Somali murals: funky advertising in the Horn of Africa

SomaliOne of the fun parts of travel is discovering the street art of a new place. Whether it’s the elaborate graffiti of New York or Madrid, the political murals of Mexico, or the current craze of Yarn Bombing, there’s always something cool happening on the street.

In the Horn of Africa, street art takes the form of murals. I believe this is a Somali development, because I’ve seen it much more in Somaliland and the Somali region of Ethiopia than I have anywhere else. There’s a fair number of murals in Harar, Ethiopia, but that has always had close trade connections with the Somali region.

Some are simple, like this ad for a dentist in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland. I don’t know why this guy jumped into the frame and bared his teeth but hey, it made for a better picture so I’m not complaining.

Then there’s this mural inside a bakery in Harar. It shows the founder, an Greek expat who opened the most modern bakery in town. One day I met his aged widow, who still presides over the family business. She treated me to tea and regaled me with tales of the old days. She was very proud of the mural and in fact that’s what drew me inside in the first place. Another example of art bringing people together.

Check out the gallery below for more images from Ethiopia and Somaliland.

What kind of street art did you discover in your last trip? Tell us about it in the comments section!

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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.

Somaliland: the next big adventure travel destination?

Can a country that doesn’t officially exist develop a tourism industry? Some entrepreneurs in Somaliland think so.

Abdi Abdi, owner of the Oriental Hotel in Hargeisa, already runs a tour company. Other hotel owners are following suit and experimenting with special tours. Abdi Abdi offers home stays with nomad families. Hassan Ahmed Hussein, owner of the Hadhwanaag Hotel and Restaurant, is considering offering camel tours and boating trips. Both want to put Somaliland on the map for adventure travel.

Somaliland certainly has some strong points. The prehistoric painted caves of Laas Geel are the star attraction. They’re as beautiful as the more famous caves of Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain, with the added bonus that they’re actually open to the public. I’ve traveled to thirty countries, and worked as an archaeologist in four, and Laas Geel is perhaps the most impressive archaeological site I’ve ever seen. It certainly ranks in the top five, along with the Pyramids of Giza, Karnak, Machu Picchu, and Avebury.

Not only are the paintings in a wonderful state of preservation, but the desolate landscape, with only one or two nomad’s shelters within view, adds to the atmosphere. In my opinion Laas Geel should not be developed, simply guarded and left in its natural state. The Somaliland government has already taken steps to protect the site and should leave well enough alone. Too many archaeological treasures have lost their atmosphere through “improvements” such as visitor’s centers and parking lots.

As shown on the site Somali Heritage, there are plenty of other ancient remains that could become tourist attractions once they’ve been properly studied. There are medieval forts and settlements, colonial remains from Ottoman and British times, and more painted caves like those at Laas Geel.Beyond history, there’s the capital Hargeisa and its camel market, as well as incredible scuba diving in Berbera. At the moment, though, lack of international recognition and the common confusion between Somaliland and Somalia will keep many potential visitors from ever considering Somaliland. Plus this is still a volatile region. Foreigners are advised to have a bodyguard when venturing outside the capital, and a few days ago a border skirmish with Ethiopia left 13 dead. Then there’s the on-again, off-again border dispute with neighboring Puntland.

These problems will keep most people away, but will attract others. Somaliland has to be careful not to attract the wrong kind of tourist, thrill seekers enchanted by the guns and the burnt-out tanks and the legal drugs. I’ve met way too many of these people on the road, and they tend to leave a bad reputation in their wake. The best part of traveling in Somaliland is the Somalis themselves. They’re unaccustomed to tourists and thus their warmth and hospitality have been untarnished by bad interactions with obnoxious foreigners. This could so easily change.

Take the example of Egypt, which has been a tourist destination since the days of Heroditus. Visitors to any of the great sites (and they’re so awesome they truly must be seen) will be constantly harassed, hurried, propositioned, screamed at for tips, and hustled. This leaves many visitors with the impression that Egyptians are all a bunch of hucksters who are only interested in quick cash.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Once a visitor breaks through the vile crust of touts, he’ll find the Egyptians warm, welcoming, funny, and great company. The images of the Pyramids and the Valley of the Kings are etched forever in my mind, but my fondest memories of Egypt are sitting on the banks of the Nile in the small town of Minya chatting with some students, and sipping coffee in backstreet cafes in Cairo. A foreign visitor to Egypt should take time to meet the Egyptians. This helps the reputation of both countries.

