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HERO FOR A THIRSTY LAND
Kenny Moore
May 30, 1988
ABDI BILE, THE WORLD 1,500-METER CHAMP, IS THE PRIDE OF SOMALIA, A COUNTRY OF POETS AND DROUGHT
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May 30, 1988

Hero For A Thirsty Land

ABDI BILE, THE WORLD 1,500-METER CHAMP, IS THE PRIDE OF SOMALIA, A COUNTRY OF POETS AND DROUGHT

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Then centuries are shaken off with the opening of a car door, and everyone heads back to town. "You've got to see the riverine farms," Bile cries to the visitors. "Promise me you won't go until you've seen all of Somalia's economic zones."

Wherever one looks, the life of this world depends on water.
But if the water it self feels thirsty,
From what well can one quench its thirst?
—XASAN SHEEKH MUUMIN
Somali poet

"The poet does not mean real water, I think," says Ali Birik Mohamed. "Somali poetry is indirect. People sing about love and mean politics. The water can mean the land, or the leadership. Everyone likes to consume, but if the prosperity of the land depends upon those leading it, what happens if they are without?"

Thus Bile, at home, is understood as a crystal spring of inspiration. Giving a clinic for young athletes, he does a jostling warmup jog with them on the shifting dust of the practice track near the National Stadium in Mogadishu. Bile notes that the stadium offers a racing surface of poor, weedy sand. He hopes his success will somehow galvanize the government into springing for an all-weather track.

The kids assemble in the stands. "I'm happy to have opened a path many of you might take." Bile tells them. "It's good you have a chance you didn't have before. But you have to work. You won't make it by training one afternoon. You have good teachers. But the teacher only shows the way. It is you who travel it. The only difference between here and the U.S. is facilities and climate. The important thing is effort. Effort wins here. Effort wins there. Any questions?"

His audience is squirming, resistant to the sternness of this admonition and this challenge to come and follow him. "We request." says a tiny boy, "that when you race internationally, you run in front of the pack. Because when you are behind, our hearts pound. Please don't give us heart attacks."

Bile collapses in laughter.

The Mogadishu city council gives a lunch for him. He is driven 10 miles into the interior, where gangly cows graze and weaverbirds are thick in the trees. A roofed pavilion shades long tables. "The food here is, uh, a little different," says Bile to the visitor. "You're going to eat with your hands. Don't be excited. It's mostly rice."

Bile has been feted solidly for a week and still looks fresh. "I feel fine," he says. "I love seeing all these people." He will undergo an award ceremony before 40,000 in the stadium and a trip through adoring crowds in the north before he will find himself exhausted and content to return to Fairfax.

The table seats about 70 city officials. Waiters pour water, so you may wash your hands. All is decorous.

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