Saturday, 28 June 2008

Travel log 11 – Somaliland – Hargeisa, Berbera, Sheekh, Las Geel and Harar (Ethiopia)

The following is a description of our travels in Somaliland. During our time in the country we became very interested in the country’s history and its ongoing bid for international recognition. The article above which follows this travel log contains the hard facts, and is not as easy a read but please give it a go

19/4/2008 - 20/4/2008
Addis Ababa to Jijiga
The road to Somaliland

We headed east from Addis taking an overnight minibus to Harar. Squashed into the minibus the driver sped through the night stopping only occasionally in small villages where trucks lined the roadside making their way to or from the ports in Djibouti or Somaliland. The driver would stock up on food or ch’at, the mild amphetamines which seemed to do a good job of keeping him awake and psyched up for the treacherous drive. Arriving at Harar at first light we jumped straight on the next bus to take us closer to the Somaliland border, in the town the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office ‘advise against all travel to’, the relatively respectable Jijiga.

Jijiga to Hargeisa
Walking across the dirt track border

After overnighting in Jijiga we were glad to be on the bus to Wajaale. It wasn’t a case of the place feeling unsafe, more of it feeling like a town at the end of the Earth. Entering Somaliland was blissfully simple and after stamping our passport the official exclaimed, “Welcome British Protectorate!”

As we waited for the sixth passenger to get into the car that would take us from the border town to Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, a middle-aged man popped his head through the window to welcome us to a peaceful Somaliland where we could be assured of our safety, and to enquire as to how Ealing was since his repatriation. Self-conscious patriotism was a repeating theme.

A passenger in the car told us how he, as a Somalilander, differed from a Somali. If he saw us in trouble on the street he would be willing to die for us in order to protect our safety as we represented a step towards international recognition. If a Somali saw us in trouble they would join in. On a cramped two hour drive it was difficult to know how to handle this kind of hyperbole with anything other than ‘thanks’.

After two hours and numerous passport checks we arrived in Hargeisa driving past the presidential home and the parliamentary building. To say they were not elaborate would be an understatement but for a fledgling African nation it was a refreshingly humble sight to see.

The capital of an unrecognised country

Wandering round Hargeisa brought into relief quite how other-worldly the place is. Moneychangers lined the streets, sitting behind walls of money. One British Pound is equivalent to 11,800 Somaliland Shillings and as the largest note they have is 500 Shillings, changing $100 gave us both very satisfying bagfuls of money. What was notable though was that there was no fear of anyone stealing from us, there was something in the air. When the call to prayer came over the loud speakers these same money changers and those squatting on the street side selling gold all strolled up to the mosque, leaving their livelihoods unattended on the street. Although the country does operate under sharia law, which can account for some degree of the population’s propensity to abide the law, they are relatively progressive, allowing women many of the same roles as men. Many of the women we met, like the headmistress of the Berbera Maritime University wore a headscarf but were far from submissive. She drove us round in her jeep and it was hard to get a word in edgeways.

At one end of the ‘high street’ is the Somalilanders war monument: a Soviet MIG shot down during the war for independence against the Mogadishu based Siyad Barre. Its concrete base was adorned with bright coloured murals depicting the horrors that were committed against the Somalilanders and their more recent successes. This was Hargeisa’s closest approximation to a conventional tourist attraction.

Hargeisa - Berbera
A trip to the seaside with an armed guard

To travel outside Hargeisa the government stipulates that you must take a driver and armed guard. Our experiences made it seem an over-zealous policy, but Somaliland is so desperate for international recognition that if those few tourists who do visit them come a cropper, this will scupper their chances as it will be seen as an indication of their failure to control the security situation. On the other hand our guard, Mr. Mohammed was nice enough and looked very professional in his full military outfit. The only gripe we had with him was that whenever our driver left the car (normally to pour water on the engine) he turned our tape off and switched the stereo onto Somaliland radio. We were not in a position to argue with him even though the shouty din over atonal stringed instruments was fairly irritating.

Our driver / guide / presidential hopeful Abdullah showed us around his country, pointing out the success of democracy as a guide in North Korea might with Communism.

It was possible to put the independence conflict out of mind because the destruction was generally out of sight: the city had been levelled and everything was new. As we left the city we could see that progress had been slower. On the road to Berbera we passed crumbling buildings, the gutted remains of Soviet tanks and a group of women who had been raped and had had their eyes gouged out with bayonets. But it was as if there had been a forest fire and now life could start again, new construction springing up all around, full of hope.

We went to Berbera’s best restaurant, in the heart of its bullet-riddled Colonial ruins and ate fish caught a few hours previously, drank fresh tamarind juice and discussed the future of Somaliland with a motley crew of businessmen and teenagers.

Abdullah took us to a pristine beach on the sapphire waters of the Red Sea where we met a group of boys who had caught a fish with their bare hands and an elder who had dyed his extensive beard bright orange with henna, as is the custom with Somalis.

On the beach, framed by the mountains in which he had fought, sat our guard in full military uniform, keeping an eye on our bag full of money.

On the drive back to our hotel Abdullah snapped from his cheery mood and took us to a vast graveyard with bits of wood, metal and rock for headstones. We stopped by a lorry axle protruding from the sand and he told us how his brother had been killed in front of him. While trying to stop Barre’s soldiers from burning the family car his brother had had his throat cut. He laughed about it with a glazed look on his face as if it were too absurd to have happened.

That evening we chewed ch’at, a green leaf containing a mild amphetamine, favoured in the region as a legal social drug and Abdullah announced that that evening there was a meeting scheduled for us with the Community Concerned Group (CCG) who would tell us about all the good work they were doing.

