On the side of the situation…

Much has been happening in Hargeisa since I last updated this thing and with the start of the new semester upon me it seems like a good time to fill in some details about the last. Late 2010 and early 2011 seemed very much dominated by the ‘German’. Long story short, old German rolls up in Hargeisa, hangs out for a while, marries a Somali, converts to Islam, drives around in a beat-up sedan (easy to spot from the NGO crowd!) and decides to make a bunch of homemade porno films with local women. Turns out: not a good idea. So he gets busted by the law (surprise, surprise – this society is both very conservative and very oral and this kind of gossip would be too good to be true) and the rest of us whiteys have to endure months of ‘Jarmaal!? Jarmaal!?’ from little kids, smart-ass teenagers and qaated-up crazy guys who think that all white people hail from the same clan and thus share some kind of collective responsibility for this randy old joker. After trial – and his reversion of the conversion to avoid him being tried under Sharia – ‘the German’ got 4 years in Maandera (the old British colonial prison) between Hargeisa and Berbera though the rumour doing the rounds now is that he’s already been extradited back to Germany.

The ‘Jarmaal!’ cat (qaat?) calls and niqab muffledgiggles seem to have abated these days and things seem pretty much back to normal. We had a small scare on Christmas Day when we rolled round the corner into work to meet an upturned car, several burning tires and a couple of dozen angry looking young mend standing behind. ‘Uh… does this have anything to do with us?’ was the question shared in the car but, as it  turned out, it didn’t and was simply an instance of student politics playing out (with wonderful timing) over the selection of a new university president. The driver turned to me and asked if we should drive home. Yes, please Abdirahman, if you wouldn’t mind, I wasn’t really in the mood for 7am classes on Christmas day anyway. The Lord works in mysterious ways, so they say.

Other big news in Hargeisa recently has been the long-delayed completion of the second river bridge (the first of which was swept away in 2005). It seems almost absurd to consider this fact when staring at the utter dryness of the river as it has been for the last 9 months, but, when it rains it pours and the entire valley around which the city sprawl is located drains right down into this channel at quite fantastic pace. And then, in a torrent, transports a year’s worth of garbage to the poor suckers downstream. The bridge, completed with politically prudent haste under the watch of the new Siilanyo government, will help us avoid the chaos of last year’s rainy season where no one sans canoe could get to university. Of course, that is if the rainy season actually ever gets here. The president himself is (literally) praying for rain and the cost of water has jumped through the roof. Almost simultaneously the value of the dollar has tanked which from our perspective does make things somewhat more expensive but, on the bright side, if it keeps going this way they might not have to keep using wheelbarrows to carry around the local currency needed to make any purchase over about 50 bucks in value.

Other new additions to the city include a revamped UNDP compound which resembles a somewhat serious fortress complete with watch towers, private security and massive blast sand barriers (in fairness they did get blown up in 2008 and the newly paved bridge road next door gives any nut-job in a explosives rigged Mark 2 one hell of a run-up…) Attempts to beautify these muscular defenses by planting flowers on top of the 10 foot high blast barriers were thwarted by the goats (what else?) which scaled them and the razor wire to finish off any greenery within about 6 hours of it being planted. The goats here are quite impressive in both their agility and ability the digest anything. I watched a goat excrete a whole plastic bag last month. It was about the most exciting thing that happened to me that week.

Aside from the UN, NGO land seems to be running along on its parallel course here in Somaliland. I mustn’t generalize as some organizations do excellent and appropriate work, but there’s also a lot of nonsense going on. Like most of my observations above they come from what I see walking the streets – this week it’s the giant anti domestic/gender/sexual violence billboards stuck up – in English(!) – on the main road, that have got me. Thanks a lot EU/NGO ‘implementing partners’, and just what percentage of the people who pass by are able to make any sense of this very enlightened exhortation against violence towards women? Nevermind, at least the donors will understand when they see the pictures in the project evaluation.  As usual I have a sense a serious disconnect between realities on the ground and the perception of need felt by a somewhat detached NGO community filling in gaps as best they can. The private sector remains by far the most dynamic force for change in the city though the extent to which it will mitigate the effects of mal-administration and infrastructural deficiencies (or non-existence) in public services is very limited. To be fair, the new government has had less than a year to start flexing its muscles and it will be fascinating to see how far it will get in pushing its stated agenda of increasing taxation for these public services. Meanwhile I’m stuck staring at billboards encouraging people to ‘stop harmful traditional practices against children’ (an allusion to the ongoing and pervasive practice of female genital mutilation) without really understanding what it means – and I can read both of the languages – thinking, is this really an effective use of state and/or NGO funds? I don’t know but somehow, I doubt it.

It’s all in the translation – like the way students often translate literally from the Somali or with the first words they pluck out of the dictionary. ‘On the side of your situation’ makes sense but sounds a bit strange to my ears. Recognizable but odd to the outsider – not a bad metaphor for a lot of what counts as ‘development’ in this place and that’s just the way it is.

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One Response to “On the side of the situation…”

  1. Peter-

    Very interesting, witty and humorously sarcastic, as usual. Maybe you could do a dissertation comparing and contrasting the slogans in Somaliland versus China! It always struck me that how bad some of the Chinese slogans are translated when there are so many people there who speak excellent English. I guess they hire the poor-performing students to do the translating!

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