Update

It has been nearly 2 years since I finished teaching at Abaarso School, and our students have gone on to receive numerous scholarships and acceptances to elite boarding schools and universities in the United States, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. We now have students attending M.I.T., Oberlin, the African Leadership Academy, and Georgetown, among many others. Immense accomplishments that our students (and staff) should be very proud of!

To keep updated on Abaarso’s news, check out the school’s Facebook or Twitter page.

As for me, I’ve since left the Horn of Africa, switched careers, and have moved to Southeast Asia. I still come back to this blog every once in awhile, and have read with great interest the comments left by various visitors.

Sadly, I was recently informed that one of my old posts (since deleted) on my students’ interpretations of Sharia law had been misquoted by a Somali online forum, which argued that I was highly critical of Islam and Sharia law. This is certainly not the case, and hopefully the posts I documented during my year in the Horn showed what a remarkable and eye-opening experience it was for me. I learned a lot from my time spent in Somaliland, and left with a greater sense of knowledge and understanding of both Somali culture and Islam. As a disclaimer, I’d like to add that any posts on this blog are my own views and do not represent the mission or objectives of Abaarso School, its students, or its staff.

I look forward to hearing more inspiring news from Abaarso and am forever grateful for the incredible year I spent in Somaliland with such motivated and talented students.

Xasuusnow ay ku bilaabmatay

“Remember where it all started”

Las Geel: 10,000 Year Old Somali Rock Paintings

With only about a month left in Somaliland, I have been busy booking flights, spending time with students, and taking care of other things I plan to do before I leave.

Although I do not know what I’ll be doing for work after I finish here, I will be spending nearly two months traveling east on my way home. I now have all of my flights booked except for the final leg from Asia back to San Francisco. My plan is to leave Somaliland in the end of July and go to Ethiopia by bus. From Addis Ababa, I will fly with a fellow teacher to Cairo, and we will spend about a week in Egypt before crossing the Red Sea to Jordan. We will spend about a week in Jordan before flying to Doha, Qatar for a night on our way to Colombo, Sri Lanka. I am meeting up with a good friend from home in Sri Lanka, and the two of us plan to spend two weeks exploring the island of Sri Lanka before flying to Bangkok, where we will spend a little more than two weeks traveling through Thailand and Laos. I am still figuring out my final flight home, but I am looking at spending a few days in Hong Kong and flying back to SF from there.

An ambitious itinerary, I know, but the cost of all of those flights put together is only a bit more than flying from Somaliland-Dubai-SF. I should only spend about $200 out of pocket for a flight halfway round the world!

Anyway, I thought I would quickly post some photos from a trip I made yesterday to the Las Geel cave paintings. Located about an hour north of Hargeisa, Las Geel is one of the oldest pieces of rock art in Africa. Various estimates of the paintings’ age range from 5,000 – 10,000 years old. Amazingly, the site was only discovered around 2003 by a team of French archaeologists. The caves are in an empty, remote valley and provide spectacular views of Somaliland.

It was a great outing and we all had fun discovering the paintings, climbing the cliffs, and playing around with our guards’ AK-47s…

One of our guards gazing out over the Somali flatlands

Me, enjoying the view

Nuur helps our science model skeleton stay hydrated

The cave paintings of prehistoric cattle

Dylan in the valley

Borrowing our armed guard’s AK-47…

Power Economics 101: Harnessing Wind Energy in the Horn of Africa

Someone recently asked me about which sectors in Somaliland I thought might be attractive for potential investment. After all, frontier markets are rapidly gaining popularity amongst Western investors, from Myanmar to Nigeria. Particularly in Africa, there are so many different industries that seem promising – infrastructure, food and beverage, oil and minerals, and telecommunications. Private equity firms based primarily in London and Dubai have begun to zero in on neighboring Ethiopia, which has consecutively posted impressive GDP growth, has Africa’s 2nd largest population, and exports a wide variety of agricultural and mineral products.

Somaliland, however, has not received much attention from investors in comparison to other African countries. The ongoing instability and civil war in southern Somalia, as well as the maritime piracy industry off the coast of Puntland, has deterred many would-be investors from putting their money anywhere near Somalia. The few large-scale investments in Somaliland have mostly been funded by successful Somali businessmen from the diaspora.

Although not blessed with mineral wealth, arable land, or a large population, Somaliland does have a few sectors that might interest seasoned investors or savvy entrepreneurs.

