Lake Turkana, Kenya

This is not the Haud, but the dry Lake Turkana, with a dock to nowhere, in 1991 in Kenya

This is the hottest day in London so far this summer, or in the last seven years. But you know what? Somewhere else in the world it is hotter. Like Ontario. Or Somalia. Here is an excerpt from Margaret Laurence’s The Prophet’s Camel Bell, the chapter called Jilal:

In the plains of the Haud, no rain had fallen for a year. No green anywhere, none, not a leaf, not a blade of grass. In stretches where the wind-flattened grass remained, it had been bleached to bone-white. The earth was red, a dark burning red that stung the eyes. The sun was everywhere; there was no escaping its piercing light. … In other places the thorn trees stood, grey and brittle, and on the ground lay littered the broken skeletal branches that had been snapped off by the wind. The clumps of aloes were shrivelled, all their moisture sucked out by the sun. The antelope and gazelle – the swan-necked gerenuk, the small white-tailed dero, the light brown aul – most of these had gone further south in search of water. Only the people and their herds did not attempt to escape the Jilal season. (p. 51)

She goes on to write of the nomads walking between the northern wells of Hargeisa, Odweina, Burao, and the southern wells of Bohotleh, Las Anod, Awareh. She writes about giving a bit of water that will hardly help, of the dry flabby humps of the thin camels, of the vultures and the roadside graves of those who did not make it. And when she tells us of their driver, her prose draws us in closer:

At the wheel of the Land-Rover, Abdi’s hands tightened whenever we stopped or did not stop beside the stumbling herdsmen. His face was set and rigid. His wife and younger children were out here in the Haud, with his tribe. (p. 52)

Finally comes the image that we are numb to, thanks to television news. They leave an impoverished village (Jack travels scouting for well sites) and drive along the Awareh-Hargeisa road, where they see two burden camels by the road. Look at Laurence’s sentences in the quotation below, so different from the ones in the first quotation: shorter sentences mostly sticking to the subject-verb order. She sees a young woman by the road.

She must have possessed, once, a tenderly beautiful face. Now her face was drawn and pinched. In her hands she held an empty tin cup. She did not move at all, or ask for water. Despair keeps its own silence. Her brown robe swayed in the wind. She carried a baby slung across one hip. The child’s face was quiet, too, its head lolling in the heavy heat of the sun. We had a little water left in our spare tank, and so we stopped. She did not say a word, but she did something then which I have never been able to forget.
She held the cup for the child to drink first. (pp. 65-66)

I’ve been looking at how to write about a place that your readers don’t know (you see how Laurence works in the unfamiliar terms) but here, near the end of the chapter, her concern is people. Laurence gets you with this gesture, more powerful than the Haud, the fleeing animals, the driver.
As for the other child so much in the news…. The baby that so many waited for on this hottest of days has arrived. It’s a boy. 

Journalists outside hospital awaiting news of the birth (BBC)

Journalists outside hospital awaiting news of the birth (BBC)

Posted by Debra Martens

author, editor

One Comment

  1. Despite the heat here in Ottawa, I shivered when I read Laurence’s last line above. She brings humanity to the unfathomable humanitarian disaster.
    Thank you, Debra.
    Barbara Sibbald


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