Warriors: Life and death among the Somalis – Gerald Hanley

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The Author

This book belongs firmly in the travel writing category and is published by Eland a publishing house that specialises in these types of books. This book also serves as an intimate portrait of life in Somalia during the colonial period. The author, Gerald Hanley was a British novelist, travel writer and solider all rolled into one. The vast majority of his books focus on his experiences in Africa, Burma, and the Indian subcontinent.

There is no doubt that Hanley’s writing stemmed from his own experiences. He left Ireland for East Africa at the age of 19; he saw Kenya at its colonial best and worst, and Somaliland falling prey to Italian invasion; he fought during the Second World War in Africa and Burma (his first book, Monsoon Victory, 1946, was an account of that 1944 Burma campaign, seen through the eyes of a war correspondent); he was greatly influenced by Indian philosophy and religion, and by a strong conviction that so-called Western ‘civilisers’ often brought insensitivity and arrogance in their well-meaning luggage.[1]

At the outbreak of the first world war, he joined the Kings African Rifles, a regiment of the British Army. This resulted in him serving in Burma & Somalia. The book ‘Warriors’ seems to be an abridgment of a larger work called ‘Warriors & strangers’ which covered Somalia and Kenya. This edition called ‘Warriors’ focuses mainly on his time as a soldier and commander of troops across Somalia. As an author, Gerald Henley was deeply admired by the likes of Ernest Hemmingway, who described him as “…the foremost writer of his generation.” In terms of style, he has been compared to the famous Joseph Conrad, author of the ‘Heart of darkness’.

This book, like most forms of colonial literature, is deeply uncomfortable. Many Somalis who have read this book have been critical of the racist stereotypes contained within it. Yet ironically some of the most ‘heart-warming’ quotes about Somalis available on the internet are also from this book. In a way, this book reinforces the colonial stereotypes of Somalis as being amongst the ‘noble’ savages. Hanley, in fact, mirrors other authors such as Richard Burton who have written about Somalis and funnily enough, Burton, is someone who the author of this book openly admires.

Maybe one of the other reasons this book is so uncomfortable is that there some elements of truth contained within it. There are segments in the book where the author admits that ‘Somalis’ are more intelligent than the ‘Bantu’ tribes, that Somalis are more noble, more handsome and more beautiful. In a way, it plays into our prejudices and our vanities, that the British would consider us better than others. These are feelings that are etched in the psyche of many Somalis in the modern era.

On tribalism

This book openly addresses tribalism and the treatment of marginalised tribes and minorities. There is one funny yet disturbing episode in the book in which the author describes the early formation and impact of the Somali Youth League (SYL). More and more people began to gravitate towards the ideals of the SYL, whose chief tenant was that Somalis are equal regardless of tribe. This became a problem for the colonial administrators since all judgment and ‘justice’ was dished out by using ‘tribe’ as the main way of identifying people. However, if you were a member of the SYL you could commit a crime and then when called to identify yourself you would simply state that you were a member of the SYL who didn’t adhere to tribalism. On one occasion a man was brought before the court, and when signaled to the court to mentioned his tribe, he refused and said ‘I am a member of the SYL’ the author then responded ‘so you must be from amongst the Rahanweyn tribe?’ To which the man responded, “I am not from amongst the slave tribe”. The author said ‘no, you are definitely from them’ to which the man erupted in anger “no, I am from so and so tribe” at which point the whole room erupted in ironic laughter.

The above episode, while funny, does have modern ramifications. The vast majority of Somalis claim to love their country and compatriots and all love to uphold noble ideals such as a disbelief in the superiority of tribes, but deep down it seems that most of us are affected in some way. This author is also an early proponent of the view that Somalis are blinded by tribalism, a view that has been propagated further by other ‘Somali Studies’ scholars such I.M. Lewis. So much so that most Somalis have accepted this tribal narrative as a fact.

In conclusion

The author admires the Somalis although he considers them savages and in one passage he even describes them as the “parasites of the camel”. The Somalis are tough headed, hard to love and above all else impulsive. This is also a narrative that has followed the Somali people everywhere,  which is that we are an impulsive and emotionally unstable people.

Like any type of colonial literature, we should take things with a pinch of salt, there are good bits, bad bits and other parts which are typically ‘colonial.

Some quotes

 “…..I would turn him loose in the desert, naked except for his noble blood and his parasitical pedigree and his vanity”

 “…Mogadishu, the old headquarters of the vast insane asylum we had been lost in..”

 “There is something huge and dark in the African World which can chew through the defenses of white men who have not been harnessed to that’s continent’s almost mindless friendship with suffering and annihilation”.

 “You can never think of those wildernesses without thinking of daggers and spears, rolling fierce eyes under mops of dusty black crinkly hair, of mad stubborn camels, rocks too hot to touch, and blood feuds whose origins cannot be remembered, only honored in the stabbing. But of all the races of Africa, there cannot be one better to live among than the most difficult, the proudest, the vainest, the most merciless the friendliest; the Somalis”

I knew an Italian priest who had spent over thirty years among the Somalis and he made two converts, and it amazed me that he got even those two. The Prophet has no more fervent, and ignorant, followers, but that is not their fault that they are ignorant. Their natural intelligence is second to none and when the education factories start work among them they should surprise Africa, and themselves.” 

 “Fearlessness has always been essential for Somalis who had to try and survive hunger, disease, and thirst while prepared to fight and die against their enemies, fellow Somalis for pleasure in a blood feud, or the Ethiopians who would like to rule them, or the white me who got in the way for a while”

“The Somalis dies as they liked to die, contemptuously, throwing off the Cloak-blanket and staring at the firing squad, sneering at the trembling rifles”

 “We were only as unbalanced as the Somalis about us. Nobody could remain sane in that arid world”

‘Africans were not like Somalis, the Somalis who were restless, violent, romantic, vengeful and proud”

 “Somalis bitterly resent the white man, and struggle continually, and admirably, by lies and intrigue, to fight off his influence which spells the end of their peculiar world. You cannot beat them. They have no inferiority complexes, no wide-eyed worship of the white man’s was, and no fear of him, of his guns or his official anger. They are a race to be admired, if hard to love”

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Quotes from Warriors: Life and Death Among the Somalis

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[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituary-gerald-hanley-1555218.html

1 comments On Warriors: Life and death among the Somalis – Gerald Hanley

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