At the moment Somali people are wide open. It’s up to every foreign visitor and the Somalis themselves to keep the communication more about exchanging goodwill and knowledge than exchanging money for thrills.

In the short term Somaliland will remain an adventurous side trip from Ethiopia, but as the infrastructure improves and more people learn about its attractions, the nation will get more visitors. As a travel writer I have to wonder about my own role in all of this. My series on Somaliland has been one of the first, if not the first, on a major travel website. I’m helping to set the ball rolling. When I visit Somaliland again in a few years time, or perhaps even next year since I’m anxious to get back to Harar, will I see a change? And will it be for the better or for the worse?

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

Somaliland: building a nation

The most interesting thing about traveling in Somaliland is that you get to see a country in the process of creating itself.

When it achieved independence from the rest of Somalia in 1991, there wasn’t much to work with. The capital had been destroyed, a large number of people were homeless and without work, and the country wasn’t recognized by the outside world. Recognition still hasn’t come, but Somalilanders are slowly building their nation.

Buildings are going up everywhere, thanks to the investment from local Somalis and expats. This second group is important. In the Seventies and Eighties many educated Somalis fled dictatorship and civil war to other parts of the world. Some did very well for themselves, and when Somaliland stabilized they saw an opportunity for investment.

One modest example is a Somali man I met who works as a crane operator in Germany. He makes a good salary, but is far from rich by European standards. Yet in Somaliland he’s able to own a beachside home in Berbera and recently bought property in Hargeisa that he’s planning to build on. This, of course, will bring another contract to one of the local construction companies and more work for its employees.

Further up the economic ladder is Hassan Ahmed Hussein, owner of the Hadhwanaag Hotel and Restaurant in Hargeisa. He lived for many years in Virginia before moving back two years ago. Hassan’s hotel mostly serves Somalis although he’s interested in expanding into the developing tourist trade as well. The main draw of his place is the restaurant, which quickly became a favorite local hangout. The goat and camel meat his chefs cook for three hours in a clay oven is simply the best meal you’ll eat in Somaliland, and judging from the number of Somalis who show up for lunch and dinner this isn’t just an outsider’s opinion. The hotel part of his operation is good value too, with little bungalows surrounding a pleasant garden.

%Gallery-93563%One of Somaliland’s most successful businessmen is Abdirashid Duale, CEO of Dahabshiil, a major money transfer company with headquarters in the UK, Dubai, and Somaliland. Since remittances from foreign workers are a major source of hard currency in this part of the world, money transfer is big business. Unlike many Somalis I met, Abdirashid thinks Somaliland’s unrecognized status has a positive side.

“I do believe a lot of things can be done without recognition, look at Taiwan,” he says. “The focus on the private sector will have long-term benefits. We want people to be self-sufficient. Without so many NGOs coming in with their own ideas and their own agendas, we have to do things ourselves.”

Somalis are doing more than just opening businesses, they’re fixing social problems as well. Dahabshiil donates a lot of money to hospitals and universities, and individuals have set up their own NGOs since most foreign ones won’t come to Somaliland. Any foreigner visiting Somaliland will be invited to see several.

The Hargeisa Rehabilitation Centre helps people with physical disabilities. There’s an orthopedic workshop that makes artificial legs, wheelchairs, and crutches. It’s so productive, in fact, that it exports to Somalis living in Ethiopia, Djibouti, Puntland, and Somalia. Doctors offer physiotherapy to patients for as little as $2 a month, and many come from the war-torn regions of Somalia to be treated. Dr. Abdullah, the head of pediatrics, told me they have anywhere from 15 to 25 child patients at any one time, mostly suffering from cerebral palsy, clubfoot, malnutrition, and injuries.

He and his small staff work long hours with limited, antiquated equipment. Because Somaliland isn’t recognized, it’s hard to attract foreign aid or foreign volunteers. It’s also difficult for him and his fellow doctors to get visas to go to medical conventions abroad. Despite these troubles the center is a pleasant place, with a quiet garden and a dedicated staff doing the best they can.

Another homemade project is the Gandi Public Library, named after a former minister of education and founded by his son in 1999. Housed in a small building next to the empty shell of the central post office (Somaliland has no postal service since it’s not recognized by the Universal Postal Union), it’s the only public library in the country. While local residents eagerly read the small collection of books, there are no new ones coming in. The library hasn’t received a donation in ten years. The biggest demand is for textbooks on medicine, economics, community development, law, and other practical subjects.

