On a hot afternoon this summer I wandered into the Museum of Mankind in London, past the Easter Island statue in the entrance hall, up to the first floor displays, stopping to gaze at a case of nineteenth-century throwing knives from Central Africa. The shimmer and glint of the burnished iron blades had a mesmeric effect: I was back in Somalia, two years ago, on a day shot through with the threat of violence.
The knives in the display at the Museum are baroque, curvaceous, foot-long, many-bladed things—iron boomerangs, barbed and bifurcated, ribbed and fluted, covered with intricate acid-etched calligraphy. The anthropologist Emil Torday, who collected them in the early years of the twentieth century, described them glittering in the sun “as if they were thunderbolts”.
“A shining mystery,” he called them, “that whirls with a weird hum through the air, strikes, rebounds and returns to the attack.…”
It’s not clear whether or not Torday actually saw these nineteenth-century terror weapons in action. Most of those at the Museum of Mankind are too ornate for practical use. Their many curves and projections make them more like sculptures or ideograms than functional tools of war. At a certain point in their evolution, these objects ceased to be used for offensive purposes, becoming more valuable as a form of currency. Yet the threatening gleam of their blades can still produce a chill on a hot day.
Wonder tales, pernicious weapons
In Arabic literature there’s a wonder-tale genre in which the narrator stares into a well, falls into a trance, and finds himself transported without warning to a distant city. Here he spends a lifetime. Then he is then returned home to his starting point—to find himself still staring down into the well, with barely an instant having passed.
There in the museum, in the heat of the afternoon, as I stared at the knives in the glass case they morphed into the curved magazines of Kalashnikov rifles, glimmering in the back of one of the crudely customized four-wheel drives favoured by the militiamen who terrorise large stretches of Somalia. I was back in Mogadishu in 1993, at a roadblock with a group of aid workers who were trying to cut a deal with some gunmen for the safe passage of a food convoy. The gunmen were part of a well-worn protection racket that had held up huge quantities of relief food in the port and condemned tens of thousands of their fellow-Somalis to starvation. To watch the aid workers negotiating with these gangsters was to register in quick succession the rage of powerlessness, the thrill of ambient violence—and the allure of fire-power.
The favoured vehicle of Somali gunmen, then and now, is a Landrover, or its rival, the Toyota Landcruiser, with bodywork cut right down and an anti-aircraft gun mounted on the back. The result, called a “technical”, or “tekniko” (from the Italian, Italy being one of the former colonial powers in Somalia), is spray-painted, often in the brightest possible colours, a psychedelic parody of camouflage—one that a New York subway artist would not disown. Somali technicals don’t try to conceal themselves. On the contrary, with a dozen gunmen hanging on the back, they are designed—as throwing knives once were—to strike fear into the heart of the beholder. Since most of them began life as aid agency vehicles, the rearranged body work and the paint-job have the additional effect of disguising which of these humanitarian organizations has been accorded the privilege of being robbed of their vehicle, and by which militia.
For foreign aid workers in Somalia the technicals, with their crews of smiling hoodlums, were an emblem of the danger and excitement and ethical dilemmas of working in the war zone. The protection racket that the militias operated was a horrible charade: they were paid—in US dollars—by the agencies, under duress, mainly to act as guards against the threat of themselves.