Infrastructure is one major area. China, Ethiopia, and Somaliland have reportedly already signed a trilateral deal to expand and renovate Berbera’s port and build a sealed road all the way from Berbera to Addis Ababa. Ethiopia is one of Africa’s largest and fastest growing countries, but it is land-locked and relies almost entirely on Djibouti’s port for importing and exporting goods. Berbera is a deepwater port that could be very beneficial to both Somaliland and Ethiopia and would provide a competitor to Djibouti. In comparison to Ethiopia, the roads in Somaliland are horrendous. Most have not been repaired in decades and the road from Hargeisa to Wojaale (the Ethiopia/Somaliland border) is not even paved for the last 20 or 30 km. A smooth, sealed road all the way from Addis Ababa-Hargeisa-Berbera would vastly improve Berbera port’s importance and would provide a massive boost to Somaliland’s economy.

Although the infrastructure is in various states of decay, I believe the energy sector challenges infrastructure as the most badly-needed improvement for Somaliland’s economy. Power in Somaliland remains prohibitively expensive, and the country’s population pays close to $1 per kilowatt hour for electricity. To put that in perspective, Americans pay close to $0.12/kWh. Such a high price will guarantee that industry and manufacturing in Somaliland remain nascent and will prove to be a major impediment to expanding and diversifying the country’s economy.

Working on the wind turbine to try and cut the school’s energy costs

Why is the price of power so high? Years of civil war destroyed most of the country’s infrastructure, and Somaliland’s continued lack of international recognition has made it difficult to attract money from donors or companies interested in providing affordable energy solutions. There are no power plants here, and 100% of the power comes from expensive, environmentally-unfriendly diesel generators. Private generator owners charge neighbors exorbitant prices depending on their electricity usage, and it is not uncommon for households or small shops to pay per lightbulb!

The few power lines that run through Hargeisa sag languidly and only function to transport excess electricity from a large generator to neighboring houses and shops. Contributing to the dysfunctional, decentralized energy sector is the fact that diesel generators are expensive to operate. All diesel is imported from the Gulf. The boarding school where I live and teach has two generators – a small one for use in the daytime and a large, high-powered one used at night to power our security lights throughout campus. The school’s managing director told me that on average, we spend about $15,000 a year just on diesel for the generators!

Our electricity expenditures will decrease, inshallah…

Recently, our school has built and installed a wind turbine to try and reduce our costs and environmental pollution. I believe the wind turbine is the first of its kind in this country, and we imported all of the parts from China (the 20 meter tall base, the actual blade, batteries, etc.) A prominent Somali engineer who lives overseas helped manage and oversee the construction of the project. The process was time-consuming – from pouring the concrete foundation to renting a crane to help set the 20 meter base upright to hooking up hundreds of high-voltage batteries.

Now fully functional and by far the tallest structure on campus, the wind turbine is expected to cover 90% of our energy usage, and should pay for itself within a couple of years. We will continue to use the generators at times when the wind is still or if there are any problems with the turbine.

Xamse and Mustafe, posing in front of our 20 meter high wind turbine

To me, a wind turbine seems like the perfect solution to the school’s energy costs. Located about 20 km outside of Hargeisa in an open valley, Abaarso is incredibly windy most of the time. However, wind energy is a bit more complicated than many people realize, and should ideally be paired with another power source to maximize its benefit. If you think of hybrid cars, for example, the most successful ones combine electric power with gas-fueled power. With wind energy, you need a back-up power source for times when the wind is not blowing, the batteries are not fully carrying the charge, or you want to fine-tune your electricity usage by increasing or decreasing the voltage.

One potential option would be to combine wind energy with hydroelectric power imported from Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government has spent close to $8 billion on various projects to dam the Nile River and generate electricity. Ethiopia has become a major producer of hydroelectric power and there are now talks of the country exporting power to neighboring countries in the region. Such an option for Somaliland, however, would require an enormous upfront capital investment which would certainly require external financing from an organization like the IFC or the World Bank. High-voltage cables would need to be laid from eastern Ethiopia to the Somaliland border, but I have heard price estimates in the ballpark of $90 million to complete such an initiative. This project would cut electricity prices drastically for Somaliland’s population of over 3 million, but remains a pipe-dream without international recognition or clear access to funding.

