Total linguistic immersion
Sometimes I get the feeling I’m living in a bit of a madhouse. Our Hargeisa University English teacher’s compound has grown in size, character and eccentricity over the last couple of months and is now home to a wonderfully eclectic bunch of people who all, in one way or another, call the place home. It started out as a big empty house, populated by a small army of cockroaches, two mattresses on the floor and a large American. His name is Taylor. We kicked off Hargeisa University’s new English language program (the best darn program in Somaliland, might I add) and the team has expanded with the addition of new Americans such as Annie ‘dude, that goat so needs to be milked’ Bohlen and Hannah who’s vying to be the sport of Ultimate Frisbee’s first female Somaliland ambassador. This semester’s roster was completed with the addition of the wonderful Isabelle who managed to break herself out of ESL teaching quasi-captivity in China and made the trek out to the happenin’ Horn of Africa.
Over the weeks that the ladies were arriving and settling in, our furniture also began to arrive. Taylor, the roaches and I were joined by a few chairs, a gas burner, a deep freeze deep enough to stow a good few camel carcases, and a bloke with a Kalashnikov. His name is Bashi. He just showed up one night with some of the furniture and we thought it best not to ask too many questions. He carries a big gun, has excellent taste in leisure wear (fluorescent green shell suits with paisley patches anyone?) and dispenses sage and stern security advice. Taylor drives him up the wall by taking unaccompanied evening walks and I get shouted at. My Somali is getting good enough to pick out the sporadic identifiable words that punctuate his tirades – “waddawaddawadda-Al-Shabab-waddawaddawadda-Kidnapping-waddawaddawadda-Enemies-waddawadda-wadda-Taylor-waddawaddawadda-very-bad”. Bashi also seems to be convinced that the rocky desert outside the city where we often go hiking is full of precious stones and is similarly convinced that I am somehow an expert in this particular field. For the record, I’m not and I’ve had to tell Bashi numerous times (to his continued disappointment) that my gem buying contacts in London are a bit thin on the ground.
Next into the fray appeared the dynamic ‘Sheikh’ Mohamed Buux (the Buux is very important). He’s our gatekeeper. He’s totally bonkers, is great at opening the door (outside of his designated nap times), speaks not a lick of English, and constantly refers to Taylor and I as one singular indivisible entity “Ah! Taylor-Petor khayr khayr khayr!”. He unwittingly made himself somewhat surplus to requirements by rigging up the door catch to a bit of string which, if pulled the right way, opens the door from the outside. Bashi, our semi-professional security consultant, doesn’t seem to have too much of a problem with this arrangement though he’s seemingly paranoid about people climbing over the wall to plant bombs under our staircase. Despite almost managing to invent his way out of a job Sheikh M. definitely isn’t going anywhere – the place just wouldn’t be the same without him and his ‘Christian-Muslim brotherhood’ talk (which he’s given me about five times) is great.
When the Sheikh isn’t reciting his Qu’ran he’s usually imparting words of wisdom to Abdul-Hakim, the friendly lad dispatched by the landlord to use up as much of our water supply as possible and protect the precious plants from the white people. His watering of the plants really does drain our tank and, surprisingly for a country that’s mostly semi-arid scrubland, H20 doesn’t come cheap. I decided to use my initiative (always a bad idea) and dismantled the kitchen sink piping so we could save waste water from the dishes to water the garden. After explaining the new system to Abdul-Hakim (requesting that he refrain from subjecting the garden to any more costly deluges) he would smile and nod in understanding then five minutes later proceed with filling yet more buckets for the task. I couldn’t figure out this absurd sense of duty to the garden until I got a visit from the landlord who’d come to put a stop to this crazy scheme of dishwater usage. “The plants need clean water”. No, they don’t. The battle lines were drawn… But then there came the point when the vice-president of the university got dragged in to mediate on the fate of our tomato plants and I relented. Today I’ve rigged up a new compost heap so we’ll see how that’ll go down. I’m expecting a call from the president any minute.
Also on the team is Muna our fearsome cleaning lady who remains intent on rearranging our collection of tinned goods in new and ever more confusing ways every time she comes over. She (and the various children/female friends she brings over) finds us all a constant source of amusement – what are the crazy westerners going to be doing today?? Jumping rope in the back yard! Wow!
Every morning our driver Mahamoud rolls up to ferry us (with near homicidal haste) over the rocks, holes, rivers and occasional bits of tarmac on the way to the university. Dodging goats, small children and convoys of Ethiopian trucks on their way to Berbera port, we usually make it in one piece. And the goats usually get out of the way. Usually.
Sometimes Bashi rides along with us, sitting in the front seat, automatic weapon at his side by the gear stick, barrel pointed up towards the back of the vehicle. As we bounce over one pot hole/lesion in the earth’s crust after another I’m reminded of that scene in Pulp Fiction and consider the irony of getting your brains blown out by your own security guard. Then I have to think about how to say ‘please point that bloody thing somewhere other than in the direction of my face’ in Somali. Now that’s what I call total linguistic immersion.
It’s strange living in this house with all these interesting people who are employed by the university to keep guard and clean up after us. We didn’t ask for anyone (and arguably don’t need anyone) but it seems to keep the university happy. Not that I’m complaining – we’re looked after very well in what can be a challenging environment. The sun is shining (it’s always shining), today is Camel Day (that’s what we call Fridays) and our little compound is at peace. It’s a peace that’ll only be broken by the sundown call to prayer and a knock at my door – Bashi’s found some new stones…