Brevity Eighteen

Brevity Home | Next Essay | Guidelines | Past Issues

 

1000 Somali Shillings

By Shane Borrowman

The 1000 Somali shilling note is laminated to protect its colors, a mixture of orange, purple, tan, and green, from fading. On one side, women weave baskets; their images are purple, and the baskets around them are orange. Some of them seem to be full, perhaps with food. On the opposite side of the note is a two-part picture: The Central Bank of Somalia, in green, along the bottom of the bill with a picture of the main Somali harbor, orange and purple, along the top. The value of this note in 1993, when the boy who possessed them was twelve, was less than 20¢. By April 2001, when the boy would have become eighteen, the 1000 shillings dropped to less than a nickel in value, primarily because the colors no longer protected the shillings from being counterfeited. War and famine dropped the value, too.

Despite its low value versus the US dollar, 1000 shillings in 1993 would have bought the boy who possessed the bill enough rice for several days, had rice been available in Mogadishu. It would have bought him a meal in the small café not far from the US Embassy where the Marines stood constant guard, a meal he could have eaten at a leisurely pace while sitting in the shade and sipping cool water if the café had still opened its doors for business. The café that would have allowed the boy entrance was not open, and rice was not for sale locally, not to a single boy buying for himself or his family.

The boy never spent his 1000 shillings—couldn’t easily spend them, given the scarcity of goods and services. But he kept the shillings in his pocket, kept them as a partial promise. When rice was again for sale, the boy could live on 1000 shillings for days. When the café again opened, he could purchase food and the leisure time in which to enjoy it. The promise of the bill was reason enough to keep it, a ticket for admittance into a future time better than the present.

The boy took the shillings with him to the US Embassy. He also took his revolver—unloaded, but only he could know this. He paced in the shade across the street from the main gate; he paced in the shade and held his revolver, occasionally gesturing with it as he carried on a heated argument in his head. The crowds parted around him, when there were crowds on the street, but he was ignored by everyone but the Marines. The Marines on guard, both twenty and veterans of the Gulf War, never took their eyes away from the boy. They watched him for an hour before they made the first call up the chain of command. They called again after another hour. The Marines, who would later serve together in Yugoslavia and Haiti before their discharge, sought advice and counsel and were given an absolute: “If he points the gun at you, if he threatens you with it, defend yourself.”

The 1000 shilling note was in the boy’s front-left pocket when the Marines outside the embassy shot him in the chest. One of them searched the small, emaciated body while the other stood sentry. The searcher kept his foot on the boy’s wrist, holding down the hand that still clutched the empty revolver. There was a crowd on the street when the Marines shot the boy; there was no crowd when they searched him moments later. The Marine who found the 1000 shillings, the same Marine who first examined the empty revolver, took the note home and laminated it. He keeps it on his desk and thinks about it when reporters on television talk about patriotism, when the President sends troops around the world, when the names of dead Americans but not dead enemies are read. He thinks about the 1000 shillings. He thinks about the boy who didn’t spend them.


 

Shane Borrowman, a native of Anaconda, Montana, lives in Spokane, Washington, with his wife Elizabeth and twins John and Samantha. His book Trauma and the Teaching of Writing was published by the State University of New York Press in January of 2005; currently, he is editing a textbook on social justice in America and a collection of professional essays on the career-perils of administrative work for untenured faculty.

Next Essay