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British Childhood Memories of Somaliland

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In 1939, my father was an agricultural officer in Uganda. My mother, and I and my younger brother were in England, on leave, when world war two broke out. We immediately boarded a ship and sailed to Mombasa, Kenya.


Like all white kids in Kenya, we were sent to boarding school, where we stayed until 1945 when we started our adventure to join my parents in Hargeisa. My father was Director of agriculture, and in the British Army administration.


My father had come down from Hargeisa to collect us from school and have us join an Army convoy in Nairobi.


From Nairobi to Mogadishu


The convoy consisted of over 200 trucks and several hundred native troops. The first day from Nairobi, travelling north was very pleasant, with beautiful views of snow covered Mount Kenya, however, the land soon became drier and the trees became sparser until by the third day, we were in limitless plains of hot dry thorny scrub. . There were no villages as the people in this area were nomadic herders. We arrived at Isiolo, and camped outside the walls of the old Fort.


That night, and every other night we camped out under the stars. We arranged our camp beds within the camp perimeter, which was guarded by sentries, for safety. Not that there was much to worry about but we always went to sleep hearing the roaring of Lions and the laughing yap of Hyenas.


The convoy was an army operation, and we adhered to strict Army routine. At daybreak, a bugle sounded, and with no time for washing, we folded up our bedding and were ready for breakfast at 6 a.m. when a camp cook produced a pot of coffee, and some strange sausages called Soya links. There were no toilet facilities, so to relieve ourselves, it was a question of finding a suitable bush away from curious eyes. By 6:30 a.m. we were on the trucks and setting off down the hot dry, dusty and bumpy roads. My brother and I sat in the back of the trucks on the cargo high above the roof of the cabin. This gave us a great view of the countryside, and it was also the coolest spot. The downside was the dust churned up by the truck ahead, other even though and the trucks were spaced quite far apart . The hot sandy roads caused truck tyres to overheat so a stop was ordered for 15 minutes every two hours. This was known as a ‘Pee stop” and everyone made good use of it.


At five o’clock each evening, The Officer in Charge looked for a suitable campsite, everybody bundled out of the trucks and set up their beds for the night, and to have a quick wash before the evening meal. Lighting consisted of several petrol driven Coleman lamps, which made a thunderous roar but provided quite adequate lighting. The evening meal was usually bully beef, canned vegetables, and canned pears or peaches for sweets. This was washed down with either tea or coffee made with sweetened condensed milk. Lunch, by the way, was a can of bully beef and Army biscuits. So we got to eat a lot of bully beef during the trip!


Mogadishu : the pride of Italy’s overseas possessions


After a week of this we reached Mogadishu. The British Army had taken the town over from the Italians but very sensibly left the Italians to run it. It was a glorious place. The gleaming white buildings were set close to the blue Indian Ocean separated from it by golden sandy beaches. It was clean, neat and tidy. We were billeted at the Hotel Crochet Del Sud and then left to roam the town by ourselves. It was at this hotel that we were introduced to Spaghetti. What fun we had with that stuff!


Mogadishu was the pride of Italy’s overseas possessions. The Mussolini Government had spent millions turning it into a showpiece. The town was a mixture of Arab architecture and heroic Italian public buildings. There were wide paved streets lined with open air cafes and ice cream shops. Town squares were decorated with Rotundas, Columns and Statues. The Officers Club had to be seen to be believed, with every luxury, and ornate as only the Italians can do. The ceilings were painted with Heroic scenes of past Italian glories. The British locked the Italian Officers into a Concentration Camp on the edge of town, and took over the Club but very sensibly retained the Mess staff to run the place with the usual Italian flair, a flair not usually associated with the British.


We had two favourite places. One was the Museum. I think the building was converted from what must have been a very wealthy Arab businessman’s mansion. It had a walled garden with a fountain in the middle of it. We loved it and spent many hours exploring it. The other place was the Lido. We had never seen anything like it before. It was a large long building with huge glass windows overlooking the Ocean and beach. There was a long Bar and tables and chairs everywhere, drinks and food was available. Downstairs was a gym, showers and changing rooms. We loved it.


Looking back, I am amazed at the freedom we were allowed. The Italians were in no way hostile. They were never keen on the War. I am sure they liked the pomp and ceremony of an Army, but hated the idea of actually fighting. I remember visiting the concentration camp and sifting through piles of medals and insignia confiscated by the British. The Somali people treated us well and we felt perfectly safe as we explored the alleyways of the Arab part of town.


