Peace Corps Writers
A letter from Somalia
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About Somalia

Bob Blackburn was the legendary Deputy Director — aka Regional Representative — from 1964 to 1966 in Hargeisa, Somalia. Here is a letter he wrote home eight months into his tour in the Horn of Africa.

April 1965

To friends, as usual, through the mimeograph (darkly):

Well, the next thing we knew we were at the other end of the world, then at the edge, then OFF. (The edge is quite sharp, as the early geographers knew.) Over and around we tumbled for what seemed like seven months. Then to rest somewhere — your world winking eons away — in a land called S-O-M-A-L-I-A. Those who dwell here are strange indeed. Neckties and Living Bras do not bind them, and David Suskind never slept here. Of “cultural deprivation” they know not. Vehicles are for going someplace. The nearest thing to a national sex symbol is a species of fat-tailed sheep, and they wouldn’t know a foundation grant from a camel grunt.
     They do know about Selma, and Lt. Col. Aleksei Leonov, and U.S. arms to Ethiopia. And John F. Kennedy, and Ray Charles’ "Hit the Road, Jack," and, more and more. And the “Peace Corpse”— whether as friend, alien agent, or sponsor of the strangest creatures on two legs.
     Sixty teachers and assorted staff are scattered over twenty-five communities. Most are in school compounds in the bush set up by the British or Italians in the decade prior to independence in 1960. They teach in English at the intermediate level, with students ranging from the early teens to late twenties. A few teach the police, or in village elementary schools. History, science, geography, mathematics, English, sports — everything in the curriculum except Arabic. They teach well, live simply, and so far, none in the project have succumbed to the problems of existence in a barren, isolated Moslem culture. In their spare time and on school holidays, they take on additional projects: sports facilities, Boy Scouts, libraries, film showings, windmills. This summer, through the School-to-School program managed by Peace Corps, we will help build a girls’ elementary school in Gebileh, a village 50 miles from Hargeisa. Students at Upper Darby [PA] High have contributed over $1000, and this amount has been matched twice over by the villagers, who will join the Volunteers in the construction work. Would that Add Anderson were still around. A complete school for three thousand dollars!
     As for the Blackburns, we’re thriving. One of us, in fact, is blossoming with child. Barbara’s comment, soon after arriving, was that Somalia is at once more primitive and more civilized than she’d imagined. At least she’s decided it’s a fit place for offspring — which is more than she was apparently willing to concede about the Philadelphia WE Love and Left.
     Christopher is mostly elbows, knees and teeth these days. The television separation trauma has disappeared, but, as normal parents, we are anxious over a new development, an avid interest in books. We are comforted by the thought that like thumb-sucking or spitballs, it must pass. We wouldn’t want him to return maladjusted.
     As for the breadwinner, the work is exciting and exasperating. One Peace Corps staffer once wrote, “To the Volunteer, the Representative is too inaccessible for a companion, too harried for a confidant. . . . To the foreign service compatriot, the Representative is too youthful for equality, too idealistic for acceptance, too busy for golf. To the counterpart, too new for sharing ideas, too alien for sharing problems . . . ” A little overblown, but suggestive. My responsibilities are the forty PCVs in the Northern Region, former British Somaliland. Working with me are an educational advisor from the training university, the Peace Corps physician, and a Somali clerk/assistant. We cover an arid area somewhat larger than Pennsylvania, where there are no paved roads. Land Rovers take us over rough bush roads, and the wear and tear is considerable. One’s luck varies. I recently returned from a two-week visit tour, a part of which took me along the northern coast. For one hundred miles the route runs right along the water’s edge, and once when I was mired I had to dismantle the vehicle part by part and then persuade nomads to help lift out what remained. We beat the tide by minutes. But in 1100 miles, I had no mechanical problems, and one flat. The physician returned to Hargeisa this week after a trip, which was graced by twelve flats, loss of brakes, electrical failure and broken shock absorber mounts.
     Yet the real problems, unsurprisingly, relate to people: Volunteers who are taking this occasion to, among other things, grow up; officials reared and educated under colonialism, upset and distrustful as Volunteers move away from the roles formerly assumed by white foreigners to seek close associations with Somalia; the few lingering expatriates (advisors, business people) who watch with revulsion as Peace Corps people do things Westerners simply do not do, not the least of which is removing the color bar in the remaining “European” gathering spot. But mostly, it’s the Volunteers. Time was, several hundred years ago, when I was twenty-four with notions about things. I try and draw on those faded memories.
     Hargeisa is temperate, cool and dry. Nights are black, black. Soon — after eight months — the afternoon rains will come. Prices will go down for water and kat, the mildly narcotic leaf chewed by educated and illiterate alike. The great herds of camels and sheep will move out in caravans from the wells to freshening grazing lands. And Barbara’s garden, like everything else, will respond to the change in seasons.
     Our home is a comfortable stone government cottage, surrounded by low bushes and thorn trees. (You are invited to help me make Somalia rich by devising commercial uses — other than holding letters together — for its thorns. They come in all sizes, shapes and colors, and number, by my latest reckoning, just under seventeen trillion. Entries will be judged on originality and aptness of thought.) It is really quite nice.
     There are a number of small things one does here that are different, but they have slipped into unnoticed routine: the need to boil and filter the scarce water; soaking greens in iodine solution; tenderizing the camel steaks and mutton; mosquito nets; toilet facilities which do not include those porcelain thrones that permit great comings and goings of water, but are rather more like those of bygone rural America (in other words, a Pop Art john); and the African practice of day and night watchmen (We tried to get by with a day guard and were broken into at night. We switched the old gentlemen to night duty, then had our pet cheetah was stolen during the day. We surrendered.)
     Barbara, the delicate Cuban transplant, moves about with equanimity and style. The other day while shopping with basket in the magaala (the open market unvisited by white women until the Peace Corps), a youth threw a stone at her. Undaunted, she found the same stone and threw it back. Those who know of her attitudes towards fauna would only stare to see her striding up to the house, a plump and somewhat dispirited rooster under her arm, a rooster who knew full well from the firmness of her grip and the determination of her step that he is bound for the block and pressure cooker.
     So our days pass. Tensions in the preoccupations of never-ending tasks, in the dilemmas of deepening involvement in a perplexing culture. Release in the pleasures of family, in the satisfactions of seeing others on their way towards progress and accomplishment.
     Eons away, you may be, but we often find ourselves crossing the distance and picturing the busy lives. Can it be that you look rather better from a distance?

Warm wishes to all.
Bob, Barbara and Christopher
Box 341
Somali Republic

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