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.

A Glimmer of Hope for Children in Ethiopia

One thing you notice right away in Ethiopia is the children.

Everywhere you drive they’re by the side of the road, smiling and waving. Whether you’re on a newly paved highway or a rutted, back country dirt track, the kids love seeing foreigners and wave at each one. One day I counted 110 waves and it felt like a slow day.

It’s impossible not to feel good when children are smiling at you all the time, but beyond those smiles there’s a story that’s not so happy. Many Ethiopian live in poverty and lack clean drinking water, adequate health care, and access to a good school. Many have to work to help support their family.

The government is making a serious effort to change that, especially in the field of education. School is free, as are textbooks. Even university is free for students who pass a tough entrance exam. The problem is, many families can’t afford to send their children to school because they need them to work in the fields or at home. Plus the quality of education varies widely. While some schools are excellent and the university students can be downright intimidating with the extent of their knowledge, rural schools often lag behind.

This is where another common sight in Ethiopia comes in–the NGO. Non-governmental organizations are everywhere, building health facilities or engaging in microfinance. Some do a good job while others are criticized for inefficiency and wasteful spending. I couldn’t help but notice the large number of NGO vehicles in the parking lots of the most expensive hotels, the same hotels my wife and I avoided as being too expensive.

While there’s a lot of justified criticism of how NGOs operate in Ethiopia, one organization that gets universal approval is A Glimmer of Hope. This Austin, Texas, based organization has a huge endowment that pays all its operating expenses, meaning any donations really do make it to those in need. Other than some projects in Austin, they focus entirely on Ethiopia, mainly in education, health, water, and microfinance. I got to visit four Glimmer of Hope projects and found them a step above the usual NGO efforts.

Our four-wheel drive bumped and lurched over a rough dirt road through patches of forest and farm fields. We were only a mile off the main highway and already a half century back in time. There were no shops, few villages, and electricity was a rarity. Strange to say, we were only a half hour’s drive from Gondar, a major tourist attraction. Our goal was the villages of Burbex and Girargie. Here Glimmer of Hope was building new schools, a rural health center, and a well. As soon as we pulled into the dirt schoolyard and got out of the car we got more than friendly waves; we were mobbed. All learning stopped as kids poured out of the classrooms to see the foreigners.

%Gallery-89843%The “I’ll teach you English if you teach me Amharic” game that we played at the source of the Nile started in earnest, and it was with difficulty that we waded through the crowd to meet the engineer in charge of the building project and the principal of the school. They showed us the old classrooms. A long building, made of wood, mud, and plaster, housed a few cramped rooms on which students sat on bare benches. There were no desks, no extra books besides the textbooks the government hands out, and few educational materials besides a blackboard. Across the yard the new schoolhouse was being built and it already promised a huge change. It was bigger, made of concrete, and would be furnished with educational materials and proper desks provided by Glimmer of Hope. Donations for another school project in Dali are being collected through an online purchasing system where you can buy individual bits of equipment, such as $45 blackboard, that go directly to the school.

Deeper into the countryside we visited a school that had even fewer facilities. It was housed in an abandoned home and the kids didn’t even have benches to sit on. Instead they sat on rocks. The only light came through the glassless window and the cracks in the walls, and the only equipment was a blackboard with a hole in it. Yet here, too, kids were learning, at least until we showed up and got mobbed again. These shoeless children dressed in tattered clothing proudly tried out their English vocabulary and showed us their government school books, which were well-written and stuffed with information. The government is serious about education and stretches its limited resources as far as possible. A dedicated student can do well. The government will even subsidize room and board for university students so they won’t be a burden on their families. While this country needs help, they are doing everything they can to help themselves.

A Glimmer of Hope recognizes this and does something few other NGOs do–it hires only Ethiopians for its in-country staff. This avoids a lot of embarrassing blunders where well-meaning but essentially clueless Westerners try to graft their own ideas of development onto a society they don’t understand. And it gives much-needed jobs to Ethiopians, from the people hauling concrete to educated professionals working in the head office. Once a school is built, the local government takes it over and A Glimmer of Hope moves on to the next project.

