Today I got my passport back from the Somaliland Ministry of Immigration, now sporting a new page replete with wonky stamps and biro scrawl. When I arrived in Somaliland via the Berbera Airport in early March, I was given permission to enter and stay in the Republic of Somaliland for six days. As I plan to stay for 4.5 months, my employer needed to arrange a longer-term visa for me, and also a visa that would allow me to exit and re-enter the country. So for 2.5 weeks my passport was in the hands of the Ministry, and now that I have it back I am the official holder of a one-year, multiple entry visa to the unofficial country that is the Republic of Somaliland. This could take the cake for one of my most exotic stamps in my passport ever…
Archive for March, 2011
When adjusting to life in Somaliland, one thing that definitely takes some getting used to is the constant presence of armed guards.
The Somaliland government requires all foreigners to take so-called Special Protection Units (SPUs) when travelling outside the capital and/or to otherwise get permission from the local police station. If you head east out of Hargeisa, you will pass through a number of security checkpoints, and if you are a foreigner without an armed guard, there is a good chance you will be turned back.
This is pretty annoying because it somewhat kills the spontaneity and impulsiveness of travelling that I love so much. The armed guard also adds to travel costs ($15 per day, plus the guard’s transport and food), creating an incentive toward travel in larger groups and against independent solo travel. (Fortunately, it is not the case foreigners have to have one armed guard each –rather, our house shares one guard among several foreigners.)
Apparently this government-imposed requirement has been in place since 2003, when sadly two British teachers and an Italian aid worker were allegedly murdered by terrorists linked to Al Qaeda. Because the use of armed guards is now a law, all NGOs and other organisations are compelled to provide guards for their foreign workers.
How seriously this is taken seems to vary from employer to employer – the UN workers, for example, always appear to be accompanied by a motorcade and a profusion of guards when leaving their heavily-fortified compound. After the UN offices were targeted in a car bombing in 2008, their motto is probably “better safe than sorry.” Some NGO workers have curfews and never travel anywhere without guards.
As for myself and my co-workers, within the city limits, we move around freely without a guard during the daytime. However, at night, our guard (who lives in the house with us) will usually accompany us if we go out. And, if we leave the city, we have to arrange for a guard to come with us.
So, you might be wondering, is it safe here? I personally feel 100% safe and not in the least bit uncomfortable or threatened. I suspect there are many ordinary places where ordinary people go on holiday – New York City, Brazil, New Orleans, Mexico – that are much more dangerous. The atmosphere here is very calm and peaceful and, while the necessity of the armed guards is an often-debated topic among Hargeisa’s small expatriate community, things here do feel safe enough that the guards often seem superfluous.
Hargeisa is an urban planner’s nightmare for a plethora of reasons. It epitomises the word “urban sprawl,” with bits of concrete, metal, and billboard sprouting up like mushrooms in a field without rhyme or reason.
A great example of this is the roundabouts. Or rather, the tendency to throw up one ugly ass piece of junk – in the form of a sculpture, statue, or glorified pole – in the middle of a dusty intersection and thereby turn it into a “roundabout.” (Remember that there are no working traffic lights in Hargeisa.)
Each of these works of public art (in the loosest use of the term) seem to be competing with each other to be uglier than the next. Sometimes I look at them and ask myself, “What on earth were they thinking…?
So over the weekend I went “sightseeing” in Hargeisa with some of my co-workers. Sightseeing might be too strong of a word. There isn’t really anything of touristic interest here. Even the two pages on Hargeisa in the 10-page Somaliland/Puntland/Somalia chapter of the Lonely Planet Africa book – the only thing that even remotely approaches a guidebook to this region – start the Sights section with the sentence, “Let’s be frank: it’s the ambience and the sense of exploration that are the pull here.” So, not much to see. Meaning that what little there is to see, I have no excuse for not seeing it.
