Thursday, November 24, 2011

Books: The Prophet's Camel Bell

In the last days of 1950, a young Margaret Laurence and her husband sailed from London to the then British Proctectorate of Somaliland. Her engineer husband had taken on an assignment to build ballehs – large water reservoirs – in the desert of Somalia’s interior.

The book, ‘The Prophet’s Camel Bell’ is a memoir of the two years the Laurences spent in Somaliland. Though unpolished and overly-long, it conveys much about the author, her keen sense of observation and her belief in human dignity.

Laurence optimistically believed that since she herself was not an ‘imperialist’, upon arriving in Africa she’d be able to pierce the cultural divide and build rich relationships of mutual respect with the local population. Much of the book deals with her coming to terms with her own naiveté and with the complex realities of race relations in the decade preceding independence.

She invested a great deal in trying to understand Somali culture and people. She learned the language and studied the culture and the people with an eye for detail and pathos. Her first published book (A Tree for Poverty) was a translation of Somali poetry.

Yet while she worked hard to understand Somali tribesmen, she readily acknowledged her deep antipathy for colonialists, whom she described “not [as] people who were motivated by a brutally strong belief in their own superiority, but people who were so desperately uncertain of their own worth and their ability to copy within their own societies that they were forced to seek some kind of mastery in a place where all the cards were stacked in their favour and where they could live in a self-generated glory by transferring all evils, all weaknesses, on to another people.”

While I can’t recommend this book as a page-turner or poetic masterpiece, Laurence’s struggle to find her place – both with regards to Somalis and the other expats – is thoughtful and thought-provoking. Anyone who has lived abroad, particularly on the doorstep of abject poverty, will find resonance in her writing and her personal struggles. Upon leaving Somalia, Laurence noted a poignant regret, which she described as a feeling which “arose from unwisely loving a land where I must always remain a stranger”.

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