Another alternative would be building a power plant that uses oil or coal and would service the capital city, Hargeisa, which is home to roughly half of Somaliland’s population. Building such a plant and revamping Hargeisa’s dilapidated electrical grid might cost in the neighborhood of $40 million and funding would also need to come from a variety of sources. At the same time, it could prove to be a great investment by monopolizing the country’s energy sector, providing power at a fraction of the previous cost, and making power affordable enough to encourage industry. Current power prices in Somaliland are prohibitively expensive for any kind of large industrial production.

Whatever the solution is, until Somaliland finds a more efficient way to provide power to its citizens, be it through a government-run energy monopoly or a private company, the country will face serious challenges in expanding its economy.

Moussa, Ismaciil, Maxamud, Xamse, Cabdikarim, and Mr. Siler

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Exploring Northern Ethiopia in Photos…

Been really busy the last few months and haven’t gotten around to writing any new blog entries. Sorry!

I just got back from an incredible two-week trip traveling in northern Ethiopia with my brother. From Addis Ababa, we headed north to Bahir Dar and Lake Tana, home of hippos and fascinating island monasteries. Next we caught a bus to Gonder, nicknamed “The Camelot of Africa” because of its Royal Enclosure, a series of Scottish-esque castles built by Emperor Fasilides in the 1600’s. Finally, we got a flight to Lalibela, home to Bete Giyorgis (Amharic for the Church of St. George) – a magnificent sunken church carved out of rock in the 13th century and renowned as the 8th wonder of the world.

This was my fourth visit to Ethiopia, and it really reconfirmed in me that Ethiopia is my favorite country I have ever traveled to. Friendly people, unbelievable landscapes and ancient ruins, and delicious food all make it a great place. I am still figuring out my plans for next year, but am focusing my job search on positions based in Addis Ababa – I would love to be located in Ethiopia’s prosperous capital and learn some Amharic along the way.

Until next time, enjoy the photos!

The shores of Lake Tana in Bahir Dar

The wall paintings inside Ura Kidane Mehret, an island monastery on Lake Tana

The landscape on the path to Tis Abay, the Blue Nile Falls

Tis Abay - Amharic for "smoking water". The Blue Nile Falls were much more impressive before the Ethiopian government dammed the Nile for hydroelectric power

"The Camelot of Africa" - castle built by Emperor Fasilides in the 1600s inside the Royal Enclosure in Gonder

Ethiopian sky

Stone-carved pillars of Bete Medhane Alem in Lalibela, the largest monolithic church in the world

Our guide inside one of Lalibela's rock-hewn churches

Bete Giyorgis, Amharic for the Church of St. George - the 8th wonder of the world. Just unbelievable...

An Ethiopian Orthodox priest entering Bete Medhane Alem

Tired after a full day of visiting Lalibela's churches, with a beautiful view of the valley below

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Berbera and Harar Round II

I have really fallen behind on blogging lately. I have been busy at the school working six days a week and teaching three different classes. Most of my free time now is spent trying to figure out what I want to do after my contract ends on July 30th and identifying jobs I might be interested in after Somaliland. If anyone has any input about business analyst-type positions in frontier markets (Africa, Central/Southeast Asia), please send me a note.

In the month since I wrote my last blog post, I have managed to make two small trips, one to Berbera and one to Harar.

Berbera is Somaliland’s biggest and most important deepwater port. Located on the Gulf of Aden, Berbera has the potential to be a major player in the shipping and logistics industries in East Africa and the Horn. However, due to Somaliland’s lack of recognition and poor infrastructure, Berbera continues to be overshadowed and outmatched by its western neighbor, Djibouti. The Djibouti port handles almost all of the cargo heading from Asia or the Middle East and destined for Ethiopia. As a landlocked country with over 80 million people and one of Africa’s fastest GDP growth rates, Ethiopia needs a reliable port capable of handling its rapidly expanding imports and exports. There are talks of a trilateral deal between China, Somaliland, and Ethiopia to expand Berbera port and build a new road from Addis Ababa to Berbera, but until that happens, I do not see Berbera as realistically being able to serve Ethiopia’s freight needs. I am most clearly reminded of this every time I go from Somaliland to Ethiopia – the last 45 minutes from Somaliland towards the border in Wojaale are spent swerving and bumping on an unpaved dirt road. Without a sealed, tarmac road linking Somaliland with Ethiopia, there is no way that Berbera will ever become a legitimate cargo hub.

