It is 1987 and Hargeisa waits. Whispers of revolution travel on the dry winds, but still the dictatorship remains secure. Soon, through the eyes of three women, we will see Somalia fall. Nine-year-old Deqo has left the vast refugee camp where she was born, lured to the city by the promise of her first pair of shoes. Kawsar, a solitary widow, is trapped in her little house with its garden clawed from the desert, confined to her bed after a savage beating in the local police station. Filsan, a young female soldier, has moved from Mogadishu to suppress the rebellion growing in the north. As the country is unraveled by a civil war that will shock the world, the fates of these three women are twisted irrevocably together. Nadifa Mohamed was born in Hargeisa and was exiled before the outbreak of war. In The Orchard of Lost Souls, she returns to Hargeisa in her imagination. Intimate, frank, brimming with beauty and fierce love, this novel is an unforgettable account of ordinary lives lived in extraordinary times.
A dawn loud with bird song erupts around her, black wings flapping in the diffuse sunlight between the trees. Deqo quickly turns to where the drunks were sleeping and is relieved to find them still slumbering in a heap by the burnt-out fire. She gets to her feet and heads for the pathway to Hargeisa Bridge. It is early enough for her to reach the central mosque before the free bread and tea they give out in the morning is exhausted. Already the heat has dried the night’s rainfall; only a faint dampness remains in the undergrowth, causing her plastic thongs to squeak. She had found them blown beneath a whodead stall one evening, too battered for the stall holder to bother picking up before he rushed home for the curfew. They don’t match, one being larger than the other, but they stay on her feet. She has grabbed all of her clothing from the wind: a white shirt caught on a thorn tree, a red dress tumbling abandoned by the roadside, cotton trousers thrown over a power line. She dresses in these items that ghosts have left behind and becomes an even greater ghost herself, unseen by passers-by, tripped over, stepped on.
Clutching onto the scrub she pulls herself up the steep embankment, avoiding the thorns pressing into her skin and the excrement piled up in the dirt. There are only two bridges across the ditch, this concrete one and another made of rope near the Sha’ab quarter that swings precariously as you cross it. The bushes beneath the concrete bridge are crammed full of rubbish from the pedestrians above. In the six or so weeks Deqo has been in Hargeisa she has met many people she knows or dimly recognises from the camp along this bridge. The men stand out in sarongs of navy and maroon check, probably sold all over Ogaden by one trader from Dire Dawa. These men look uniformly old and familiar: sunken cheeked, bow-legged, hunchbacked and wild-haired. Some meet her gaze with a sharp, sidelong glance that pierces the clouds of her memory, and then she remembers them from Saba’ad: he rented out a wheelbarrow, he volunteered at the clinic, he sold goat milk.
There are only a few people crossing the bridge today, and she can run her hands along the peeling white iron railings without moving aside for anyone. Toyotas and trucks slow down beside her to navigate the gutted tarmac of the bridge. As she crosses from north to south Hargeisa she hears chanting. A flotilla of small clenched fists appears in the distance, approaching her as if pulled in by the tide. Local schoolboys and girls in pastel-coloured uniforms pump the air shouting, ‘No more arrests, no more killing, no more dictatorship!’ Their faces are frank and happy, the outlines of their individual bodies obscured by the flow of their movement. They block the road ahead so Deqo waits on the bridge to get a closer look at them. The bridge vibrates underneath, one hundred or two hundred feet drumming on the fragile structure. Deqo can see a few children without uniforms and some young men, too old for school, within the group. They sing a song she has never heard before: ‘Hargeisa ha noolaato, long live Hargeisa.’ The children closest to her look her up and down and scrunch up their noses.
Deqo wraps her arms around the iron railings behind her back and stares as the children make a spectacle of themselves. She has spent her whole life observing; hers are the eyes that always peer from behind walls or rocks, infuriating everyone with their watchfulness. But since she lost her friend Anab there is no one to lie down with at night, no one to divulge her secrets to; instead they put down roots in her mind and grow in the mulch of her confused life.
