The hermit of the island of Socotra
Ellai was born in this cave, just like his mother before him. Unusually in Socotra, where men are traditionally the purveyors, Ellai’s mother took on the role of fisherwoman for the family. “I still feel his presence inside the cave,” he told me. She taught him how to survive, where to find dates, potatoes and tomatoes – some of the only edible foods on the island – as well as what plants to use for medicine and where to find fresh water high up in the mountains. . Ellai says his life hasn’t changed much over the past 60 years, except that he now proudly owns an “old-fashioned” cell phone and has the luxury of a water bottle.
In 2015, Cyclone Chapala devastated Yemen and the Horn of Africa. Most of the nearby Qalansiyahs have been torn to pieces. Yet Ellai followed her instincts and brought her family to the cave of Qalinsiyah, seeking refuge in its deepest caves. The storm that followed, he described, looked like “the gods fighting with all the elements of Earth,” and after a few days he came out thinking he might be the only man left. on Socotra. “My cave was our savior and it held up more than man-made buildings.”
He explained that there is a network of deep tunnels and caves connected to his cave. In the early 2000s, a Belgian archaeological team, the Socotra Karst Project, approached Ellai in his cave, asking if they could dig some of these deeper tunnels. An 8m long tunnel, so small Ellai could barely squeeze through it, opened into a huge chamber where the team found cave paintings that archaeologist Julian Jansen van Rensburg said could be 2,000 years old, as well as human skulls and ancient pottery.
“Socotra’s story doesn’t belong to the books,” Ellai said. “It belongs to memories, art and objects, and this cave is a living record for longer than I can imagine.”