Ships at Berbera port

When Somaliland was a British protectorate, Berbera was used for shipping livestock, frankincense, and myrrh to Aden, in Yemen. During the hotter months, the Brits had to move their colonial outpost to Hargeisa, because it was simply too hot to live in Berbera year-round. It is reportedly one of the hottest regions on earth, and even when I visited in January, the temperature was probably over 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

Despite this, the beaches in Berbera are really beautiful and completely isolated. The town itself now has a population of less than 30,000 (mostly people who service the port or the international airport) and the beach that we went to was totally empty. Although beaches I visited in Kenya, Zanzibar, or Southeast Asia were more visually appealing, I actually preferred Berbera, purely because there was no one else. Being constantly hustled by beach boys or sharing the sea with hundreds of other tourists really cannot compare to being the only group of people on the beach as far as the eye can see. Not many travelers pass through Somaliland or the Gulf of Aden, and the only locals around seemed to be fishermen. I realized that Somaliland and Somalia must be some of the only places in the world where one can visit a phenomenal beach and be literally the only person there to enjoy it.

Dylan enjoying the scenery in Berbera

What the Gulf of Aden washed up...

Teachers

I made the 3 hour drive north with a group of other teachers and we spent the day swimming around, eating fish and chips at the Maan Soor Hotel, and generally enjoying the fine weather and peaceful surroundings. It was a great day trip, although the beach was much nicer than what we saw of the town itself. A lot of the aerial bombing damage from the Somali Civil War seems to have never been repaired, and the skeletons of decrepit buildings are still visible throughout town.

Camels on the way to Berbera

My most recent trip was last week for our midterm break. I visited Harar in eastern Ethiopia with a group of other teachers. This was my third visit to Harar, and it is quickly starting to feel like a second home for me. It is a great place to go for a short trip and to experience some of the things we cannot get in Somaliland (good food, beer, freedom to walk around without an armed guard, women without headscarves). Despite knowing the city well, I always enjoy exploring the alleys of the old town and finding new restaurants and cafes to sample.

Although eastern Ethiopia is predominantly Muslim, there are a number of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians in Harar. Although I am not religious, one thing I like about Ethiopians is that they are quick to come together with friends and family to celebrate the vast number of Christian and Muslim holidays. My last visit to Harar coincided with Eid al-Adha, and I was able to attend the massive Eid prayer at Harar Stadium. This time, we visited during the holiday of Saint Mary and were treated to a massive neighborhood feast. Our good friend in Harar, Ermiyas, explained to us that the whole neighborhood had been invited over for a celebration of the holiday – and this meant lots of injera, tibs, and talla to go around. Last trip, I sampled tej, which is a local Ethiopian honey wine. This holiday, we were each given a bottle of talla, a different Ethiopian homebrew. Talla is dark and not carbonated, with a malty flavor. I enjoyed it, and it just added to the celebratory, communal atmosphere.

Serving out injera and talla for St. Mary's Day in Harar

Another highlight of the trip for me was going to see Arthur Rimbaud’s house in the Old City. The famous French poet is rumored to have lived in the house in the late 1800s, although even our guide told us that he may never actually stayed in it. Either way, he lived in Harar for a few years during the time, and the house has now been converted to a spectacular museum.

The house is filled with poems he wrote and photographs he took in Harar, Yemen, Djibouti, and even Berbera. It was fascinating to see what the city of Harar looked like back then, and also to see portraits he took of local Hararis.

Arthur Rimbaud's House in Harar

Portrait taken by Rimbaud

Ethiopian portraits, circa 1880s

The part of the house that I enjoyed the most was the attic, which provided a colorful panoramic view over Harar’s Old Town. The varied colored glass provided a really cool photo opportunity and the room would have been an amazing place to have a meal and look out on a sunset over the city.

The attic at Rimbaud's house

Multi-colored view of Harar

Our last mission in Harar was to successfully feed some hyenas. Back in November when I visited, we tried to feed the beasts on the day of the Eid feast, and the hyenas were surprisingly not hungry at all. We realized that their lack of appetite was due to the fact that sheep carcasses littered the streets of Harar for the slaughter, and the hyenas had spent the day chomping on bones in rubbish piles throughout the city.

This time, we were lucky, and the menacing hyenas had regained their appetite. We watched with excitement as the Hyena Man whistled and lured them in with his bucket of meat scraps. They circled him and got disturbingly close, before one boldly ran forward and began eating scraps of meat out of his hands. After the Hyena Man had warmed up and was steadily feeding a group of three hyenas, he asked us if we wanted to try.

