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Published: February 1st 2014
It is one of the least visited tourist destinations in the world. The mostly empty Ethiopian Airlines flight contained just one other fellow traveller as our small plane uneasily bobbled to its destination of Hargeisa in Somaliland. Passing through immigration and collecting luggage was relatively easy and I was soon in a taxi bouncing along rough roads of a city in the horn of Africa. The scene before me was exactly as I had imagined – dust and dirt was kicked up by the passing traffic, and when it parted, I could espy men sitting out the front of whitewashed walls, sipping a hot beverage and chatting beneath the warm sun. Children gambolled in the side streets amongst small squat homes with flat roofs, whilst the colour to this scene was added by the vibrant hues of the hijab
worn by the women who were more visible on the streets than I had expected.
This journey was inspired by Stuart
whose 2008 journey to Somaliland, My second home
, piqued my interest in this destination that had it sitting of my wish list for years. However, the final impetus came from Jonas of Jonas Journeys – his second of three Somaliland blogs
detailing his travels in 2013, convinced
me that the same safe and welcome environment that greeted Stuart five years before was still awaiting my arrival.
Many people question the safety of some destinations I travel, but experience has taught me that the most accurate information is not the media, government advisories or people who rely on either of these sources, but instead locals and fellow travellers. Both Stuart and Jonas informed me that Somaliland was safe, but I discovered that not only is Somaliland free from danger, but it is one of the safest and friendliest destinations I have ever visited.
The most obvious manifestation of this secure environment was the money changers. Lining the streets in one part of the Hargeisa, men reclined in chairs behind walls of cash, and they carried no weapons or any other protection from theft. Even more remarkable were those tasked with loading wheelbarrows full of money for lodging elsewhere. The amount of Somaliland Shillings sitting with each moneychanger was worth thousands of dollars, which when converted to the local cost of living is an absolute fortune. Nearby, women sold gold in the street, only covered to protect the jewellery from the ubiquitous dirt, and again there was
no form of protection afforded these goods. The female stall owners could even leave the gold unattended and knew that everything would be untouched upon their return. I have never witnessed such a potent display of public safety anywhere else in the world.
I could comfortably walk around the streets at any time of day or evening and never felt threatened. The only incidents that occurred were the occasional (mostly older) men suspicious of foreigners and especially my camera, with one claiming that I was from the CIA. Another instructed me that I needed a permit to take photos, so when I challenged his false assertion, he accused me of all manner of preposterous actions, at which time other sane Somalilanders dragged him away so that I could once again enjoy the streets of Hargeisa free from hassle.
With alcohol prohibited in Somaliland, there was never any danger of being approached by an aggressive drunk, but the drug of choice was khat
– and it was more endemic than in Yemen – green coloured stalls could be found literally everywhere. This was the biggest social problem I saw in Somaliland, and it turned a good portion of the
male population into vague, listless individuals. As with any society where a drug, whether alcohol, cigarettes or khat
, is integral to social interaction, it is an issue that must be addressed.
My accommodation of choice (also frequented by Stuart and Jonas) was the Oriental Hotel
– perfectly located to immerse myself within the surrounding market, where the hospitality that greeted me approached the overwhelming levels bestowed in the Kurdish Region of Iraq. I sallied forth; the sounds of the streets from car horns, people chatting and music closed in on me from all sides, as the occasional breeze swirled the dirt from the unpaved roads. Every few steps I was greeted by someone saying hello and inviting me for a chat, tea or meal. Almost every conversation followed the same line of questions: “Where are you from?” “Do you like Hargeisa?” “What is your job?” and “What is your name?” Even a brief stroll through the market that would only take me half an hour if I was allowed an uninterrupted passage, occupied half a day due to this generous, genuine hospitality. I spent many hours talking and listening to the people of Somaliland tell their tales, which revealed two
recurring themes. First, Somalilanders are the proudest people I have ever met, but the second issue is far more significant.
I initially glimpsed this second issue when squatting with money changers during my usual morning conversation session when a elderly man wearing what appeared to be a dark uniform sauntered forth:
“You should not stay here long, it is dangerous for you,” he stated.
“Why it is dangerous, I have been here many days with no problems,” I questioned.
“These people will cause you problems,” was his assertion.
“They are my friends.” I gestured to them with a sweeping motion, “they have only shown my kindness. I cannot see any danger,” I challenged.
“No, no, believe me, this is not safe for you,” and he walked away as abruptly as he appeared, melting into the crowd.
I turned to one of the moneychangers, Baashe, and asked, “What is he talking about?” to which he responded with disdain, “Don’t listen to him – he is from Somalia”.
