Lenore Blackwood, Loving Mogadishu, extracts
‘The waiter set up a table, spread it with a white cloth and poured their beer. There was a strong gamey smell. She saw that the wire fence was one side of a large caged area. Behind it was a young lioness. She was pacing peacefully enough, but she was very close.
“Gosh. This is the first time I’ve had dinner in a lion’s den.”
Hassan laughed, sounding relieved.
“I hope I’m not going to be dinner. I’ve never been so close to a lion before, even in a zoo,” Martha said. She looked across at him. “I don’t suppose you have either.” She knew he had been brought up in the bush as a small boy, but had become an urban man.
“Oh yes, I have!” He told her how, when he was a boy of about nine, his family were on the move through the bush with their herds in an area that was troubled by lions. Most of the grown men of the clan were away elsewhere and his father had given him the task of guarding the camels for the night. All night long he had remained alert, keeping the fire going, banging metal cans, calling the animals, while the hungry lions prowled nearby. He had been terrified.
The following morning all the camels were safe and his father had been pleased with him. But Hassan had decided this life was not for him. “Enough! I want to go to the city, to Mogadishu and to school.” And this is what he had done.
“Your father agreed to all this?”
“Yes, but he didn’t come with me. I had uncles in Mogadishu and I stayed with them.”
He told his story plainly, without details or embellishments. It was Martha who added these for herself from her imagination and her limited knowledge of life in the Somali bush. She imagined the very beautiful young boy wrapped in two dusty white cotton cloths that did little to keep out the cold of the desert night. She could see him moving fearfully around the animals, beating on a bucket—very alone. She could hear the clatter of wood on wood, the bells around the beasts’ necks. She could smell the dry, dusty earth and the burning acacia twigs and see the flames reach up when he stoked the fire. She heard the impatient roars of the circling lions and smelled their pungent threatening pong. She imagined this scene under a huge high dome of deep indigo sky spangled with a million stars.
She had travelled a long way from her modest suburban Australian childhood to a small city in Africa few Australians knew. But he had travelled further—much further.’
(from Chapter 13)
‘They had driven down the crowded Via Roma and stopped at a short, grey, sandy passageway leading into a warren of dingy buildings. At least her flat—yes, her flat—was on the upper floor. Abdi Ali introduced himself as he opened the front door.
The entrance hall was small and dark and off it were two tiny cubbyholes, a basic bathroom and a kitchen. The brown wooden shutters were closed and there was no electricity so they were also dark. She pushed open the door to a main room of reasonable size. Then she approached the wooden shutters on the opposite side of the building to the entrance, unlatched and threw them open.
She gave a gasp of joy. A room with a view! She had found her home.
The back of the building was much deeper than the front, and the flat was not overlooked from this side. Below her was a street parallel with the Via Roma but without the traffic or the trees, and before her stretched a vast unobstructed panorama of the town. It was not the best part of town, not like the gracious buildings of the centre, but an old quarter with a few scraggly palms and improvised shacks stretching right up to the white houses of the far hill. It was crowned by a graveyard, the lighthouse and then a huge expanse of sky.
She wanted to stand there taking in this view but the afternoon light was fast disappearing. She would savour the details another time.
She rapidly inspected the rest of the flat. It badly needed painting and minor repairs. A step up took her into a very small front room which opened onto a narrow balcony, a line already strung across it for washing. Outside the door, steps led up to the flat roof.
“I’ll take it! I’ll take it! But how much is it?”
Abdi smiled with pleasure. ‘I’m very glad you like it. The rent is a bit high, though—250 shillings a month. But it’s impossible to find anything decent for less.’
That was a quarter of her monthly salary and there were extras, electricity and water to be turned on after deposits were paid. She would have to sign a lease. The landlord was a young man and not easy to pin down. But Abdi promised to take care of all the negotiations and to see that necessary repairs were done and the flat was given a coat of whitewash.
Abdi was a good negotiator and reported she could move in on Friday, her only full day off. The landlord had promised to leave the keys with the next door neighbour. Hassan was still away so Osman picked her up in his car, piled her few belongings on top of the mattress and pillow on loan from Hassan, and drove her to the Via Roma.
