Somaliland: the country without mail

Somaliland
Today is World Post Day, celebrated every October 9 to mark the anniversary of the foundation of the Universal Postal Union in 1874. More than 150 countries celebrate this day honoring something that’s so vital to our lives but is generally taken for granted.

In Somaliland they aren’t celebrating, because they don’t have a postal system. No other country recognizes Somaliland as a nation and therefore it can’t get membership in the Universal Postal Union. Somaliland is the northern third of former Somalia and declared independence in 1991. After a bloody war of independence it developed a government, law enforcement, a viable economy, and infrastructure while neighboring Puntland became a haven for pirates and southern Somalia was torn apart by warlords and terrorists.

When I was traveling in Somaliland last year I was based in Hargeisa, the capital. Unlike much of the region, the lights stayed on around the clock, the streets were safe, and businesses were thriving. When I visited the central post office, however, I found an empty ruin.

SomalilandSo what does a country without mail do to get, um, mail? Courier services are widely used, and there’s broadband Internet in the capital. In fact, they had the fastest Internet connection I’ve ever seen in Africa! Some Somalis told me the lack of a postal system actually encouraged the development of Internet Service Providers.

Still, it would have been nice to have been able to send postcards to my friends from this nation that doesn’t officially exist. Of course I didn’t actually see any postcards for sale, because there was no way to send them. With the rest of the world recognizing the Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu, which doesn’t even control all of Mogadishu, it doesn’t look like we’re going to be seeing any postcards from Somaliland anytime soon.

Queen Hatshepsut and the case of the poison skin cream

HatshepsutGerman archaeologists studying a skin cream once owned by Queen Hatshepsut have found evidence that the female pharaoh may have accidentally poisoned herself.

The tiny bottle, which has an inscription saying it was owned by Hatshepsut, was still partially filled with a substance that the archaeologists subjected to chemical analysis. It included nutmeg and palm oils, commonly used to soothe skin irritations. It also included benzopyrene, which smells nice but is highly carcinogenic. It’s found in burnt substances such as pitch, coal tar, cigarette smoke, and burnt foods such as barbeque and coffee. Keep that in mind this Labor Day Weekend.

In contrast to the idealized statue of Hatshepsut shown here, her mummy revealed that she was obese, had liver cancer, and probably suffered from diabetes.

Hatshepsut’s rule saw two decades of peace and ambitious trade expeditions as far as Puntland, which was probably in the modern unrecognized state of the same name. Her modern-looking temple at Deir el Bahri is one of Egypt´s most stunning attractions. You can reach it by bus, or if you’re feeling adventurous you can take a mountain path from the Valley of the Kings, which leads you to a cliff overlooking the temple before sloping down past the tombs of its builders and to the temple itself. I did this one August, which is not the best time. That was probably as bad for my skin as Hatshepsut’s skin cream.

[Photo courtesy Rob Koopman]

Ancient port discovered in Egypt

Egypt
Archaeologists working in Egypt have discovered a harbor on the Red Sea that was used for international trade.

The excavation at Mersa Gawasis has revealed traces of an ancient harbor. It’s long been known that the Egyptians traded down the coast of Africa, but the location of their embarkation was unknown. A famous carving at Deir el-Bahari, the temple of Queen Hatshepsut, shows an ocean-going vessel like the one pictured above and scenes a land with thatched huts and exotic items for sale such as ivory and giraffes. Inscriptions identify the land as Punt but don’t mention where it is. Archaeologists have speculated that it was in the Horn of Africa, either in Eritrea or Djibouti, or where the modern unrecognized states of Somaliland or Puntland are today.

The first recorded voyages to Punt started in the reign of the Pharaoh Sahure, who ruled from 2487-2475 BC. Regular trading missions were sent out for centuries to buy exotic items for Egypt’s elite. Queen Hatshepsut’s famous engravings of Punt date to around 1490-1460 BC.

Scholars have traditionally been doubtful of the Egyptians’ ability to make long sea voyages. Further excavation at Mersa Gawasis may change this view and open up new possibilities for Egyptian influence on other ancient cultures. While the excavations at Mersa Gawasis are not yet open to public view, Deir el-Bahari is a popular attraction and you can wonder at the scenes depicting the mysterious land of Punt for yourself.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Piracy reached record levels in 2010

pirate, pirates, piracy, Somalia, Somali, Red sea, red sea
Pirate hijackings in the Red Sea and nearby waters reached their highest levels ever, the Associated Press reports.

Pirate hijackings worldwide claimed 1,181 hostages and 53 vessels, a rise of ten percent since 2009. Of these, 49 ships were taken by Somali gunmen in the Red Sea or nearby waters in the Indian Ocean. Somali piracy has been the biggest problem area despite an international fleet of warships trying to stop it. Somalis have taken four more ships so far in 2011 and currently hold 31 ships and 713 people captive.

Somali pirates generally use speedboats to come up alongside freighters, tankers, or smaller ships and then threaten to open fire if the captain doesn’t stop. The pirates then board the vessel and radio in a ransom demand that can amount to millions of dollars. Prisoners are generally not hurt, although eight were killed last year. Usually the ransom is paid.

Because naval vessels have been able to stop some attacks near the Somali coast, pirates have moved operations further into the Indian Ocean where they’re harder to catch. Other problem areas include Nigerian, Bangladeshi, and Indonesian waters.

Somali pirates claim they have been forced into piracy because their fishermen have been pushed out of work by illegal fishing by foreign vessels and illegal dumping of toxic waste by big corporations.

If you’re worried about piracy, stay away from the Red Sea area, and check out our handy tips on what to do if pirates board your ship.

[Photo courtesy Mass communication Specialist 2nd Class Jason R. Zalasky , U.S. Navy.]

Somalia’s Al-Shabab bans handshakes between men and women

Somalia, somalia, handshakeAs if you didn’t have enough reasons to avoid visiting Somalia, Al-Shabab has given you another. BBC reports that the Islamist group has banned handshakes between men and women in the town of Jowhar. It’s also illegal to walk with or chat with a member of the opposite sex you’re not related to.

It’s not clear what the punishment would be for committing these “crimes”, but BBC’s correspondent in Mogadishu says a common punishment is public flogging.

Al-Shabab controls much of southern and central Somalia and rules under a harsh form of Shariah law that, in the humble opinion of this agnostic, has nothing to do with real Islam. I’ve read the Koran twice and don’t recall anything about it being a sin to shake hands or talk with someone of the opposite sex. In fact, I’ve had conversations in public with many devout Muslim women, including Somali women. Looks like these women could tell Al-Shabab a thing or two about Islam.

Luckily not all of Somalia is controlled by these idiots. In the north part of the country, Puntland remains free from their rule, although it’s full of pirates, and Somaliland is a safe place to travel. When visiting Somaliland I met a lot of refugees from the south and they all felt tremendously grateful that they didn’t have to live with Al-Shabab’s false form of Islam.

[Image courtesy user Hucz via Wikimedia Commons]