“Occasionally when travelling, one meets a person who has played an important part in history. I met him at the star attraction of Somaliland, if not on the entire horn of Africa. Las Geel is a collection of reportedly 7000 year old cave paintings that were only uncovered to Western eyes in 2002 by a French archaeological team. I enjoy rock art, but nothing could have prepared me for this. Paintings of bovines, humans, anthropomorphic figures and even a giraffe covered numerous galleries that were astonishing for both their scale and the vibrancy of their colours. When I thought that the quality of the art could not get better, we scrambled across rocks to find it was surpassed by another incredibly gallery. I strongly suspect this will be the finest ancient rock art I will ever see.
When leaving Las Geel, the gate guard, Muse Abdijama, requested a lift, and during our bumpy ride to the main road he revealed that he was the person responsible for leading the 2002 French team to this site. With my friend Muhyadiin translating, he recounted his tale in a stoic tone.
‘The French group arrived in Berbera and went east. But they did not know where the paintings were. They had seen drawings of them, but that was all. They looked for three or four weeks before they came here. If they travelled west first, they would have found it quicker.’
Muse paused and looked outside the window, before continuing.
‘They came to my house and asked me if I had seen paintings. I said yes and they asked me to draw them. So I took a stick and drew them in the dirt. They were very interested in what I drew, they talked to each other a lot. They asked me if I could take them to the paintings. I said that I would and we went there.’
He halted speaking, but there were still more to learn, so I asked ‘What did the French people do when they saw the paintings?’
Muse replied, ‘They were very excited. They laughed and jumped and were very happy. They stayed for a while and went to Hargeisa to tell the President.’
With barely a change in tone, he continued to his most important part of the story.
‘One day, the President called me on the phone and asked ‘Are you the person who showed the French people the paintings’ and I said ‘Yes’. The President said ‘These paintings are very important, they must be protected so everyone can see them. I want you to protect them.’ So I started working as a guard here.’
It was an honour to meet Muse and to hear his tale. In the wider world he is the forgotten man in the rediscovery of Las Geel, but without him, Las Geel may still be a site known to only a handful of local farmers. It is important that more people know of his importance to Las Geel.
The biggest travesty of Las Geel is that is not inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Obvious politics is in play since Somaliland is not given its due recognition, and given the rather frosty relationship with Somalia, the latter is of no mind to submit the sublime site for listing. Thus, there is Las Geel, without recognition nor international support, an untouched and underappreciated marvel that should be on every traveller’s itinerary.”