Exploring Ethiopia’s Somali region

Somali, Somali region, camels, Ethiopia
It’s the dream of every adventure traveler–to explore a region that gets virtually no tourism, to see a culture with little contact with the outside world, to be among the first to visit the sights. It can be a thrill, an amazing rush that gives you valuable insights into a foreign culture and its history.

It can also be a major pain in the ass.

To the east of Harar lies Ethiopia’s Somali Region, a vast lowland spreading out east to Djibouti, Somaliland, and Somalia. Home to only 4.3 million, it’s Ethiopia’s most sparsely populated region, where many Somalis still live a traditional pastoral life.

To visit the Somali Region I hired a driver with a Landcruiser (the transport of choice in Africa) and Muhammed Jami Guleid (guleidhr @yahoo.com) a Harar tour guide who is Somali and lived for many years in the region. “Dake”, as everybody calls him, may be Somali, but he’s lived in Harar and speaks fluent Harari, so he’s accepted as Harari. Nebil Shamshu, who introduced me to a traditional African healer, came along too.

We set out in the early morning, climbing up and over several large hills to the east of Harar and passing through the Valley of Marvels, a beautiful geological wonder of strange rock formations and towering pinnacles that reminds me of some parts of the Arizona wilderness. I ask our driver, Azeze, to stop so I can take pictures but he refuses. “”A few weeks ago bandits stopped a minibus here,” he says. “They killed nine men and kidnapped and raped six women.” Suddenly I don’t feel like taking pictures anymore. While Ethiopia is generally safe (I haven’t had any problems in four months travel all over the country) there are bandits in some parts of the countryside.

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Now this section of the road is quiet. After the attack the army launched a huge manhunt but the bandits slipped away into the rough terrain or disappeared into the local population. Soldiers are everywhere now, so the bandits will have to find another road for their ambushes.

After climbing a last steep hill the road winds down to a dusty plain. I remember this road from my trip to Somaliland last year. Men lead strings of camels along the side of the highway. Low domed structures called aqal somali dot the landscape. Covered with mats and bits of cloth, they look like patchwork quilts. Muhammed Dake perks up, looking around eagerly and singing along to Somali songs on the radio. He also knows the words to every Johnny Cash song. Dake is a man of the world.

Our first stop is Jijiga, a rambling town of low concrete buildings that is the region’s capital. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism is here, conspicuous by the large aqal somali in its front yard. Nearby are the foundations of the new regional museum, to be opened. . .sometime. We’ve come here looking for information about the castle of Ahmed Guray, the Somali conqueror who 500 years ago brought the great Abyssinian Empire to its knees. I’d heard his castle still stands at Chinaksen just north of Jijiga. Dake hadn’t heard of this, and the Ministry had little information about their own region, just one leaflet in nearly incomprehensible English and a promotional video in Amharic that included nothing about the castle. The officials believe it’s at Darbi, close to Chinaksen, so we head there.

The road from Jijiga to Darbi is what’s locally referred to as “improved.” That is, a steamroller has squashed a strip of ground flat and it’s used as a road. It’s not a smooth as asphalt, but it’s far better than some African roads I’ve been on. The only problem is the steady stream of dust blowing through the window and caking our hands and faces. It’s far too hot to close the window, so we just sit and deal with it.

We get to Darbi and find nothing but a village–no castle, no city walls, and nobody who knows what we’re talking about. We head to our original goal of Chinaksen and find the same thing. Confused and frustrated, we sit down to a lunch of spaghetti (eaten in traditional Somali fashion with our hands) while Dake makes a few calls to local officials. After a long wait we meet up with them only to learn that they’ve never heard of a castle here, but there’s a mosque from Guray’s time not far off. We decide to head there and one official insists on being our guide, his eyes lighting up with dollar signs.

I am not at all surprised when he gets us lost within the first fifteen minutes. He soon has us driving across farmers’ fields, insisting it’s the right way. Azeze is about to go on strike, I’m wishing I’d learned some swear words in Somali, and Dake finally gives up on the guy and grabs a local guy to give us directions.

The local, of course, knows exactly where to go and soon we make it to a strange rectangular stone building that doesn’t really look like a mosque at all. There’s no courtyard or minaret like you usually see. Another local farmer comes up to us and a long discussion in Amharic ensues. The farmer gives me a few angry looks and Nebil talks to him in soothing tones. I understand just enough to know that the guy doesn’t want me to go in and Nebil is explaining that since everyone else is Muslim, that there’s no harm in it.

Eventually the farmer relents. We take our shoes off at the nearby wall and hop across sizzling flagstones to enter the cool interior. In the narrow front hall stand long wooden boards used by religious students for memorizing verses of the Koran. They can be found all over the Muslim world. These look old, stained nearly black from generations of handling. Further on we come to the main room, a long rectangular room painted with blue crescent moons and abstract decorations. Everything emanates an air of antiquity, and I wonder if Ahmed Guray himself ever prayed here before going off to battle.

Nebil must be wondering the same thing, because he looks around with wonder and declared that he wants to pray here. The farmer is making more nasty comments and Dake is getting nervous. “No, we need to go now. Sean, stop taking pictures.” We head out and the farmer is almost shouting now. The official flashes his badge and that shuts him up. After a final poisonous look at me, he stalks off.

“What was all that about?” I ask.

“He was saying that he smashes people’s cameras if they try to take pictures in there,” Dake replies.

“Nice.” I say. “I’ve taken pictures in mosques all around the world with no problem.”

Dake merely shrugs. On the way back the official asks me for a tip. I give him 20 birr ($1.20, a day’s wage for many working class jobs).

“Only 20 birr!” he freaks out.

“How many times did he get us lost?” Azeze asks me in English so he can’t understand.

“Exactly! But he helped out by waving his badge. I’ll give him 20 birr for waving a badge,” I reply.

As we head back to Harar I try to look at the trip philosophically. I didn’t find the castle of Ahmed Guray. Maybe it isn’t there. But maybe it is. It could have stood just a kilometer away from where we were, its battlements gleaming in the sun like some Somali Camelot, but the local tourism officials wouldn’t have known a thing about it. I did get some insights into life in the Somali region, however, and there does seem to be potential here that I’ll talk about in my next post. As I shrug off my day as a fairly expensive yet educational failure, a herd of camels passes by, their tan skin turned golden by the setting sun. A little further on we spot three families of baboons crossing the road.

There are things to see in the Somali region, just not what I set out to see.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Harar, Ethiopia: two months in Africa’s City of Saints

Coming up next: Ethiopia’s Somali region: a potential adventure travel destination?