Report on the Ogaden

by Monsieur Arthur Rimbaud       


Agent of Monsieurs Mazeran, Viannay and Bardey, in Harar (East Africa)        

Here is the information reported from our first expedition into the Ogaden.  Ogaden is the name of a group of tribes of Somali origin and of the region they occupy, which is generally delineated on the maps between the Somali tribes of the Habr-Gerhadjis, the Doulbohantes, the Midgertines, and the Hawïa to the north, the east, and the south.  To the west, the borders of the Ogadin are adjacent to the Gallas (pastoral Ennyantribes), all the way to the Wabi River, which separates them from the great Oromo tribe of the Oroussis.        

There are two roads from Harar to the Ogaden: one is east of the city, toward Boursouque, and to the south of Mount Condoudo through War-Ali, which has three trading stations on the way to the borders of the Ogaden. This is the route that our agent M. Sotiro has taken.  The distance from Harar to the point where he stopped in Rar Hersi is equal to the distance from Harar to Biocabouba on the road to Zeila, which is about 140 kilometers.  This road is the least dangerous of the two and it has water.        

The other road goes to the southeast from Harar by way of the Hérer River Crossing, the market in Babili, Wara-Heban, and the plundering Somali-Galla tribesof Hawïa.        

The name"Hawïa" seems to specifically designate tribes formed through a mixture of Gallas and Somalis, of which a fraction exists in the northwest beneath the plateau of Harar.  A second fraction exists to the south of Harar on the road to the Ogaden, and finally, a third very large fraction is southeast of the Ogaden, toward Sahel.  The three fractions exist completely independent of each other.        

Like all the surrounding Somali tribes, the Ogadins are entirely nomadic and the irregion completely lacks roads or markets.  Even from the exterior, there are no specific roads leading to this area.  The roads drawn on the maps, from the Ogaden to Berberah, or Mogdischo or Broua, probably simply indicate the general direction of traffic.    

The Ogaden is a plateau of steppes, almost flat, generally sloping to thesoutheast:  its height is presumably half of that of the mountains of Harar (1800 meters).        

Its climate is therefore hotter than Harar's.  It seems to have two rainy seasons:  one in October and the other in March, at which time the rains are frequent, but light.        

The waterways in the Ogaden are not significant.  We have counted fourdescending from the mountains of Harar:  one, the Fafan, finds its source in the Condoudo, and descends through Boursouque, turns in the Ogaden, and plunges into the Wabi at a point named Faf, half-way to Mogdischo; it is the largest waterway in the Ogaden.  The Hérer is a little river, also coming from the Garo Condoudo, then skirting Babili.  Four days south of Harar, coming down from Alas, the Hérer meets the Ennya, the Gobeli, and the Moyo, then flows into the Wabi inthe Ogaden, in Nokob.  The other small river is the Dokhta, starting in Warra Heban and descending to the Wabi, probably in the direction of the Hérer.        

In Ogaden Major, heavy rains in the mountains of Harar and Boursouque cause temporary torrents and light floods which, when they occur, call the tribes in that direction.  In dry times, on the other hand, there is a general movement to return to the Wabi.        

The general appearance of the Ogaden is of tall grass steppes, full of stony lacunas.  The trees, at least in the parts explored by our explorers, are those of the Somali deserts:  mimosa, gum, etc. However, near the Wabi, the population is sedentary and agrarian. They cultivate sorghum almost exclusively and even employ slaves from Aroussis and other Galla tribes beyond the river.  One fraction of the Malingour tribe in Ogaden Major also plants sorghum, and there aresome villages of Cheikhache farmers here and there as well.          

Like all the people of these regions, the Ogadins are constantly at war with their neighbors, and among themselves.

The Ogadins hold to the old traditions of their ancestors.  We have consistently heard that they are descended from Rar Abdallah and RarIshay ("Rar" signifies children, the family, and the home; inthe language of Galla they say "Warra").  Rar Abdallah was the descendant of Rar Hersi and Rar Hammadèn; these are the two main families of Ogaden Major.        

