Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, is built on an oasis used by nomads since ancient times. It’s been a center for camel and livestock trading for centuries. Hargeisa’s camel market, the Senlaola Hoolaha as it’s called in Somali, is a huge and dusty field a mile from the city center. Most of the day it´s used as playground by schoolchildren, but between 7 and 12 a.m. the scene is taken over by camels, goats, sheep, cows, their respective owners and of course prospective owners.
It´s a tumultuous place. The men are inspecting the animals or standing in groups sharing the latest gossip. The women have occupied a big part of the field for their own business of selling food to hungry traders. Some have traveled for days to sell their goods. The camel herders, who generally travel without any motorized transport, have been traveling for as long as two weeks and from as far away as the Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia.
A camel can cost anything from 300 to 1000 dollars depending on its age, strength, and of course the buyer’s ability to haggle. All camels have been marked with the owner’s special sign to avoid any conflicts about ownership.
%Gallery-93036%Not everyone can learn how to recognize a good camel, says Hassan, who has been buying and selling camels and goats at Senlaola Hoolaha for twenty years. He enthusiastically shows me where to check on the camel’s back to know its age and health. You have to know how what to look for or you’ll get cheated, he says. Many camel herders give their camels extra water to make them look fatter than they really are, and only a well-trained eye can spot the difference.
To make sure that your bargaining doesn’t affect anyone else’s deals, an intricate technique of hand signs has been developed. The two businessmen put a shawl over their interlocked hands, and the bids are communicated by touch. The negotiations usually last from five to ten minutes but can take up to half an hour. The system might seem complicated at first glance, but the logic is simple and easy to learn. Every finger has a number. All the numbers from 1 to 9 represented. One, for example, would be described by grabbing the index finger at the tip. In the case bigger numbers are needed a zero can be added by grabbing a bigger part of the finger. One finger can therefore describe 1, 10, 100, 1000. Since both parties know the general price for a goat or a camel the use of zero is limited.
If you’ve ever been to the camel market at Birqash, near Cairo, you’ll probably notice one significant difference. While in Egypt you’ll constantly be followed around by hustlers, in Hargeisa you won´t be offered anything but long gazes of amazement. Here you are the only tourist around and you´ll soon find yourself, not the camels, becoming the main attraction.
(Note: the photos and much of the text in this post are the work of Leo Stolpe, a Swedish photojournalist who joined me on some of my Somaliland adventures. I merely edited the text and added a few things. Unfortunately, the program I’m using doesn’t allow me to put him in the byline. Check out Leo’s website for more great photos from his epic travels in east Africa.)