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When Margaret Laurence set out for Somaliland with her engineer husband in 1950, she confronted the difficulty of communication between peoples of vastly different cultures. Yet she came to know the skilled orators, poets and craftsmen of the country, and to share the vision of a people’s struggle for survival in a barren land.
The Prophet’s Camel Bell is part travelogue, part autobiography, part celebration of human nature, and essential reading for anyone who has ever been a stranger in a strange land.
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Margaret Laurence was born in Neepawa, Manitoba, in 1926. Upon graduation from Winnipeg’s United College in 1947, she took a job as a reporter for the Winnipeg Citizen.
From 1950 until 1957 Laurence lived in Africa, the first two years in Somalia, the next five in Ghana, where her husband, a civil engineer, was working. She translated Somali poetry and prose during this time, and began her career as a fiction writer with stories set in Africa.
When Laurence returned to Canada in 1957, she settled in Vancouver, where she devoted herself to fiction with a Ghanaian setting: in her first novel, This Side Jordan, and in her first collection of short fiction, The Tomorrow-Tamer. Her two years in Somalia were the subject of her memoir, The Prophet’s Camel Bell.
Separating from her husband in 1962, Laurence moved to England, which became her home for a decade, the time she devoted to the creation of five books about the fictional town of Manawaka, patterned after her birthplace, and its people: The Stone Angel, A Jest of God, The Fire-Dwellers, A Bird in the House, and The Diviners.
Laurence settled in Lakefield, Ontario, in 1974. She complemented her fiction with essays, book reviews, and four children’s books. Her many honours include two Governor General’s Awards for Fiction and more than a dozen honorary degrees.
Margaret Laurence died in Lakefield, Ontario, in 1987.
May they not just possibly be true, the tales of creatures as splendidly strange as minotaurs or mermaids? Will there be elephants old as forests, white peacocks with crests of azure, jewel-eyed birds as gaudy as the painted birds in the tombs of pharaohs, apes like jesters, great cats dark and secretive as Bast, men who change into leopards at the flick of a claw?
Nothing can equal in hope and apprehension the first voyage east of Suez, yourself eager for all manner of oddities, pretending to disbelieve in marvels lest you appear naïve but anticipating them just the same, prepared for anything, prepared for nothing, burdened with baggage – most of it useless, unburdened by knowledge, assuming all will go well because it is you and not someone else going to the far place (harm comes only to others), bland as eggplant and as innocent of the hard earth as a fledgling sparrow.
There you go, rejoicing, as so you should, for anything might happen and you are carrying with you your notebook and camera so you may catch vast and elusive life in a word and a snapshot. There you go, anxious, as you may well be, for anything might happen and so you furtively reassure yourself with pages from the first-aid book in which it says the best thing to do for snakebite is to keep the patient quiet until the doctor arrives – luckily, you do not notice that it does not tell you what to do if there is no doctor within a hundred miles.
And in your excitement at the trip, the last thing in the world that would occur to you is that the strangest glimpses you may have of any creature in the distant lands will be those you catch of yourself.
Our voyage began some years ago. When can a voyage be said to have ended? When you reach the place you were bound for, presumably. But sometimes your destination turns out to be quite other than you expected.
We could not have found a better-named ship than the Tigre to carry us away from a sleet-sodden English December and into the warm waters of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. She was a Norwegian passenger-cargo vessel, and we had crossed the bilious channel and were waiting for her at Rotterdam. She was delayed, and we, almost penniless, walked the slippery streets of the chilly port, turning up our coat collars against the blowing snow and searching near the docks for a sailors’ café where we could afford to eat. We found it in Die Drie Steden, but we also found that English was spoken only in the more expensive restaurants, and we did not have a word of Dutch. Fortunately, wiener schnitzel, that fine old Netherlands dish, was listed on the menu, but we had no luck with dessert. Finally, the impatient waitress beckoned us to the front of the café, past rows of weathered old pipe-sucking mariners who peered and chortled, and we were faced with a glassed-in cabinet containing a selection of pastries.
“Go ahead,” Jack said. “Pick one.”
“Slagroomwafel,” the waitress said, as I pointed blindly.
It was a waffle with whipped cream. For seven days, out of pure necessity, we ate nothing but wiener schnitzel and slagroomwafel.
We had plenty of time, during that week of waiting, to wonder where we were going, and why, and what it would be like when we got there. An advertisement in a London newspaper had started the venture.
‘H.M. Colonial Service. Somaliland Protectorate. A vacancy has occurred for a civil engineer to take charge, under the direction of the Director of Public Works, of the construction of approximately 30 earth dams over an area of 6,500 miles. The average maximum capacity of each dam will be 10 million gallons. The Engineer will be required to carry out all reconnaissance and detailed survey, to do all calculations and designs, to be responsible for expenditure and the supervision of staff and plant . . .’
