Warriors by Gerald Hanley
When Gerald Hanley left Somalia after serving there during World War Two he was optimistic about its future. A new movement was emerging that put Somali identity ahead of tribal loyalty along with a hunger to improve their lot with independence. “There cannot be anywhere in Africa such ready and hungry people, with such swift minds, waiting to read their way out of a thousand years of dependence on the camel, and the spears that had ensured its posession,” he writes on his return 30 years later.
Today, the spears are long gone, replaced by AK-47s. And Hanley’s optimism appears badly misplaced. Mogadishu – where Hanley writes of whitewashed Italian restaurants – is a city that bears the scars of two decades of war. The cathedral where Hanley went for Mass is a crumbling, shell of a building.
He would no doubt be disappointed if he saw Somalia today but his writings suggest he would not have been desperately surprised that Somalis had failed to pull together and create a modern nation state.
Hanley spent much of World War Two as a Shagbagger – one of a handful of officers assigned with trying to keep Somalia’s tribes ripping the guts out of each other. He survived desperate conditions in Somalia’s desert, nicknamed the shag, trying to find enough money and food to keep his askaris from mutiny. Seven of his colleagues couldn’t cope with the loneliness and committed suicide.
But Hanley, an Irishman, learns to survive the heat and desolation and finds plenty of raw material for his critique of colonialism. He finds wit and intelligence where others would see only tribal savagery and his writing conveys a love of the place while resisting a descent into Thesiger-style romanticism. It may have been written by another white man in Africa, but this is no missionary’s memoir or aid worker’s diary. This is the book of a soldier who found comradeship among nomads living in one of the world’s harshest environments. Utterly readable and one of the few books that really manages to get under the skin of Africa’s most unfathomable people.
This is book two in my Africa Reading Challenge
Warriors: Life and Death among the Somalis – Gerald Hanley
The Pickup – Nadine Gordimer