On Somaliland's hidden charms, wild roads, and abiding mysteries
I lay down a few meters away from a grave. At the time, I didn’t know it was a grave. Tired and exhausted, I just put down my backpack, stretched on the makeshift bed with no pillow and bedcover, and stared at the constellation of stars forming in the dark sky. I was in Zeila town in Somaliland, once considered one of the most vibrant and historically significant ports in eastern Africa. The hotel was the Kaboode Guest House, the only one in town. Its two rooms were already occupied, but there was a courtyard fenced with wire mesh and cardboard where weary travelers slept on wooden bed frames with cheap, uncomfortable mattresses, listening to each other’s snores.
It was February 2013, towards the end of my travels throughout Somaliland, the self-declared republic that separated from Somalia in 1991. Over the last two decades, this nation of 3.5 million people has dispensed with the violence and danger that many associate with the Horn of Africa. More than anything, Somaliland is a nation united by its sleepy hamlets, desert plains and scrubby badlands. In these dry terrains, in decrepit hotels like the Kaboode, the best people, the best stories – and at times, the best food – hide away. From the outset, I was besotted with Somaliland.
I began my travels at the opposite extreme, in Hargeisa, Somaliland’s capital, a somewhat vibrant city that is literally careening its way towards development. It is also a city of contrasts. The slim dusty roads bustle with big SUVs. Police officers chew khat while guiding traffic. Boys in slim-fit jeans, flip-flops and big nerdy glasses talk loudly while sipping tea in open-air cafés.
Docile dogs, black-headed sheep and goats also roam the streets, unharmed – much like the holy cows of India. Fashionable women wear colorful dirac dresses and gold necklaces. It seems everything around this city – and much of Somaliland itself – is painted or decorated in green, white and red: the colors of the breakaway state’s flag.
When I first got to Hargeisa in October 2012, I used to take long walks in the city, especially at night, when the daytime heat subsides and a sweet chill covers the night. Those walks, alongside conversations with friends, afforded me the ability to see and understand the undertones of people’s lives in Hargeisa.
Somalilanders, I came to know, are fond of politics, and they don’t hide their enthusiasm for it from anyone. As the administrative capital of the country, Hargeisa’s residents feel the urge to lecture you on the importance of their independence, and why the international community led by the United Nations should recognize their country. Since its secession, Somaliland has used a blend of clan leadership and electoral politics to keep itself from falling apart.
Its status as an unrecognized territory has also warranted it a few names including “the invisible country,” a “land in limbo,” the “desert democracy,” and most of all, “Africa’s best kept secret.” Yet, for all the definitions, Somaliland’s rise as a solitary symbol of peace is something Somalilanders, sometimes with avuncularity, sometimes with outright indignation, won’t allow anyone to forget.
Monuments around Hargeisa depict the bloody struggle for independence. These monuments are there to solidify the ideas of sovereignty and shed light on the pain of war and the cost of peace, especially to the younger generation. There’s the MiG aircraft mounted in downtown Hargeisa that commemorates the shelling of Hargeisa by Somalia’s former dictator, Mohamed Siad Barre. There’s the “Hand of Hargeisa,” which shows a panhandle of Somaliland cut off from the rest of Somalia’s map. There’s even a military tank, erected as a symbol of disarmament in the downtown area.
Every facet of life in Hargeisa feels like a statement, a manifestation of how life has come so far. The city, and by extension the country’s economic development, doesn’t rival that of Mogadishu, even though the latter had a full on war for over two decades. But the devil here is in the details: in the operating ministries, functioning municipalities, and most of all, the nascent taxation system that is bringing critical revenue back to the government. Hargeisa is also host to the 17-million dollar Coca-Cola bottling plant, which the Guardian called the most “isolated” Coca-Cola plant in the world.
By far, the best trip anyone can take within Somaliland is to drive east out of Hargeisa. Juxtapositions emerge: picturesque views amidst scorched landscapes and differing weather patterns. Along the way, we stopped in Berbera, a dull coastal town on the Gulf of Aden, known for fresh, succulent fish fillet served in restaurants like Heeb Soor. Leaving Berbera, the trucks full of people and goats that barreled up and down Sheikh Mountain, as if without brakes or inhibitions, caught me up short.
We spent the night in Burao, the town where the Grand Conference to declare Somaliland’s independence was held in May of 1991. Beyond the quiet streets of Burao, it’s all dry leaves and shrubs, craggy cliffs, the Golis Mountain, and the Saraar Plains for miles and miles and miles.
I have always quibbled about how seasoned travelers talk of their journeys to the “edge of the earth.” But after 12 hours driving through the Saraar Plains, which are so long and extended a poet once described them as “the road to hell,” I understood the phrase.
But the journey was well worth it. Just before sunset, we reached Erigavo town, one of the most exquisite places to visit in Somaliland. Even though it doesn’t rival Hargeisa or Burao’s more modern experience, the city has its own authenticity. Its air is so fresh. It literally smells of freshly cut grass. I loved the frigid climate of the night, and the mutton that seemed to be readily available, no matter the restaurant, for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
The morning after stopping in Erigavo, we summited the escarpment at the Daallo Forest, and I shed a little tear when we finally reached the top. The vertiginous drops here were so spectacular that I couldn’t help but wonder why this is not one of the most famous tourist destinations in the whole of Africa.
Somaliland is a country traversed mostly, if not entirely, by road. There are barely any flights in between the cities and the towns, which means that you are mostly stuck in a car with a driver for very long hours. I traveled nearly impassable roads with these drivers in the chill of the morning, the scorch of noon, and the dead of night.
They are your best friends, these men. They speak with passion about all things Somaliland. They postulate about life and prognosticate about political events yet to happen. They introduce you to the geography of the surrounding environment, and inform you about happenings in small towns that are no more. They tell you how to go to the toilet in the bush, and what wild animals to look out for.
Most of all, they are hopeless, incurable romantics. These drivers, at least the few I traveled with, hate to miss the latest Turkish soap operas dubbed in Somali that are showing on local television stations. They root for the good guy and hate on the antagonists. Every time we got to a small town, their first mission would be to ask around for a restaurant with a TV. They sat glued to these melodramas.
Indeed the travails of love are their favorite subject, and they never fail to invoke the story of Boodhari and Hodan (Somaliland’s version of Romeo and Juliet) whenever the Qaraami sentimental music comes on the radio. On the surface, they are tough, macho guys. But perhaps, the long periods of traveling on the rough terrains make their hearts softer and their conversations, in turn, much more riveting. To keep themselves going at times, they chew khat, and their mood swings, depending on the time of the day, swing from eccentric and cranky to outright bizarre.
If Somaliland has one persistent vice, it is khat. At that hotel in Zeila, I had fallen asleep to the quiet murmurs of a group of travelers who sat up chewing deep into the night. The next morning, I awoke to the sound of a goat chewing on the leftover khat leaves strewn all over the sandy floor. This went on for a while until a stocky man with a husky voice cornered the goat and dragged it out of the compound by the ears.
After taking ablution and performing the morning prayers, I took a walk around the area adjacent to the hotel. That’s when I saw the circular mounds outlining the graves, some of which extended to the hotel’s courtyard, right where my bed had been the night before. I shivered.
When I queried the guard as to why there wasn’t a clear separation between the hotel and the cemetery, he gave me a smarmy smile and narrated a fact that bordered on the apocryphal. Kaboode, he said, was the only hotel in Zeila that bordered a burial ground. Both the hotel and the cemetery faced the town’s only functioning mosque. The guard said that nobody knew when the graveyard had encroached upon the hotel premises, or whether it had been the other way around.
Zeila, located west of Hargeisa in the Awdal region, was once described by the prominent explorer Ibn Battuta as the “dirtiest, most desolate and smelliest town in the world” because of the “quantity of fish and the blood of the camels they butcher in its alleyways.” Zeila showed no such buzz now: it was a peaceful village that boasted of a few television sets and old, open-air restaurants where the few residents gathered to talk and drink tea. To any visitor, the “squalor” that is Zeila represents the frustrations, and the fulfillment, of Somaliland’s unlikely trajectory and uncertain future.
That day, as I packed my bags to head further west, I remembered the morning when I first landed in Hargeisa’s airport in September 2012, and how jittery I felt knowing no one had come to pick me up. I was now an old hand, crossing from one side of Somaliland to the other in just over 180 days. My journey at this stage, unlike Somaliland’s, had come full circle.
Abdi Latif Dahir is a freelance writer based in Nairobi, Kenya.