A Somali has three names: his own, his father's and his grandfather's. Among the clans, familial relationship is prized and exaggerated. Children with the same grandfather call each other brother or sister. Bile is one of his father's 15 children by three wives, but because his three uncles have 35 offspring, he is brother to 49.
Somalis belong to the Cushitic group of peoples, so named after Cush, the son of Ham, grandson of Noah. According to traditional tales, they were blackened and dispersed to these ocher horizons after the Flood.
In more verifiable fact, Somalis have herded camels over their desiccated land throughout their history. They shipped frankincense and myrrh to the Egyptians 5,000 years ago. Islam reached Somalia from Saudi Arabia in the seventh century A.D. and for the next 900 years Arab coastal settlements absorbed waves of nomadic pastoralists—the Samaale—from the northern interior and the desert. Each tempered the other. Somalia is the only African nation with a single secular language, and its people—tall, reserved and hospitable—forsake fanaticism, be it Muslim or Marxist.
The flag is that bracing blue with a single white, five-pointed star. Each point originally stood for one of five provinces, but the symbolism is obsolete because three of the original provinces have been lost. One is now the independent nation of Djibouti. Another is a portion of Kenya. The third is the Ogaden region to the west, which Ethiopia grabbed in the 19th century. Somalia has been trying to get Ogaden back ever since, notably in a 1977 invasion that tried to take advantage of the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia.
When the Soviet Union withdrew its support of Somalia a year later and backed Selassie's apparent successor, the Somalis threw out their Russian advisers. But in so doing they also condemned their reoccupation of the Ogaden to failure, and hostilities continue to this day. In December the Somali Airlines 707 from Cairo that brought Bile home for the first time since his victory in Rome kept to the Saudi and Yemeni side of the Red Sea, rather than risk being fired upon by Ethiopian batteries.
The war's result, greatly exacerbated in recent years by drought, has been tides of refugees flowing into Somalia from Ethiopia, the Ogaden and the poorer northern regions of the country itself. At least a million are fed by United Nations and private relief agencies.
No one has ever found oil in this land, although its geology seems to suggest that it is present. Agriculture is possible only near the rivers Juba and Shebele. The vast ocean rolls on, lightly fished or fished by others, for the Somalis have been exclusively herdsmen.
The camels are packed and ready for the weary trek. And men's thoughts dwell on distant destinations.
—AXMED ISMAACIIL DIIRIYE
Bile's development recapitulates his nation's. He, too, began as a nomad. Until he was seven or eight, he traveled with his parents, tending flocks of goats, cattle and camels. "It was, it is, a simple life." he says. "When the grass is gone, you look for lightning on the horizon, and when you see it, you load the camels with the aqals [huts made of wood sticks and mats] and head for the rain you hope is there. You go as long as it takes, four or five days, 150 kilometers, 300 kilometers sometimes." And if there has been rain, by the time you reach where it fell, there is the beginning of grass.
"And if there is not," says Yusuf Mohamed Abdi, Bile's older cousin who now manages a livestock/range project funded by the World Bank, "you have the camels. To us the camel is life, the most precious thing. We don't really value goats and sheep. The camel is all."