In 1982, the capital of Somalia was still spelled in Italian. Today it is spelled Mogadishu, but it sounds the same. USS Coronado, a large amphibious ship painted white, dominated the harbor as she moored to the pier downtown. The flagship of the Commander, US Middle East Force was making her semi-annual Swing around the Indian Ocean, showing the flag and maintaining relations with the local governments. We did not know that it would be our last Swing: before long, the Iran-Iraq war would grind to a halt, but not before the US Middle East Force would be absorbed by the new US Central Command. By the end of the decade, the US Fifth Fleet would dominate the waters between Suez and Singapore, and the Middle East Force would join the Sand Pebbles and the Mediterranean Squadron in the pages of naval history. But not yet.
The sun was blazing over the dusty, sand-colored streets and buildings, as I pedaled my red Velosolex road bike around the town. I felt strangely at home here. I had expected to have to use my token phrases in Arabic, but the signs were in Italian, and most everyone seemed to prefer that language. I had not appreciated what an impact the brief colonial era had made on the capital. I knew that English and French, the colonial languages of the rest of Africa, had served to unite tribes who could not talk to each other, and remained vital features of the post-colonial societies. But I did not know that Italian had done much the same thing in Somalia.
My stomach was grumbling when I wheeled up to an imposing building behind a low wall topped with an elegant iron fence and palm trees in the yard. The sign read Circolo Italiano (Italian Club), so I figured that I might be able to find out where to meet people and get something to eat.
Inside, there was a large, airy dining room. It was not air-conditioned, but the breezes blew gently through the large windows, and the trees outside provided both shade and cooling inside. There was a buffet, and the staff indicated that I was welcome to enjoy lunch. Whether they guessed that I was a visiting officer, or assumed that I must belong there, I don’t know, because the conversation was in Italian, and did not get personal.
Some attractive young women were occupying half the seats at one of the tables, so I asked if I could join them. They seemed delighted. They turned out to be school teachers, all in their twenties, recent graduates of the University of Padova (Padua). I learned that the University of Padova had a contract with the Somali Ministry of Education to operate and staff the public schools in the country, and that it was a common experience for newly minted teachers to earn their spurs in the African school system before being assigned to public schools back in Italy.
We chatted for about an hour. They told me about where they worked, and about “the” place for dinner in Mogadishu, a penthouse restaurant nearby. We made a date for that night outside the restaurant, and they left for the afternoon classes.
As I was finishing my lunch, an elegant, African gentleman speaking excellent Italian joined me, and we struck up a conversation over coffee. He was a Somali colonel, and happened to be a Supreme Court judge (no pressure there, Hine!). He appeared interested in my bicycling. He agreed with the teachers about the restaurant, and wished me a good evening there. He had a social commitment with his wife that evening.
The rest of the city was a little depressing. Not the shell it would be ten years later, when the country melted down, but still, I could see a town that needed attention. There were not enough businesses or stores or parks or schools for the number of people who must live there. I rode back to the ship, showered and changed, and kept my appointment with the schoolteachers.
There were four of them, and I admit that any of them could easily have tested my marriage vows. They led me to the top of the building. It was dingy and dusty, like the rest of the city. When we opened the door, it was like stepping through one of those mystical portals in a fantasy film. The restaurant occupied the terrace, al fresco. Lanterns and hanging plants bordered the space. It was long and narrow, and the table that my new friends had reserved was at the back. To my surprise, I found myself walking past the Admiral and almost the entire staff from the Flagship. This was the place to have dinner. They all stopped eating and gawked as we walked by. My ears were burning as I smiled and nodded – until the Admiral gave me a grin and a thumbs-up. I introduced the schoolteachers to the Admiral’s table, after which we retired to our own table. The food matched the company, and we closed the place late.
The next day, I rode out to the school for a tour. It was a plain cinderblock building, but clean and freshly painted, with gardens and playgrounds. It was a more pleasant place than my elementary school building in Rome. The classes were familiar to me, because they were taught in Italian and covered the same kinds of material. I could not tell whether the students were from privileged classes, because the children I saw around town looked the same: happy, clean and healthy.
Our port visit was only two days, and I was sorry not to learn more about the country and the people at the time. What I read did not square with my experience. I can only guess that things were much worse outside the city than they appeared on the coast – something that I observed elsewhere as we made our Swing around East Africa.
My attention quickly turned away as we left Somalia and headed for the Equator. The next day, we would “cross the Line”, where King Neptune would hold court on us lowly pollywogs for having dared to invade his Reign. The shellbacks in the crew assured us that a totally miserable day of punishment awaited us. It was easy to forget where we had been, and anything else under the circumstances. But you will have to cross the Line yourself to hear the rest of that story.
Next week, join the Freewheeling Freelancer as he pedals up the Adda River to Lake Como, then come back here for another story.