SOMALIA: SIAD BARRE’S ANIMALS: The Cheetah
I remember reading an article in the Guardian, sometime in the late eighties, about Siad Barre, and that the journalist who wrote it said he had kept his eye on a cheetah that was present in the room with them. Two or three years later, to be precise it was in late 1988, I was in Somalia as a project manager for Primary Animal Health Care with FAO and organizing the training of nomads in basic veterinary skills.
It took me few weeks to establish myself in the very friendly, but somewhat suspicious community in Mogadishu. More than two decades of Siad Barre’s regime’s propaganda had made the people suspicious of all foreigners. I was based in the Ministry of Livestock and Range which was located in Km7, not far from the American Embassy and the National University of Somalia. I managed to get a flat in the centre of the city close to the British Embassy and it soon became a place visited by professional Somalis, mainly veterinarians.
Somalia had over 40 million head of ruminants,mainly camals, cattle ,sheep and goats, and most of its hard currency was generated by the export of livestock. I was told that some towns and large villages used to have a veterinary clinic before they had a medical clinic or school as livestock was so important to them. The Somali Veterinary Service of Somaliland, in the north, had been established in the 1940s by the British, I still have one of the original metal emblems of the service in my house in Wales.
Very early one morning someone was ringing the bell at the gate to the compound leading to my flat. I went down to find Hamoud, a very quite veterinarian who worked in Villa Somalia, the presidential palace. Hamoud’s ancestors were originally from Yemen; he was a thin, short guy and on his nose were balanced the thickest pair of spectacles I had seen. He was married with a dozen children and a monthly salary equivalent to 30 US$. The population of Mogadishu before the mass migration of the pastoralists and farmers to the city following the country’s independence from Italy in the early 1960s, were either of Arab origins or descended from the Portuguese colonialists who had preceded the Italians centuries ago. The newcomers to Mogadishu used to refer to the old residents of Mogadishu as Portuguese, the father of my landlord, Sheikhdeeni, was the Mufti of Mogadishu but time and again I heard the locals call him the Portuguese sheikh.
That early morning Hamoud was upset and, in rapid broken Arabic spoke with a Yemeni accent, he kept referring to a very big problem in the Villa Somalia. I thought he must have done some mischief there and had come to me for help. However he said he needed help as he had been asked by the president to cut the claws of his cheetah because it was ruining the furniture in the presidential palace! Immediately I remembered the Guardian article, and thought that at last I was going to see the famous cheetah of the Villa Somalia. Yes I was a qualified veterinarian with a Ph.D but my experience was in academic life and the care of farm animals, and to be asked to look at the President’s cheetah was another issue. I think Hamoud had made exaggerations in describing me as the super UN veterinary doctor with a Ph.D. from the UK who would know what to do. Without stopping for my breakfast, a very unusual thing in itself, I rushed to the Villa Somalia in my Toyota Hilux with an anxious Hamoud sitting next to me. I was rather excited as I had not seen a cheetah before in my life and how I was going to handle it. I knew that the claws of a cheetah were not retractable as they gave extra grip on the ground to help the animal run at fast speed so it was possible that they could be trimmed, as the President wished, but this job was not described in my terms of reference! Meanwhile, in the Villa Somalia, everyone would expect the best from the UN’s veterinarian so as I drove the bumpy pickup I told Hamoud that we could not touch the animal’s claws, Hamoud looked at me aghast and, almost crying, said that we must fulfill the wish of the President.
There were many times during my service in Africa and places such as Afghanistan and Libya, when I found myself in difficult situations and I would repeat to myself the famous phrase ’Oh sh….t, what I am doing here”. I was repeating that phrase over and over as we approached Villa Somalia!.
Arriving at Villa Somalia, which became very famous in the later years of civil strife and famine, as it was a military camp and head quarter of the notorious Republican Guards, I was taken immediately to a rather small house were the president lived and straight to the kitchen, where the cook offered the great UN veterinarian a cup of Nescafe. I was now sweating in anticipation as I was told that the vicious animal was somewhere in the house. My sweating increased further as Hamoud now started to whistle and call the animal. When no animal put in an appearance I relaxed somewhat, and became even more relaxed when the cook assured that His Excellency the Presidential Cheetah has gone for his early morning roam around the Villa Somalia! Hamoud and I left the house and started to walk across the compound as Hamoud was whistled and called for the animal. There were many tall trees throughout the compound and every so often a solider or two would come out from their positions to tell us that the cheetah had headed towards the soldiers’ mess on the other side of the villa. At last we reached the mess where soldiers could sit at the scattered tables and get tea and sandwiches. There in the middle of the mess was the presidential cheetah, lying on the top of a round table, while a few soldiers were offering him tidbits from their food. As soon as he saw us he jumped down from the table and straight for us, I nearly soiled my trousers from fear as the animal moved so fast. Ignoring me the animal went to Hamoud and rearing up, grabbed him, and started to try to copulate! Poor little Hamoud was shaking and embarrassed in the clasp of the cheetah and the soldiers started clapping and enchanting something in Somali. Poor Hamoud, his dignity was less than zero. Now after all these years I see the comic side of the scene but at the time my feelings were a mix of fear, and anger, mixed with sympathy for poor Dr Hamoud who used to receive 30 US$ a month and who had to face a frustrated presidential cheetah.
The animal suddenly lost interest in Hamoud and the soldiers dispersed. Hamoud looked at me sadly and said that he and his family are always hungry while he had to tolerate the indignity of the actions of the President’s cheetah.
After all this, I never did get to look at the cheetah’s claws but Hamoud had another task for me as he was sure that I was not likely to go to that evil villa again. He took me to the large iron cage that formed the lion’s enclosure where there were three, miserable lions that were so emaciated that one could count their ribs. Hamoud told me that there had been four lions but one of them had died few days before and that they, (the regime), wanted me to treat the lions. I told him you did not need a veterinary degree to know what was wrong with the animals, they were hungry, and they just needed food.
Returning home with Hamoud, he started to whisper about the lions, saying that money had been allocated to feed the lions but the gamekeeper who was a Marehan from the President’s tribe was pocketing the money provided for the animals’ feed. Again corruption was showing its ugly face in all forms and it drastically affected those poor hungry creatures, confined in a dirty, iron cage. Corruption, everywhere, lead that beautiful country to what it is now.
I always think about Hamoud and many others good people who I lived with for eight sad years. (1988-1996).