What To Do When a Tribal Leader Spits on Your Boot in Eastern Somalia?

In 2002, I went to live in northern Somalia, where I worked as something called a Civil Society Coordinator in Hargeisa, Somaliland and Bosaso, Puntland, both of which were somewhat off the beaten track. Having survived a malfunction over the skies of Somalia in John Travolta's former private plane, and my first Somali hospital experience, it was time to get down to the serious business of coordinating civil society. Whatever that meant.  

Puntland, North-Eastern Somalia 2002

"So how many passengers are there today?"

"Just you, Sir. Your own executive jet."

"In that case, Jeeves, take me to London." He smiled.

"Sorry Sir, but we only have enough fuel to get to Hargeisa." It had been worth a try.

"Well, what about an aperitif before dinner?" The Kenyan pilot was laughing now, as his co-pilot tossed me a bottle of mineral water. "An in-flight movie perhaps?"

"Certainly, we have this one just released. It’s called ‘Imagine This.’"

Executive travel – you can keep it. Never again do I want to be outnumbered two to one by the pilots. And this was a free flight, funded by you lovely tax-payers from the European Union. In contrast to the UN, which charges a fortune for a similar ‘service’ (I am still smarting from our abandonment at Baidoa International after the Travolta Airlines affair), the EU offers free flights to aid workers wanting to visit the premier Somali tourist spots. So, with the other ten seats all empty, I had the run of the cabin of this Beechcraft 200. As the cockpit was not partitioned, I also had a brilliant view of our take-off.

We were heading at speed straight for the Red Sea.

Bosaso is the port town of Puntland State of Somalia, in the north-east of the country, right on the Horn of Africa. It’s also a shithole. The airport has a runway that ends as the Red Sea starts and, as we started careering down the runway at a fair rate of knots, I reflected that, given my recent luck with aeroplanes, it was perhaps fortunate that I had attended that adult beginners course for non-swimmers a couple of years ago.

We took off from the gravel airstrip with acres (actually metres, and not many of them) to spare. I breathed a sigh of relief and looked down, down at those inviting beaches, the waves easing in gently. It looked idyllic and, perhaps in other circumstances, it might have been, but I had visited the beach the previous day, in a rare moment of freedom from our guarded compound, and had seen for myself what was only just being reported – an environmental catastrophe that will keep fish off the menu for my entire stay in Somalia.

There are conflicting theories. Some say it is global warming, some that it is a natural phenomenon that occurs every ten years, some that it is due to the sea cooling, others that it is due to algae poisoning. Whatever. I haven’t a clue, but all I can say is that I have never seen so many dead fish washed up on a beach before. And not just small fish. Sharks, sea turtles and other sizeable creatures that belong in the Star Wars Intergalactic Bar. My mind went back to the night fishing in Georgia, but even Gio couldn’t have mustered something like this. It is apparently happening all the way along the coast down to South Africa. Millions of fish. And before I came here, they told me that Puntland’s only redeeming feature was the excellent lobster. Typical.

After the relaxed and secure environment in Hargeisa and Somaliland, Puntland was very restrictive. I was accompanied by Tim, my Kenyan Project Manager. Neither of us had brought any booze, but he had sent the driver back to the house from Hargeisa Airport, as he had forgotten something much more important – the Scrabble. And in the confined quarters of our two-bedroom guest house, with only Yemeni television and Sidney Sheldon novels as rival distractions, Scrabble became the lifesaver. We were both pretty good, too. And competitive – I haven’t resorted to the Official Scrabble Words so much in ages.

Puntland has two presidents, one in Bosaso and one in the capital, Garowe. They don’t like each other. While Bosaso is apparently calm (not calm enough for anyone to let me go for a stroll though, at least not without an armed guard), Garowe is not – the presence of Ethiopian troops in the region recently further complicates the issue. The whole of Puntland has been off-limits to expatriates for months and I was one of the first back in. In fact, as I was taking the minutes at the International NGO coordination meeting the next day, I realised just how few we were. The EU liaison officer (appropriately a Somali Canadian) was looking into the evacuation plan. He had two planes with a total capacity of 24 seats. We did a quick calculation and found that we had 24 expatriates on the ground, of which eighteen were Africans from other countries.

Which leaves the white skin as quite a rare thing out here. Just before I left England, I shaved my head. I have a few weeks growth now (at least in the areas where it has chosen to grow back), and I felt happy that I was fat for the first time, as Tim, unable to hide his delight at the prospect, muttered to me as we descended from the plane:

"Given the war on terror, I hope they don’t mistake you for an American Marine." I knew there had been a benefit to drinking all that beer before I arrived – I don’t look like the crack military fighting force that I might if I shed a few pounds.