Jack applied for the job and got it. It was no sudden whim on his part. As an engineer, he had felt a certain lack in any job he had in Canada or in England. We lived in an increasingly organized world, a world in which the most essential roads and bridges had already been built. He felt a need to work for once on a job that plainly needed doing – not a paved road to replace a gravel one, but a road where none had been before, a job whose value could not be questioned, a job in which the results of an individual’s work could be clearly perceived, as they rarely could in Europe or America. It may have been a desire to simplify, to return to the pioneer’s uncomplicated struggle. Or it may have been the feeling, strong in all our generation, that life was very short and uncertain, and a man had better do what he could, while he could. Perhaps these feelings were good and sufficient reasons for going to Africa; perhaps they were not. But they could not be shrugged off or ignored indefinitely.
After Jack signed the contract, the Colonial Office informed us regretfully that no accommodation for married couples seemed to be available in Somaliland at the moment, but perhaps Mr. Laurence’s wife would be able to join him in six or eight months. This arrangement did not suit us at all, so Jack explained carefully that his wife, being a hardy Canadian girl, was quite accustomed to life in a tent. In fact, I had never camped out in my life, but fortunately the Colonial Office was convinced by the striking description Jack gave of me as an accomplished woodswoman, a kind of female Daniel Boone, and I was permitted to go.
We had to consult an atlas to discover exactly where we were going. This ignorance was not unusual, we later found. Once we saw a gloomy note in the Protectorate News Sheet commenting on the delays in mail owing to letters having been mis-sorted by the Post Office in England, and explaining that “this arises, no doubt, from the fact that very few people outside this country seem to know where it is.”
What do you take to such an out-of-the-way place, when you have no idea what life will be like there? Tents or topees, evening dress or bush boots, quinine or codeine, candles or sandals? The Colonial Office provided us with a pamphlet designed to set at rest the minds of persons like ourselves. It was firm and clear in its advice. We must take a year’s supply of tinned goods and a portable bath. Fortunately, we were also given the name and address of an administrative officer from Somaliland who was on leave in London. He roared with laughter.
“Pay no attention,” he told us. “Those pamphlets are always half a century out of date.”
The booklet also warned us against “woolly bears,” a ferocious cloth-eating insect. In Somaliland we never once encountered a woolly bear, nor did we ever meet anyone who had heard of them. What a wily pamphleteer, focusing our attention on mythical beasts – had he warned us of the actual difficulties, we might never have gone and so would have been the poorer all our lives.
Even the history we ferreted out from libraries had a limited meaning for us, despite its power to stir the imagination with past glory or disgrace, the tramplings of time over one corner of the earth. We were going to the same country where Sir Richard Burton had gone so long before, when he believed his footsteps were the first that really counted for anything in East Africa and when, disguised as the merchant Haji Abdullah, he preached in his superior Arabic at the Zeilah mosque, and was commended by the local elders, none of whom knew the Qoran as well as he.
But he had come late in the roster of explorers. That desert land was known to the ancient world as Regio Cinnamomifera, when ships from the Far East went there with cinnamon which they exchanged for frankincense and myrrh, greatly valued in those days and sometimes purchased by well-to-do Magi to bestow as gifts. There the forty saints from the Jadramaut landed, proclaiming the Word – There is no God but God, and Mohamed is His Prophet. It was a land of warriors, too, brave cruel men like Mohamed Granye, the Left-handed, the Somali king who in the sixteenth century very nearly conquered all of Ethiopia, until at last he fell to the intruding Portuguese, indomitably armoured, who had come to rescue the Coptic Christian emperor in the belief that he was the fabled Prester John, white knight in the black continent, and who were most perturbed when they discovered he was not.
For many men and women, princes and commoners from the distant forests and from the river lands as far away as the Niger, Somaliland was the end of a bitter journey and the beginning of a lifetime of bondage, for there the Arab slave routes had emerged at the sea, and from there the dhow-loads of slaves had once been shipped across the Gulf of Aden to be sold in the flesh markets of Arabia. In that same land, early this century, Mohamed Abdullah Hassan, the so-called Mad Mullah of Somaliland, had fought the British for years and was defeated only when at last his forts were bombed.
We read of these events, and pondered them. But they could not tell us what we would find there now.
At last the Tigre steamed into Rotterdam. About time, too. We were disgruntled and irritable after a week of having been snubbed by hotel clerks who had rapidly discovered our penury. We tramped on board dully, expecting nothing. To our amazement, we found we were the only passengers, and there, spread out before us, was our accommodation – the owner’s suite, an unbelievably spacious three rooms, full of polished brass and green plush and shiny mahogany, and best of all, paid for by the Crown Agents. When we had recovered from the initial shock, we set ourselves to adjust to our altered status.
“We mustn’t act surprised,” Jack said with a grin, as he sprawled luxuriously on the Edwardian velour sofa. “The idea is that we take it all completely for granted.”