Ghostly city by the sea

Dictor Jama, the one man Somaliland restoration project, from CCG decided to give us a guided tour of Berbera which was slightly bizarre at points and in around 40oC and extremely high humidity quite testing. We first toured the port, the port director, before being taken to meet with the governor of the region and then touring the abandoned cement plant, then on to see the salt factory (which turned out to be a small concreted area they put sea water into and let it evaporate) and then along to Berbera lighthouse. We were shown an area of land which had been bought by Dictor Jama and Abdullah out near the old iron lighthouse for a hotel they were planning. They offered us part of their beach so we could build our own houses on it. Stood on an endless, empty beach watching the sun set over the calm sea it seemed a tempting offer. But there were still ghosts around. The area of scrub between us and the NASA landing strip now used as Berbera’s airport in which dark-eyed camels looked out over the sea was the same stretch Dictor Jama and Abdullah had sprinted across as they fought together against Siyad Barre’s troops and people presumably bled into the sand.

In the evening we were set in front of the national press. It soon became clear that the purpose of the broadcasts (three channels, including on satellite and the national newspaper) were to be political. We were asked how the Somaliland we saw differed from the one we had envisaged. At the end of the broadcast the reporter from Somaliland Times asked us if we could send him pills for his stomach ulcer when we returned to England.

Hargeisa – Sheekh – Las Geel – Hargeisa
Into the mountains and caves

We visited the mountain top town of Sheekh, the summer retreat for the British Governor when the stifling heat of Berbera, down on the coast became too much. The house was in ruins but the tennis courts and swimming pool could still be made out and locals had left the baths and window frames, for which they had no use. This was in stark contrast to the botched together nomadic huts which now surrounded it. We continued into Sheekh to see the hospital which had all but been destroyed in the war. It still smelt like a hospital and much of the Bulgarian medical equipment was still in place but the walls were covered in graffiti and the only sound we could hear was of the children playing football outside and the birds flying from ward to ward.

We then went back through Berbera on our way to Hargeisa, as we cruised through the desert in the left hand drive car on the right side of the road (a typically absurd Colonial reminder) Abdullah pointed out the mountains which he had hidden amongst and the straights across which he had run with Mr. Mohammed, our guard, when they fought together. Mr. Mohammed remained stony faced even in the face of the Libyan trance reggae tape we put on which Abdullah was very taken by.

On the last leg of the trip back to Hargeisa we were taken to the most spectacular site in Somaliland, the Neolithic cave paintings of Las Geel, which are regarded widely as some of the best if not the best rock art in Africa. The caves are located in a beautiful area of the country high up on a hillside looking over the vast expanse of scrubland and desert where a river once ran. It is thought that the paintings were produced 4000 years ago and yet they are still in stunning condition. The subject matter mainly revolves around images of different types of cows but also of men, dogs, giraffes and other animals. There is clearly a hugely complex symbolic subtext to the works which archaeologists are still trying to piece together. The area is in fact still being catalogued as it was only discovered by a French team in 2002. Upon seeing Las Geel we had to agree that the only reason it is not a World Heritage site is because it is in Somaliland.

Meetings with the ministers

On returning to Hargeisa we met with the Minister of Trade and Industry to discuss the country’s potential and his interest in promoting clean development. It was strange chatting to a man who used to work for Bristol City Council and was so proud to be a British Citizen, as were seven other members of the cabinet. They came with the tens of thousands of Somalilanders brought to Britain during the war who are now flooding back to rebuild their country.

Later we also met ADRA the only NGO doing serious work in Somaliland and discussed the huge potential in the country. They also added to the bizarre picture we were building up of the country by telling us it is the most hooked up (in terms of electrical coverage per head) country in the whole of Africa.

Hargeisa – Harer (Ethiopia)
Turning down the Vice -President

In the morning we were supposed to meet with the Vice President of Somaliland, but the meeting was rearranged for the afternoon, and unfortunately we had to leave, meaning that we missed out on the opportunity. We had a long day of travelling back into Ethiopia, all the way to Harer.

28/4/2008 – 29/4/2008
City circled by hyenas

We wandered round the high, narrow streets of the old windy city of Harar, escorted by a local guide without whom we were guaranteed to get lost in the labyrinthine mess of markets, houses, churches and shrines. Without him we would never have found our way past the unassuming gates which led to Rimbault’s old house, nor would we have thought anything of the run down wooden building in which Haile Selassie was born.

During the evening we went to witness the surreal tradition of hyena feeding. It is thought, or more likely, was thought, that if the hyenas were not fed the crops would fail. There is undoubtedly an inverted logic to the feeding of the hyenas and the community’s general prosperity as the well-fed beasts were less likely to kill livestock. Now the affair is far more touristy. There is warm up act of a man who calls to the hyenas down in the valley with a strange moan. Then, like a circus performer a man puts bits of meat on sticks to give to the tourists to feed to the stinking animals. Unfortunately we came the day after Ethiopians celebrate Easter and their vegetarian fasting ends. The hyenas were clearly pogged after the previous days off-cuts so their performance lacked its normal verve. Still, it was quite impressive and in terms of a touristy show there was only one other tourist there. The next morning we returned to Addis by minibus and were lucky not to have ended up in the hyena man’s basket after we collided with a rock in the road. The conductor handed out some ch’at and repaired whatever had broken with a mix of black paint and superglue.


Anonymous said...

Very nice article! I'm planing a trip!

Greetings from Norway

Anonymous said...

net thats my country somaliland best love to live there

Amin Adam Adde said...

Amazing stuff. Well observed, well said and continously interesting.

visit somaliland said...

Very nice info....

Somaliland Travel

Anonymous said...