The office was just next door to the guest house, so the daily routine was work (six days) from 7.30am until 2, lunch, then… Scrabble, Yemeni television, Sidney Sheldon or work. Appetising. At least I had another diversion – I started to finally write the book. Many thanks to the editorial team for your comments on the first attempt at an opening chapter. I was much heartened in the unanimity of your views, which ranged from totally brilliant to totally crap. Some very good points, both positive and negative. We’ll get there before I have lobster in Puntland (at least I hope we will).

Given the lack of expatriate presence in the last six months, the projects have not been running quite as smoothly as perhaps they might, although full credit must go to the local staff, who have performed admirably in difficult circumstances. CARE is in the process of sub-granting cash to various local organisations on the ground and our task was to evaluate and revise the proposals and forward the best of the bunch to Nairobi for approval. There were some interesting and well thought out ideas – a vocational fishing training centre (this did make me laugh as the poor chap had just completed the proposal before all the fish died, although he didn’t see the joke when I pointed it out – it will all be fine in a couple of months, apparently); a training centre for woodwork, electronics, sewing, complete with production centre for project sustainability; a soap-making factory, the first, thus reducing the need for imports. I must admit, I find this job fascinating, and I h ave lots to learn.

Another part of my brief is to evaluate implemented projects by local partners from a grant provided by the Dutch Government. Many of these are projects undertaken by local communities, where CARE has provided technical training and guidance, but where the community has been encouraged to take a stake in the project to encourage sustainability. So, for example, CARE might provide the materials for a health centre and the community will provide the labour; CARE will train health workers and the community will pay their salaries; CARE will provide an initial outlay for drugs and stocks will be replenished through the sale of drugs to the beneficiaries.

My first field trip will always be remembered by Wanjiru, a very spunky female Kenyan auditor, as The Day Of The Green Boot. Having been bounced along ‘roads’ in the dust and heat of the Somali outback, the monotonous landscape only fleetingly interrupted by a herd of camels, a lost goat or the occasional oasis, we arrived at the village of Tisjiic, where we inspected the recently constructed health centre. Having satisfied ourselves that things were broadly in order, we set off to talk to the elders, the traditional power in Somali culture, in order to get their views on the project’s effectiveness and ideas for future interventions.

I can still see him. Thin, frail, aided by his walking stick, a grubby yellow t-shirt and bright blue sarong, some worn flip flops on his feet. As I went to shake his hand, he offered me his wrist. He never looked at me directly, but was friendly enough and answered the questions I posed through our interpreter. As I was making notes, he started to clear his throat. Not just his throat, but seemingly his whole body. I can describe what happened next as I was looking down at my notepad and could see my dusty black boot out of the corner of my eye.

It had just become green. I stared. Wanjiru stared. The elder just kept on talking. Soon after he cleared his throat again. We monitored his aim and took appropriate evasive action. I don’t think he meant it. I don’t even think he realised. It’s just that the table manners that my mummy taught me in England don’t seem to apply over here. I am still laughing at hearing Wanjiru’s voice, as I sat in the front of the Landcruiser. We were running out of time and had to take lunch on the road. She was passing out the tuna rolls (tinned tuna, definitely not from the Red Sea, at least not recently), when she let out a mournful wail:

"Oh God, there’s nothing like eating with the guys." I have heard of feeding time at the zoo, but Somalis would give camels a good run for their money. I could give you a running commentary of the mastication process of a Somali partaking of lunch.

Even a cup of tea cannot be consumed without a distorted impression of The Clangers.

After ten days in sunny Puntland, it was back to my ‘home’ in Hargeisa. I have never felt so free. In Puntland, we have to take an armed guard on field trips, but here I can walk at midnight with no problem. It feels much safer than England even. It was nice to be back and I realised I had missed my Kenyan colleagues in the guest house. There are nine of us who are based there, occupying eight rooms (at least one is always in the field), although I arrived back as a delegation from head office was arriving from Nairobi, so the living room was my HQ for the night. There was gin, sent by my valiant Dutch boss from Nairobi, and I retreated to my favourite rooftop for another sunset. Somalia is beginning to grow on me.

I will admit to having slight reservations to sharing a house with eight Africans. Not for racist reasons or anything like that, but simply because, as a mzungu, I would always be an outsider, and there would always be a suspicion that I was a spy for the big bosses. That is all gone now and I am thoroughly enjoying getting to know them and their culture. They laugh at me now, which is encouraging, and I am not slow in responding.