But I could not get over the wonder of it, especially the fact that we had our own bathroom. In our year in London, we had lived in a bed-sittingroom and shared a bathroom with so many others that the nightly bath schedule was like a railway timetable.
The Tigre was our home for a month, and we developed a high regard for Norwegians. As passengers, we must have been a nuisance to them, but they never resorted to mere cold politeness. They were warmly friendly, and gave us the run of the ship. We were invited up to the bridge, and allowed to peer through the Captain’s binoculars. We chatted with Johan, the wireless operator, about modern American writers, feeling ashamed that we knew nothing of modern Norwegian writers. Hemingway was his favourite – there was a writer a man could understand.
At night sometimes we went up to the bridge and talked with the second mate while he was on watch. He was a burly, laughing man, who had sailed in the West Indies a great deal. Once he did not see his wife for ten years, he told us. In Montreal, on one occasion, he and a companion smuggled two girls aboard. The men had adjoining cabins, and suddenly through the wall had come an enquiring voice.
“Marie, are you doing any wrong in there?”
“No, Germaine,” was the virtuous reply, “I’m not.”
“Well, then,” called Germaine, “pray forgiveness for me.”
These French-Canadian girls, the second mate said. His laughter went booming out over the dark sea.
We were on the Tigre for Christmas. The Norwegians celebrated mainly on Christmas Eve, when there was a mammoth dinner and gifts all around. Jack was given a bottle of Scotch, while I received a little marzipan pig with a verse attached to it.
To our little sporty guest,
A happy sailors’ julefest!
That evening we sang carols in Norwegian, with the aid of aqua vite and songbooks, although the only word Jack and I could understand was “halleluja.” Johan, who had discovered that Jack’s people came from the Shetland Islands, originally settled by Norsemen, leaped to his feet and proposed a toast.
“To our ancestors and yours – the vikings!”
“Skol! ” shouted everyone. It was a fine Christmas.
At Genoa the ship stopped for several days, and we walked on the hills and saw the harsh port town softened by distance, the pink and yellow walls looking clean and pastel although in fact they were dirty and garish, the harbour with the big rusty freighters packed in prow to stern, and the tugboats skimming around like frantic water-beetles. At the Staglieno cemetery, where marble angels loomed like spirits of vengeance among the green-black cypress trees and where the poor rented graves for seven years, we met two Englishmen who said they wondered if they had not been foolish after all to visit sunny Italy in mid-winter. The day was piercingly cold and we were needled by a sharp unceasing wind. We walked along with them to find a place where we could get shelter and a warm drink. The Englishmen had surely read somewhere how the English are expected to behave in foreign lands, for they were loyally true. They ordered tea.
“But first –” one of them said anxiously to the proprietor, “tell me, please – can you really make it properly?”
The Mediterranean, that time of year, was truly the wine-dark sea. High up on the Tigre, whipped by the icy winds, we watched the wild hills of Sicily pass by. At night we saw a far-off red glow in the black sky, Mount Etna in eruption. And sometimes in the darkness we saw a phosphorescence, plankton perhaps, frothing up suddenly in the waves and seeming to run along the surface of the water like sheet lightning. I wrote in my notebook – “for the first time, I can believe we are in southern waters.”
Port Said, and my first view of the mysterious East was a Coca-Cola sign in Arabic. But the dhows were there, too, with their curved prows and triangular sails, shabby little fishing dhows with the nets slung to dry between the masts, and big trading dhows from the ports of the Red Sea and as far away as the Persian Gulf, coming here with their cargoes of dates and millet or marvellously patterned carpets woven in Basra or Sheraz, perhaps, by weavers who learned their craft as children and were said to go blind young over their looms.
We went ashore and walked the crowded and intricate streets where stained mud buildings stood side by side with slick stuccoed apartment blocks in florid pinks and greens. Rows of ragged palms fringed the roads where horse-drawn carriages unbelievably rattled along like old engravings come to life. And the people – merchants waddling slow and easy in long striped robes and maroon fezzes, nimble limping beggars who trailed the tourists, girl children with precociously knowing eyes, self-styled guides who hovered around us like the city’s flies, wizened and hunched labourers wearing only a twist of rag around skinny hips, boys in flapping cotton pyjamas, business men in draped suits and shiny tan shoes, police in sand-coloured breaches and black jack-boots, thin stooped Egyptian women all in bla...
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Book Description New Canadian Library. Paperback. Condition: As New. An apparently unread copy in perfect condition. Dust cover is intact; pages are clean and are not marred by notes or folds of any kind. At ThriftBooks, our motto is: Read More, Spend Less. Seller Inventory # G0771046294I2N00
Book Description New Canadian Library, 2010. Paperback. Condition: Used: Good. Seller Inventory # SONG0771046294