Review

Horses Like the Wind and Other Stories of Africa
by Baker H. Morrow (Somalia 1968–69)
University Press of Colorado
2001
120 pages
$14.95

    Reviewed by Bonnie Lee Black ( Gabon 1996–98)

    SOMALIA, THAT EASTERNMOST African country jutting into the Indian Ocean like an arrowhead, has been in the news again. Not, this time, for its wars, assassinations, drought, famine, chaos, anarchy, or other grotesque sorrows, but because of the tsunami. The wall of water that recently wreaked havoc in Indonesia took its toll on the coastline of East Africa, too: A U. N. assessment made in early January showed that some 54,000 people in Somalia were badly affected by the disaster. More than 300 people have been reported dead. Coastal villages and towns are now submerged in water. Sadly, this is the latest chapter in Somalia’s ongoing tale of woe.
         But there was a time, in the 1960s, after it gained its independence, first from Italy and then Britain, when Somalia was “a promising place,” according the author Baker H. Morrow, who served there in the Peace Corps in 1968 and ’69. As he describes it,

    The Somali markets teemed with local and imported foods. There were new wells for the nomads, new seaports for an expected surge in commerce, new airstrips, and new roads. Oilmen sank holes everywhere. The Red Chinese set up experimental farms and staffed them. So did the Russians and the Americans. A trickle of doctors, nurses, teachers, and lawyers appeared from half the countries in the world. Livestock exports boomed. For a time, it seemed that something novel and wonderful was about to take place in this fabled country renowned in ancient Egypt for its pungent frankincense and myrrh.

    Morrow’s stories of Africa, Horses Like the Wind, take place during this brief interlude in Somalia’s history when hope ran high. Each of the nine, beautifully crafted chapters gives us a slim slice of life then: the Italian schoolboys in their stucco classroom who “had no inkling from the sisters that Italy had lost Somalia first to the British, then to the United Nations, and finally to the Somalis themselves”; the 24-year-old woman from Oregon who came to Somalia for solitude; the troubled history teacher from Britain who disappeared, leaving only his poetry behind; and the gallant Arab horses, kicking up dust in their wake, the way the wind does.
         Morrow’s prose is spare, elliptical, lyrical — devoid of the extreme pitfalls Peace Corps writers are prone to — romanticism and cynicism. His writing sweeps you up and carries you away to another place, another time:

    Borama was a picture-postcard place, all stone, strewn out along a hillside at the edge of the Amoud Range. At times in the early morning, shreds of fog lingered on the rocky fields, leaving dewdrops on the blades of grass that glimmered in the sunlight. A little east of the town there was a wide valley, with a string of trees along the donga, or dry wash, that defined its middle. Older chapters in the story of the human race than perhaps anyone imagined had been written in the sand of that watercourse and washed casually away by the years. Our genus, different species. Older genus, unknown species. You had the feeling that Africa would always be ancient and enigmatic here.

    In another story, a beggar boy asks the young white man for a shirt.

    “Nothing doing,” the young man answers unsentimentally, “I only have three of them.”

    Mr. Morrow, a widely published author, landscape architect and professor of landscape architecture at UNM-Albuquerque, is, in addition, an accomplished artist. His black-and-white illustrations, as haunting and evocative as his writing, enhance every chapter.
         Like a volume of poetry, deceptively slim, Morrow’s African stories deserve to be read again and again.

    Bonnie Lee Black (Gabon 1996-68) is the author of Somewhere Child and was a writer, editor, and caterer in New York City before joining the Peace Corps. She now lives in northern New Mexico and teaches English at UNM-Taos.