Hargeisa: a capital in search of a country

For a people without an official nation, Somalilanders sure love their flag.

It’s everywhere–painted on doors, flying from government buildings and private homes, hanging from rear view mirrors, worn on belt buckles and even knitted into a cap like this barber is wearing in the photo. Somalilanders are proud of their nation and want everyone to know it.

After sleeping off a grueling ten-hour bus ride to get to the capital Hargeisa, I wake up and see at least a dozen flags from my hotel window. I’m eager to start exploring. I don’t know what to expect. Somalilanders say the capital is safe, but can an unrecognized government next to one of the world’s worst war zones really keep the peace?

My contact in Harar, Muhammed Dake, had assured me, “Hargeisa is safe. Just watch out for two things. Foreigners are offered prostitutes and alcohol. Both are illegal.”

I can handle that. I’ve never paid for sex in my life and if I can’t go without booze for a week, I should go without it forever.

I’m staying at the Oriental Hotel, the country’s oldest, having been built in 1953 when this was still the colony of British Somaliland. After two months in the Horn of Africa it is by far the nicest place I’ve stayed in–clean sheets, good service, new facilities, and water and electricity that never go off. Even before making it into the street I can see the government and investors are getting at least some things right.

The Oriental Hotel is in the center of town next to a large mosque, rows of low concrete buildings housing shops and apartments, and the gold market. It’s here, in the first half hour of my first day, that I get a lesson about the kind of country the Somalilanders have built.

%Gallery-92887%First stop is the money changer, who sits on the ground with a pile of bank notes around him. The Somaliland shilling isn’t internationally recognized, so it fluctuates constantly and hard currency is in big demand. “Hard currency” even includes Ethiopian birr, the currency of their biggest trading partner. You can use it as cash just about anywhere, and every shopkeeper knows the day’s exchange rate. One U.S. dollar is worth about 6,800 shillings, but since the government hasn’t printed notes above 500, any trip to the money changer gives you a gangster-style wad of cash. These exchanges happen in the open without any sign of worry. The money changers do keep the hard currency in their pocket, though.

At the gold market, mesh wire boxes the size of small tables sit by the side of the street displaying chains, rings, and earrings. Most of these “shops” are run by women in niqab, a full face veil made of black cloth. The niqab has become increasingly common in Somaliland and the Muslim parts of Ethiopia in recent years. Gold is handled freely and in the open, despite there being no police around. At one point I see a gold seller showing a tray of earrings to a customer. The customer walks away without buying anything and the jeweler goes off to talk to someone else, leaving the tray on top of her box. I stand a few meters away, watching and wondering what would happen. Will someone run up and grab it? Will another merchant chase down the dealer and tell her to put away her gold? Or will they put it away for her?

What actually happens is what I least expect–nothing. Nobody touches it, and after five minutes the jeweler finally comes back and calmly puts away the earrings.

When I ask Muhammed Dake about this later he shrugs and says, “Nobody steals in the market. It would mean a bullet, and that would mean civil war.”

In Somaliland, even the thieves appreciate stability.

Everyone knows what it could be like. Somaliland became independent in 1960 and a few days later joined Somalia. It was a fatal mistake. Soon the brutal dictator Siad Barre was in power and the Somalilanders tried to break away. Barre’s air force leveled Hargeisa, killing thousands. Somalia disintegrated into dozens of warring factions and Barre’s regime eventually fell. Only Somaliland was able to create a nation. The rest of former Somalia is a living hell of constant warfare. A steady stream of refugees flees to Somaliland looking for a better life.

Hargeisa is a new city, having risen literally out of the ashes of the old one. Every now and then you spot evidence of the past in a heap of rubble or pockmark shrapnel scars on a concrete wall. Most buildings are new and the sound of countless hammers counterpoints with the muezzin’s call over the city.

This place is a traveler’s dream. There’s nothing to see–no museums, no art galleries, virtually no monuments, there are only the people. Ancient ruins and fine art are great, but in any country it’s the people who teach you the most.

In Somaliland a foreigner will have no trouble meeting the locals. In a week I see only half a dozen other Westerners, even the Chinese engineers ubiquitous in the rest of Africa are absent, so I’m a curiosity wherever I go. I cannot walk down Hargeisa’s dusty streets for more than two minutes without someone starting a conversation. If I stop for any length of time a crowd gathers. At times I even block traffic. When I tell them I’m writing about Somaliland the inevitable answer is, “Thank you,” followed by,

“See how safe it is here, don’t forget to tell them that,” or,

“It’s not like the rest of Somalia. Why don’t people understand?” or,

“We need recognition. Then we can get more investment.”

Recognition is on everyone’s mind. Recognition would provide foreign investors, international aid, and dignity. Somaliland doesn’t even have a postal system because the Universal Postal Union won’t recognize it as a nation. Everyone uses private couriers like DHL or the reliable broadband Internet available in most cities. And while the Somali diaspora invests millions in the country, international recognition would bring in international organizations and specialists to help with building infrastructure, dealing with refugees, and tackling poverty. Somaliland has only a fraction of the NGOs that Ethiopia has, and few foreign companies. Yet this region of former Somalia has built up a stable nation with virtually no help from abroad. Meanwhile aid money pours into the chaos to the south, to no visible effect.

So as I wander in and out of shops selling the latest electronics, or through street markets filled with shoppers, or watch workers busy putting up yet another building, I ask myself, “What did these people do wrong? How isn’t this a country?” It’s like suddenly every court in the world decided my wife and I weren’t married, and my son is a bastard.

Who decides these things, and why?

Don’t miss the rest of my series on travel in Somaliland.

Next time: Hargeisa’s camel market!