I had a great, yet terrifying time, feeding the hyenas first from a stick held out from my body, and then from the same stick held in my mouth. As my brother later pointed out, the fact that I didn’t get any rabies shots before moving to Africa must have been absent from my mind. Regardless, it was a thrilling experience and definitely something I will laugh about for years to come.

Feeding the beast

Danger is my business

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How to Get Robbed in Dar es Salaam and Other Tales from the Swahili Coast

I know I’ve been off the map for a couple weeks and I apologize for not writing anything in over a month. Classes at Abaarso Tech finished on December 21st and I spent three weeks over Christmas and New Years traveling through Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania. All excuses aside, I finally found the time to sit down and do some writing, and I felt it would make sense to make my first post of 2012 a summary of my epic adventure to the Swahili coast.

Stressed out and eager to leave Somaliland, I left for Harar on the first possible day I could. You can fly from Hargeisa to Nairobi, but it is expensive and the flight connects through Mogadishu. I’m not sure which one of these factors was a bigger deterrent, but either way, I booked a flight from Addis Ababa to Nairobi and saved a lot of money and any risk of being kidnapped.

I arrived in Harar with a fellow teacher who was going to Cairo for the break. Harar has begun to feel like a second home for me and coming from Somaliland, it is the perfect haven where I can walk around freely, eat delicious injera and tibs, and drink cheap St. George’s beer. We booked a bus ticket for the next morning to Addis and spent our one night barhopping and tracking down hyenas.

Buses in Ethiopia leave at 5 am and I groggily woke up on the bus to take in an unbelievable panoramic view of the valley stretching beneath the Arba Gugu Mountains. Thankfully, I was able to keep myself amused for most of the 10 hour busride simply by staring out the window and by watching the absurd Amharic soap operas on the bus’s television.

I immediately took a liking to Addis Ababa. With its refreshingly cool climate, laidback atmosphere, and sidewalk macchiato cafes, Addis feels much more European than any other African city I have been to. I was only in the capital for a day and a half, and spent most of my time eating delicious international cuisine and exploring Merkato, which is reportedly Africa’s biggest market.

My flight left Bole Airport at nearly midnight and arrived in Nairobi at 1:30 am. My plan was to crash in the Nairobi airport for the night and then get a bus to Mombasa the next morning. It turned out that my bag had been left in Addis by the airline and that I would have to get my bus to Mombasa with only the clothes on my back and my camera. ‘Sleeping’ in the Nairobi airport is something I would not recommend – it got really cold at night and I was kept awake by cleaners who swept, mopped, and polished the floor underneath my feet for five hours straight. The baggage claim office assured me that my bag would be forwarded to Mombasa the next day, and running off of about fifteen minutes of sleep, I got a taxi to the bus station. The ‘luxury’ bus I was riding to Mombasa was shabby and downright ghetto compared to its Ethiopian counterparts. The A/C didn’t work, my window was missing and taped up, and there was no TV showing Amharic movies. I slept the entire way to Mombasa, which is a shame because the road passes through some amazing scenery and national parks.

Even having been warned ahead of time, I was in no way prepared for the temperature and humidity change in Mombasa. Somaliland and Ethiopia are quite hot and dry and it gets cold at night. Mombasa was totally different – tropical, humid, and hot. I was met at the bus station by Cindy, a good friend of mine who was in the same course as me a couple of summers ago at the LSE and is from Mombasa.

I was in Mombasa for five days and it was a really nice, relaxed visit (after I finally got my bags from Ethiopian Airlines). Cindy’s family was incredibly welcoming and generously hosted me for many meals and barbeques while I was in town. The lively family atmosphere took away any potential feelings of homesickness I might have had in spending the holidays 15,000 miles away from my family. I’ve also decided that I prefer celebrating Christmas the Kenyan way. Instead of snow, candy canes, and wool socks, this year’s Christmas season consisted of swimming in the Indian Ocean, barbequing racks of goat ribs, drinking Tusker beers, and getting repeatedly beaten in Scrabble by Cindy’s mom and nephews. I don’t know if I will ever spend another winter in the northern hemisphere…

Fort Jesus in Mombasa

Building in Mombasa's Old City

For New Year’s Eve, I decided to join some other friends I had met at my hostel in Mombasa and head to Diani Beach on the southern Kenyan coast for a massive party that was being held there. The party had supposedly only just been called back on and there had been talks of cancelling it due to the risk of a terrorist attack. Since Kenya invaded Somalia in the autumn, there have been a series of bombings in Nairobi, and the threat level has been pretty high. The US embassy in Nairobi has emailed me so many travel warnings and terror alerts that I have instructed my email server to send any messages from them straight to my junk folder. There was a planned Christmas Day bombing in Nairobi that was foiled and a raid in Mombasa which seized some bomb-making materials.

