuf sought to understand the intricate ways of what made him, at barely a few years his senior, so prominent.Yusuf had met many officers outside and inside the military whose rank equaled that of Ali Deray, but who, despite their rank and file, were just plainly ignored.
Yusuf rationalized that whatever he knew in his previous life did not apply to the ways of the city, and by extension, the ways of government. So, when he was ordered to complete the arrest of aman named Hoagsaday, there were many layers of adherence in his under taking of the orders.
On the morning he was ordered to do so, he summoned the other soldiers and commenced toward Hoagsaday’s house. He knew of the man. He was one of many who had left the country in search of better economical prospects and had returned after a long sojourn with much more.The soldiers arrived at Hoagsaday’s inearly after-noon and knocked with the usual arrogance most coercive forces are known for. Everyone was indoors, refugees from the midday’s naked sun. Such was the custom of Mogadishu that from around one o’clock to at least five – longer for others – those who could ate a hearty lunch – quite excessive, particularly if guests were being entertained and, afterwards, anafternoon siesta was agreed upon by all who lived in this city.
This time proved quite opportune forYusuf to present the full regalia ofcoercive bravado and intimidation. It was an added effect of humiliation for a prominent member of the community, as Hoagsaday was, to be rounded up attheir home by the government and in such a manner and at such a ubiquitous time and place of privacy. The intended audience was the public, who would know of the incident before long. It was a nation populated by news chronicles and worthy disseminators, the news would spread like a tsunami, instilling fear in the almost fearless nomads turned citizens of a modern city state.
Hoagsaday heard the knock which at first drove him quickly into a fit of anger, commonly induced by afternoon sleep –it was probably a mannerless person, particularly rude, probably an impatient person having some business with him who thought nothing of invading his privacy, rather than wait for him at the store during the normal hours.
He called to the servant to answer with a firm admonition to the knocker,then again, he quickly changed his mind,brushing past the servant in a haste offury to answer the door himself.“Who is it, don’t you have any sense at all? I just can’t understand how a mature person can be so inconsiderate.”
As he opened the door with a forceful jerk with one hand, he was confronted by the khaki brown color of a soldier’suniform. Hoagsaday simultaneously heard ,“Are you the rich guy from overseas, we have orders from my commander, to arrest you, Hoagsaday. Come with us now,” almost barking ,“Getin the truck.”
Hoagsaday saw a military truck behind his vehicle in the driveway full of nondescript beige berets, hunched in the back. In a flash of second, Hoagsaday went through a montage in his mind in search of anything that might shed some light on why the military wanted him. The thought of this event at his home at this hour when most people were resting in the privacy of theirhomes was surreal. Since nothing wasamiss, Hoagsaday grew more and moreagitated with these lower ranking enforcers that dared to show up like this. Momentarily regaining his stature as a prominent businessman from one of larger clans, he stood barreling his chest, now returning the bark, “What in the name of God makes you think you can come to my home, at this time, and under such pretentious allegations, and barge into my compound and ask to take me, Hoagsaday, an upstanding member of this city, to the station just like a common and habitual criminal?” By this time, his children, wife, and a number of his relatives both visiting and staying with him were all shocked out of sleep. They were all heading outside towards the fracas on the veranda, alongside the official intruders.
“Hear this bigmouth? Come along quietly before we drag you by the scruff of your neck in front of your wife,children, and your entire family.”
Hoagsaday had by now gone from disbelief to belief in the reality that these goons meant business. There was no doubt in his mind now: this madness was real. It was futile at this point to plead with rocks, and he made a split second decision to acquiesce which was heavily influenced by the gradual milling on the veranda of more and more male family members as they woke up to what was going on.
Abukar, a male cousin just arrived from the hinterland, started an abrasive verbal assault on the soldiers ,“What kind of animals are you? Has the government stopped recruiting humans into the military? How dare you come here with this nonsense? What great balls are these you come with? Do guns have brains? This is not a government matter. When you come here like this, you don’t come here as a government, but as a clan. Everyone has a clan too, and you will reckon with Hoagsaday’s. We see you behind the clan camouflage of your uniform.”
With that, Abukar was descended upon by two soldiers who had come for Hoagsaday. The berets were now quickly unloading from the truck, all heading to the veranda to help subdue Abukar who was by now pinned to the ground with two soldiers on top of him, engaging in the scuffle as best he could from beneath the two soldiers. He continued to harangue the soldiers with open threats, as other males decided to join in on the now potential melee.
One of the soldiers shouted a command, while the loud cocking of several machine guns was simultaneously heard, launching the all too well known severity in the air, a severity that garnered instant access to obedience. Precisely at this moment, Hoagsaday stated loudly,mainly for the benefit of his family and to calm the soldiers, that he would obey though he requested to go back into the house and change out of his ma’wiss, a long sarong worn by males used both privately in the city and regularly in the hinterland. In a brave posture, he reassured his family and went outside onto the back of the truck, whereAbukar was already lying prone on the floor,bloody at the soldiers’ boots.
The truck drove fast speeding through the empty roads of siesta time, making its way to a non-descript and heavily guarded isolated building. Both men were manhandled off the truck, barely making the distance between the flatbed of the truck and the ground on theirfeet because the soldiers were all busy thumping them with their boots and rifle butts. Abukar was given extra rations of hurt for his earlier infraction and continued defiant disposition.
