What is That Shadowy Figure in the Distance?

What is That Shadowy Figure in the Distance?

Shugri Salh

Masfal and I trekked through the desert in search of a cawl, a special grass that only grows at the edge of the water. Nomads harvest cawl during the rainy season and use it to make sleeping mats and carpets. We were both in our early twenties and both newly married. Masfal had recently married my older brother, so we lived in the same compound. It was a young wife’s duty to weave mats and carpets, so we set out together to find the grass we needed. The journey would take more than one day, so we took a male camel to carry our food and water and to take the cawl back on our way home. We did not bring a flashlight with us, but we were carrying a box of matches so we could light a fire at night. 

 It was the tail end of the rainy season. The land had plenty of water and grass. Crickets and frogs sang non-stop. This was a nomad’s favorite season. Masfal and I had never been to this cawl-harvesting place but we had been given detailed directions on how to get there. We were to follow a shaag, a wide road in the desert that was used by cars. Leading the camel with a quick pace, we walked and walked, checking our directions from time to time and searching for the landmark that would tell us when to turn off the shaag. We traveled the whole day until the sun we had been facing was now at our backs.

Not wanting the night to come before we reach our resting place, Masfal and I walked even faster. Suddenly, we spotted a black figure heading toward us in the distance. Whatever it was, it walked slowly. 

“Hey Masfal, what is that walking toward us?” I asked, as I led the male camel forward. Masfal and I slowed our pace and stopped every few steps, trying to make sense of what we were seeing. Our eyes darted about as we took in information from the land. We were both scared and had no clue what this black figure could be. 

“Could this be a person, Halima?” asked Masfal.

“No, it’s too short,” I whispered hurriedly, “I think it might be a lion!” I grasped the reins of the camel tighter. As the figure neared, we could see his huge black mane clearly. 

All doubts were gone. We were facing a male lion in his prime. 

The lion walked toward us with carefree confidence and style. Masfal and I stood in the midst of the road, our stomachs turning with complete panic. The place we were supposed to turn was now in between us and the lion. 

“What should we do?” Masfal asked nervously. I looked to our right and spotted open land, with fewer trees and bushes around it than the road we had been walking on. 

“What should we do?” Masfal repeated again, her voice clouded with urgency. 

I was busy scanning the horizon and planning our next move. “This way!” I whispered harshly. “Into the open!”

We turned between two trees and headed straight to the open space. I knew it was better to be in the open where we could see the lion coming, rather than letting him ambush us while hiding in the trees and bushes by the road. The lion, keeping his eyes fixed on us, slipped under some low trees and planned his attack. 

In the middle of the open space was a small, strong tree. I quickly brought the camel to his knees and tied him to the tree so he could not run away. When I was done, Masfal and I gathered as many rocks as we could, carrying them in the folds of our garments. We stood in front of the camel and waited for the lion to emerge from the bushes that bordered the open space.

Within minutes, the lion was out from the bushes. He headed toward us, but then he just sat down in the distance and started yawning and licking his enormous mouth. It was clear this lion had confidence. When the lion turned his huge head and stared at me with his intimidating yellow eyes, all of the little hairs on my body erected with fear. We were confused by his behavior. Why didn’t he just attack? It was as if he was telling us, “You are my meal. You don’t need to make this so hard.” 

When the lion stood up and roared, Masfal and I changed our stances and got ready for a fight. 

Yur, yur, yur!” we shouted, while launching rocks at the approaching lion. The lion quickly moved away to evade the rocks. He tried to intimidate us, grunting and rustling the trees and bushes that surrounded the open area. Other times he would run fast toward us, creating clouds of dust, his mouth seething with anger. We answered with more rocks, and he would back off again. The lion would go this way and that way, confusing us to his whereabouts. Sometimes he would hide in the bushes and then suddenly appear. It was never-ending terror. This went on for hours and we were both exhausted from screaming and throwing rocks at the lion. Our male camel started to pee and poop, clear signs he was in extreme distress. Several times he tried to break his rope and run wild. We had tied him down because we knew he could withstand the lion attack best if we protected him. But more importantly, this was a well-trained camel who was used to carry our belongings when our family moved to a new area, and to regularly fetch our water from the closest well or reservoir. Our daily lives depended upon this camel.

