Emily will be writing about her experience in Somaliland and will be offering tips to anyone who may want to visit the unrecognized republic along the way – discover Somaliland from a Non-Somali perspective. This is the second article – It is a great privilege to be here in Hargeisa.
It is a great privilege to be here in Hargeisa. The sounds of the call to prayer wake me up each morning as the city bustles around me. It is much more alive than other cities I have come to know; here you can always find people outside, sipping tea, chatting, hauling loads on their mules, chewing qat [a narcotic leaf chewed in parts of East Africa and Yemen]. I had intended to write this article sooner but my internet access has been limited to the internet café across the street, and my 7-year old laptop has retired. My co-workers were amused that my laptop was not shiny and new, but quickly hooked up a reliable desktop in my breezy office so now I should have regular internet access.
My flight here was an adventure as I expected it would be. The visa process in Addis was very easy though, and I would recommend acquiring a visa there to other travelers. The hardest part of the process was finding the Somaliland Liaison Office, which is hidden behind the Mozambiquean and South African Embassies. But once you find the office, with its gardens and dusty driveway, the entire visa process takes only about 10 minutes, and is very straight forward.
When I was ready to leave Addis with my visa in hand, I arrived at Bole International Airport an hour and a half before my flight, as I was instructed to. I had picked up my boarding pass the day before at Air Ethiopia’s office downtown, but when I asked the airport officers where to find the flight to Hargeisa, they looked at me and my boarding pass quizzically. Nobody I spoke with had heard about this flight, and they even told me that there were no flights to Hargeisa from Addis. Luckily I maintained my confidence and thanks to the Somali dress I was wearing, some fellow passengers walked over and asked me if I was looking for the flight to Hargeisa. With relief, I told them I was, but they too were just as lost as I was. We all commiserated for a few minutes before taking a seat and waiting for someone who knew something. Eventually a young, skinny Somali guy showed up and asked us for our boarding passes and collected our bags. We then proceeded to customs and through security; the whole while airport officials were confused as to who we were and where we were going. Had I been alone I may have just given up! After customs and security, we looked around the gates and read the illuminated screens, but found no indication of a flight to Hargeisa or of the Somali man who had taken our bags. We decided to sit in a group (there were 8 of us in total) and wait by Gate 5, hoping someone would come. One passenger seemed more informed than all of us so we just followed whatever he did. The flight was slated to depart at 11:00, but by 11:15 we still did not know where to go. We all remained calm though, waiting further instruction. Eventually the same man who had taken our bags returned, and guided us to the gate where we were told to wait for a van to take us to the plane. We waited, and after a few false alarms the van came and we all got inside, curious as to what the plane would look like. It was a white plane with a blue stripe, and from the outside it was essentially what I had imagined, but once I got inside I was stunned at how tiny it was! There were no overhead compartments and certainly no safety orientation before take-off. We were all happy to be inside though, at this point it was about 1:00, and luckily I had brought some cookies and chocolate which I shared with the other passengers.
The flight was smooth enough, we were given bottled water, and I was trying not to worry about whether or not someone would be waiting for me when we landed, and if he would be able to recognize me or not. As we descended towards the ground, it looked as though we were landing in the desert, with no buildings in sight. But just as we hit the ground I could make out the city of Hargeisa, which was larger than I had imagined it. We walked off the plane onto the pavement and someone from my work (Abdi) was indeed waiting for me, al-hamdu l’illah. I suppose I was easy to recognize being the only female and only foreigner on the flight. When he saw me, Abdi grasped my arm and led me quickly to the customs area, where he asked me for $50 and for my passport. In my head I was thinking, who is this man and why does he want my money? I decided to bargain with him and said I will give you $40, before I realized that the $50 was not for him but was a required amount of money you need to change into Somaliland shillings in order to enter the country. Within two minutes he handed me two huge stacks of money held together with rubber bands, along with my passport and entry stamp. Now is a good time to point out for those who may not know, that $1 is equal to 7,000 Somaliland shillings, and the remarkable part is that the highest bill they have is 500 shillings, so for $50, you receive 700 individual bills.
We proceeded forward in a rush, and then Abdi led me back outside were I pointed to my bag which someone thrust on his shoulders and brought to the car. The car ride was my first opportunity to see the city and I enjoyed looking out the window and attempting to chat with Abdi in a mix of broken Somali and English. Abdi drove me to the bed and breakfast where I am staying. In order to give him directions, I just told him the color of the house and the name of the owner and he knew where it was. Directions here are often given in such terms, using landmarks and names instead of numbers and streets. When we arrived at the gate of the house, Abdi honked for the guard to open the door, but the guard just looked at the car then closed the gate. I assumed he was alerting the owners of my arrival, whereas Abdi assumed the guy was a rude man and started yelling at him. I tried to calm him down but it was too late, and the sort of amusing scene culminated with the guard spitting at Abdi who slapped him across the cheek. Abdi then told me I could not stay there, that he would not come get me each day for work, and he was going to take me to a guest house. I insisted that I must stay here and that he should come every day, we shook hands, and I went inside.
Do not be fooled by this introduction I had to Hargeisa, as it is certainly not typical and was actually a drama which spread around, and which I heard recounted in several different ways during my first few days here. Life has actually been quite calm and laid back. During the weekend I had a chance to get to know my surroundings a bit, and am grateful to the family I am staying with for showing me around, feeding me, and being such wonderful hosts. (They are not reading this so rest assured this is not a shameful plug). I already feel comfortable. Likewise, my co-workers have been very helpful and friendly and I am learning fascinating information about the history and intricacies of Somaliland. I remember when I was in Addis the night before leaving for Hargeisa, my stomach was so nervous and I could hardly sleep– I did not know what was awaiting me. I even said to my friend that I was afraid my stomach would stay in a knot all summer! But as soon as I landed the knot went away and I have been able to sleep well each night here.
Indeed the misconceptions about Somaliland, which is internationally known as Somalia, are plentiful and disturbing. I found the same to be true about Ethiopia. I packed enough soap, shampoo and toothpaste to last me for months, and just across the street from where I am staying are rows of shops which sell the very items I brought. Don’t get me wrong, Hargeisa is vastly different from any other place I have been, it does not have the high-rises of Boston and hot water is hard to come by, but the city is peaceful, lively, functioning, and far more developed than I had imagined. I hope to post pictures and provide you with more information about my experiences here next time, and look forward to your comments and insights as always.