The party attracts thousands of foreigners every year, and if I were an al-Shabaab fundamentalist, it would be an ideal target for me to take out a large number of people in a single attack. With this in mind, I headed to the party legitimately thinking that there was a 50/50 chance I would not make it out alive. My concern was deepened when I went to get my wristband at 3 pm, the time that the doors were supposed to open, and was told to come back at 5 because they were “just doing one final bomb sweep”. Call me a cynic, but I really doubted the capability of a bunch of privately-hired security guards to find and defuse a bomb with no visible bomb-detection equipment.

Thankfully, the party came and went with no al-Shabaab attack. There were three international DJ’s spinning and the event officially ended at 11 am on New Year’s Day. I was proud that I somehow managed that stay up until 9 am – my partying prowess has declined significantly since moving to sober Somaliland. Throughout the night, a police helicopter with a spotlight circled the beach scanning for any signs of danger. I think the Kenyan intelligence service could have at least used a strobe light to add a little New Year’s Eve fun to their anti-terrorism ambitions.

I woke up at 4 pm on New Year’s Day feeling more like one Kenyan shilling than a million American bucks and decided I needed to get myself to Tanzania. I promptly bought a bus ticket to Dar es Salaam after the guy at the ticket office assured me that the bus would arrive in Dar at 3 pm, giving me plenty of time to catch the final 4 pm ferry from Dar to Zanzibar.

New Year's Day, Diani Beach

Surprise, surprise…the bus stalled and moved at a snail-like pace through northern Tanzania and I arrived in downtown Dar es Salaam after dark, by myself, with zero information about the city, no map, and no previous plans to spend any time there. I was also the only mzungu on the bus. And I had no Tanzanian shillings. The combination of all of these factors meant that it would be nearly impossible for me to find a hotel by myself and that I was a disoriented, easy target prime for getting robbed.

As soon as I stepped off the bus, I was mobbed by Tanzanians trying to sell me necklaces, drugs, women, or offering to drive me to Zanzibar (keep in mind that Zanzibar is an island, and there is no landbridge connecting it to mainland Tanzania…). I swear if I hear another rasta hustler ever say “hakuna matata brothaaa”, I will lose it. I blame The Lion King and globalization.

One of the less sketchy lurkers said he could show me a hotel and wanted to be my taxi driver to the ferry terminal tomorrow morning. I figured he would get a commission from whatever hotel he took me to and that he wanted my business in a city where taxis are everywhere. He showed me an ATM so that I could withdraw some Tanzanian shillings and then passed me off to his friend, saying he had to meet someone at the bus station and that his friend could show me the hotel. The hotel seemed legitimate and his friend agreed to meet me at 6:30 the next morning to drive me to the ferry terminal.

I woke up around 6:15 and still half-asleep, walked out of the hotel to find my two ‘friends’ from the night before and a driver waiting for me. They had seemed alright the previous night and to my not-completely-awake mind, nothing seemed dodgy. I got in the backseat with one of the guys and wedged my backpack between my legs. After driving down the street for about a minute, another guy got in the backseat – they said he was also going to the ferry terminal. I should have realized this was dicey, but I was too out of it to even notice. We drove for about five minutes and I realized that I was boxed in the middle backseat with a guy on either side of me, and that the rolled-up windows were tinted a disturbingly dark shade.

Suddenly, one of the guys told me that we were in the ‘mafia’ area of Dar and that I was being robbed. I was surprised how calm I remained throughout the whole thing and, after I realized that running or attacking four Tanzanians at once was out of the question, I gave them my wallet as asked. I only had about 90 USD total in my wallet in a combination of US dollars, Kenyan shillings, and Tanzanian shillings. They asked for my money belt, which luckily contained no cash, only my passports. Incredibly, the robbers told me that they were only interested in cash and that they had no use for my passports or camera. They explained it to me that they were “nice people who needed money”, and not thieves. Hahahaha.

One of the guys took my ATM card and asked for the pin number. I told them that I would just withdraw money and give it to them. They laughed and said that I would stay with them in the car while one of the guys took my bank card and got the cash. I thought for a second of giving them a fake pin number, and realized that this would probably just lead to my execution in the shantytowns of Dar es Salaam. I gave the guy the actual pin number and he got out. We drove further into the slums of Dar, to an area where I actually felt safer inside the car with the robbers than I would have had I been tossed out into the streets. We sat there for about 45 minutes waiting for their friend to return, me staying calm but increasingly thinking that I might actually be in the process of getting kidnapped and the thieves texting, smoking cigarettes, and arguing loudly in Swahili. Finally, their cohort came back with my ATM card and gave it to me, saying that it “didn’t work”. I asked the thieves frankly what the hell I was supposed to do from here with no money, no sense of direction, and an empty bank account. In a surprising act of morality, they decided to give me 50 USD back for my ferry to Zanzibar and 30 USD in Tanzanian currency for a taxi to get myself out of the slums. In retrospect, it is pretty funny that they gave me some money back, and I mistakenly almost thanked them. Then I remembered that they had just drained my bank account and held me hostage in the ’hood for over an hour, and I slammed the cardoor and their faces and went to find a taxi.

The US Embassy gave me free internet and international phonecalls, and that was about it. I guess I had expected that they might be able to feed or house a victimized American traveler, but that was naïve of me. My bank informed me that in the span of five minutes, five withdrawals had been made for a total of $907 – all of my money. I woke my dad up at 4 am California time and explained what happened. Luckily, I had another debit card that they hadn’t found and my dad said he would make sure that the account had enough money to last me until I got home to Somaliland.

Disheveled, dirty, and disgruntled with Dar, I decided to catch the ferry to Zanzibar.

I spent three days in Zanzibar, and although I enjoyed it, it didn’t nearly live up to my expectations. To be fair, a large part of this is that I was in a bad mood having just lost a lot of money in a robbery. But Zanzibar felt exceptionally touristy and I saw scores of European families with their young children, dining at fancy restaurants and going for package snorkeling trips. The mystique and allure that I long associated with the name Zanzibar was lost upon realizing that probably everyone else in the world had the same fantasies about the place and also decided to book a trip there. Stone Town’s narrow alleys and spice street vendors were cool, but not incredibly different from the old towns of Mombasa, Harar, or even Fez in Morocco. The beaches were fantastic, but I thought Diani Beach in Kenya had been just as good.

A traditional Zanzibari carved door

Palace of Wonders (Beit-al-Ajaib), Zanzibar

Two Australian guys staying at my hostel were heading back to Dar and then onward to Nairobi, and I decided to join them, unwilling to hang out in Dar by myself again. We took the ferry back to Dar and somehow survived the next day’s hellish 14 hour bus journey from Dar es Salaam to Arusha, Tanzania’s second biggest city. Arusha is the jumpoff point for most safaris to Tanzania’s incredible game parks. It is where most travelers set up their safaris to the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater. The three of us wanted to try and do some sort of safari, so we walked around town checking out prices.

I was mind-blown by how expensive the safari options were. The cheapest tours we could find at the “budget” tour operators were all about $100-$120 per day. They also told us that it took about 3 solid days to do Ngorongoro and five to see the Serengeti. These were also no-frills packages where we would camp outside the parks and have to provide a lot of our own food and drinks. I was in no position to blow $600 on a safari and was running out of time, so the Aussies and I decided we were too broke for a safari and that we would spend our two days in Arusha simply wandering around the city before catching a bus north to Nairobi.

Northern Tanzanian highlands

We arrived in Nairobi safely (and in daylight) and I spent my one full-day in the city walking around the downtown and exploring the tree-lined, cool neighborhood where our hostel was located. “Nairobbery” is vilified as the most dangerous city in Africa, but for all the talk, I found it to be cosmopolitan, developed, and safe to walk around during the day. Most of Nairobi’s desolate shantytowns, such as the massive Kibera slum, are located quite far outside of the city center and although I did get nagged by a couple of street kids, I was surprisingly impressed by Kenya’s capital.

I said goodbye to my Aussie travel mates and met up with Cindy briefly before heading to Jomo Kenyatta Airport to fly back to Addis. From there, it was a tiring two-day trek back through Harar, Jijiga, and Wojaale before finally ending up back at school in Abaarso, where I immediately fell asleep in my own bed and reminisced about the amazing adventures I had just had over the past three weeks.

