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AFRICAN JOURNEY. Somali gas shortage -- or how a camel is worth more than a car

By Edward GirardetSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 12, 1985


THE country's run out of petrol again,'' shrugged the Italian merchant, one of those seen-it-all expatriates who, despite all the frustrations of Africa, would never dream of leaving the place. ``You'll just have to wait until the next ship comes in.''

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Somalia -- which still serves as home to a couple thousand former Italian colonials and their families, ranging from farmers to mechanics and shopkeepers -- has known gasoline shortage for years. Long lines of cars are a common sight outside the state-run fuel pumps, where, for a few hours a day, lackadaisical attendants issue rations of five or six liters per vehicle. Occasionally, however, the country goes completely dry.

This is exactly what happened last month when this correspondent tried to purchase extra gasoline to tour refugee camps in southwestern Somalia before undertaking the long haul by Land Rover back to Kenya.

First, the official pumps closed down. Then the black market prices began to skyrocket, rising from less than one dollar per liter to two, three, even four dollars. There were equivalent price hikes in taxi and bus fares. Within days, the streets were practically devoid of traffic.

Only those with fuel sources of their own -- the diplomats, the development agencies and the government (most notably the military) -- managed to keep rolling. But embassy and relief gasoline stocks were not sacred. Amid protests, the military helped themselves to these, too.

Such circumstances might provoke riots in other countries. But in Somalia, despite certain resentment that the military gets the best deal, no one seems particularly concerned or in a hurry to get anywhere, anyway. People just settle back into walking to work or not going to work at all.

Whether in government, business, or day-to-day affairs, life in Somalia is dominated by the nomad mentality. No matter how uncomfortable a situation, most Somalis are comforted by the fact that they, or at least their relatives, still have their camels. Cars, video sets, and refrigerators are of little consequence compared to the pride and joy a nomad feels for these animals.

``This sort of attitude might seem difficult to understand for outsiders, but most Somalis, even very educated ones, still think like nomads. Camels are the real wealth of this country. Nothing really matters after that,'' said Korfa Garanne, an Italian-trained Somali banker in Hargeisa. His family, too, he added with a smile, still owns camels.

Some 3 million Somalis, nearly three-quarters of the country's entire population, are pastoral nomads. They pursue a tough existence herding their camels, cattle, goats, and sheep -- all 35 million of them -- in constant search of grazing areas and water.

Heading back to Kenya (the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees kindly allowed me to purchase some extra fuel from its supplies), I constantly passed groups of nomads wandering with their herds just as they have been doing for centuries.