Mogadishu's open-air markets cover a vast acreage and are so crammed with trash, so filled with wandering, calling people, that the scene evokes nothing so much as a recent airplane crash. A hot wind whips up dust and the smells of leather, curry, rotten papaya, goats. All the unadjusted traveler wants to take away is a photograph, a reminder of the faces and dress of the beautiful Somali women, serene amid this cacophony, or of the old men carrying camel sticks and prayer beads.
Of course that's the one thing you can't have. Picture-taking offends Muslim sensibility and seems one-sided to Somalis. "They think that only pictures of the bad are shown," Bile said, "never of the good." Even with a photography permit from the board of censorship, you have to slip a few Somali 100-shilling notes to a cop to quell the uprising.
The lesson of Africa, it seems in the dust, is Africa. It is nothing transferable. Africa is so brutally elemental, so rife with famine and poachers and sharks and congealed custom that its children are bred and hardened to endurance, dignified endurance, as the way of all life. And the Africans who live on the self-selected edge of the edge are the nomads.
"All aspects of life that are in any other society are in nomad society," says Bile. "The people are very smart and have complicated ways of choosing chiefs, sharing the land, marrying across families, burying their dead and casting out criminals. And the nomad ways go all through Somali life, whether people actually travel with the herds or not."
Nomads, it has been observed, live a paradox. The mobility required of them, even the most well-to-do herders, dictates limited households. "[Nomads are] avid for increase yet disgusted by possessions," is how Bruce Chatwin puts it when discussing Australian aborigines in his book The Songlines. "They are achievement-oriented," says Bile, "but their goal is not necessarily riches. The real respect goes to the man who sits down and makes a poem an hour long, and to the man sitting next to him who hears it and memorizes it instantly and then travels days and nights and repeats it perfectly."
As an adolescent Bile played soccer in Mogadishu's stony alleys. When he was 18, he was seen in a soccer game by a high school track coach, who coaxed him to try a 400-meter run. Bile ran 56 seconds on a track so sandy it was worth 52. The word spread, and Hassan Warsame, the city's track club coach, urged Bile to join. In 1982, at the urging of 800-meter runner Jama Mohamed Aden, who had earned a scholarship to Fairleigh Dickinson University, in Teaneck, N.J., Bile entered the 800 and 1,500 in the Second All-African Track and Field Championships in Cairo.
"I'd just trained a couple of months." Bile says. "I had a hard time understanding the laps in the 1,500. I did 3:51. Winning was 3:42.2. I didn't seem that far back, not after expecting to be lapped. It gave me a lot of motivation."
While Bile trained. Aden returned to the U.S. and raved about him to eastern track coaches, including George Mason's John Cook. The U.S. Information Agency's ambassador of sport, 1948 and 1952 Olympic 800 champion Mai Whitfield, provided Cook with Bile's records, showing him to be an A student, and George Mason gave him a scholarship.
He arrived in Fairfax on a rainy Fourth of July 1983. Cook, who is short, frenetic and a habitual worrier, took a look at this wet ebony stick and started to worry. "It sounds cold." Cook says, "but I was concerned whether the guy could run. I took him to a five-mile road race in Reston [Va.]. It was hot as hell. He set a course record."
I bade you farewell. Wished you a journey full of blessing;
Every hour you exist, when you go to sleep
And when you awake,
Keep in mind the troth between us
I am waiting for you, come safely back
Come safely back.