But Abdullahi, the landlord, had not left the keys. Martha sat for two hours in the parked car in the Via Roma in the first of the rains while the whole neighbourhood was out looking for Abdullahi. If he didn’t turn up she would have to back-track to the Signora’s; she had nowhere else to go. Moving all her stuff into an hotel was not an option.
Abdullahi was nonchalant when he finally appeared.
It was dramatic but otherwise easy moving in. Apart from the borrowed bedding she had no household goods other than one British youth hostel sheet sleeping bag, a tin mug, a tin plate and a knife, fork and spoon.
She now had a Somali neighbour, a short, slightly plump, smiling woman who saw what she needed and tried to supply it. She sent in her young maidservant to give the floor another sweep and brought her a plate of spaghetti bolognaise for her lunch, a glass bottle of drinking water, a glass of strong black coffee and a chair to sit on.
Martha slept that night on a borrowed mattress on a different floor and counted all the blessings she had already garnered in her city by the sea.’
(from Chapter 9)
‘ “Ahhh!” Back in town, Raf imitated Martha’s little sigh as she dumped her beach bag on the floor of the hall, mocking her. “Home! Isn’t it nice to be home?”
She laughed and gave him a shove.
“No place like home, is there?” He was not letting her off easily.
“All right—I know it’s ridiculous. I loved being out today. It was wonderful—so why is it so nice to be home? I suppose because I’m glad this is home, and not some dreary London bedsitter. And no nosy landlords.”
She followed him into the main room and opened the shutters to let in the breeze. He crashed on the bed while she went into the hall and changed into her futa.
“Martha,” he called and she came and sat by him on the bed. “Take that off again.”
She wriggled away. “Darling—there are bound to be callers.”
“Oh yes, there are always callers.”
“But Raf, it’s only half past four and usually someone comes about now. Probably the children. They will have been waiting all afternoon for us to come home and now they’ll notice the shutters are open. They don’t miss a trick.”
She kissed him on the cheek. Raf turned away from her and took a paperback out of his shorts pocket. He started to read, lying on his back on the bed.
“You receive your callers.”
“It’s a custom now. I can’t stop it. You know they’ll just keep banging on the door until I open up.”
“I told you, I understand.” He continued to read his book.
Almost immediately there was a light tap at the door, a Leylo tap.
“It’s Leylo,” Martha said, pleased at this justification of her refusal. She stood there holding the coffee pot. They went into their established routine of chat, Martha’s voice soft, low and sweet.
Raf came out, greeted Leylo warmly and took the coffee into the bed, where he sipped it. “It’s good.”
“Yes, isn’t it? Isn’t she marvellous?”
“Oh yes—she’s a very good woman. But you, Martha, you’re comical. If you could hear your voice when you speak to Leylo. You’re quite unlike your usual self, so sweet, so nice: ‘Comme stai?,’ mimicking her dulcet tones.
She chuckled; she recognised the truth. “When you talk to Leylo you’re all sugar and spice,” he continued. “My God, I’d like it if you ever spoke to me like that! And the expression on your face. That sickly smile.”
“I suppose I do look idiotic. As soon as I see her I’m filled with love and admiration. I want to be wise and tolerant and caring like her. I want to speak softly and sweetly just as she does.”
“Well, I shouldn’t complain. I have to be thankful to her.”
“While you’re living here, you’ll never throw me over for somebody else. Because Leylo would disapprove.”
There was too much truth in this for her to refute it. But there was more. She was too close to him now even to contemplate breaking with him.
She was saved from having to make a comment by the sound of banging on the door. The old door rattled at the heavy pounding it was getting. When she opened it, Beydan’s two boys rushed past her and into the room. Mahmud threw himself onto the bed, crawling all over Raf and thumping him with his tight little fists. Michele, his face alight with an ecstatic smile, stood by, holding out a tentative little hand which Raf took in his while he was assaulted by the volatile, wriggling little black body that was now pulling at his stump of grey hair.
“They do love you, Raf. How could we disappoint them?”
“I know, sweetie,” Raf managed to get out between blows. “Whoa, steady—basta Mahmud, basta.”
Martha sat on the chair and watched contentedly, like a young widow happy to see her next husband loved by her children.’
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