I watched silently as a large quantity of camel milk was poured from a mucky, yellow jerrycan into an oversized enamel mug. I liked camel milk but had never drunk quite this much in one go. In fact, I only ever remember drinking it in tea or coffee before then. But this time was different. It was breakfast time in a remote Somali village strangely named ‘Bermil’ which I was told stood for ‘barrel’ in the local vernacular. Whether that was the barrel of a gun or a receptacle for copious amounts of camel milk I knew not! Anyhow, I happily guzzled down the first mug full and was straightway offered another. I accepted the second, knowing that we had a long day’s driving ahead of us and I might need all the sustenance I could cope with. We were on our way to Segag, a well know watering hole for passing herdsmen and pastoralists.
Ready and prepared I took my place in the front seat of the land-cruiser and our research team set off on a winding, heavily rutted dirt track out of Bermil.
The current rules of engagement stipulated no weapons and definitely no soldiers in the car. Aid agency staff were tolerated by the rebels if neutrality could be proven when stopped and questioned. Consequently, the biggest danger was to life was being asked by the regular army for a lift. If this happened, all drivers were pre-cautioned to hand the keys over to the platoon commander and for all agency staff to get out and walk. And that could be a very long walk.
The landscape was boring. Semi-arid scrub with a few small trees and shrubs dotted here and there growing out of the red lateritic soil and only the very occasional mud hut in view. During the first two hours we passed some lonely pastoralists driving their herds of sheep, goats and camel along the track in search of water and pasture. Presumably most were on their way to Segeg like us.
As we spotted a village in the distance I felt the first rumble, said nothing and left it at that. A minute or two later my stomach churned again and then again. As we sped through the village I was feeling distinctly uneasy and suggested that we might need to stop shortly. Indeed, I had to pull the forenge card and insisted that we stop right now! I fumbled in my bag for some tissues and asked the driver if he had any ‘soft’ at which point he started delicately opening a small packet of tissues, seemingly in slow motion. I grabbed the lot unceremoniously from his hands, flung open the door and headed straight for a small bush about 70m from the car. The rumbling never ceased and I knew I was rapidly losing any last vestige of control over my bowels, until finally I exploded! I made it to the bush, trousers flapping around my ankles and took them off completely, along with my boxer shorts. I surveyed the damage. It was extensive and irredeemable. Only then, shame faced, hiding behind this pathetic bush did I remember! Camel milk, even in small amounts is a highly effective laxative if not a regular drinker. My Somali colleagues must have enjoyed the site of me glugging pints of the stuff down two hours earlier in full expectation of this glorious site. Or, more charitably, they may have assumed this mad forenge who had spent so long in Ethiopia was fully aware of the fact and had simply developed an iron stomach and a champion constitution. Whatever, the situation was about to get worse.
One of the few words I knew in Somali was ‘bishan’ and I needed a bucket full of water. And last night I had also fortuitously purchased a ma’awis (wrap around) to wear around my waist at night. I began to shout to my colleagues but they were suddenly more interested in the gaggle of village elders approaching the car to see what the problem was. Although my shouts for water were finally heard, the whole situation was about to go from bad to worse, if you can believe that possible. From behind me and like an apparition out of thin air, a disorganized ramshackle platoon of regular soldiers came into view. They had obviously seen me and the car and had decided to take a closer look.
Now, literally feet away, some stared dumbfounded at the sorrowful white man, crouching behind a shrub with his trousers and pants strewn in front of him dripping in faecal matter. I knew the procedure for dealing with potentially hostile soldiers. Take off your glasses, look them in the eyes, show no fear, be polite and calmly ask them what they want. Strangely, something a little more expletive came straight out of my mouth and definitely far less accommodating than my training called for. If they shot me now who in the world would care and what an almighty mess! Not the way anyone would wish to be remembered!
The other soldiers ambled on towards the vehicle, converging with the villagers and finally the message that I was struggling with some basic hygiene issues must have been passed on to my co-workers. I needed help and perhaps a little water and possibly some fresh clothing. The driver obliged and my dignity was partially restored. Eventually, I returned to the car shamefaced and embarrassed but my team was gracious, and surprisingly thankful? Apparently the soldiers were intent on hitching a lift and as a consequence we would all have been stranded in this wilderness. However, the soldiers had clearly had second thoughts. Did they really want to travel with such a wretched infidel; one who was clearly unable to even control his most basic bodily functions? No! They decided to find alternative means of transport and we were allowed to proceed unhindered.
In hindsight what lessons did I learn? Firstly; camel milk is highly nutritious and tasty but is also a powerful laxative and should be handled with kid gloves, especially on long journeys! Secondly; always have patience with and show kindness to travelers in a foreign land. In their own country they may be powerful and well respected but in yours they may seem foolish, uneducated, ill-mannered and disaster prone. This is most likely symptomatic of their lack of basic local knowledge! Or, if you are religious like me it just proves that God’s intervention need not, necessarily manifest itself in the way you expect. Be thankful all the same as it could save you a long walk home.