Borders between us
by Maxwell Moser, Class of 2014
The sun is hot and stifling, beating down like a heavy rain. If only it were rain; I’ve never seen a place so dry. We’re tumbling through a sea of dust and jagged rock—what Mohammud refers to, jokingly, as a road—and slow to a halt as the Land Cruiser in front of us kicks up a shower of dust. It surrounds our vehicle like a thick fog; suddenly it’s dark, and then it clears, and we move on.
“You have places like this in the US?” Mohammud asks, turning around from the front seat to look at me. He’s a nutritionist for World Vision Somalia, my guide and translator. “Kind of,” I say, “there’s a place they call Death Valley.”
He laughs, repeats what I said to the driver in Somali, and they both chuckle.
We continue on for a few kilometers in this fashion, racing the other two Land Cruisers in our convoy (each with three armed guards inside, a procedural precaution in this relatively peaceful area of Somalia, far from the domain of Al-Shabaab and the tribal conflict surrounding the capital, Mogadishu) and slowing to a stop every time the dust blocks our visibility.
Up ahead, we see a few camels, hazy in the distant heat waves, and we slow down as we approach. A man is leading them, his loose white robe whipping back and wrapped tight around his figure by the wind. He’s holding a rope attached to the lead camel’s halter, with strings of rope connecting that camel to the two behind him. On each is perched a tent-like structure, a small lean-to covered in fabric, swaying back and forth with the animals’ stride.
“That’s the simplest man in the world,” Mohammud says. “He has everything he owns on those camels—his food, his water, even his wife and children.”
Mohammud has a way of turning around to look at me after each statement, smiling, waiting for some signal of acknowledgement. It gets awkward at times, but this time I nod in genuine fascination. It occurs to me that it’s a scene straight from the Bible. That could be Abraham or Isaac or Jacob—or Esau, in exile, pulling his family through the heat of the day. We slow down as we pass; the man waves at us, then wraps his head cloth more tightly around his face and continues trudging along.
This is my second trip to Somalia, but my first time going there alone. After graduating from NNU in 2014 with degrees in mass communications and English literature, I completed a year and a half storytelling fellowship with World Vision International, one of the world’s largest Christian charities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). I’ve spent the last two years as a freelance filmmaker, traveling to a dozen or so countries documenting World Vision’s work. But the urgency in this trip is different. I’ll be spending three weeks in Somalia and South Sudan, documenting the worsening famine there, one the United Nations has called the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.
We’re on our way to visit an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp that’s sprung up near a small village in Puntland, Somalia. The East African drought has hit this area incredibly hard and the rains haven’t come with any consistency for over two years. We pass miles of dry creek and river beds, completely barren land that Mohammud says was once green and fertile. A week later when I leave Somalia, I’ll land in the comparatively green oasis of Nairobi, Kenya, and think I understand what it means to be colorblind. Any color outside of shades of beige becomes a shock to the system.
This is not to say that the country doesn’t have its own kind of beauty. I’m reminded of a story of two American fighter pilots flying surveillance missions in Afghanistan, one from the East Coast of the US and one from the West. When asked what the landscape looks like, the pilot from the East says that Afghanistan is ugly, nothing but barren dirt and a bit of snow. But when the pilot from the West is asked, he says Afghanistan is beautiful, all rolling brown hills and snow-capped mountain peaks. He says it looks like Colorado, where he was born. So when Mohammud asks what I think of his country, I say it reminds me a bit of home, of the deserts of southern Idaho, where I grew up camping among the sagebrush and playing roller hockey on the driveway in 100-plus degree heat.
Before we ventured onto this expanse of dirt road, we spent many kilometers on a stretch of tarmac, one of Somalia’s main highways. Along the way, we’d pass the bodies of dead animals, mostly goats, in various states of decomposition. At first, I thought it was roadkill, a few goats straying from the herd. But there were too many for that to be the case, and Mohammud explained that the drought not only kills through dehydration and exhaustion, but also through its assault on the immune system. Herdsmen will hear of rain in some distant part of Somalia, so they’ll load all their animals onto trailers and trek towards the promise of grazing land, but on the journey, many will get sick and be tossed from the back of the trucks to save the rest of the herd. I ask him to stop so that I can take a picture of one of these dead animals, and when we pull to the side of the tarmac, I see three goats within 100 feet of each other: one still moving, one being eaten by flies and one just a pile of fur and bones, suspended in the thorns of a bush.
