Welcome to Somalia: the world’s most comprehensively collapsed state! Though this assertion by the International Crisis Group isn’t entirely accurate, especially in the case of Somaliland – a northwestern slice of Somalia that has enjoyed de facto independence since 1991 – it certainly has felt as if I’ve arrived at the edge of the world, in a parched and inhospitable landscape where the nation-state paradigm holds little sway. This will be my home for the next two and a half months.
But before I launch into a discussion of my work here in Somaliland, I should say a few words about my two-day stay in Ethiopia. Addis turned out to be a welcome respite from the stomach problems I imported from India. I spent my days on the front porch of my new friend Brian’s house, doing paperwork and research for my upcoming placement. During the evenings, Brian and I would scour the town for its best steak and pizza (two things I knew I would miss while in Hargeysa), exploring Bole and Piazza districts, conversing over beers and generally having a wonderful time. Brian also cooked me my very last breakfast of pancakes and bacon (haram!).
It was especially nice to be able to connect with a kindred spirit on the topic of relationships: for young people who are just embarking upon the adventure of an international career, wrapping one’s head around a conventional relationship – with a wife, kids and single mortgage for a white picket fenced house – is very difficult. It can be a bit alienating discussing my personal and professional aspirations with friends back home (in spite of their willingness to listen, which I appreciate greatly), because in comparison to the societal norm, I’m so far out in left field. Do they even have parent-teacher meetings in war zones? But fortunately, I’ve met plenty of like-minded folks on the road, like Brian, off whom I can bounce ideas. Moreover, Brian takes a rabid interest in all things associated with the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail. So when we weren’t talking about how we were going to build happy, balanced lives for ourselves while working abroad, we were playing Indiana Jones – which is always something that floats my boat.
On September 6th, I departed Addis for Hargeysa in a Fokker 50 turboprop airplane whose propellors drowned out all of the enthusiastic conversation taking place amongst Somalis in the cabin. After about an hour, we started to descend from the clouds, whereupon I caught my first glimpse of the Ogo plateau: kilometers upon kilometers of sandy, semi-arid savannah. Hargeysa itself appeared to be a ramshackle town of corrugated metal roofs and no buildings taller than three storeys, but compared to other African cities I’d visited, I appreciated its quaintness; its manageable size meant that I’d hopefully get to know it quite well before I leave at the end of November.
Shortly thereafter, we landed at Hargeysa airport. Though the sky was bright and blue, there was something ominous about the airstrip, and I felt much the same way as when I had first landed at Kigali in Rwanda back in 2005. Indeed, I had only just read that Hargeysa airport was used extensively by General Mohamed Siyad Barre to effect the near-genocidal persecution of Somaliland’s Issaq clan during the Somali civil war. A rusted tank sits at the end of the airstrip, paying homage to this heritage.
The airport also gave me the distinct feeling that I was entering no-man’s-land. There was no security. No baggage carousels. Essentially no passport control (I’ve been in the country a week and I only just received my visa and passport stamp). Only a maelstrom of merchants, goats and dust.
I was greeted by Abdi, the driver of the organization I’ve partnered with, called the Academy for Peace and Development (APD). He muscled me through the crowd milling in front the airport, led me to our white van and drove me straight to the Maan-Soor Hotel on the other side of town. Outside my window, I saw dozens upon dozens of small shacks lining the roads – some made of wood, other made of thin strips of cardboard that had been meticulously woven together – that tout all of Somaliland’s material needs. A good many of these shacks bear paintings of bright green bushels of leaves. These are the houses that sell Somaliland’s most ubiquitous narcotic: qat.
My Workplace: The Academy for Peace and Development (APD)
Once at the Maan-Soor, I made a quick phone call to my parents, ate a small dinner, and went straight to bed. The following morning was when my stomach problem from India resurfaced with a vengeance. Aside from a half-day visit to the office to meet my colleagues, I spent from the 7th until the 10th in bed, drinking copious amounts of water and losing it at almost the same rate. This was extremely frustrating, as I wanted to hit the ground running when I arrived in Hargeysa. But fortunately, I have done enough travelling to know that things almost never turn out as you had planned, and so I acquiesced to my illness without much complaint.
So my first days in Somaliland were relatively quiet and spent in books (I just finished “The Celestine Prophecy” and Amartya Sen’s “Identity and Violence”, and continue to juggle Samantha Power’s “Chasing the Flame”, “Becoming Somaliland” and Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good and Evil”). After the first night, I moved from the Maan-Soor to a place that the locals call “Swiss Group” (which is actually the Caritas NGO compound), just around the corner from APD. My arrival there was a bit surreal: I’ve read about NGO life and culture ever since I was a little kid, and to finally be living amongst white Land Cruisers, armed security guards and fascinating international consultants was the realization of a dream. Moreover, my flat is pretty nice: for the time being, I’m sharing the entire place with only one Swiss guy and two Kenyans. There’s an exercise bike, a cook, satellite TV, and my small bedroom has wrap-around windows that open on to flowering trees that are populated by about a dozen different types of African birds. I couldn’t ask for more.