Rar Ishayengendered Rar Ali and Rar Aroun.  The rars are then subdivided into numerous secondary families.  These tribes, as a whole, which were visited by M. Sotiro, are descended from Rar Hersi, and are called the Malingours, the Aïil, the Oughas, the Sementars, and the Magan.        

The Ogadins are divided according to their head chiefs, called"oughazes."  The Oughaz of Malingour, our friend Omar Hussein, is the most powerful in Ogaden Major and he appears to have authority over all tribes between Habr Gerhadji and the Wabi.  His father came to Harar during the days of Raof Pacha, who gave gifts of weapons and clothing to him.  As for Omar Hussein, he has never left his tribes, where he is renowned as a warrior and is content with respecting the authority of Egypt from afar.        

Moreover, the Egyptians seem to regard the Ogadins, as well as the Somalis and Danakils, as their subjects, or rather, their natural allies as Muslims,who would never entertain the thought of invading their territories.        

The Ogadins, at least those we have seen, are tall, and generally more red than black.  They keep their heads bare and their hair short, dress themselves with comparatively clean clothing, and wear sandals. They carry ritual prayer rugs on their shoulders, sabers and purification gourds on their hips, and walking sticks in their hands, along with both a small spear and a big spear.        

Their daily business is squatting in groups beneath trees some distance from the camp, and, weapons in hand, deliberating indefinitely on various issues.  Beyond these meetings, and riding around looking for water and neighbors to raid, they are completely inactive.  The women and children take care of the livestock, decorate the huts, load the caravans, and manufacture utensils, including milk jugs like those in Somaliland, and mats for camels, which, when raised on sticks, form the houses of migrant villages.        

Some blacksmiths wander through the tribes and fashion iron for daggers andspears.        

The Ogadins are not aware of any minerals in their midst.        

They are Muslim fanatics.  Each camp has its priest who chants prayers at appointed hours.  There are "wodads" (scholars) in each tribe; they know the Koran and how to write in Arabic and are also improvisational poets.        

Ogadin families are large in number.  M. Sotiro's guide had 60 sons and grandsons.  When the wife of an Ogadin man gives birth, the latter abstains from all commerce with her until the child is capable of walking alone.  Naturally, the husband marries one or several others in the interim, but always with the same understanding.        

Their herds consist of zebu, short-haired sheep, goats, mongrel horses, milk camels, and finally, ostriches, of which the rearing is a custom among all Ogadins.  Each village possesses a few dozen ostriches which graze nearby, under the watchful eye of the children.

Ostriches even lie by the fire in the huts.  Both males and females are shackled on their thighs, and follow the caravans behind the camels,which they are almost as tall as.         Ostriches are plumed three or four times per year, at which time almost half a pound of black feathers, and about 60 white feathers, are plucked from each.  Ostrich owners hold these feathers as extremely valuable.        

There are many wild ostriches.  The hunters, covered in female ostrich hides,shoot the males with arrows when they approach.        

The dead feathers are of less value than the live feathers.  Domestic ostriches are captured at a young age, but the Ogadins do not let them reproduce.        

Elephants are not large in numbers, nor large in size, in central Ogaden. They are hunted on the Fafan, but the place where they are most legion,and go to die, is the shore of the Wabi.  There, they are hunted by farmers on the river (known as Dones) who are a Somali mix of Galla and Swahili.  They hunt on foot and kill their prey with enormous spears.  The Ogadins hunt on horseback:  as a group of fifteen or so horsemen distract the elephant in front of it and along its flanks,an experienced hunter chops away at its shins from behind with a saber.        

They also use poisoned arrows.  This poison, called "ouabay," andused in all of Somaliland, is made from the ground, boiled roots of a shrub.  We are sending you a piece.  According to the Somalis, the soil around these shrubs is always covered with snake skins, and all the surrounding shrubs are withered.  Furthermore, this poison works slowly.  Thus, natives wounded by these arrows (which are also usedfor war) cut off the afflicted part and remain safe.        