We arrive at the IDP camp—a small cluster of tents and huts made from bits of tarp, brush and trash sitting beneath the looming specter of a cellphone tower. Later, when we stop for lunch in a nearby town, we’ll pass a construction crew digging trenches and laying cable for the country’s first fiber internet connection. It’s a familiar sort of surreality, the way that modernity and poverty intertwine in these places.
I emerge from the air conditioned-calm of the car into the stifling heat of Somalian drought, and we make our way to the tents and greet the kids who come running towards us. Mohammud translates as the families tell me stories of their plight. Most were once pastoralists and have lost the majority, if not all, of their animals. A herd of 300 goats, now down to 50. And 30 camels, down to five. Mohammud tells me that a camel can be worth between $600 and $1000, so these aren’t small losses. The animals are these families’ only assets—their means of transportation, hauling, trade and family pride—destroyed all at once like the company store, inventory and shipping fleet going up in flames. They have no insurance policy to replace them and no family or neighbors to help. Everyone they know has lost everything they own.
A young boy of seven or eight tells me that his family moved from their pasture to the camp because their goats started dying and that when he arrived at the camp, he still had two goats that he took care of. Just a few days before I arrived, they’d disappeared. He’d looked and called for them but couldn’t find them. Then, one morning, he wandered towards the road and found both of his goats, lying in the dirt, dead from the heat.
A few days later, in a different IDP camp, a woman will tell me her story: “Our situation needs action; it doesn’t need talking. Our situation is like an animal that you want to slaughter, but it dies before you can bring the knife. We are afraid that we will die before we get assistance.” She says this so matter-of-factly, with so little emotion, that it startles me. I often find it difficult to process the gravity of people’s stories until I return home and sit at my desk listening to their interviews. But later that night, as I lay in a bed in the guest room of the World Vision compound in Garowe, Somalia, I’ll stare at the ceiling and remember her words. It’s a brutal metaphor. One I’ll never forget.
Over the course of the week, Mohammud and I will change from coworkers to friends and spend hours in the car talking about our cultures, religions and views of the world. I tell him that when I mention Somalia to my friends at home, they usually think of one of three things: pirates, Black Hawk Down or Captain Phillips. He laughs and says now I can tell them about Somali hospitality, tea and camel steak. He grew up in this part of Somalia and has a master’s degree in nutrition from a university in India. Now, he lives back in his hometown and works for World Vision. He’s seen the famine affect his family’s herds and farmland, watched it double the price of water within months, and is helping to pay for school for his nieces and nephews as their families struggle.
On the way home from the IDP camp, I ask him why he chose to study nutrition, and he says, “Nutrition is actually very interesting, we all need it. Malnutrition is everywhere. Here in Somalia, people are suffering from under-nutrition. Where you are from, people are suffering from over-nutrition. So you see, we need nutrition the world over.” He asks if I’ve seen the movie “Super Size Me,” and I laugh and say I have. He doesn’t say any of this with notes of sarcasm or with some sense of superiority to my state of American privilege. It’s all very interesting to him, and he believes better nutrition for all of us is needed; some places just need it more than others.
Later on, he’ll tell me that Somalia is an example of an older time, of the way humans used to live, without government and without borders, and I’ll think of the man with all of his belongings and family on the back of three camels. He jokes that Somalia is an example to the world that government is optional, but he laughs and says he knows it’s not that simple, that he wishes things were more stable in his country, but that the world was once a different place. Herders used to follow the rains from one land to the next, nomadic tribes with their animals constantly seeking a better place to survive. But with borders, he says, this is impossible. “There used to be no borders,” he tells me, “and the rich and the poor lived together more closely.”
The sun is setting, and the land is beginning to cool. We stop so that Mohammud, our drivers and the six armed guards can pray. A wind is sweeping across the desert as the moon begins to rise, and this place that seemed uninhabitable just hours before is now one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen. I wander to the road while I wait and am greeted by an all-too familiar sight: piles of bone, a patch of fur here and there. A family’s livelihood baked and decomposed and returned to the earth. Mohammud is right about the borders between us—between lands, between the rich and the poor, the urban and the rural, the overnourished and the undernourished. Between the good and the evil, the just and the unjust. There is plenty and there is famine, and the simplest of borders separates one from the other: rain.
Max grew up in Boise, Idaho, and discovered his love for storytelling after a 3rd grade short-story assignment. He followed his storytelling passion to NNU, earning a bachelor’s degree in mass communication and English in 2014. He now lives in Seattle, Washington, where he does video work for a number of clients, including World Vision and the Seattle Sounders. All photos supporting this article are by Max. See more of his work at maxwellmoser.com.