After my whirlwind week in Hargeisa, I had a good idea what I wanted to do with that two-hour flight to Addis Abeba: sleep. Yet, it was not to be. I was sitting next to a gentleman of similar years whose body language was saying: talk to me. I fought the common sense of conversation for a while and then made a deal with myself. I’d chat for a minute or two and then get some sleep.
Well that was the plan. He turned out to be a most engaging man. I had a map of Somaliland in my lap and he pointed out his home town on it. It was some eight or nine hours by road from Hargeisa. He lived abroad and although he was a Somalilander, he did not visit often. I asked him when he made his last visit home. He paused; and then he said he had not been back in thirty years.
I said I had heard thirty. Did he mean ten years?. He supplied the relevant dates and when we calculated we decided it was closer to thirty-five years actually. That was the rest of my sleep gone. And this is the audacity of life: that it thinks nothing of throwing you a loop that most would consider ridiculous in fiction. So I sat back and we made those poignant journeys again: the teenager leaving home, and the old man coming home. In recent years he had stayed in touch with his mother, siblings and relations by telephone, but it was a rustic ‘staying in touch’, and a telephone was just a telephone. There was certainly no skyping or new-fangled visual telephony, and when he walked into his home, everybody – mother inclusive – was staring at a stranger.
Even your mother didn’t recognize you? I asked him.
He shook his head, which had lost most of his youthful hair.
Only two old people in his town recognized him and they were not even family. He was literally a new person. Most of the family were not even born when he left.
In my first post on Hargeisa I promised to share my defining moment of the trip. This was it then. Meeting one of the seed of the great Somali Diaspora still in the flush of a happy reunion with his mother. The most famous traveler in the world is another African, Ibn Battuta. 700 years ago, the Moroccan set off on a journey around the known world. He would spend thirty years on the road. These days, sitting in an aluminium tube in the skies, air stewards can cover in three weeks all the miles that Battuta had done in his lifetime. Yet,
when your ISP telephones
with an installation date, wait
wait for the camel
for the journey is the message
and cannot be email
(from The Thirst of the Riverbed,
in The Final Testament of a Minor God.)
It is not how far we range that matters. It is how deeply we connect with the people and places we traverse.
The tragedy of travel of course is that not only does it change us, it changes the places and the people that we leave behind. Time, even at her most benign, transforms both the physical and the emotional geographies of the place we called ‘home’, such that return is often a shattering experience for the exile. And the thought of it often keeps those that can return away. It is much more tragic when the travel is not voluntary, when whole communities and territories are uprooted by war and insecurity and humans are scattered like seed before a storm, some never to reunite in the pod again.
You’re a very lucky man, I told him, I went for less than five years and lost my mother. You returned after thirty-five and met yours…
I know. He agreed.
But why did you stay so long? I wanted to know. The war has been over for years…
He looked at me, through me, and then his eyes filled and he was no longer in the plane with me. Borne on the mysterious, magical, and quotidian currents that had driven Ibn Battuta for three decades… then he shook his head and murmurred, I couldn’t tell you that.
I hope, like Ibn Battuta, he writes his own book.