A 2nd famine, one of understanding The clash of cultures makes it tougher for relief workers

December 07, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- In some of Somalia's more remote towns, the sight of a white person is such a novelty that many Western visitors can expect to be thronged by curious, giggling children who leap to touch their oddly textured hair and their strange, pale skin.

Mogadishu, the capital, is accustomed to contact with the outside world. But there are sneers and winks among some Somalis about what goes on behind the high-walled compounds of the foreign relief agencies, where single men and women sleep under the same roof without chaperones and consume alcoholic beverages.

The vast cultural divide between Somalis and the Westerners who have risked their lives to help them is one of the least noticed but nonetheless critical problems that have confronted the relief effort in Somalia.

U.S. troops headed for Somalia to help the relief effort also will have to pay careful heed to Somali sensitivities, their fear of outside interference and their sense of pride in what they perceive to be their cultural uniqueness.

The soldiers can expect to be welcomed with enthusiasm by the overwhelming majority of Somali people.

But the presence of about 28,000 U.S. troops is going to have an immeasurable impact on this remote, desert nation of 6 million, which remains one of the world's least understood and most culturally isolated communities.

Otherwise they could find out that in Somalia, good can evaporate as fast as the bags of food that are flown in from overseas.

Western relief workers, accustomed to traveling the world, complain that they have never found it so hard to empathize with the local customs and culture.

They have watched gunmen steal blankets from the backs of shivering children and have seen vast quantities of food destined for the hungry disappear. Many have reached the conclusion that Somalia is a cruel, compassionless society.

The history of Somalia's relations with the outside world is not a happy one, which is why many Somalis disparage countless other nations and cultures.

"Basically, Somalis don't like foreigners," said a relief worker. "They don't like us; they only tolerate us because they need us."

But Somalis accuse Westerners of making no effort to understand them.

"They don't know the country, and they don't know Somalis. We're different from any other country," said Mahmoud Mohammed Isak, a field worker with a Western relief agency. "You people think we're arrogant and aggressive, but we aren't.

"We're just very proud of our own culture, and we want to stick in our own way of life."

Some already are voicing concern that the force being sent is too large and will threaten the Somali way of life.

"Maybe our different cultures will clash," said Abdullahi Sherwa, director of information for the United Somali Congress, the largest faction in southern Somalia. "Somalis are very proud people. We are Muslim people, and we don't drink whiskey or use drugs."

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