Walking in Somaliland

Is Hargeisa safe?

By / May 2016

My husband and I went for a walk in Hargeisa, Somaliland. Before we left the house where we were staying with friends, the Somali woman employed there swore Hargeisa was peaceful. “There is no danger?” I asked. “No,” she said. “Only in Hamar.”

Hamar is the Somali word for the southern capital, Mogadishu. There may not have been any overt danger in Somaliland but there were checkpoints every few blocks and more visible weapons than I was used to across the border in Djibouti. I wasn’t supposed to go out walking alone. And after dark, my husband needed to ride in a car the two blocks between where he watched a football match and our guesthouse.

I wore baggy pants and a loose t-shirt covered by a shimmering blue floor-length robe. A tight cream scarf covered my hair and a tablecloth-sized scarf draped over my head, down past my shoulders to my fingertips. This was not a romantic stroll through a quaint foreign village. It was more of a sanity walk. I hadn’t left the walls of the compound in three days and needed to get outside. We didn’t hold hands. I walked nearly a foot behind. We barely spoke.

We were staying in an upper class neighborhood where most of the few expatriates in Somaliland lived in mansions behind towering walls. The walls were covered with broken glass and barbed wire, the front gates guarded by armed Somali men. The outsides of the walls were painted in vibrant geometric shape patterns. Peach, green apple, yellow. The houses stood like sentries in this neighborhood devoid of trees and littered with empty lots and unpaved roads.

We walked to the Ambassador Hotel where my husband played football (soccer) in the evenings with locals and expats staying at the hotel. He showed me the court. “Its funny,” I said. “Its not so bad,” he said. Two goals, less than a meter high each and with shredded nets so the ball would sail straight through, stood on either end of the pitch, which was smaller than a basketball court and had the white lines of a tennis court.

A barbed wire fence surrounded the court, the top leaning in like the oak trees that line suburban Minneapolis streets. Potholes and cracks scarred the pavement and increased the risk of a broken ankle during games. Weeds pushed up through the cracks and garbage lined the edges: Coke bottles, plastic bags, empty packages of biscuits. “Maybe,” my husband said, “my standards have changed.”

Beside the court was a water tower with a sign that read, “Emergency Evacuation Point In Case Fire of Gathering Point Emergency.” I memorized it because I hadn’t brought a notebook with me. I almost always carry a notebook but not in Somaliland. Too conspicuous and too complicated. I could never manage a notebook and a pen and my scarf and still keep my arms covered. Plus, taking notes in the streets here, in front of armed guards at checkpoints, didn’t seem wise.

Near the hotel someone played a harmonica, the only music I had heard other than the call to prayer from the mosques five times a day. I wanted to find the harmonica player but we couldn’t stray far from the road as we meandered back home.

Two kids stood on a wall around their stick and cloth house and hollered in English when we walked past, “How.are.you? I.am.fine. My.name.is. My.name.is.” Each word staccato, its own sentence, spoken with pride. A woman walked behind us and babbled incoherently. We spoke the three languages used in this region but nothing that came from her mouth resembled any of them. I thought she was talking on a cell phone but her voice became increasingly louder and she started yodeling and ululating.

“What are you doing?” a guard hollered at her in Somali. He wore a beige police uniform and had an AK-47 slung casually over one shoulder. “I’m trying to get the attention of the white people,” she said. “But they don’t speak my language.”

“We do speak your language,” my husband said to her then, in Somali. “Why didn’t you just say something we understand?” She laughed, hiked her dress up over her slip, a shiny green golgorad the color of a toy snake’s skin, and walked away without responding.

A car careened around the corner behind us and I simultaneously looked backward and ducked my head, hoping the people in the car wouldn’t see the color of my face. I was on edge. Every time a car approached, I half-expected a gunshot, a grenade, a kidnapping attempt.

I knew Somaliland wasn’t as wild as the south. I knew gunshots, grenades, and kidnappings were rare and that my fears were unfounded. But I used to live here and had been evacuated after three people were shot and killed. I was still sensitive, hyper alert. Just that morning there had been five gunshots in our neighborhood. I held my breath between each one. All shot straight up into the air, all part of a bus-route dispute.

I was aware of everything from harmonicas to screeching tires, who was behind us, who was in front of us, who was talking to us.

Was the woman right? The woman who told me there was no danger in Somaliland? We walked for almost an hour and came back safe. We stayed for a week and were safe. We know people who have lived there for years and have been safe, more or less.

I think she was wrong. I think there is always danger in Somaliland, always danger everywhere. This is not to say that I am afraid everywhere or always. It is a simple acknowledgement that I am not in control. Being alive means being in danger of dying, of suffering, of experiencing pain. I wondered if there is any space between safety and danger and then I started to wonder if safety exists at all.

I’m more inclined to believe that safety is something we conjure, something we can create and control. But it is shifting, a flimsy house of cards on which we build our lives. My husband and I went for a walk in Hargeisa, Somaliland. We survived. We have also gone for walks in Djibouti, Kenya, Ethiopia, France, the United States, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates. So far, we have survived.

But I don’t think we are safe. I don’t think we ever are.


Rachel Pieh Jones, a frequent contributor to EthnoTraveler, lives and writes in Djibouti City.