The People of Puntlandby Tebogo Malope / 18.07.2011
“I believe in Jesus Christ you know?”, we sat under the tree in the night astonished by the random statements the Governor was making. Our responses were not committed to a yes or a no, they are somewhere in between, we’re not sure if the governor is testing us.
“Did you hear what I just said?” asked the Governor, we nod. “I believe in Jesus Christ. In Islam we have to believe in Jesus, do you understand?” We nod again. “So are you guys Christians?” We pause. “Do you guys believe in Jesus Christ?” At that stage I could have leaped onto the chair and broke out into an evangelical rant or better yet stretched out and tore Kaizers clothes to expose the Jesus tattoos but then again maybe I wouldn’t have made it out alive, to live another day, to write this. So instead we kept silent and managed not to nod at all. The Governor stared at us curiously for a very tense moment. Finally he broke the thick tension by introducing another random topic.
“What does democracy mean?” He asked.
“What do you mean?” Kaizer responded more willingly.
“Do you believe in democracy? The system of democracy and its laws?” The Governor asked.
“Not how it is in the world right now.” Kaizer answered. “I believe in the ideology. I believe in the concept of democracy”
“Well I don’t believe in democracy, it’s a flawed system and it doesn’t work, even human nature doesn’t allow it. Remember I mentioned that lady in purple earlier?”
“I can’t touch her tribe, if I did nobody would marry my children, it’s an elitist thing, my tribe is an elite one, it has produced all the doctors and physicians here in Puntland. Do you understand? We can never marry lower tribes. It’s human nature. Human nature does not allow democracy. As a people we see blacksmiths and hunters as inferior. Do you understand?”
We both nod. Looking at Kaizer the Governor continued. “It’s like how your people would, say, look down on Swazis. Human nature doesn’t function democratically.”
“So the problem with Somalia is tribal?” Kaizer asked.
“No not at all, it is not a tribal thing, it’s our culture, it’s human nature. For instance many years ago I went to London and I got interrogated for hours, not for any other reason but because I am from Somalia. There was nothing democratic about that, it was human nature, I hope you understand.”
We nod astonished.
“Like earlier, for instance, we shouldn’t have called your embassy.” The Governor continued. “Yeah but law states…” Kaizer began but the Governor rudely cut him off.
“Forget your bullshit laws, think about your own survival. Now that I told your embassy you are getting deported, you are going to be blacklisted by your own people, you shouldn’t have done it. Now you will suffer even in your own home, trust me.” As spoke, a man approached and sat with us and started speaking to the governor in Somaal. After some time the Governor turned to us to explain.
“You see here in Puntland we are a special kind of people, all of us here have the same great, great grandfather. We all share the 20th grandfather. So everyone all around us is some sort of cousin.”
In my head I’m struggling to fathom this. Some tribes are more superior than others yet we are one big family. The governor continued.
“All I needed to do was to mention the name of the boy you are making this film about and this gentleman here knows him, knows his mother, his siblings. It’s his cousin somewhat. He is probably my seventh cousin also.” He paused. “There are many things at play here and you guys are clueless, the Western world manipulates our system, they know that in our culture there are inferior tribes and superior ones, so all they do is give money to one tribe to marginalize the other and the tribes start fighting amongst themselves and kill each other. This is how it has always been. We are not responsible for our own wars, the West inflicted them on us. Do you understand what I mean?” The roots of his convictions were becoming clearer to me. “For instance the pirates live in this region, they are all around us, we know most of them and I can tell you now that we have no idea how they get funding to do what they do. These guys have high tech machinery. They have night vision goggles. They have remote controlled machinery to climb on big boats. Where do they get that money? It’s not coming from here, that much I can tell you. There are bigger forces at play here and they are playing on our instability.”
This is becoming more interesting, we should be filming this, I thought to myself.
“Where does piracy come from?” He asked. “How did it start? You see as a people we don’t eat fish generally, we have the second largest shoreline in Africa after your country.” He said pointing at me. “But we are not big on fish. So these Western countries would come in their big boats and steal our fish and they started killing some of the small fishermen from the small coastal tribes. They took advantage of our volatile country, an unguarded shoreline. But those small coastal tribes got sick of it and fought back. They captured a ship and a ransom was paid for the release. It was all an issue of survival. It was self defense. And yet it’s portrayed as if we started it. But we didn’t. They did and please understand me here I’m not condoning piracy. But you need to understand that it’s not always what meets the eye.”
With that the Governor bid us farewell and we went into our room to sleep. I spent most of that night reflecting on what we had just been through, I struggled to keep emotions in as the tears came flooding. It was a scary, sad and enlightening experience. I kept wondering if my perception of what happened was tainted by the stereotyping that I had been exposed to prior to our visit. I wondered if the Governor had really kept us safe from external harm. I wondered if everything was amplified because I expected it to be. We both slept and I hoped for a good dream.
We were rudely awoken by the same soldier from the previous day, informing us that it was time to go. Without any hesitation we took our bags and rushed out. We had plotted to at least get something on tape, so as we went out I pulled out the camera to try and shoot something but I was violently cut short by the Governor and his soldiers. We left the yard of the mansion and got thrown in a run down car. A taxi, I assumed. It was early in the morning and there were no humans on the streets. Contrary to our arrival with a big entourage of soldiers, this time all the soldiers stood with the Governor at the gate and watched us drive off. It was an extremely daunting moment as we sat in the car. I looked back to see the wall of soldiers shrinking in the distance, a cloud of dust obscured my view and just like that we left the Governor and his troops behind.
The drive lasted a lifetime. I couldn’t stop thinking about the people of Puntland, the kids, this life. It may have been a brief trip to hell for us but these people have to live with this daily. They are poor, they are scared and most of them are delusional but they are all human, like you and me. The Governor’s words kept playing in my head, it is not they that inflicted the atrocities of life on themselves, and they are not entirely responsible for their society’s collapse. Aren’t we all? As Africans we are all born in a system that was designed to our detriment but do we sit back and blame, hate and in turn start inflicting pain on our own people? Hurt can alter people and the Governor is a clear example. But we cannot allow past pain and injustices to determine our tomorrow. If we don’t deal with it and move on, we end up making slaves of our people and ourselves. As we sat silently in the backseat of that car there was a sense of relief and a heightened state of enlightenment. The situation looked dire but it felt that with just a little extra effort we could look deeper and see a spark of hope. On that empty street of the little known country of Puntland a little girl on a bicycle appeared and rode past us.
**All images © Tebogo Malope.