The schoolchildren are tightly packed onto the bridge, a shifting mass of blue, pink and khaki. She looks towards the north side of the bridge and sees red beret soldiers lined up across the road. Deqo finds them attractive: she likes the dark bottle-green of their uniforms, the gold on their epaulettes, the jaunty angle of their famous hats; she even likes the silver pistols that hang like jewellery from their hips.
The schoolchildren are silent, nervous, and when a whistle blows they scream and run back in the direction they came. The lean, tall soldiers pull out batons and chase the children. Deqo is caught in the melee and joins the stampede to avoid getting trampled. She feels like a sheep being herded into an enclosure. Hands grab her and push past, some almost dragging her down, but there is nowhere to escape to, the south side of the bridge blocked by another line of soldiers. The schoolchildren fall over each other trying to avoid the rigid, stinging batons. Their fists are now open in surrender, held aloft as if in promise of good behaviour.
Deqo trips over a boy and falls at the feet of a soldier; he grasps her dress in one hand and the boy’s arm in the other and drags them over to a massive lorry waiting beside the road. The bed of the truck is so high the soldier has to let the boy go to throw Deqo into it with both hands; the boy follows and then other captive students. Reaching for the soldier’s hand, Deqo tries to plead with him to let her go but he slaps her in the mouth. The taste of blood on her tongue, she looks around in shock at the flying skirts and limbs, as more and more children are forced into the vehicle. Black netting covers the side but that is the only difference between it and livestock trucks. An older boy with long ringlets down his neck tears a hole in the netting and clambers out the side, and other brave ones follow him. Deqo peers down at the distant ground, too afraid to try.
The vehicle is soon full of clamouring schoolchildren pressing against her on all sides. A girl sits next to her, crying open-mouthed, choking on her sobs. Deqo can feel the girl’s bones and flesh grinding against her own as the truck’s engine starts and they roar across the uneven road. Even in this teeming truck the girl smells fresh, her skin and uniform so scrubbed with soap that her perspiration has the heady, detergent scent that wafts out of the dhobi-houses.
‘Don’t cry,’ says Deqo, placing a hand on the girl’s arm.
‘Don’t touch me!’ she shouts, pushing Deqo away.
An older pink-shirted girl throws her arm proprietoriallyover the crying girl’s shoulders and kisses her head. ‘Shush, shush, Waris, I’m with you.’
Deqo turns her head away and purses her lips. I don’t owe you anything, she thinks. In fact I should be angry with you for causing trouble, stupid girl. She doesn’t understand why the schoolchildren and soldiers keep fighting. They all have food, all have homes and parents, what is there to squabble over? They should go to the refugee camp and see what life is like there. She covers her feet with her hands, ashamed by her dusty, long-nailed toes, the calloused, scaly skin, her red cotton smock fraying at every hem. Pulling her knees together she draws away from the boys sitting nearby. They do not hold their bodies as far away from her as they do the schoolgirls, she notices; there is barely an inch between her and any of the boys’ limbs. They always nudge her in the street too, making her feel small and grubby. There isn’t any dhobi-smell about them, only musk as sharp as vinegar that rubs onto her skin as they fall against her with the truck’s tortuous drive.
The truck dips into one last pothole and then stops, the engine still trembling under the hood. To her right is the central police station, the first place she saw in Hargeisa after the stadium. A red beret pulls down the lip of the truck bed and ushers out the children. Ordinary policemen in white shirts lead them to the station, holding two in each hand by their shirt collars.
Finally it is Deqo’s turn and she recoils as the red beret reaches for her; he is like a figure in a bad dream, silent, cruel and persistent. She squeals in pain as his vice-like hands grasp her ankle, another hand moves to her thigh and he yanks her out. Her body is not her own, she thinks; it is a shell they are trying to break open. A policeman with his trousers belted over his fat gut and his flies half done up swears at the prisoners, slapping the back of Deqo’s legs with a flat, hard palm and wrangling her arms behind her back. Holding her wrists and those of the fragrant girl’s in one hand he marches them through the haze of dust that the struggling protestors have kicked up and ascends the tall, rain-stained concrete steps into the police station.