Ferocious beasts are rare in the Ogaden.  The natives, however, speak of snakes, of which there is a horned species that has deadly breath. The most common wild animals are gazelles, antelopes, giraffes, and rhinoceroses, of which the skin is used to make shields.  The Wabihas all the animals of the great rivers:  elephants, crocodiles,hippopotami, etc.        

A race exists among the Ogaden which is regarded as inferior, though their numbers are quite high:  the Mitganes appear to belong to the Somalirace, of which they speak the same language.  The Mitganes only marry among themselves, however, and primarily occupy themselves with hunting elephants, ostriches, etc.        

The Mitganes are distributed between the tribes, and, in times of war, are utilized as spies and allies.  The Ogadins eat elephant, camel, and ostrich, and the Mitganes eat donkey and animals found dead, which is considered a sin.        

The Mitganes even have some highly populated villages among the Danakils of Haouache, where they are renowned as hunters.        

A political custom, and an Ogadin feast, occurs when tribes of a certainarea meet each year on a set date.         Justice is rendered within families, and generally by the oughazes.        

In the history of mankind, no one has ever seen such an incredible amount of merchandise from the Ogaden as what we obtained there for a few hundred thalers.  The little that we do bring back from there, however, comes to us at quite a price, since merchandise must be used as gifts for our guides, and hosts along all roads.  The Oughaz has personally received a few hundred dollars worth of gold cord from us, as well as muslin, and gifts of all kinds, which are associated with us appreciatively.  And this is the good that has resulted from the expedition.  M. Sotiro is to be congratulated for the wisdom and diplomacy that he has shown in this case.  Whereas our competitors have been hounded, cursed, beaten and murdered, and have been, due to their own disasters, the cause of terrible wars between tribes, we have established ourselves as allies of the Oughaz and have made ourselves known in all of Rar Hersi.        

Omar Hussein has written to us in Harar and is waiting for us to go down with him and his Arabs, all the way to the Wabi, only a few days away from our first trading station.        

This is actually our goal.  One of us, or some ambitious native on our behalf, could gather a ton of ivory in a few weeks, which could be exported directly through a franchise in Berbera.  Natives from Habr-Awal, who go down on the Wabi with a few sodas and some unbleached cotton on their shoulders, return to Boulhar with hundreds of dollars of feathers.  A few donkeys loaded with ten or so lengths of fabric have brought back fifteen loads of ivory.        

We have therefore decided to create a trading post on the Wabi River, which will be near a point called Eimeh, a large permanent village situated on the Ogaden side of the river, just eight days from Harar by caravan.

Translation ©2000, Mark Spitzer
MARK SPITZER, novelist, poet, and translator, grew up in Minneapolis where he earned his Bachelor's degree at the University of Minnesota in 1990. He then moved to the Rockies, where he earned his Master's in Creative Writing from the University of Colorado. After living on the road for some time, he found himself in Paris, as Writer in Residence for two years at the bohemian Shakespeare and Company bookstore, where he translated French works, including the plays of Jean Genet. His work has been published in many publications, but many know him for his story about poet Ed Dorn, which started a firestorm of controversy when Exquisite Corpse published it. His book of poems, En Delire, was published in France, and his translation of The Church, by Louis-Ferdinand Celine (co-translated with Simon Green) was published by Sun Moon Press. His eco-novel, Bottom Feeder, about a giant catfish named Old Shithead, is available from Creative Arts Book Company, and he is preparing for a book-signing tour with the huge fiberglass catfish he has constructed by hand for the occasion, and straps to the roof of his station wagon, causing automobile accidents from Maine to San Diego. Several chapters of his new novel, Chum, have been serialized by the Exquisite Corpse, and are available online. Mark Spitzer's chapbooks, "The Notch of the Sorceress" and "Motorhead," are currently available through Bone World Publishing, New York, as is "Junkyard," published by '58 Buick Press, Seattle. Mark Spitzer now lives in the Cajun Swamps of Lousiana where he teaches English, and is completing a second Master's Degree in Creative Writing at Louisiana State University. He also works as an editorial assistant to Andrei Codrescu at the Exquisite Corpse.
Arthur Rimbaud
The Adirondack Review