Berbera al Somali

by JKS Makokha

The body of the ancient sea city
bathes daily in the Gulf of Aden.
Memories from the Holy Books
of the wide open wounds of Job
loom large in you as you behold
scores upon scores of pot holes
afflicting the torn and tired lanes
criss-crossing the old Somali port.

Broken minarets tower the town
with houses made of coral stones
crumbling under memories of war
holding on to each other so close
like families of frightened refugees
sometimes separated from others
by shacks of nylon on dried sticks
under which shelters some citizens
drinking sugary tea with camel milk
or smoking with their kettles on fire
or cleaning russian rifles with jeep oil.

Herds of camels crowd around town
listening in silence as the gulf sings
or following their old thoughts slowly
in tune with their cud-filled mouths.
Underneath them doze lazy hounds
that sometimes snap at buzzing flies
or stand up, shake and eat their tails
spitting ticks into the scorched sand
before trotting off to unknown places.

Yes. Berbera bends and forever bathes
on the green shores of the Gulf of Aden
where men and animal sometimes ease
weights of their refuse while some kids
swim and others fish or collect sea weed
when the ebb is low and the sun mellow.
The sound of an incoming ship or frigate
intermittently interrupts visitors’ thoughts
as one stands on a deserted army lorry
and gazes at the distant ancient tombolo
where stands the lone light house at the
very gate of the harbour like a sentinel
monitoring keenly arrivals and departures.

Dusks come like a very stealthy war ship
catching all by surprise from their siestas
bringing with it the high ebb and activity.
The languorous religious calls of muezzins
seeth across and above the old harbour
asking all to saunter mosque-ward or fall
on their knees facing Mecca al Mukarama
and worship as have their own ancestors
for a millenia perhaps more on the streets
of the old city on the horn of the continent.

As Berbera wakes from its day doze at dusk,
a lone expatriate moves with two shadows
towards his eating place by the restless sea.
His hired body guard – a khat-dazed ex cop
now at the service of the ruling civilian junta –
follows him behind and in their strange silence
each understands the thoughts of the other or
so their match hotel-wards in union appears.
Other flowing white or black muslin gowns and
their shadows float by or nearby under lamps
hung on the eaves of the houses by the lanes.

Midnight will approach amidst song and sound
as the darkness below becomes more feminine
and like Berbera herself speaks of her mystery
or her forbidden memory or her forgotten glory.
A tiny voice comes into you – Berbera’s voice-
recites the tales of strife, struggle, resilience,
filling you with feelings for a city and her folks
as they sleep on their thin raffia mats or even
as they sit by their transistor radio holding guns
chewing khat with sugary tea under nylon shacks,
their dark eyes alert too, ready for enemies of hope.

Author’s Note:

Berbera is the northern port city of Somalia. After the fall of Siad Barre in the early 1990s, the northern-most part of Somalia once ruled by the British seceded and declared its own independence naming itself Somaliland. The old port city then became the second major town of Somaliland whose capital is called Hargeysa. My many months of service to the yet-to-be-recognised state endeared it to me and the second poem above is my homage to that homeland and its resilient people.

JKS Makokha is a Kenyan writer living in Berlin, Germany. He is the author of Reading M.G. Vassanji: A Contextual Approach to Asian African Fiction (2009).  His poetry has been published in the Atonal Poetry Review, African Writing, The Journal of New Poetry and the Postcolonial Text and Stylus Poetry Journal.

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