Not far away is the Sancaani Technical Institute, which offers free training 700 students in computer science, electronics, journalism, and media. Founded in 2002, it helps disabled people, the disadvantaged, and those from non-Isaaq clans. The Isaaq are the largest clan in Somaliland and many people complain that members of minority clans don’t have equal opportunities. When I visited, one class was learning how to use Microsoft Access, while another practiced fixing mobile phones.

Noor Mohammed, an IT lecturer, told me there’s a huge waiting list for the free classes and not nearly enough funding to take all applicants.

“We can change the lives of thousands of the poor, but right now we are working at the limits of our capability. The children here, their interest level is very high,” he says. “We have just 16 computers and 200 students waiting to use them.”

While I only made brief visits to other towns, I got the impression, confirmed by several Somalis I spoke with, that the vast majority of investment and development is in the capital. The government still hasn’t fully asserted its authority in all areas of Somaliland and this is slowing the rush of investment. The port at Berbera, for example, needs improvement. A company from Dubai is discussing leasing the port and this might help improve the city in the next few years.

It’s hard to predict where Somaliland is heading. Development will continue, and as infrastructure improves the economy will too, fueling more investment. It’s an exciting time for this portion of the Horn of Africa, and it’s exciting for a traveler to be able to witness it.

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

Coming up next: Some thoughts on travel in Somaliland.

Somaliland adventure: Bumbling in Berbera

Besides the painted caves of Laas Geel, the most promising road trip from Somaliland’s capital Hargeisa is to Berbera, 160 km north of Hargeisa and the country’s main port on the Red Sea. Nobody knows how old Berbera is, but it’s been an important port since ancient times and is mentioned in The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a Greek sailor’s guidebook from the first century AD. It boasts beautiful coral reefs, a lighthouse with a sweeping view, and a historic synagogue.

We got to see none of these things, but our trip was educational to say the least.

I and my travel companions, Swedish photojournalist Leo Stolpe and a Somali expat who doesn’t wish to be named, hired a driver through my friends’ hotel. Since we did it on short notice the hotel owner couldn’t get one of his regulars and had to hire someone he didn’t know. He explained to the driver that we wanted to see everything and we’d be out all day. He also told him that if he did a good job he could expect more work in the future.

The driver seemed friendly enough. He spoke decent English and was in good spirits as we left. He was in even better spirits when he stopped to pick up a large bundle of khat, a narcotic plant. I noticed he spent a lot of money to get a choice bundle with lots of young shoots and leaves that would guarantee a strong effect.

First stop was the shrine of Sheikh Yusuf al-Kownin Aw-Barkhadle, on the highway north of Hargeisa. Aw-Barkhadle was a devoted Muslim who came from Harar to defeat a false holy man who was fooling the people with his magic and sleeping with their daughters. When Aw-Barkhadle told the charlatan to renounce his evil ways, the man challenged him to a magical duel. Aw-Barkhadle let him go first, and the man waved his hand and opened up a tunnel through a mountain on the outskirts of Hargeisa.

Aw-Barkhadle shrugged and said, “That’s simple. What’s difficult is passing through.”

Enraged, the false holy man arrogantly walked into the tunnel. Aw-Barkhadle ordered the mountain to close by the power of Allah and the evil one was entombed inside. To this day when Somalis pass by this mountain they throw rocks at it or slap it with their sandals. Its stone is never used to build houses.

The shrine is a simple affair of whitewashed walls trimmed with green, the color of paradise. Non-Muslims aren’t allowed inside, but I still felt a strange atmosphere to this building, shining brilliantly in the sun amidst a stony plain of thorn bushes and unmarked graves.

%Gallery-93452%The road to Berbera had a dozen police checkpoints. Since our route took us only along the main highway we had permission from the police in Hargeisa to travel without a bodyguard and we experienced no trouble at the checkpoints. Soon we could smell the sea air and we drove through the busy port. Past Ottoman mosques and colonial-era bungalows we could see giant freighters moored in the glittering water. We stopped at the Maansoor Hotel, which has an excellent restaurant with a view of the sea, and the added bonus of the only dive shop in Somaliland. Our driver had been chewing khat constantly for almost two hours, but didn’t seem to be affected by a loss of appetite the drug usually gives and we all enjoyed some wonderful fried fish. We rented some gear from the dive shop, checked the map to see how to get to the coral reefs, and headed out.

