Camels, can-openers and cultural relativity

Places everywhere nurture their own idiosyncrasies and  Somaliland is  no different. For me though, the novelties of life in this part of the Horn of Africa feel somewhat more pronounced than other places I’ve been to or lived in. There’s the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly – like everywhere – but there’s something about Somaliland’s peculiar quasi-national identity that helps emphasise the colours, sounds and smells of life here. Is this all just orientalising, cultural-essentialist rubbish? Partly, but it’s hard to argue that this place is anything but unique and it’s amazing the kind of things that the long-term visitor to the region can start to get accustomed to.

First things first, there’s a certain novelty in having a visa in one’s passport issued by a government of a state which, technically speaking, doesn’t exist. All this diplomatic limbo makes the process of getting a visa relatively painless – from getting the chap to open the anonymous ‘mission’ in Whitechapel (bring your own form!) to talking your way through immigration at Hargeisa airport with an expired work permit (‘look, I’m really in quite a hurry and I think I can see my taxi…’) – the bureaucracy here is somewhat flexible. Some would say non-existent, but I think that’s a bit harsh especially considering the fact that the state has managed to stay largely intact and functioning for near to two decades in the face on non-recognition and ongoing civil war in the south.

Speaking of airports, Hargeisa’s is fantastic. It’s the only international airport that I’ve ever had to knock on the door to get into, and there’s something quite enjoyable about drinking espressos on the runway watching for arrivals on the horizon.  Air travel in general in this part of the world is always an experience in itself. If the pictures in the advertisements in Hargeisa’s newspapers are to be believed then Somaliland is home to several fleets of brand-new Airbuses and 747s all donning the shiny logos of various local airlines. In reality things are a little bit different (God bless photoshop) and what lines up on the runway is likely to look a little less state of the art and a little more state of disrepair. Whatever, I’m not especially fussy and if a dinky little prop plane gets me from A to B then I’m a happy camper. There’s a persistent stereotype concerning pilots in this neck of the woods, namely that they’re mostly heavy-set alcoholic Russian aviators, who’ve hung around in the Horn since the end of the Cold War and now work as the hired guns of commercial air travel. I once heard a great story about one of these pilots making his descent into Berbera airport on the Somaliland coast. Apparently (and I can’t vouch in any way for the validity of this tale) the ‘tower’ at the airport noticed that the incoming plane hadn’t dropped its landing gear and desperately tried to inform the cockpit of this somewhat significant oversight. It was at this point the pilot responded [insert comedy Russian accent here] that he couldn’t make out what the controller on the radio was saying because there were ‘so many alarms going off’. As I said though, I’ve had no complaints with the quality of my air journeys so far, though it is always somewhat disconcerting to be sitting waiting to takeoff at Djibouti airport, hear the engines stop and watch as a bloke in shorts carrying a toolkit opens the hatch to peer nonchalantly in. On the other hand, my hat goes off to anyone who’s got the balls or (Dutch) courage to make the Mogadishu landing twice a week. We’ve got light easterlies, a chance of rain and rocket propelled grenade fire on today’s descent…

So if that’s the process of arrival then what of life on the mean streets of Hargeisa? Firstly, they’re really not that mean at all – unless one finds frequent unsolicited conversation-starting particularly threatening (Helllooo! Where are you from? times a thousand). The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office lumps Somaliland in with Somalia in its red-flashing-warning-lights-don’t-go-there-or-you’ll-get-kidnapped-and-die-and-we-ain’t-gonna-help-you travel ‘advice’. This characterization is misleading and undermines the hard-won stability which Somaliland, in general, still manages to maintain. Political violence here is the exception and never the norm.

I’m no stranger to being stared at but here it’s a continuous certainty. Hargeisa isn’t the kind of place where foreigners just amble around outside of their NGO or UN Land Cruisers. Browsing the markets for the mundane bits and pieces of everyday life or stopping for a cup of tea on the street corner always draws attention from people curious as to what you’re doing in this part of the world. Being an object of curiosity and amusement is often enjoyable and very rarely intimidating, though if I stopped to talk to every person who shouts out ‘where are you from?’ then I’d never make it home by nightfall.

Bazaars the world over are wonderful for displaying the character of a places in all their gaudy and chaotic glory. Here the spectrum of commerce ranges from the crouched old women selling buckets of cabbage to the young dudes hawking the knock-off ‘Obama’ sneakers, and the stands which show off the most bizarre lingerie to fully covered Niqab-clad women punters. The central market sprawls through streets and covered awnings and bursts with a vast range of random produce and products – for some reason, downtown Hargeisa is the kind of place in which I can buy a USB wireless adapter for my laptop but can’t seem to find a can opener anywhere…

Bouncing around on the local buses (another thing that the foreign NGO brigade doesn’t do) is the cheapest and most practical way to get around town. The novelty of watching downtown traffic being brought to a shuddering halt by an unruly herd of goats or the odd camel still hasn’t worn off. When it rains here (and it very rarely does) it pours, and the city lurches into a wet and wild chaos as roads turn into rivers and the market sinks into the mud. It’s quite something to watch the previously bone-dry riverbed turn, within minutes, into a raging torrent and then just as quickly disappear. Out in the desert the process is even more pronounced as the surface runoff is practically instantaneous. It’s amazing to see a whole topographical shelf of valleys and plains drain so rapidly and ferociously down to the sea. It’s like geography 101 in overdrive as the desert turns to floodplain back to desert in a moment. Sometimes almost feels as though you’re actually watching the water carve out the landscape of valleys and ravines before your eyes.

So those are a few disjointed reflections on the character and rhythm of life here in this officially non-existent nation. In one sense things are no different here than anywhere else – politics is politics (all intrigue, power and patronage), commerce is commerce (capital carves out the public sphere), and geography is geography (we’re all products of ecologically conditioned development and production wherever we are). Perhaps the most interesting thing about travel and adjusting to a new environment is that it forces you to reconcile the novelties and the commonalities of life between apparently contrasting places. Ultimately though, there’s no such thing as the ‘exotic’ or the ‘mundane’ as everything is relative – the ramshackle downtown market here is no more bizarre than any air-conditioned mall-megalopolis (or Oxford Street on a winter weekend) back in Blighty, and livestock induced gridlock here is no more strange than the tribulations that people put themselves through daily in the urban rush-hour commute. I’m still working on becoming as familiar with the environment here as I am with life back home – probably an impossible goal but that’s fine. It never hurts to try and I may just end up writing a more coherent account of the way the world looks from out here. Stay tuned…

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2 Responses to “Camels, can-openers and cultural relativity”

  1. I really appreciated your summation on somaliland live experience

    I was loughing alot

    what kind I say I felt the same when I arrived in England 20 years ago

    I tought the London was aglss mirror

    I coudnt agree

    19years amazaing they have tranformed and developed well.

    Please email to me I will meet you when you come back to United kingdom

    becouse they are oral community the writing is just new to them – 60% or more of them are Nomatc dont miss to see the country side you will see the real live

    kind regards
    matan31@hotmail.com

  2. Always interesting insight and commentary from our globe-trotting, itinerant, peripatetic Peter! And great photos to match! It’s actually quite coherent and well-written as usual. I’d be interested in how you compare your experiences in Somaliland as an all-too-obvious Auslander with what those you had in China, especially in the more remote areas where foreigners are few and far between.

    I’m off on my own travel adventures next week to do a grand tour (albeit just 3 weeks or so) to SE Asia -Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Singapore – places not even a globetreker as yourself has been to, I daresay .

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