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

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.''

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.

Modernity has brought some changes. Huge water catchments excavated by the government appear along the roadside at intervals, enabling the nomads to come in from the outback with their animals to quench their thirst. Clad in mawis (a type of sarong wrapped around their waist), the men and boys stand watching, their arms slung over sticks across their shoulder, while women gather firewood among the thorn bushes.

Several hundred yards away from the road were their temporary settlements, dome-shaped huts of poles, skins, and canvas known as akuls. Occasionally, too, one would encounter migrating groups will all their wordly possessions piled on the backs of their camels. Protruding with sticks and tightly woven baskets for storing milk, they looked indeed like slow moving schooners with their sails furled.

Camels, in the nomadic sense, mean security. During a drought, the crops may fail, the cattle may die, but camels can survive up to four bad years. Their milk, too, rich in nutrients, can sustain a nomad for months when little else is available. The animals are also used to negotiate doweries and to pay off bloodfueds. An average camel can bring $250 -- quite a sum for a country where the official salary of a surgeon or senior government employee is $15 a month.

Still, in a country that has more camels than people -- nearly 51/2 million camels, to be exact -- the camels might seem to be overpriced. But the trouble is, the Somalis don't breed their camels in order to sell them. They breed them to keep them. ``At the most'', said Mr. Korfa, ``the nomad might sell one or two a year, and then only because he needs money to cover the expenses of a funeral or a marriage. A nomad counts his wealth in animals, not cash. He likes to touch his animals, admire them.''

This nomad mentality has baffled, if not exasperated, many a Western development official. Since independence in 1960, there have been numerous schemes to channel the Somalis toward a different way of thinking. ``You can send a nomad to management school, but he'll still come out a nomad,'' complained a senior European diplomat.

Some of the newer generation, however, are trying to break out of the mold. Take Abdi Fatah Irahim Rashid for example, a young businessman recently returned from economics' school in West Germany. Determined to do something in his country -- rather than emigrate, as many educated Somalis do -- he would like to establish an enterprise that will not only bring in hard currency and provide jobs, but also make a more thorough use of Somalia's meagre natural resources.

Among other things, he would like to start small pet food factory for European export. This seems logical enough given Somalia's enormous meat resources and its recently lost market in cattle exports to Saudi Arabia. But he wants to use camel meat as a base, particularly unused waste products from the slaughterhouses. ``Our camel meat potential is hardly even touched,'' he maintains.

Some observers, however, are skeptical. ``It's hard enough as it is for a nomad to sell his camels,'' said one Western economist. ``But somehow I don't think the Muslim Somalis will really warm to the idea of selling their beloved animals for dog food. In Islam, calling someone a dog is a terrible insult. To feed your prized possession to a dog, I imagine, is even worse.''

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