``The country's run out of petrol again,'' shrugged the Italian merchant, one of those I've-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 few thousand former Italian colonials and their families, ranging from farmers to mechanics and shopkeepers, has known gasoline shortages for years. Occasionally, however, the country goes completely dry.
This is exactly what happened last month when I tried to buy extra gallons to tour refugee camps in southwestern Somalia before the long haul by Land-Rover back to Kenya.
First, the official pumps closed down. Then the black-market prices began to rocket: from less than $1 a liter to $2, $3, even $4.
Only those with fuel sources of their own -- diplomats, development agencies, government, and, most notably, the military -- managed to continue rolling. But even embassy and relief agency stocks were not sacred. Amid protests, the military helped themselves to these, too.
Such circumstances might provoke riots in most countries. But in Somalia, despite a certain resentment that the military, as usual, gets the best deal, no one seems particularly concerned or in a hurry to get anywhere, anyway.
Whether in government, business, or day-to-day affairs, life in Somalia is dominated by the nomad mentality. No matter how bad or uncomfortable a situation, most Somalis are comforted by the fact that they, or at least their relatives, still have their camels. Cars, television 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,'' says Korfa Garanne, an Italian-trained Somali banker in Hargeisa. His family, too, he added with a smile, still owns camels.
Urban dwellers, sedentary farmers, and even fishermen still retain close links with their roving family clans. Almost everywhere one goes, one encounters the same traditional nomadic values: a warm hospitality but also a stubborn pride and individuality.
Colonialism, Soviet-inspired ``scientific socialism,'' and Western development schemes have all had their impact on Somali society. But the true soul of this nation still lies among the semi-arid scrublands of the interior.
Heading back to Kenya (the UN High Commissioner for Refugees kindly allowed me to purchase some fuel from its supplies) I constantly passed groups of nomads wandering with their herds in a timeless landscape, just as they have been doing for centuries.
Clad in mawis (a type of sarong wrapped around the waist), the men and boys stand watching, their arms slung over sticks across their shoulders, while women gather firewood among the thorn bushes.
Several hundred yards away from the road stood their temporary settlements, dome-shaped huts of poles, skins, and canvas known as akuls.
For Westerners it is difficult to appreciate fully the true importance of the camel. Traditionally, a man's worth here is calculated in camels. Even sophisticated businessmen in Mogadishu or Hargeisa will insist -- as a matter of prestige -- on investing part of their wealth in dromedaries.
Camels, in the nomadic sense, mean security. During a drought crops may fail, cattle may die, but camels can survive up to four bad years. Their milk, too, rich in nutrients, can sustain a nomad for months on end when there is very little else is available. An average camel can bring $250 on the market, quite a sum for a country where the official salary of a surgeon or senior government employee is $15 a month.
With nearly 51/2 million camels (more camels than people), the total wealth might seem huge. But the trouble is, the Somalis don't breed their camels in order to sell them but 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.''
All this makes it extremely difficult to fathom the local economy.
``Basically, a Somali's salary does not cover his lunch, but you've got to be careful about drawing economic parallels,'' said one European aid adviser. ``They have got so many sources of income.''
This nomad mentality has baffled, if not exasperated, many a Western development official.
Since independence from Britain and Italy in 1960, there have been efforts to develop 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 are trying to break out of the mold. Abdi Fatah Irahim Rashid, for example. Recently returned from studying economics in West Germany he's determined to do something in his country rather than emigrate. He would like to start an enterprise that will not only bring in hard currency and provide jobs to local inhabitants, but also make use of Somalia's meager natural resources.
He would like to start a small pet-food factory, exporting the product to Europe.
This seems logical enough, given Somalia's enormous meat resources and its recent loss of the Saudi Arabia market for its cattle. 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 sceptical. ``It's hard enough as it is for a nomad to sell his camels,'' said one Western economist.``I don't think the Muslim Somalis will 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.''