I particularly enjoyed a party we had recently. Sat around a table on the roof at sunset, I was talking with Somalis, Kenyans, Sudanese. They were telling tales from their cultures, of obscure tribal practices. I remember the story of one Sudanese tribe and the etiquette for unfaithful wives and mistresses; if the husband came home and heard his wife in bed with another man, he would wait outside the front door with his camel until the other had finished. As long as the other left by a route other than the front door, he would enter and behave as though nothing had happened. If the same should happen to his mistress, however, he would kill the guy. Perhaps all I needed was a camel and a mistress. Another told of a tribe where the man would put his spear in the ground outside the front door of the woman’s house. For the time that the spear was there, that would be his woman and nobody would interfere. There is so much to learn about this place.

Tim made me laugh one night in Bosaso. We were talking about the politics of aid from a Western point of view, of the imposed loans and so on. Somehow, the conversation got onto donated clothes, which are resold in shops in Kenya. He smiled and asked me if I knew what these shops were known as in his village. I couldn’t guess.

"We call them the ‘Who’s Died’ shops. We must get these things because people die." And then he laughed and put down a seven-letter word. Bastard.

My foot is still giving me trouble. My heroics on the football pitch in Baidoa are a distant memory but it still hurts when I walk. The only treatment I got at the time was a bandage from the maternity hospital, so I thought that perhaps I should have it x-rayed as a precaution. And thus began a four-day saga.

I wasn’t expecting Harley Street facilities, which was just as well as I would have been massively disappointed. When we eventually tracked down an x-ray machine, it was closed for lunch (well maybe not it, but there would be nothing happening until 4.30). I haven’t had many x-rays in my life, a few at the dentist perhaps, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I walked in and was asked to put on a protective jacket. The operator was just about to x-ray my head when I pointed out that the pain was actually in my foot, whereupon I was told to remove my boot and lie back on a metallic bed. There was a camera type thing and I thought it best not to look. Imagine my surprise when, having affirmed that I was ready, the bed moved to the left and then back again. It seemed that I was being photocopied. Hmmm…

Never fear, all will be revealed soon. Not for another forty minutes apparently. Why the delay? No point asking that question. The one good thing was the x-ray cost 50,000 shillings, or $7. I had made the mistake of changing $20 on my first day, for which I was given 284 not very shiny 500-shilling notes. That’s a lot of notes to carry around. With nothing to buy here, they were becoming a burden. But hey, if I got really bored, I could start x-raying, or rather photocopying, my head.

We went back to the office and I instructed the driver, through an interpreter, to collect the x-ray later, ask what was wrong with my foot, and report to the guest house. He wasn’t seen for two days. Eventually, he returned with a brown envelope. I tore it open. There was my foot, or rather a foot with my name, Poul Braby, scrawled incomprehensibly beside it. There was a funny dark bit in the middle. Now where is the doctor’s written explanation? The only paper inside was the receipt (please don’t tell me I have to claim back those hundred notes). No explanation, nothing. I quizzed the driver. The x-ray man had advised him to take the x-ray to a doctor for analysis. Brilliant. The encouraging thing was that it costs 10,000 shillings to get an appointment (another twenty notes). The drama was reaching a climax, but I was to discover the fate of my foot by another, more entertaining, means that very same evening. By the way, if you find this foot saga interest ing, perhaps I should become a writer after all.

The first professional diagnosis of my foot came at Hargeisa’s premier hotel, the Mansoor. Somaliland used to be known as British Somaliland and I was pleased to see that some cultural influences have remained. I have never experienced a hotel that is more like Fawlty Towers than the Mansoor. Somali Manuel might have been black and without a moustache, but he was infinitely better value.

It all started, as you would expect, with a blonde petite Belgian PhD student called Marleen, who strode into our office one afternoon looking for material for her thesis on civil society in war-torn areas. Having exhausted my knowledge on her subject as well as my jokes about Belgian preferences for mayonnaise (the latter took longer than the former), I found myself inviting her back to the CARE party at the house. We had a cracking night and resolved to meet for dinner at the Mansoor.

No dinner would be complete without an Algerian doctor, so we rounded one up and went for a non-alcoholic aperitif before dinner. Awil looked as though he belonged in the Paris Ritz. So elegant in his white jacket, so attentive. We were joined by Mustapha, an African who had spend 22 years in German intellectual institutions (and was impressed that I knew the German for ‘cloves’, not that I have ever had the chance to use this knowledge) who, having ordered Somali tea, was brought Ethiopian coffee by the ever-faithful Awil. This was going well.

What can I say? Marleen and Khalim, the Algerian, took Awil to task on the authenticity of his grilled chicken. When pressed, he admitted that the chicken wasn’t actually grilled, but implored us not to tell the other guests. Having gained our trust in the menu, the next piece was better than Shakespeare.

"How is the beef?" from the Algerian corner.

