"It's a dangerous business, going out your door.
You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet,
there's no knowing where you might be swept off to..."
--J.R.R. Tolkein

Friday, June 17, 2011

Field Trip

Recently, we took all of the students to the beach for a day of swimming and fun. After a four-hour trip on bad roads, on a bus packed with kids singing at the top of their lungs, it was really pretty great to arrive at the searing-hot beach town of Berbera.

Berbera is awesome, no question about it. Even though it has a fairly active port, the city feels like a small town, with crumbling Italian villas next to makeshift shacks belonging to fishermen. As the waves hit the stunning beaches, mountains rise up sharply from the horizon. It is quiet, peaceful, and ruggedly beautiful.

And don’t forget the camels plodding along the beach.

When we arrived, the kids piled off the bus and we separated: the male teachers taking the boys to a spot on the beach, and the female teachers took the girls to a secluded spot FAR away from the boys. It would have been absolutely improper for the girls to be seen swimming (without headscarves!).

We set our things down and got ready to swim. I wore a one-piece swimsuit and the girls all wore long shorts and t-shirts. Most of the girls had never even tried to swim before, so we had to coax them to even try. Mostly, we just hung out in the shallows. At one point, a group of dolphins swam right up to us. I actually had no idea they were grey; I always thought they were blue like in the cartoons.

While we were trying to help the girls get comfortable in the water, we always had to keep an eye out for men who would be lurking around. Some of them, I suspect, were just curious about the white teachers, but others, I’m sure, wanted to harass our girls about swimming and taking off their headscarves. One man started to make his way over to our group, and I stopped him before he could get too close. In broken English, he asked me what was going on, and I told him we were on a school trip and that he needed to leave us alone. Then, he grabbed me and tried to hug me (totally did not see that coming!). I pulled away and told him to leave us alone. He sauntered away and I went back to my group. I told the supervising teacher that we needed to be careful of lurking, lascivious men, and she said to me, “Oh, you must just seem nice to them. They would never done that to me.”

Undermining, much? I bit back about half a dozen curse words and went to tell the other chaperones to watch out for stalkers.

We spent the whole morning in the water, then took a break for lunch, and then went back to the waves. At one point, the supervising teacher disappeared and the girls were asking where she went. We sent another teacher to find her, leaving two teachers with the girls, including myself. Ok, fine.

Until a gang of about ten teenage boys showed up.

They walked over to our spot on the beach and started pawing through our stuff. The other teacher and I charged out of the waves and yelled at them to leave us alone. They wouldn’t budge. By then, the girls had begun to gather around. The boys didn’t speak any English and refused to listen to the girls, so I went to one and shoved him hard, thinking there was no other way to communicate to them that they weren’t welcome. They had no right to make the girls uncomfortable and should not be poking through our stuff.

Shouting ensued. Girls and teachers alike started screaming at the boys to get away. One of them grabbed a handful of sand and chucked it in my face, screaming a curse in Somali, while his friends gave us the middle finger.

And then, I did something I never thought I would do. I picked up a rock and threw it as hard as I could at the leader. That made them step back a bit. We charged forward and unleashed a hail of rocks on the boys, screaming and cursing at them. They responded with their own curses and stones, but turned tail and ran. The beach spot was ours.

Later, a guard from nearby Maansoor hotel came to us and asked if we were okay. He said he had seen everything, and then said “Don’t worry, I took care of them.” Whatever that means. Also at that point, Supervisor reappeared, acting like it was no big deal that we were harassed and almost robbed.

My thoughts: Is this normal: to have to engage in low-level violence in order to have a field trip? If throwing stones was going to be the response of the community, why did we even do this? Given the state of most educational institutions in this country, field trips are probably not normally done. So why did we have to do this, if we would be putting the girls in danger? I mean, how many teachers and field trip chaperones would be comfortable with having to physically defend the students’ right to a field trip? Why would we ever put our kids in that situation?

On the way home at the end of the day, one of the girls said to me, “That was the best! We just took a day to have fun and not think about work. I loved it! Thank you.”

Ah yes, that’s why.


  1. Hey Sophie just how many languages can you curse someone out in?

  2. So I am wondering would this be comparable to me taking my girls to a nudist beach? I am surprised your school let you guys go do this...

  3. BTW the picture of the camels and the bird is....AMAZING!!!!

  4. Hi Sophie, thanks for the post. Field trips are not common in Somaliland so as a first starter you should have thought about some intitial problems like any begining. Girls don't go to sea traditionally even in coastal towns that just how things work, so a police guard to prevent any unwanted visitors was a good idea hired may just for that purpose, considering there are female police in Somaliland. Plus it is allowed Islamically as there are no men in sight. I salute your bravery to defend against the small gangs, but a police should have been there in the first place. Please keep doing the good job in Somaliland and thanks.

  5. Wow, as a teacher, this was incredible to read. I salute your dedication to your students and your bravery.