In the dingy, dark corridor a young guard sits on a metal chair to the right. He looks at the passing schoolchildren with big, melancholic eyes. ‘Help me,’ she mouths as she skids over the green-tiled floor, but he doesn’t shift, just cradles his gun with long, large-knuckled fingers, veins twisting under his smooth skin. Deqo feels as if she is treading water, pulled into a current she can’t escape.
The schoolchildren are led through to the cells, the girls put into one communal cell and the boys pushed deeper into the station. Deqo’s wrists burn where the big-bellied policeman has been squeezing them and she shakes them in the air to cool. A few steps into the cell she is overcome by the stench of excrement. Older prisoners have to sit up and move to make room for the protestors and complain loudly at the intrusion. Four young women with their hair in thick plaits huddle together along theback wall. One of the large women kicks at them and shouts, ‘Roohi, move it’; they obey and she spreads out her rush mat in the small space they had shared.
Some of the schoolgirls start snivelling again as they look around the cell. Deqo rolls her eyes at them; she feels superior to these naive, sheltered girls who protest while knowing nothing of what the real world is like. They cannot appreciate the roof above that will keep them dry, the bodies that will keep them warm, the dripping tap in the corner that will quench their thirst. The women and girls shift constantly, trying to stand as far from the waste bucket as possible. Every breath Deqo takes is shallow and cautious; this smell sends her back to the refugee camp and the cholera outbreak that ended Anab’s life and nearly her own, both of them falling asleep but only one of them waking up. In the ditch she has at least become accustomed to space and the fresh scent of trees.
Some of the prisoners look comfortably at home. One young woman is breastfeeding her baby and chatting, her legs stretched out. Her friend is dressed gorgeously in pink and silver, with black hair dyed gold at the tips. They seem untouched by the situation around them. In contrast, the girls with the plaits appear to have been in the cell for weeks. One of them is barefoot, her trousers blood-stained near the crotch, another has small, circular scorches all over her bare arms. All of them are emaciated, their hips like metal frames under loose trousers, their necks long and drawn, their dark-lashed eyes sunken into black holes. Policewomen in navy uniformspass by the cell bars, their trousers tight across their backsides. Deqo wonders what the girls have done to be treated so badly and if she will be kept inside with them. Looking between them and the pretty women, she manoeuvres closer to the pretty ones to see if their good luck will spread to her.
‘. . . that he is free, that the last child wasn’t even his own,’ the one with gold-dipped hair is saying.
‘You believe him?’ replies the mother.
‘No, but what can I do? I have been bitten by love.’
‘Well, bite it back,’ she laughs.
Deqo laughs too and they look up suspiciously.
‘Didn’t anyone tell you it’s rude to eavesdrop?’
Deqo smiles apologetically.
‘Let her be, she’s not doing any harm. What are you doing here? You stole?’
Deqo shakes her head violently. ‘I don’t know, ask these people,’ she gesticulates dismissively towards the students, ‘they put me in trouble.’
‘Is that so?’ she smiles. ‘What is your name?’
‘Deqo. What’s yours?’
‘Nasra, and this is China and her son Nuh.’
‘Why are you in here?’
The women look to each other and chuckle.
‘It is part of our job,’ Nasra answers coyly.
NADIFA MOHAMED was born in Hargeisa in 1981. In 1986 her family temporarily relocated to London; this move became permanent with the eruption of the Somali Civil War. She was educated in London and went to Oxford to study history and politics. She finally returned to Hargeisa, now in the new Republic of Somaliland, in 2008. Her first novel, Black Mamba Boy, won the Betty Trask Prize, was long-listed for the Orange Prize, and was short-listed for the Guardian First Book Award, the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, the Dylan Thomas Prize, and the PEN Open Book Award. In 2013 she was selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists.