The Death Of A Good Travel Companion

travel, travel companion, HararThis week I learned the sad news that a friend and coworker in Harar, Ethiopia, had died. Mohammed Jami Guleid helped me out countless times while I explored the Horn of Africa. If you enjoyed my series on Somaliland or Harar, you have him to thank.

I first met “Dake,” as everyone called him, on my first visit to Harar in eastern Ethiopia as I was searching for a way to get to Somaliland, the breakaway northern region of Somalia. Everyone told me to meet with Dake. He was a Somali who had made Harar his home and had many contacts on both sides of the border. Within days I was riding through the desert with a couple of his relatives on my way to Somaliland. It was one of the best adventures of my life.

From that point our working relationship grew. Dake was an expert on Somali and Harari culture. He even wrote a book titled “Harar: A Cultural Guide.” My signed edition sits next to me as I write.

We meet lots of people on our travels. Most of them soon fade into the past, remembered only in old photographs and journal entries. Others last through a few emails and postcards before they, too, become memories. Only a few become lasting friends.

That was easy with Dake. He had an open, relaxed manner and was always quick with a joke. His deep interest in Harar’s history and architecture was infectious. Once he woke me up at five in the morning so we could photograph the town’s winding medieval alleys as the sun rose. I didn’t mind, even when his insistence on getting “one more shot” kept me from my morning coffee for far longer than I liked.travel companion, travel, HararHere he is in the narrowest of Harar’s alleys, called Megera Wa Wiger Uga, “The Street of Peace and Quarrel.” In local tradition you have to speak to anyone you pass here, even if you’re angry with them and aren’t otherwise talking with them. Since it connects two busy areas, a lot of people pass through this alley and a lot of arguments get resolved.

Dake had been an outsider to Harar once himself, so he sympathized with my efforts to adjust to the local culture. He was always ready to help out with advice at a moment’s notice and saved me from more than one cultural blunder. Having an insider who knows what it’s like to be an outsider is invaluable when studying a new place.

We also explored Ethiopia’s Somali region. Dake had big hopes of developing the region’s tourism potential as a way to expand his own tourism business while helping his people.

When we weren’t working at documenting eastern Ethiopia’s heritage, we spent many relaxed hours at birtchas or spinning tales in local cafes. Friendships can be fleeting when you’re traveling, but Dake and I became good friends and kept up a regular correspondence when I was back in Europe.

When you make a real friendship on the road, treasure it. Keep in contact and head on back to see them. I wish I had made it back to Harar at least one more time while he was still alive. As the list of my friends who have died relentlessly lengthens, I find myself more appreciative of those I still have, and more determined to pack as much life into the years left to me before my own inevitable end.

Authors note: my pay for this post will be donated to Glimmer of Hope, an NGO working to help Ethiopia’s children. Dake had a son about the same age as mine so I think he’d appreciate it.

Skype Banned In Ethiopia, Punishable By 15 Years In Prison

Skype, EthiopiaA new law passed in Ethiopia has banned Voice Over Internet Protocol services such as Skype, Al Jazeera reports. Use of such services is punishable by large fines and up to 15 years in prison. The law was passed with little fanfare on May 24 but has only just become noticed by international media.

The government-owned Ethio Telecom has a monopoly on telecommunications but the country is filled with cybercafes where people can make low-cost phone calls over the Internet. Ethiopians complain that Ethio Telecom’s international calling rates are unaffordable and Internet calls are their only option. This move blocks such competition.

Another probable reason for the move is to quash internal dissent. Several ethnic groups such as the Oromo and Somalis have armed independence groups inside Ethiopia. These groups get support from abroad and so the government may be trying to cut their lines of communication and funding.

Use of the Tor Project online anonymity provider has also been banned.

Having spent several months in Ethiopia in 2010 and 2011, and being in regular contact with people in the country since, I can attest to the difficulty in using the Internet there. Service is slow, and sometimes gets cut off entirely when there’s a skirmish with one of the rebel groups or a meeting at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa. These cutoffs are invariably called “equipment malfunctions.”