Ahead, the huge sun was now sinking, taking what light we had to defend against the mighty beast. Soon it would be a full night and the lion would gain the upper hand. We must not let that happen. 

“I will fight him off with rocks. Go and start the fire quickly!” I howled at Masfal. 

Masfal gathered sticks while I kept shouting “Yur! Yur! Yur!” In the meantime our male camel had managed to get up on three of his legs and was now spraying pee all around as he tried to frantically pull his reins free of the tree.

Masfal piled her sticks between our camel and the lion and struggled to light the fire. The lion started to roar with new vigor. His roar was so loud it shook our chests and our very blood. Just when he was at the end of his roar, the lion made a strange, deafening sound. This odd sound was made by the way the lion drew in his breath as he was finishing his roar. It sounded like the desperate cry of a hungry baby goat, except it was ten times more powerful. Even the birds in the area flew away in terror. But the worst was how the ground beneath us vibrated. It felt as if he was standing right over us, roaring into our mouths.

We were in the war of our lives. 

I continued to pelt the lion with my rocks when he came too close, hoping I wouldn't run out before the fire was lit. The sky grew darker, increasing the urgency of the situation. Finally, Masfal got a strong fire going. The minute we lit the fire, the lion disappeared from our view. We looked at each other, not believing how fast the fire had worked. We knew he hadn’t just given up, so we watched and waited suspiciously. We did not have to wait long - within minutes we heard him complaining. The lion sounded frustrated. We fed the fire more sticks and made it bigger and bigger. For the first time, we did not have to keep screaming incessantly. Our camel finally sat back too, relaxing behind the protection of the fire. The whole night we called out “Yur! Yur!” with every movement we sensed and roar we heard. Whenever the lion drew closer, we threw rocks in his direction.  

When the moon stood right above us, the lion went silent. All we could hear was the lonely wind whistling. We searched for the lion while gathering more rocks to throw and sticks to keep the fire going. Was the lion gone or was he devising another plan to kill us? We did not know. We knew not to sleep because we had heard horror stories of lions stalking and killing people as they slept. Two hours elapsed yet no lion attacked us. Finally, we relaxed a little while keeping a vigilant eye. 

“Halima, do you think the lion is finally gone?” Masfal whispered cautiously. I shrugged my shoulders.

In that instant, deep roars cut through the black night that covered us and the sand beneath us vibrated once again. He is back!, my thoughts screamed. His roar sounded very different this time - he sounded furious. His roar was accompanied by the slapping of his tail and pacing. This lion must have been used to killing his prey on his first try. 

Masfal and I didn't have an ounce of energy left in us. Hunger, thirst, and lack of sleep had sunken our cheeks and eyes. Our camel's lashes flicked with anxiety once again. We could now see dawn breaking through the darkness in the distance. We knew the lion would not fear our fire in the daylight. How would we continue to defend ourselves against this deadly lion? Panic and uncertainty loomed on the horizon along with the sun.


The pink morning sun finally emerged in the distance with its beautiful rays, unaware of what we had endured all night. Now that it was morning, we could see the lion very well. He had a huge black mane and his menacing eyes glowed red in the dawn’s light. He looked straight at us, slapping his tail on the ground in warning.

“Bisinka!” I welled, warding off the devils. We were sure our end had come.

Nothing prepared us for what happened next. 

As the sun rose higher, the lion just left.

Masfal and I stared at each other with total confusion. Not believing our luck, we trailed his prints from a safe distance. We watched him until he disappeared into the horizon. Shaken by our night of terror, we abandoned our plan to harvest cawl and turned back. All we knew was that we needed to find safe shelter before another nightfall. 

“Let us head back to the family whose camp we passed yesterday,” I suggested. It was still more than a half day’s journey, but we were exhausted. We could not fend off the lion for another night. We were out of water, as we had planned to refill our jugs when we got to the reservoir where the cawl grew. As we walked, we kept yelling and encouraging each other. The reality was that we had no words left in us, but we did not want other wild animals catching us off guard. 

