As Mohamed Daher tells it, his first encounter with the Indian Ocean two years ago was a traumatic experience.
"When I had to run into the water, I thought the sea was going to eat me up and I would never come back alive," he said as he stood at attention on the sandy shore of the ocean following a demonstration of his new found swimming prowess. "I had seen the water of rivers, but never before in my life had I seen the sea."
Today, Mohamed stands as living proof that a wandering nomad can not only be settled down but also converted into a successful fisherman and made to love the wide-open spaces of the ocean as well as those of the desert.
He is part of a fascinating experiment the Somali government began two years ago to see if it was possible to take drought-stricken nomads and give them a new and readically different life far from their "natural habitat." It was an experiment full of psychological and cultural hurdles. But judging from what hes happened here in Brava, the experiment has been a major success.
In fact, Brava now stands as a model of "nomad rehabilitation" on this continent of frequent drought disasters that inevitably hit the nomadic people the hardest.
"I like it now," said Mohamed, speaking of his new life on the shore of the Indian Ocean. "I'm a good sailor and I'm not afraid of sharks, either."
The 23-year-old nomad and his colleagues were busy unloading their catch Kingfish, small sharks and tuna - from their boats after an early-morning run into the ocean off this 14th century Portuguese-built port in southern Somalia.
Two years ago, Mohamed was sitting in a relief camp, in northern Somalia, one of 265,000 Somali nomads left without their life-providing camels and herds of cattle by a devastating three-year drought.
"We went for 36 months without rain," reminisced Mohamed. "In our family we lost 100 camels, 400 sheep and goats and 50 cows." Drought took a total of 31,000 lives - including Mohamed's six-year-old brother - and cost this country an estimated $66 million in animal exports.
The drought affected eight of Somalia's 14 provinces and forced several hundred thousand nomads to seek refuge in emergency relief camps set up by the government to deal with the crisis. In June 1975, it was decided to resettle those who were willing. Some 105,000 nomads were loaded onto Soviet transport planes and flown more than a thousand miles to farms and uge in emergency relief camps set up by the government to deal with the crisis. In June 1975, it was decided to resettle those who were willing. Some 105,000 nomads were loaded onto Soviet transport planes and flown more than a thousand miles to farms and fishing villages in southern Somalia.
Most of the foought victims were turned into farmers at three planned resettlement sites. But about 6,000 of them were brought to this ancient fishing port, chosen because the town was dying from its own isolation.
Turning a thousand of the young nomads into fishermen was an experience that neither the nomads nor Somali officials here will ever forget. Psychological obstacles for them as well as the nomads, were tremendous at the outset, the officials said.
"It was often extremely difficult to put ourselves in the place of the nomads, to understand how they felt about the changes taking place in their lives," said one.
The nomads arrived in Brava in August 1975 and, after three weeks of rest to adjust to the coast, the first group chosen to be fishermen was taken to what is now affectionately called "The Beach of the Great Struggle" to learn how to swim.
First attempts to get 200 nomads to throw themselves head-first into the shallow water were a total failure, Somali officials said. So the officials worked with smaller, groups of 10, asking the nomads to put only one limb of their bodies into the water at a time. That worked.
Once the nomads overcame their fear of the sea, they quickly learned to swim. But adjusting from the sway of a camel to the sway of a boat brought another, unexpected complication! A number of them fainted after returning to land from their first trips to sea. Nobody could figure out why, but after four days on the high seas the fainting spells passed and the nomads got over their wobbly sea legs.
The third big difficulty, according to Somali officials, was getting the nomads accustomed to handling fish, "even the smell of them, not to men on putting one up."
But that obstacle, too, was eventually hurdled, and after three months of training a total of 1,300 nomads - men and women - were ready to begin working as fishermen, net repair experts, or employees in the fish-processing plant. "It's worth writing a book about what we went through," said one official with the pride of success.
It was not entirely successful: Five nomads were drowned in the process of being converted into fishermen, he said.
The nomads have been given a number of incentives to stick at their new trade.First, they are given all the fish they want to eat plus about three cents for every pound of catch they turn over to the plant. Some of them earn as much as $6 to $7 in a day of good fishing, a handsome sum in a county where the annual per-capita income is only about $100.
The nomads have clearly helped to put Brava, one of Somalia's two oldest ports, back on the map as a fishing center. The town has nearly doubled in size, has a fish-processing plant handling about two tons a day and a fleet of 52 Soviet-provided boats, each carrying 10 persons with nets. The nomads' catch is mostly for export, mainly to China and Europe.
In addition, nomads are building, wirth government help, their own three-room stone-and-cement houses veritable palaces in comparison with the mud-and stick-walled huts they are living in. About 900 nomads have been assigned to home-building.
The nomads are also being taught to read and write, children in regular daytime schools and adults at night. Some are becoming nurses, others learning handicrafts such as making the so-called Brava caps, a kind of small fez. Still others are being turned into administrators.
Whether the nomads still have hopes of returning to their old way of living is not altogether clear. Mohamed, for one, says he no longer yearns for the old life. "I am studying to become a mechanic," he said.
But visitors noticed the presence of a small herd of camels just outside the nomads' encampment and wondered whether they might not again be put to use to carry these fishermen back to the wilds of the desert.
As a parting joke of uncertain significance, Somali officials arranged for a nomad to sit on a camel at the ocean's edge holding two enormous fish in his hands - symbols of his old and new way of living. But the camel had the last laugh. As cameras clicked away, it threw the nomad off and into the water.