Cracked Sandals and Donkeys
Cracked Flip Flops and Donkeys: Somaliland
The pain was increasing with every step while the dust and heat was not helping the situation. The main goal for the morning was to change money at a nearby bank but the new objective became getting my feet back to the hotel in one piece. My cheap Chinese sandals had cracked and fell apart after eight city blocks from the hotel. Donkeys pushed passed women draped in hijabs while men chewed Qat on the side of the road. Money changers smirked at my passing and shop keepers greeted me in Somali. The local teenagers smiled and yelled at my bare feet as if my predicament wasn’t obvious to everyone around. After walking one block with a debilitated sandal; I mustered up the pride to pick my sandals off the dusty road and put them in my shopping bag. The shoeless journey back to the hotel took over twenty minutes while the avoidance of cow and donkey manure on the dirt roads was a challenge. After reaching the hotel room, my feet met the shower in a refreshing welcome home. Walking eight city blocks through a city in Somaliland was only the beginning. Travelling around this nation would prove to be an eye opening, rewarding yet challenging experience.
Somaliland is located in a region that has been historically unknown to the outside world. Few independent travelers make it to this unofficial nation in the Horn of Africa. The country claims to be independent from its neighbors but The United Nations does not recognize its legitimacy as a nation because they have spent so much effort and time into stabilizing the region that they believe that a unified Somalia is the only way forward in creating peace for the war torn nation. Geographically speaking, the Horn of Africa is made up of the nations of Ethiopia, Djibouti, Eritrea and Somalia and despite its reputation of being a sanctuary to terrorists, bandits and pirates; it proved to be wonderful place to visit. The journey began the day before at the airport in the capital city of Hargeisa.
One’s first glimpse of Somaliland is of desert with occasional palm trees dotting the landscape. Arriving in Somaliland with an official visa for an unofficial country is a surreal feeling that gives you the sense of not knowing what to expect. After stepping off a tiny Russian made aircraft, the heat and dust instantly hits your face. The airport is barely protected by a broken chain fence on its perimeter while the airport porters physically take the bags of the aircraft to transport them by hand to the arrivals hall which was no larger than an average elementary school classroom. After clearing customs, a taxi fare to the hotel was negotiated with a taxi man who was high on Qat and smiling brightly despite possessing only a handful of teeth. The journey was to take thirty minutes but our driver got lost most likely not because his lack of navigational skills but due to the four hours of Qat chewing with friends in the airport parking lot. After some time we arrived at our destination and the hotel turned out be a great place to with the opportunity to people watch on the tiny alleyways below. Sunset came soon enough only to see the muezzins having a call to prayer battle worthy of Somaliland Got Talent Show.
Over the next few days of wandering around the local dusty alleyways, many things became apparent that one would not associate with a country like Somalia. After years of travelling the Islamic world, one sees in certain nations fundamental rights that get routinely denied but Somaliland proved to be different. One can’t travel to a place like Somaliland without witnessing how many young women carry books. Every woman on a main road or side alleyway carried a bundle of books under her arms. Most of the young girls walked confidently in their colorful hijabs while joking and laughing on their walk to or from school. Education was obviously pushed in order to empower the local women. Another pleasant surprise was the number of schools and health clinics that dotted every corner of the city and even outside the capital city in the countryside. Education and healthcare was clearly a major priority of the government of Somaliland and everyone seemed to have access to its benefits. The push and logic for these basic fundamental rights comes from the Somali Diaspora. Thousands of Somalis fled the nation in the 1980s and 1990s during the civil war years with most settling in places like the US, Canada and the UK. That Diaspora in return became educated and now they send hundreds of millions of dollars back to the country for infrastructure projects due to the fact the government can’t secure loans from international banks due to its unrecognized status in the world. It was evidently clear that the educated class of the Somali Diaspora has had the forethought to help their fellow countrymen in need and begin the process of state building with healthy and educated citizens.
Our five days in this unknown nation was truly astonishing. Everyone from the sellers in the souqs (markets) to taxi drivers and hotel staff all welcomed us with open arms. Most wanted to practice their English and let you know that Somaliland is safe and open for tourism. They want the world to know they are forward thinking and trying to rebuild their nation. After spending some time in this unique part of Africa, the old Somali quote of “When people come together, they can even mend a crack in the sky” holds true. The people of Somaliland are looking forward to a bright future and they are determined to make that dream a reality.