Finally our memorable visit to Somalia … It was part of our travel to various parts of the globe occasioned by surgery, Rotary and a burning desire to see the world, a pursuit in which Marie and I were equally interested.
The Somali visit came about because after the border dispute between Kenya and the country, which led to Shifta war was resolved, a large number of Somalis arrived in Kenya for medical treatment.
The term ’medical tourist’ was not in common usage but they were the earliest ones.
As a result, my multi-cultured practice was further embellished by colourful, sharp featured, attractive Somalis. Among them was Yassin Noor Hassan, Home Minister, and his wife, Marwa.
In time, Yassin became a frequent visitor and a friend. He often asked me to visit Somalia and revamp the medical facilities run by the Italians as result of a colonial legacy.
I did not realise how serious he was until I received an official invitation to the 9th anniversary of their independence to be celebrated on July1, 1969. Along with the invitation were four return tickets for Marie, Jenny, Jan and I. Attached was a proposed itinerary, which included sightseeing and official visits to various hospitals.
The first two days in Mogadishu, which was brightly illuminated and richly decorated for the occasion, were spent on the independence anniversary celebrations. We sat in the VIP enclosure next to the presidential dais from where President Shermarke took the salute from the Armed Forces, students, boy scouts and folklore groups.
Not far from us sat the official Kenya delegation led by Fritz DeSouza, deputy speaker of the National Assembly. Later that day, Yassin escorted me to Villa Somalia to see the President, whose simplicity and humility were highly impressive. He wore an old cotton suit, slightly frayed at the collar and a thinly embroidered Somali cap.
By the side of his chair rested his wooden walking stick. His office was equally unostentatious; on the floor was a sisal carpet. There was an old wooden desk behind which he sat on a rickety old chair and in front were two chairs which Yassin and I occupied. He spoke softly and expressed deep concern for the welfare of his people.
He supported his Home, minister’s request that I survey the existing hospital facilities and compile a report on how they could be improved In this connection, he expressed hope that foreign aid would be coming soon to finance his health programme, a crying need of all the African presidents I met.
When my formal visit ended, the President requested me to see his daughter Nadifa and give her my professional advice. As I took my leave, he presented me with a walking stick with Somali star inscribed on the handle, a gift I have treasured to date. It did not escape my notice that it was more maridadi than his own!
From there, Yassin took me to the Prime-Minister’s office. Mr Egal was a different type of man, flamboyant, very urbane and supremely confident. He wore what to me looked like an expensive designer’s Italian suit. He echoed the President’s wish to reorganise their medical services and added that I should visit his country regularly to oversee the changes.
The next day, a Cessna plane and a pilot — Haji Saleh — a very cheerful officer from the Somali Air-force, were at our disposal to tour the country as per the itinerary sent and approved by us.
Our first stop was Kismayu, a seaside place where the beach with its unspoilt sand and seclusion made us feel that we were desecrating it as we walked on it and left our footprints.
We then toured Afgoi and Giohar, their lovely tourist spots, with me visiting hospitals, everywhere we went.
Two days before we left Somalia, we heard the shocking news that Tom Mboya had been assassinated in Nairobi on July 5. According to the reports we received in Mogadishu, the young minister destined to succeed Mzee Jomo Kenyatta was shot in the chest in broad daylight as he came out of Channi’s Pharmacy owned by a Sikh couple we knew very well, on Government Road.
The motive of the assassination was not known but it was presumed by political pundits that it was related to the likelihood of him succeeding Mzee. That naturally led the political hierarchy of our host country to accuse Kenya of being a tribal and ‘man eat man’ society.
Reverting to our visit, we had to curtail the length of our stay due to constraint of time and skip our scheduled visit to Hargeisa, which became the capital of self-proclaimed Republic of Somaliland when it broke away from war-ridden Somalia.
On the day of our departure, Yassin came to see us off at Mogadishu airport and presented me with an eight-piece ivory desk set on behalf of the government of Somalia, and suitably inscribed. In case anyone has his or her eye on this precious set, let me announce here and now that the set was gifted before the ban on ivory was promulgated.
While I was compiling my report on the reorganisation of hospitals to benefit the country, the devastating news came to the effect that President Shermarke had been assassinated on October 15.
He was shot dead while visiting a drought-stricken area in the north-eastern part of his country.
Twenty-four hours after he was buried, a military coup overthrew Somalia’s democratically elected government and set up a revolutionary council under Siad Barre, and made a mess of the beautiful land from which they have not still recovered.
Unfortunately, this became a trend at the end of the last century; coups, political assassinations and military takeovers, taking us back to the dark ages and with corruption in high circles hindering the political and economic progress of our great continent. Yassin fled his country and the military coup put paid to my plans for Somalia.