“I was so terrified I felt as if my two kidneys moved to the back of my throat!” I told Masfal. She only grunted in reply. She was too worn-out to answer.

After walking for a long time, we spotted the family’s hut. 

“Can we have water?” I managed to say as we approached.

“Oh my dear Allah! You looked ragged! What happened to you?” one young lady asked.  

“We have been defending ourselves from a lion the whole night,” I answered hoarsely.

We were offered food and water and were invited to stay for the night. That night we slept peacefully, but we would soon learn our ordeal was not over. Grave danger awaited us. 

In the morning, two daughters of the family, who were about our age, announced they too were going looking for cawl. 

“Let us all head to the reservoir together to harvest cawl,” one girl said, preparing their camel for the journey. Masfal and I exchanged quick glances. 

“We outnumber the lion more now, so we can defend ourselves” the other young lady said, with bravery apparent in her body posture.  Despite our ordeal, hearing the call to be brave infused us with new energy. After all, we were not alone this time. I was shaking, but I did not want to back down and look like a coward. I also wanted to prove I was a good wife and bring back the cawl we needed.

The four of us headed out. This time we did not have to go as far because the other two ladies knew a closer spot where cawl grew. It was still far, but not nearly as far as Masfal and I had traveled the day before. To our relief, we got there without incident and collected the cawl into piles. When we each had enough, we brought our camels down to a kneeling position and put the cawl on top of them. We set off on foot again. When we came upon the ladies' huts, we said goodbye and set off to our home. 

Masfal and I found the wide road again. The sun was out and we had plenty of light. We planned to arrive home before sundown. We walked and walked, and walked. After a few hours we saw men in military uniforms standing in the middle of the road. My heart sank immediately when I recognized them. 

The men were Ethiopian soldiers, who were patrolling this area of Somalia that borders Ethiopia. It was the late 1980’s, during the reign of the brutal dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam. The soldiers were known to rape women who were traveling alone. For Masfal and I, it was better to be eaten by a lion than be raped. 

“Stop! Who are you?” one of the soldiers shouted in Amharic. Though we did not speak their language fully,  we understood a little of what they were saying. We stood in the middle of the shaag, pointed toward home and waited for the armed men to say or do something.  

“Go on,” one of the men said after a while. We knew in our hearts they were not letting us go that easily. We had heard a lot of horror stories about how the soldiers rape young ladies after telling them to go. This tactic was well-known in our village. If it was one girl, after they let her go they would send one man after her. If there were two ladies, they would send two men after them. They never raped you in the middle of the road. They waited to ambush you, just like the lion tried to do. Once again, we were being hunted. 

We proceeded to leave, our hearts palpating out of control. We walked for a while and did not see anything, but when we looked back again, we saw two men trailing us. We kept walking fast to get away, but they kept up with us. We were now very far from where we saw them initially, but the two men stayed on our trail. 

“What should we do this time?” Masfal asked me, terror coming back into her eyes. I could see that the men had nearly caught up to us. It would be a matter of a minutes before they would attack. We had to think fast and come up with a plan. 

“Hey, guys! We are here! We have company following us,” I shouted, pretending to be talking to someone behind the bushes ahead of us. 

The two men looked at each other in total confusion. 

“Heh, heh, heh? What are they saying?” they asked each other. 

Masfal broke a stick and pointed to an area hidden by trees and bushes.

“Our brothers are here looking after our camels and they have guns,” she called, and we moved toward the area, pretending to wave at them.

The men understood enough to get our meaning, shaking their heads in frustration as anger colored their faces. One of them left quickly, but the other one lingered behind, not quite believing what we were saying. After some time, he ran after his partner. 

We breathed a deep sigh of relief and cursed after them, “May the doom snatch you both!” 

We resumed our journey and made it home safely.

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It was now midnight, and as the boy faced the bright half-moon that stood above him, he knew he was lost. Dust swirled around him as his animals moved in...

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Amazing story. Looking forward for more


looking forward to more books from you regarding your nomadic life and life as an immigrant. Keep me informed when another book comes out, please. Best wishes to you!


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