"Have you had it before?" came the guarded reply.


"It’s very good."

The food was actually good, although Khalim’s mango juice took a long while to arrive. To be precise, it arrived about the same time as the bill, or should I say at the same time as the pills.

"Shall I bring your pills now?"


"Your pills. Do you want separate pills or will you pay together?" Having decided on separate pills, I reflected that you can almost get a language right, but not quite. I have made my fair share of foreign language gaffs (including my famous assertion in Russian that I would cross the Black Sea by spoon), but this took me back to Mohamed in Puntland, when I asked him why so many people had left the village.

"It’s because of the draught," he replied, shrugging his shoulders. The draught? It was a bit windy, especially at dusk, but hardly a justification for mass migration. It was only after the draught had claimed its third village victim that I understood that the evacuees were taking their cattle with them. Because of the drought…

The pills came with the mango juice. Pure theatre.

"Madam, your pill for dinner and tea."

"Sir, your pill for dinner and water."

"Sir, your pill for dinner and a haircut."

It was too much. We all exploded. Poor Awil took offence and was only calmed after some soothing mayonnaise techniques from Marleen. The haircut, we learned, was genuine. Khalim had been scalped for $3.50 earlier, but it put the icing on the cake to an excellent evening. I tipped him well. As Marleen was explaining that we weren’t laughing at him, I broached the subject of my foot with Khalim. Soon the foot was being probed by expert hands. Strained ligaments, apparently. Plenty of rest and should be fine. Bugger. I thought they would have to evacuate me to that cocktail bar in Nairobi.

Nairobi beckons. For every week I stay in Somalia, I get a day in R&R (rest and rehabilitation – I thought it meant ‘rum and rum’ when I joined up). Once I have a week’s worth, I shall fly Daallo Air (Somaliland’s pride and joy) direct to Dubai for a week of beering with Mike and Maree. In the meantime, I have discovered that we a three day holiday imminent. I have managed to persuade the powers that be to summon me to Nairobi for a meeting over this time, so FIVE days in the pub beckon. Sad, but very necessary.

On the subject of alcohol, you will by now have realised that my real mission here was not to help the people of Somalia, but to find the illicit drinking dens. I am much encouraged to hear (actually more than hear, I can vouch for this) that the black market for booze is behind the central police station; speculation that this could be related to the fact that the police confiscate lots of smuggled alcohol is slanderous. My initial joy at the discovery soon turned to despair when I learned that the most popular commodity is Ethiopian gin, as effective a barometer for alcoholism and as guaranteed to send you blind as anything I know. I write these words from a rural hotel in the mountainous region of eastern Somaliland, allegedly an Al Qaeda hideout (the region, not my hotel room), sipping a vodka and coke in my room (Marleen, bless her, rang me just before I left for Burao, to say that she had a liquid present for me, if only I could pick it up in the next fifteen minut es; it is a six minute journey to her hotel and we were there in five – proof, if proof was needed, that CARE is a highly effective, fast responding organisation to genuine emergencies. When I asked her where she had got the vodka, she explained that a certain high-ranking government official had taken a shine to her and shown her his collection of 25 bottles of gin and 25 of vodka, all destined for his private club). Fantastic.

Last modified onTuesday, 12 August 2014 10:28
Paul Bradbury

About Paul Bradbury

Author of Lebanese Nuns Don't SkiLavender, Dormice and a Donkey Named Mercedes and the Hvar's first comprehensive guidebook, Hvar: An Insider's Guide to Croatia's Premier Island, I have lived in Dalmatia full time since 2003 and run various tourism information websites about Hvar, Split and Zagora, and am co-author of Split: An Insider's Guide with Mila Hvilshoj.

I also have various blogging clients, including the Central Dalmatia Tourist Board, Restaurant Gariful, Hvar Adventure, Villas Hvar and Andro Tomic Wines, and print clients include Qatar Airways inflight magazine, Out! magazine from New York, and Croatian Hotspots. 

I also provide website content services, including Agroturizam Pharos, Toto's Restaurant, European Coastal Airlines, Restaurant Gariful and Divota Aparthotel. Please contact me if you would like help with your website content.

I also write for Google News via Digital Journal - see my range of articles here

Ongoing writing projects:

A History of Hajduk Split, co-author with Frane Grgurevic

Around the World in 80 Disasters

Total Hvar in the Media:

Interview of the Month, Croatian Embassy in Washington (May 2013)

Special Feature in Globus Magazine (May 2013)

Featured on Croatian TV show, More (2012) - watch the report here

4-page special in Nedjelji Jutarnji, Croatia's leading paper (August 2014)

Interviews in Slobodna Dalmacija, Dalmacijanews, Radio Split

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