"Most herdsmen's children have only camel's milk for their first two years." says Bile, who as a child drank little else. "And they grow up to be tall, handsome and muscular, with strong bones. They cannot be missing anything."
Nor are they short on excitement. "The whole life was an adventure," says Bile. "You heard the lions all night and you were afraid. Children were lost going out to the flock. Just vanished. Could have been lion, or anything."
Were there snakes? he is asked. Were there cobras?
"Of course," he says coolly. "This is Africa." It is an Africa he feels is presented too often as naked savages fleeing from or butchering wild animals. Thus he is unwilling to relate more than a few youthful survival tales, wishing not to let his origins become his story.
The country teems with poets....
19th-century British explorer
At six, Bile attended Koranic school and at seven or eight was taken in by an uncle. Mohamed Abdi. a police officer, so he might go to school in Las Anod. "I always had in mind the life in town." says Bile. "So I enjoyed school." He was a good student, best at math and languages. "At that time, we learned English. Arabic and Italian." he says.
Remarkably, his own language, Somali, was not written down until 1972. Yet the tongue has the richest of oral traditions. "The Somali people are not educated," says Bile, "but they can make a poem on the spot, boom, with no writing. It's amazing."
Somali poets compose verse on all important occasions, especially political ones, and serve as historians. Then there is the concept of godob, or poetic slander. "If someone makes an insulting poem, it is the same as a physical attack," says Bile. "You have to answer, to make a poem back. It has to be squared."
When Bile was 16, he moved to another uncle's house, in Mogadishu on the Indian Ocean, the country's capital and largest city, with around a million people. Here he enrolled in the School of Animal Science. Mogadishu is Somalia's eternal city, built and rebuilt of coral blocks and plaster since 1500 B.C. From a distance, the city gleams. Its harbor ships the meat and fruit that earn Somalia its meager income. Its beaches are white, the water over its reef tourmaline and inviting.
But in the streets the mixture of dust and diesel exhaust that typifies a Third World country settles into walls and pores. The resort aspects of Mogadishu are a mirage. A slaughterhouse north of the city pours blood and offal into the sea, with the result that Mogadishu's lovely surf is patrolled by immense sharks. In other oceans, saw sharks are small (less than five feet), generally harmless bottom feeders. But off Mogadishu they can be 15 feet long. "They take children out of the shallow water, many children," says Ali Birik Mohamed, a commentator for Radio Mogadishu. "They cut them in two first, with the saw, then eat."