“Somaliland is not Somalia” was an oft quoted statement during my nearly two weeks there, and the roots for this confusion lay in another instance of
misguided colonial ambitions. A hundred years ago the British administered Somaliland, with the rest of the horn of Africa split into French (now known as Djibouti) Ethiopia (territory originally incorporated into Ethiopia, though now further separated into Eritrea) and Italy (present day Somalia). After much politicking following the Second World War, the British and Italian controlled portions merged to form Somalia in 1960, something that has burdened Somaliland ever since. Somalia as a nation did not enjoy prolonged periods of peace and stability, and eventually this situation exploded in the 1991 civil war. Whilst the southern part of the country descended into turmoil, those in Somaliland looked on in anguish at this quickly deteriorating situation, and so on 18 May 1991, Somaliland asserted their sovereignty and declared themselves an independent nation – reasserting their previous separation from Somalila that they held for the majority of the 20th
Though 30 years of forced marriage was over, the divorce has not been officially recognised. Save for Ethiopia, no other nation acknowledges Somaliland’s status – this perplexes the local people for they have their own government, parliament, flag, security forces, visa and currency. The situation is even more mystifying when one
looks at South Sudan – the world’s newest nation has already descended into violence and chaos, yet this opportunity of nationhood is denied to stable Somaliland that even experienced a peaceful transition of power after elections in 2010 – a very rare situation in Africa. Even a constitutional referendum in 2001 where 97.1%!o(MISSING)f the population voted in favour of independence from Somalia has been ignored by the international community.
Lack of recognition has more practical and sobering consequences than a seat at the United Nations. Since people’s opinion of Somaliland is tied to its neighbour, many often and mistakenly confuse troubled Somalia with peaceful Somaliland; a problematic yoke to remove. I visited the Univerity of Hargeisa
and they are keen to attract academic staff to improve the quality of the education that they provide to their eager students, of which more than a third are female. However, convincing experts to attend is difficult when people wrongly extrapolate problems within distant Somalia and apply it to the entire horn of Africa.
But most telling is the inability of Somalilanders to secure their own internationally recognised passport. Currently, for almost all overseas travel one must obtain a Somali passport from Mogadishu
– a task beset with problems. Passports can be difficult to obtain in the best of circumstances in sub-Saharan Africa, and this additional requirement makes it impossible for most. This inability to legally travel overseas to seek educational or employment opportunities leads to desperate measures, as was revealed during a translated conversation with a young man in the covered main market. I was sitting on a plastic chair chatting to a shopkeeper selling beauty products when the man approached with several friends. I remain seated as a crowd of a dozen young men watched on. The conversation commenced was the usual small talk, but then took a serious turn.
“I cannot get a passport,” he commenced, “and I want to work overseas.”
The crowd awaited my response, “So what will you do?” and they shifted their gaze to the conversation initiator.
“I will go across land to Libya, I will find my way there. Then I will take a boat to Italy,” his face bore equal amounts of frustration and desperation. Every eye in the crowd now stared at me, awaiting my response.
I breathed heavily, the whole mood felt as gloomy as the subdued light.
Baashe oprerates a money change and transfer service in Hargeisa - Somaliland
My daily ritual for more than a week was to sit and talk to Baashe and his colleagues before exploring the city.
The normally busy market now felt eerily quiet. Knowing the problem sub-Saharan Africans have had in Libya, let alone crossing the Mediterranean in an unsafe boat, I replied. “That is not a good idea.”
“I can get a job in Europe,” was his hopeful answer under the watchful eyes of the crowd.
The chances of him obtaining a job in Europe would be extremely small, so I questioned again, “Why do want to leave here? It is safe, you are not in danger.”
“I want to go.” was his determined reply – and again, all eyes shifted back to me.
“It’s not a safe journey, there are too many problems,” was my final answer.
Shortly after, an elderly Somali woman who wandered through the market singing songs of Somalia approached. This elicited a negative response from all who berated her for such tunes. It was ironic that our continuing conversation was diverted by someone from Somalia, for the shadow from that 1960 union always looms over the people of Somaliland.
Who am I to judge the actions of this young man or to understand the frustrations he is feeling. I am fortunate to be
a citizen of Australia, a country not only a founding member of the United Nations, but with an established presence in international relations. Imagine being a part of a country that is not recognised, not having that voice on the world stage, and not having the pride of your nation that beats in your heart ever acknowledged?
Somaliland’s cry of nationhood is begging to be heard, yet their plea is only answered by the echoes of the loyal Somaliland Diaspora spread throughout the world. Somaliland is home to the proudest people I have ever met, yet their pride is for a nation that is unrecognised. Though the green, white and red flag of Somaliland flies defiantly in Hargeisa, it is a symbol that receives no favour in foreign lands: this is a tragic travesty for a stable, peaceful territory seeking enduring bonds with its neighbours and the international community. The long overdue recognition of nationhood is something that the people of Somaliland both need and deserve.
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