Then the trouble started.

The coral reefs are three kilometers outside of town. A coastal road leads there, but we found the road blocked by soldiers in a “technical”, a pickup truck with a weapon mounted on the hood, in this case a heavy recoilless rifle capable of punching a hole through our engine block. The soldiers politely but firmly told us we couldn’t pass. Luckily I remembered the map showed a more roundabout road that would get us around the military zone and to the coral reefs.

The driver didn’t want to go and refused to ask anyone for directions. Luckily our Somali friend managed to get someone to tell us which way to go. The driver grumbled all the way out of town, saying this wasn’t part of the deal, that we only said we wanted to go to the beach, etc., etc. Our Somali friend tried to reason with him, reminding him that he had been hired to take us all around, but to no avail. After a few minutes of obviously not trying to find the alternate road, he turned the car back towards Berbera.

We were getting pissed off. Berbera’s main attraction is the coral reefs, but our khat-chewing driver didn’t care. Not listening to reason in either English or Somali, he drove us straight to the beach and parked the car. He’d gone on strike, and sat glumly staring out the window chomping on more khat.

Leo, being a good travel companion, gave me some solid advice.

“Look, Sean. This is the fourth country you’ve been to that’s on the Red Sea and you’ve never been in the water. Just forget about this guy and let’s go swimming.”

Good plan. The beach was clean, the water as warm as a bath. We swam out and dove under, hoping to find some uncharted coral reefs. We didn’t have any luck but had a great swim anyway. When we finally made it back to the car our driver, teeth stained green with khat, rounded on us.

“Where have you been!? It’s time to go!!!”

We tried to calm him down and said we’d head back to Hargeisa after stopping at the dive shop to return the equipment.

“No!” he declared. “I’ll drop off the equipment next time I’m in Berbera.”

Yeah, sure you will, I thought, but said, “It will only take a minute.”

“We don’t have time! It will be dark soon and I won’t take any more side trips.”

“Side trips? The dive shop is right over there,” I said, pointing. “We have to drive past it to get to the highway.”

Even Mr. Khat couldn’t argue with that logic, so grumbling all the while he stopped at the dive shop and glared at us until we were back in the car.

“Where’s your guard?” he demanded. This was the first time he had mentioned it.

“We have permission from the Hargeisa police to travel without one, we already told you,” Leo said.

“I won’t drive without a guard!” Mr. Khat shouted.

Our Somali friend reasoned with him in their own language. After a minute the driver grunted and headed out.

At the first police checkpoint outside of town, the cops inspected our papers and let us through, but our driver wouldn’t budge. He started shouting to the police that he didn’t want to drive at night without a guard and insisted one of the cops get in the car and that we all go back to the station. The sun was setting and we were headed in the wrong direction.

Our Somali friend muttered, “This is a shit man.” I was tempted to ask how to say that in Somali.

Mr. Khat had really worked himself up into a fever pitch now. He was ranting and raving, obviously suffering a bad trip from the drug he’d been eating all day, and once he got to the police station he vowed he’d leave us there. The police chief stepped in, and a long debate ensued about whether we had to hire a officer or not. A call to higher authorities decided that we would. As that was being arranged our “driver” came up to me.

“Where’s my money?” he demanded.

“The agreement was that you’d be paid when we got back to Hargeisa,” I said as calmly as I could, which wasn’t very calmly at all.

“I WANT MORE MONEY!” he screeched.

“For not taking us anywhere? I don’t think so!”

OK, that’s not what I really said. I can’t print what I really said. In a moment the cops jumped between us and the driver started threatening the police chief. Yes, the police chief. A club brandished over his head shut him up, but only just barely. The police chief told him in no uncertain terms to take us back to Hargeisa, that we’d pay for the police escort, and we’d pay him what we agreed on and not a shilling more.

So it was decided. The drive back was spent in glum silence, except for the smacking of our driver’s lips as he gobbled down more of his ridiculous little leaves.

There’s a lesson in all this. Somaliland doesn’t have a real tourism industry yet, and visitors need to find an experienced driver and make it clear to him from the beginning what they want. Drivers need to understand they’re being hired for the day, not for a certain number of kilometers. Hotel owners need to find reliable drivers. They need people who are relaxed, enjoy their work, and are flexible with international visitors who want to be shown everything.

And they need to find people who aren’t addicted to drugs.

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

Next time: Somaliland, building a nation.