My Workstation at the Caritas Compound
My first full day of work was on September 10th. I was introduced to everyone I hadn’t met during my half-day on the 7th, including project coordinator Sheikh Mohammed and independent consultant Patrick Reilly. Patrick in particular has taken it upon himself to teach me everything he has learned over the course of his year here in Somaliland, and so had proven himself to be an extraordinarily kind friend.
I also got to meet Naeema, a young Somali Canadian with whom I will be partnering for my first project: on September 21st, APD will be hosting a celebration in honour of World Peace Day, and I will be expected to present. The theme this year is going to be “Non-Violent Demonstration”, and so I’m thinking of possibly doing a short introduction to Insight’s 4Ps and Ladder of Inference tools. After all, I see the main two questions of non-violent protest being “What do we hope to accomplish?” and “How are we going to articulate what we hope to accomplish to those who oppose us?” The 4Ps and the Ladder should be perfect for addressing those issues.
From a more long-term perspective, it looks as if my work here will be oriented towards improving the quality of communication between youth and government (thereby preventing violent demonstration). I’m going to try organizing a series of workshops over the coming two months, during which I will teach some of Insight’s tools to Somaliland youth, who will then employ them to draft recommendations that will be distributed to various government ministries. From the other end, I hope to get the chance to introduce a few government figures to the tools as well, so that the youth and the government both have a similar vocabulary for conflict resolution. Naturally, I’m very excited about it all.
Watch Out For Hyenas!
From a social perspective, things have been interesting. I have gotten to know the two Kenyans staying at Swiss Group quite well, but they are in Hargeysa for only two weeks, teaching Somalis from Mogadishu about sanitation procedures. I’ve also spent quite a bit of time with Patrick, who has been kind enough to pass along many of his Somali and expatriate contacts, but he is also leaving to go to Alaska in about one week. Unfortunately, I’ve spent very little quality time with people who will be in Somaliland for the entirety of my stay. Patrick did invite me to an NGO party one night, where I met a very nice Swedish guy named Erik who invited me to come and live with him and some other expats in what is anticipated to be the American ambassador’s home (once the US finally recognizes Somaliland’s independence), but I still don’t know if it’s the best idea. Already, it is very clear to me that foreigners remain quite isolated from Somalis, half by choice, half by the sheer inaccessibility of their compounds. This doesn’t sound good to me. On the other hand, spending two months cultivating a great network of professional contacts wouldn’t be a bad idea. As I’m completely new to all of this, I’m sort of at a loss as to what to do.
Erik was kind enough to invite me and a Danish guy named Lars on one of his daily safaris through the bush surrounding Hargeysa. We went on a two-hour walk out in to the middle of nowhere, where we were able to meet nomads and their camels, and spot a surprising number of animals, like tortoises, dik diks and jackals. We even saw hyena prints (or what Erik claimed were hyena prints; he’s training to become a safari guide)!
That night, I was invited to attend another NGO gathering on the rooftop of the Halo compound (Halo being an organization that specializes in the clearance of unexploded ordinances). Again, the experience was surreal: sultry Carlos Gardel tango music drifting from a pair of high-end speakers, mingling with the scent of chicken being barbecued on an oil barrel that had been cut in half lengthwise. Conversation was engaging, and I did manage to spend some time talking to a Danish disarmament, demobilization and reintegration expert (who proffered a controversial alternative to the process that entailed reintegration taking place first), but overall I was quite shy. This is something I am going to have to work to transcend.
Buying Potatoes at Hargeysa Market
Today, I spent my morning responding to e-mails and starting work on my presentation for World Peace Day. In the afternoon, Patrick and his driver Fouad came to pick me up and open my very own Somali bank account at Dahabshiil. Seeing as there are no international ATMs in the country and travelers’ cheques are not accepted, the only way for me to get money from Boston is to have it wired to me via the traditional Somali system. This should be an interesting experience, as this transfer system is very similar to those that have been used by al-Qaeda to launder money in the past. Fortunately, I have heard from other foreigners that Dahabshiil is extremely reliable.
We also made a quick trip to Hargeysa market to buy some vegetables. Very colourful!
Under the Tarps
And that brings me to this very moment, where I’m lying on the couch in the Caritas common area, listening to the city’s mosques proclaim the end of the daily Ramadan fast. This is something else I will have to discuss in the future: I arrived in Somaliland at the very beginning of Ramadan, and so the cultural atmosphere has been fascinating. I also have to talk about the ridiculous inflation in the country, and my first (and hopefully) only experience with qat! But all of that will have to wait until my next entry. Until then, I hope everyone back home is doing well.