Emails from abroad often don’t make it to people in Ethiopia. Those with business licenses always seem to get their email, but private citizens often don’t. Ethiopians have told me this is because of government security fears. Many people use Facebook for email because the government can’t block direct messages on the site. I myself have resorted to using Facebook for most of my communication with Ethiopian friends and colleagues.

And in case you’re wondering, our emails have nothing that could possibly be construed as a security risk. Emails about archaeology, historic preservation and simple hellos have gone missing. This is a shame because Ethiopia has a growing educated class that has a lot to say and is thirsty for contact and information from the outside world. Opening up the lines of communications could very well bring on an Ethiopian renaissance from which we’d all benefit.

Ethiopia’s government bills itself as a bastion of democratic stability in an unstable region and as an ally in the War on Terror, but laws such as this show that the current regime is anything but democratic.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Somali National Theatre reopens in Mogadishu

Who ever thought going to a play could count as adventure travel? Now it can, because the Somali National Theatre has reopened in Mogadishu, Somalia.

This is the latest sign of growing normalcy in the battered capital. Traffic cops have returned to the streets, the markets are thriving and there are now regular commercial flights to Somalia from Turkey.

The theatre closed in the early ’90s when Somalia spiraled into civil war. With rival clans fighting over every block, going to the theatre wasn’t a big priority. Al-Shabab certainly didn’t try to reopen it during their brief control of Mogadishu. The Islamist terrorist group banned all public entertainment as well as Western music, foreign food aid and bras.

Now Al-Shabab is on the defensive, being attacked on several fronts by the Transitional Federal Government, the African Union, Kenya and Ethiopia. This has allowed a period of relative peace in Mogadishu, although bombings do still occur. Somalis have been quick to rebuild and the theatre is the latest sign of renewed life.

The Somali National Theatre celebrated its reopening by entertaining an audience of about 1,000 with a night of music, drama and comedy. That’s right, comedy. The fact that Somalis are laughing is a good sign. Who knows, perhaps tourism will be next!

As further proof that absolutely everything ends up on YouTube, here’s a clip of a concert at the Somali National Theatre in the 1980s. It’s obviously transferred from an old VHS tape, so the quality isn’t the best, but how often do you get to see something like this?

Opinion: Dutch khat ban smacks of racism

khat, qat
The Dutch government recently announced that it will ban the use of khat, a narcotic leaf widely chewed in the Horn of Africa and Yemen.

I’ve written about khat before. I’ve spent four months in Ethiopia, especially Harar, a city in the eastern part of the country where chewing khat (pronounced “chat” in the local languages) is part of many people’s daily lives. It’s a mild drug that makes most people more relaxed, mildly euphoric, and talkative. It also helps concentration and is popular among university students.

Of course there are side effects. Short-term effects include sleeplessness, constipation, and for some people a listlessness that keeps them from achieving their potential. Long-term use can lead to mental instability and heart trouble. I met one western researcher in Harar who had been there two years. He’d stopped using khat after the first few months because he was afraid of the long-term effects. If I lived in Harar that long I’d stop chewing khat for that very reason.

So the Dutch government seems to have a good reason to ban khat. Or does it? This is a country where marijuana, hash, herbal ecstasy, and psychedelic truffles are all legal. And if we’re talking about long-term health effects, we need to throw in alcohol and tobacco too.

So what’s different about khat? It’s almost exclusively used by the Dutch Somali community, numbering about 25,000 people. According to the BBC, “a Dutch government report cited noise, litter and the perceived public threat posed by men who chew khat as some of the reasons for outlawing the drug.”

Drunks aren’t noisy? Cigarette smokers never litter? The last reason is the most telling: “the perceived public threat posed by men who chew khat.” In other words, black men. In Europe, khat is a black drug, little understood and rarely used by the white population. This ignorance and the fear it generates are the real reasons khat is being banned.

While there are some valid health and social reasons for banning this narcotic plant, they also apply to the narcotic plants white people like to use. But we can’t expect white people in The Netherlands to give up those, can we?

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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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