This cooperation has worked well at a school in Lege Tafo, near the capital Addis Ababa. A Glimmer of Hope is building an expansion, a science lab, and a library while the government is stocking the library with books, funding another expansion, and funding school operations. What was once a middling semi-rural school is fast becoming a science magnet school. The fact that most students walk several miles down from the surrounding mountains to go there is a testament to its reputation, and to how serious the kids are about education.

This is something you see all around the country–twelve year-old girls who want to be doctors, kids doing their homework by firelight, and university students who aren’t applying for foreign visas because they want to stay and build up their country.

With a new generation like this, it won’t be long before Ethiopia won’t need so many NGOs.

Next stop: Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region!

You can read the entire series of Ethiopia travel articles here.

Al-Qaeda suspected of kidnapping aid workers in Mauritania

The Spanish government fears that three Spanish aid workers kidnapped this week in Mauritania were taken by Al-Qaeda’s North African group.

The three were taken by masked gunmen from their vehicle as it was driving in a caravan to deliver aid for the group Barcelona-Acciò Solidaria en Mauritania. They were riding in the last vehicle and were apparently stopped when the gunmen fired some shots. There is no information about whether anyone was injured. The caravan was driving on a road between the capital Nouakchott to the city of Nouadhibou, shown here.

While no group has claimed responsibility, the Spanish government suspects Al-Qaeda in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb, which recently kidnapped a French aid worker in Mali. In Mauritania they claimed responsibility for killing an American teacher in June. The spate of attacks and kidnappings are making travel in several Saharan nations increasingly dangerous.

The ultimate road trip: 12,500 miles across Africa on a motorcycle

Thomas Tomczyk is serious about motorcycles. He’s done three motorcycle trips across India, from the steamy southern tip all the way up to the frozen highlands of Ladakh. Now he’s starting his childhood dream–an epic trip 12,500 miles (20,000 km) across Africa.

His zigzag tour will take in 22 African nations including South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Chad, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, the Saharawi Republic, and Morocco. . .

. . .before he ends up skinny, exhausted, and happy at my house in Spain, where my wife will fatten him up with her excellent paella.

Full disclosure: Thomas is a friend of mine. We covered the massive Hindu pilgrimage of Kumbh Mela together in 2001 and barely managed not to get trampled to death by hordes of naked holy men. But even if I didn’t know him, this trip is so thoroughly cool I would have reported on it anyway.

Thomas isn’t just going on vacation; he’ll be visiting innovative grassroots projects that are making life better for the average African. Through his website Africa Heart Beat he’ll be telling us about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, such as creating a job center for landmine victims in Mozambique, an AIDS theater group in Botswana, and a Muslim-Christian vocational center in Mali that’s bringing the two communities together.

“The idea of crossing Africa came to me when I was 10,” Thomas says.”A large map of the world hung above my bed in a small Warsaw apartment. I would study the geography of each continent, its road and railroad network. The most prominent continent would be Africa, placed in the middle of the map, right above where my head would rest on the pillow. The idea stayed in my mind for years. I would eventually learn to ride motorcycles in India and cover the Horn of Africa for publications in Poland and US. In January 2009 my grandmother passed away and I decided it was time to do the trek I’ve been thinking about for so long. Traveling for travel’s sake was past me, and I decided I needed to find a purpose as I travel, something that would give meaning to the journey and benefit others.”

While 20,000 km is a long way to ride, he’s done it before in India. His longest journey there was 20,000 km on a 1950s technology 350cc Royal Enfield Bullet. I’ve ridden that bike and it’s a monster– heavy and tough enough for the task. This time he’ll be probably picking up a KTM 640 LC Adventure, a lighter but rugged off-road bike from a dealer in South Africa when he flies there Thanksgiving Day.

He’ll be crossing some very remote areas but will keep in touch as much as possible with an array of communications equipment. There will be regular updates on his blog, Facebook page, and YouTube channel. On the day after Thanksgiving, when Thomas is safely in Johannesburg and on the first day of his eight-month journey I’ll be writing about some of the gear he’s bringing along and share some advice he has for covering your own journeys as you do them.

Know of a project Thomas should cover? Tell us about it in the comments section!