The main monument is the Somali Air Force MiG jet on Independence Avenue in down town Hargeisa. In 1988, the military dictator Siad Barre, who was in charge in Mogadishu, gave orders to the Somali Air Force (based at the Hargeisa airport) to bomb the city of Hargeisa, leading to over 10,000 civilian casualties and the near total destruction of the city. He killed his own people simply because they opposed his dictatorship. One of the MiG jets used to bomb Hargeisa is now erected (above a ghastly mural) as a memorial to the civil war.
The only other monument of note, for those people who find themselves desperately searching for sights, is the Somaliland independence statue, which features a giant fist gripping a map of the unrecognised state of Somaliland, labelled with all the cities. The date on the side of the monument is May 18, 1991, the day Somaliland declared independence from Somalia (now observed as a national holiday). We stopped here to take pictures and drew quite a crowd of onlookers and questioners. They probably wondered what the crazy white people were doing…
When I came to Somaliland, I brought a wad of cash with me. That’s because, once I got here, there would be no way for me to access my money back home in the UK or US – Somaliland has no ATMs and no banks. Yes, you read that correctly – Somaliland is essentially an unbanked, cash-bashed economy. Your regular credit and debit cards are totally useless here. Traveller’s cheques aren’t going to help you out either.
The closest thing to a bank in Somaliland is Dahabshiil, which is really more of a remittances / international money transfer company than a bank. It’s Somaliland’s answer to Western Union, enabling the Somali diaspora community to send money back home to family and friends in the Horn of Africa through a network of 400 branches across 144 countries.
You also have the option to open an account directly with Dahabshiil in Hargeisa, which some of my co-workers have done to avoid stashing all of their money under their mattress. Indeed, when we are paid at the end of the month, we are paid by check which we have to go to a Dahabshiil branch to cash.
But, even if you do open an account with Dahabshiil and deposit some of your money in it, there is no way you could transfer your money from that account to any other bank, because Dahabshiil is totally unconnected to the international banking system. The only way you could get your money out of Somaliland is to carry it out in hard cash or transfer it to a Dahabshiil branch/agent abroad (e.g. in the US or UK) where you would have to collect the money in person.
While frustrating and impractical for expatriates such as myself, the system is not as stuck in the stone ages at it seems. Dahabshiil has even introduced a sort of payment card which can be used in lieu of cash at a very select number of retailers in town. Just like paying by debit card back home, you insert your card and type in a code (except, unlike internationally recognized bank cards, your Dahabshiil card won’t work anywhere outside of Somaliland). And it is also possible to send payment via mobile phone and online. It still would be nice to have an ATM, though…
Somaliland is full of unintentionally comic signs. Just when I think I’ve seen the most ridiculous sign ever and it couldn’t possibly get any more absurd, I have to whip out my camera again to capture a laugh-out-loud advertisement.
I think the absurdity of many signs and advertisements can be chalked up to a combination of poor English and the vast cultural gulf that seems to exist between Somaliland and the rest of the (normal) world. Sometimes you just have to ask yourself, what the hell were they thinking?
I can’t upload all the photos here, but some of the funnier ones I’ve seen or heard about are: a company called “Shitco,” a pharmacy down the street that sells “Drugs from Europe and other developed countries,” a sign that confusingly states “Human rights are rights for blind people,” and a school which claims to “cross the boundaries of space and time” in providing education.
Last weekend we took a road trip to Burao, east of Hargeisa. On the way out of the city, driving through the flat, dry, endless bush, I caught frequent glimpses of oddly shaped towers that appeared to growing upwards from the earth.
Some were talk and skinny, some short and lumpy, each uniquely misshapen, like wet sand a child has dripped from his hand to form a melting sand castle. The ones I saw were the height of a person, but apparently these termite mounds can reach a height of up to 30 feet.
Evidently colonies of millions of termites can live in a single mound. Actually, they live in an underground nest one metre below the surface, and the above-ground mound is just a sort of ventilation system to control the temperature and moisture of the termites’ subterranean household. So, basically, in Somaliland, humans can’t hope for any air conditioning anywhere, but the termites get it. How unfair.