Remote Somalia: `There's nothing here'. But a closer look reveals scrub, solemn storks, and a snake woman

``I've never been to such a remote place in my life,'' declared the Kenyan customs official. The official, originally from a small town just outside Nairobi, Kenya, heaved a despondent sigh as he sank heavily into a chair.

``There's nothing out here,'' he added, gesturing toward the thick savannah scrub, which, for miles around, encompasses his tattered outpost on the Kenyan-Somali frontier. ``Would you bring your wife and children to live in a place like this?''

It was late afternoon. The sun hovered just above the horizon as we drank tea in front of a small cluster of white-washed huts, our lodgings for the night. Bevies of chattering and laughing women were returning to their dwellings to cook the evening meal, while marabou storks, solemn as headwaiters in their feathered black cloaks and white fronts, picked their way through the litter.

Liboi is nothing more than a light scattering of forlorn dukas (shops) and wooden shacks -- a dilapidated group of sheds, really, whose awnings creak in the wind while sinking foundations open cracks in the walls. Liboi is the place where the highway ends. (When completed it will stretch from Nairobi, some 350 miles to the southwest, to the Somali border.)

Of the many things Liboi is not, it is not the sort of place one would expect to host a traveling circus. But it was. Encamped near our lodgings, with props and animals (three doves, a rabbit, and a python), was a troupe of Turks and Yugoslavs: a magician, a snake woman, a clown, and two acrobats. They, too, were on their way to the Somali capital of Mogadishu more than 500 miles to the north.

``It's both satisfying and terribly frustrating to work out here,'' said the magician, a former Armenian Orthodox priest sporting a shock of black, hennaed hair and a woolly beard. ``My best tricks of illusion, levitating my wife [the snake woman] or making a radio set disappear, don't faze the Africans. But when I pull a rabbit out of a top hat -- the simplest of all tricks -- they break out laughing and clapping.''

Despite its desolation, Liboi, does have its positive attributes, as do other parts of this territory. ``There is no need for this place to be so neglected,'' insists the customs official, his apparent gloom suddenly dissolved by a surge of enthusiasm.

``Look at that tree. Why do you think it is growing like that? Because there is water here. We are sitting on top of an underground river. Why is nobody irrigating here?''

We had just arrived by Land-Rover from Garissa -- under armed escort. For years, Kenya's wild northeast frontier district was wracked by armed insurgency among the quarter-million Somalis who roam much of this largely uninhabited region. Somalia, as a part of its policy to unite all Somalis under one flag (including those of the Ogaden in Ethiopia and in Djibouti), actively supported the guerrillas.

But since 1982, when relations between Kenya and Somalia began to improve, many insurgents have handed in their guns and the Somali government has more or less conceded Nairobi's authority over the disputed area. The ambushes and attacks by ``shiftas,'' as they are called, have waned, and the Kenyans officially say the situation is ``almost back to normal.''

Nevertheless, we required special permission from the office of the president in Nairobi. The Kenyans continue to operate daily armed convoys from Ukasi to Garissa and, as journalists, we were given an individual escort as far as the Somali frontier.

Now, en route to the Horn of Africa, we wanted to tour parts of Somalia, a semi-arid country nearly the size of Texas and yet one of the poorest and most underdeveloped on the continent.

Next morning, loaded with extra fuel tanks and jerrycans filled with almost 80 gallons of gasoline, we started out.

According to the Michelin map of northeast Africa, two routes connect Mogadishu with Kenya. Both are designated as ``recognized or marked tracks.'' They proved to be neither. The drive from Liboi to the Indian Ocean, less than 140 miles, took us two rugged days.

At the Somalia control point, an outpost even more desolate than the one on the Kenyan side, a surly police lieutenant announced that we could not proceed without an armed escort. This, he suggested, would cost 2,000 shillings ($25). I refused to pay. He then shrugged his shoulders, muttering, ``No escort.''

When I showed myself determined to drive off without a guard, the customs chief, complaining about ``this corrupt man,'' offered one of his own, unarmed men to take us to Kismayu, the first Somali town on the coast.

The single track through the Somali bush was nothing more than a series of ruts that grew worse. Black wet mud, sticky and heavy from the recent rains, clung like batter to the wheels.

The landscape changed constantly. Barren scrubland. Then thick savannah. Back to scrubland. Only occasionally did nomads and their animals cross our path. In two days we encountered fewer than half a dozen vehicles.

While wildlife -- ostrich, gazelle, and giraffe -- still abound outside the parks in northern Kenya, many of the larger animals have been killed off on the Somali side. Only dikdiks (dwarf antelopes) and warthogs -- the latter classed as pork and thus not eaten by the Muslim Somalis -- can be seen in abundance. Lions also prowl the region, carrying off the odd cow, and even, on occasion, a nomad.

Birds were everywhere. White-headed buffalo weavers, flocks of gawky Guinea fowl, and Red Carmine bee-eaters, provided a welcome respite from the closed-in feeling and monotony of wading through this vast sea of bush. There were no hills, no rises, and no visible landmarks.

There was sudden beauty, too. Twice we drove into sylvan forests of thornbush, studded with sweet-scented yellow buds glittering in the sun. White cows moving through the meadows with a biblical grace, grazed on the salad-green grasses that would soon wither to brown with the return of the dry season.

At the end of the first day we camped at Afmadu, a small bush village still more than 70 miles from the ocean. But 70 miles was merely a linear measure. The road itself, rutted almost to the point of losing its definition as a track, held our four-wheel-drive Land-Rover to three miles an hour.

At one point, right in the middle of nowhere (it may seem a clich'e until you have actually been there), we got stuck in thick mud packed as high as the wheel wells. Fortunately, less than an hour later, an overburdened Toyota pickup, bearing some 20 Somalis, appeared. As if out on a picnic, they all set about digging, pushing, pulling, shouting orders to each other. As we hauled out the Land-Rover, one of them, a navigation student from Mogadishu, joked in perfect English, ``Welcome to Africa. That's w hat you get for testing out our roads.''

Together with our new-found friends, who led us winding past the furrowed mud slicks, we later stopped at a small cluster of shacks -- a roadside caf'e -- for tea and a round of camel milk. Somali women with strong bare arms dealt out tins cups of frothy milk to the men. One of them, smacking his white-rimmed lips and lofting his drink, exclaimed, ``It gives you long life and strong babies!''

Eight hours and 60 miles later, my hands blistered from tussling with the steering wheel, we reached Kismayu. A small port with decaying coral stone buildings from the Italian colonial period, it was here that the real highway to Mogadishu began. Some 325 miles of potholes, but nevertheless asphalt road.

Being Friday, the Muslim holy day, the banks were closed. So we had no Somali money to pay for a hotel. The Kismayu police kindly allowed us to pitch camp in the station courtyard, where 15 families also lived. Children came to gape and giggle at the strange contents of the Land-Rover, especially the camping cooler and compact gas cooker, while the mothers cast amused glances as they washed clothes or baked flat bread on charcoal fires outside.

Lacking a network of roads, Somalia is virtually cut off from its neighbors. Given the irrigated regions of banana and citrus groves, fields of maize, and little market towns, one wonders what a proper road linking Mogadishu and Nairobi could do for Somalia by opening up the interior, boosting small trade.

For many African countries, economic well-being and regional stability lie with improved cross-border communications. Roads are lifelines.

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