At last it was time to leave the luxury of Mog and get into our dusty Chevrolet 30 hundred-weight 4×4 trucks. They were the Army workhorses and were almost indestructible. However the petrol used to power them was so dirty that pulling down the carburettor and blowing out its fine galleries was a not infrequent job. It usually gave a chance for an extra pee and walkabout.


The first hundred miles was brilliant, as the Italians had paved the road with bitumen. It suddenly came to a stop in the middle of nowhere and we were back on the bumpy dust and the old Army routine. After several days, I was quite convinced we were lost; we climbed up through the hills to Hargeisa and home.



…to be continued

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Part III


British childhood memories of Somaliland – Part III

Hugh Milne


August 04 , 2008


Mother runs a clinic – stoic Somalis survive on little


When we got to Hargeisa, Ruth had returned to England so some of her official duties were carried out by my Mother, Marjorie. She and Ruth had worked together at a small Clinic, Ruth had set up in the village to attend to Somali women and children. I believe the clinic is still in operation. My Mother writes:



Hugh (left) and Anthony Milne 2007.

“At first I was merely asked to keep records and to teach the two Somali dressers to speak English. But as things became busy I helped with dressings. We had busy mornings attending to 300 to 400 cases. Most cases were routine but every now and then we had serious patients. Malnutrition among the babies and young children was prevalent. The dry desert winds caused dehydration. The adults had trained themselves to do with very little water as there was sometimes many miles between water wells. Infants were unable to compensate for these conditions and were often so weak they couldn’t cry, but mewed like a cat.


“We did what we could with rations, powdered milk, and vitamins etc but we never knew how many survived. Tropical Ulcers and all kinds of cuts were brought in – perhaps a kick or a bit from a camel, a bite from a Jackal, while a women slept, and so on. The people were most stoical, I never heard even a young child scream no matter how much we hurt them. Ruth has some VAD training but I was very ignorant so was horrified when told I was to take charge of the clinic when Ruth returned to England. I was relieved when a trained nurse joined her Officer husband and came to take over.”


When we first arrived, Mother was in the thick of it and seemed to be coping ok. She had an interesting experience. She lost a dress ring. It had a distinctive aquamarine stone and it disappeared from the house. Only our servants came into the house so one of them must have taken it. Some months later a Somali woman came to the clinic with the ring on her finger. Mother called the Police who were told the woman was given it by a man for perhaps the obvious reason. Mother got her ring back. Her grand-daughter in Australia now has it and wears it on special occasions.


Mother runs Radio Hargeisa & plays governor’s hostess


Mother left the clinic and was drafted as personal secretary to the Information Officer. She writes:


“Now I had never worked in an office, never filed a letter, and could only type rather slowly. I was given a one hour tabloid course in office procedure, and then left to my own devices. My boss was new to the office and indeed, I arrived the day before he did, which gave him the excuse ‘you were here before I was so you must know what to do’ He soon asked for a transfer, and I was told that as he would not be replaced, I was in charge. The unpaid job consisted of running the Radio Station, sending out the mobile cinema unit to surrounding villages, and getting out a weekly news-letter. I had a Sergeant Major to run the radio station, Somali drivers for the cinema unit, some clerical staff , and I was responsible for an expenditure budget of ten thousand pounds”


Being one of the few females in the Administration, Mother became an unofficial hostess for the Governor. First for Brig Jerome Fisher after Ruth went home to England and then, for the Acting Governor, who was a bachelor, who replaced Jerome when he followed his wife home. Her unpaid duties included arranging and hostessing official dinners. Jerome Fisher had been a career Officer in India so still had a Victorian mind-set. The ‘wallas’ were put on this earth for his benefit. While in India he had purchased two museum grade Persian rugs. Each covered an entire wall (they were too valuable to put on the ground) in the Residency. The Residency was the only ‘proper’ house in Hargeisa at that time.


During the day, therefore, my Mother and Father were otherwise occupied leaving us to our own devices. Each morning, Mother set some school work for us to do. We had other ideas. The next door neighbour with the two horses was also busy during the day. He asked us if we would exercise his horses for him. So most days we would saddle up and tear off up the Tug as fast as the nags would take us. Schoolwork would be hastily done just before the parents returned home. be continued


*Hugh Milne welcomes reader’s responses and enquiries if any at his Email:

"Hugh and Trish"


*This memoir piece is provided by Bashir Goth,

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