They were separated at the entrance of what looked like a front greeting area office, taken down steps leading to a dark underground,and then lead into a holding cell that had no bars but a thick metal door that was promptly shut behind when Hoagsaday was inside. He sat down in a grand stupor, sitting on the floor of this small rectangle enclosure with nothing – no furniture or even a mat to help youbrace the concrete floor. It was a concrete slab of drab nothingness. Hoagsaday was on the floor wondering if what had just transpired was real. If so, who was involved? How does one go from a routine day to some underground holding concrete pit? He Started to get out of the haziness of blurred thoughts, slowly thinking about
Abukar, Twosmo, his young wife whom he had just left hysterically crying, along with his children, during the fiasco. He was not so certain any more whether he could get the ear of someone, anyone. What had just transpired had all the makings of quite a serious problem. There was nothing he knew. He knew absolutely nothing, not even a mere inkling of what he was upagainst. He now tried in his mind to go back to that earlier montage of events in recent memory to somehow put some feet on why the government had interrupted his life today.
Hoagsaday was not in the government. He was a private business man not engaged in anything even remotely breaching any law of the land. He paid his taxes regularly, never borrowed from the government, nor was he engaged in any way withthose who were part of the government, in any partnerships,neither did he solicit any official of the government for powerful whispers on behalf of his company even though this was quitecommon. Hoagsaday was simply a man who had worked hard for several years to acquire what minimal capital he could asseed money, to start a business and buy a home in the city.
He was slightly reassured by the thought that someone from his clan was probably already inquiring on his whereabouts in the hope of finding his location, and on who needed to be talked to inorder to gain his release.As things were in Somal, there would be a hodgepodge of government in the western sense, the traditional pastoral ways of adjudication, and with a large dose of clannishness.
In the meantime, his eyes wandered around this hot dungeon of sorts, the cracked concrete wall full of graffiti, left by those whohad had the dubious privilege of passing through this bare and dirty place. This was quite a change from the normal day for Hoagsaday, who had until this point worked himself into the psyche of the city dwellers, known as an ambitious and innovative hard working man. He had within no time established an operational business that quickly blossomed into many other ones. With prominence came the multitudes of the envious, of course in varying degrees. Some said he dug in toilets, others said he had done a lot of common street begging when he was abroad in the Middle East.
Still others said he beat a hasty retreat after a long career as a thief in the Middle East when his gang made a final career ending score. The rest of his gang were reputed to be non-Somals and prominent in their countries as he was here.
This adventurous mystique was created around the person of Hoagsaday sort of like a modern day version of the famous Ali Baba fable. But one did not need to look far to find the origin of these rumors. They were generated by rival business men and the collective of idle naysayer who had witnessed Hoagsaday’s quick ascendancy to the parapets ofbusiness circles in the city and who had been astonished at his conscientious efficiency. There was that, and then there were the others who wielded power in the government and used their high positions as a means to public and private coffers.
Hoagsaday, having spent a significant amount of time overseas, had indeed dwelled in nostalgia. Ideas heavily flavored by a hybrid existence in the Middle East at the confluence of many cultures. He cultivated some ideas from the West, the Middle East, as though he was somewhat delusional about the reality of life where he had left. For reasons unknown he somehow did not configure in his hybrid ideas about the very spot he came from.The things he had left were now worse! In this way, one could say he was quite delusional. Hoagsaday, was hunched in a cell passing away the time in deep reflection, or what others would rightfully deem as anxiety about a looming uncertainness over his life, his property.
Twosmo, the wife of Hoagsaday, right after the incident involving the military took place, felt a more ominous feeling in relation to the occurrence ofher husband’s unusual arrest. She therefore summoned the driver and was off to a relative to get things done, as that was how things of such magnitude were broached.
THERE WAS AN UNWRITTEN LAW THAT WAS INCORPORATED into fabric of life – a hold over from the people and their culture of pastoralism – which was the hierarchy of clan bloodlines. This clan hierarchy was entrenched in religion, government, and in general, with all of the Somali. So whatever one was, he was above all a member by blood of a clan. Blood affiliations ran deep in the society, forming the trajectory for all the modern occurrences such as a the modern state,the officials within it, and consequently the society at large. Every philosophy, Western or otherwise, was grounded in this concept of the bloodlines. And it followed that distant clan rivalries were a pretext for altercations in the now.
In this spirit, Twosmo went immediately to a prominent member of weight in the affairs of the clan in the dislocation of the city. Soma lia’s clan system was based on patrilineal blood relationships, complemented differently by matrilineal blood relations. The male blood line, however, and thus the male, dominated clan affairs. Though Twosmo was particularly aggrieved in the case of her husband’s sudden arrest, Hoagsaday’s clan could never be represented by her.
The car arrived at the bungalow of her husband’s relative, an elderly businessman like Hoagsaday and long time resident of the city of Mogadishu. The gate was open. the car drove into the drive way. Twosmo quickly got out of the car and knocked at the door purposefully in abandon. A worker came to the door and recognized her. As she brushed past him, straight to where the women of the household were sleeping, she quickly explained the situation, waiting anxiously for an audience with the elder.
Abdi Latif Ega is a novelist from Somalia. He is doing his doctoral work at Columbia University.