Quick link: Death by Heartbreak

Ever heard the romantic and tragic and true story of the baker Elmi Bondari and Hodan? In this essay in EthnoTraveler, I delve into whether or not this story of unrequited love is romantic or not, whether it is true or not, and which are parts are true. Or not. What is true love and what would a person give for the sake of their beloved? Is it possible to love someone to the point of death? Poetry, love, mythology…

elmi bondari


Elmi Boderi died of a broken heart. To Djiboutian women he is a hero, a paragon of true love. To Djiboutian men he is the fool who ruined their chance of ever finding love. “Who can love like that?” Goudal, a teacher, said. “To see a beautiful woman in the street and never speak to her and then die?” He shook his head. “How is a man supposed to love like that? He was crazy.”

“No man in Djibouti can love a woman like that,” Sagal, a cleaning woman, said. “They are too full of chewing khat and too interested in flirting with more than one girl.” (Khat is a popular leafy amphetamine chewed primarily by men in the late afternoons.)

“I don’t even think it is a true story,” Goudal said.

“Absolutely it is a true story,” another cleaning woman said. “I’ve seen Elmi’s grave in Somaliland.”

No matter what people personally believe about the veracity of Elmi and Hodan’s story, simply mentioning their names stirs up impassioned conversation. At an English class, one student leaned in and propped up on his elbows, his eyes light and his voice vibrant. “You know,” he said, “we Somalis are a people who get easily excited. It is because of the hot temperature. We can’t control our emotions. This is why Elmi died.”

The details regarding this love story vary wildly but Elmi Boderi was in fact a real man. Born Elmi Ismail Liban in 1908 on the Ethiopian-Somali border in a region under British colonial rule, he earned his nickname “Boderi” from the mispronounced English word “border.” Around 1931 Elmi moved to Berbera, which was then the seat of the British administration…

Click here to read the rest of Death by Heartbreak at EthnoTraveler.