**After filing a fraud claim with my bank, I ended up getting the $907 refunded. The robbers also gave me $80 back, so in total I lost 10 bucks from the robbery. As far as robberies in Africa go, I was incredibly lucky – I didn’t get attacked and only ended up losing a very small amount of money.

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Where are all the Chinese?

Since arriving in Somaliland about four months ago, I still have yet to see a Chinese person. To be honest, I have not seen many foreigners at all except for the occasional Western aidworker, Saudi sheikh, or Sri Lankan gemstone prospector. By and large, every new person I meet here is a Somaliland local or a Somali from the diaspora who has come back.

You may be wondering why I would even expect to see any Chinese here – Beijing is thousands of miles away from Hargeisa and the two countries are worlds apart culturally.

But a fact largely unknown to many Westerners is that China’s interest in Africa has skyrocketed in the last decade, and the country is far outpacing the West in terms of business and investment on the continent. The Chinese can now be found in nearly every African country, and the jobs they are employed in are just as diverse as the places they choose to inhabit. There are roughly 1 million Chinese in Africa today, working as salesmen in Guinea, engineers in Kenya, restaurant proprietors in Uganda, coalmine managers in Zambia, roadworkers in Ethiopia, and oilfield technicians in Sudan.

A professor of mine in college, a former US diplomat in sub-Saharan Africa, recalled to our class how he had even encountered Chinese shopkeepers in N’Djamena – the sleepy and desperately poor capital city of Chad in central Africa. A student in our class from Zimbabwe chipped in, saying that in his hometown of Harare, the Chinese are everywhere. Their business acumen and increasing domination of Zimbabwean merchants has caused resentment, he said, as well as the fact that they tend to stick to themselves and make little effort to interact with the local population.

In analyzing Beijing’s relationship with the continent, the numbers speak for themselves: trade between China and Africa has increased from $9 billion in 1999 to roughly $100 billion this year. China is by far Africa’s largest trading partner, and the proof is everywhere I look. From mobile phones to flip-flops, nearly every good for sale here in Somaliland is a Chinese import.

Unlike China’s trade with America – which largely flows one-way with cheap Chinese goods being sold to American consumers – the import-export relationship between China and Africa is much more balanced.

On the export side, low-cost Chinese products have now reached even the most remote areas in Africa, including war-torn villages in the Congolese forest where cheap Chinese plasticware is imported by bicycle. Chinese firms have also signed deals with African governments to build huge infrastructure projects such as highways, stadiums, and railroads.

The Chinese have been very active in Ethiopia and from personal experience, the results are noticeable. Almost as soon as we crossed over the border from Somaliland to Ethiopia, the road to Harar transformed into a brand-new sealed road. This sparkling, Chinese-built motorway made the journey much faster and less bumpy than I had expected.

But the Chinese are equally invested in the other side of the trade equation – African commodities that can be imported to China. The African continent is home to a plethora of valuable natural resources that have been prized by colonial powers, imperialists, and traders for centuries. China, as the world’s largest country and most prolific manufacturer, is capitalizing on Africa’s vast supply of oil, minerals, timber, and even farmland.

Beijing has cozied up to petro-regimes from Angola to Algeria for decades and continues to import hundreds of millions of barrels of oil from the petroleum-rich, democracy-poor states of Sudan and Equatorial Guinea. It has also made massive investments in extracting minerals. China is currently building the world’s largest iron mine in Gabon and is the biggest buyer of coltan, a conflict-mineral almost exclusively sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo and used in the production of mobile phone and laptop batteries. Thousands of tons of West African timber are shipped to factories in the Far East and Chinese agribusinesses have been busy securing land deals to allow them to begin industrial farming plots of land in Ethiopia and Mozambique.

The topic of China’s relationship with Africa is a heavily debated one. Skeptics criticize Beijing’s interest in the continent as the “2nd wave of imperialism”, finding fault with the fact that China only seems interested in the extraction of Africa’s resources, not in the continent’s economic development or helping its people graduate from ultra-poverty. Chinese firms look at investments in Africa from a business perspective, and spend little time assessing the political, humanitarian, or environmental impact of their projects. They overwhelmingly tend to hire Chinese laborers and often have little interaction with the local population. Internationally, China has been chastised for turning a blind-eye to human rights abuses in Africa and continuing to do business with authoritarian regimes that Western companies won’t go near.

The flip side of this is that China gets things done in Africa. When a Chinese construction company is hired to build a road, they build a road. They don’t spend months plodding through feasibility studies, environmental impact surveys, and letters from concerned donors like the UN, the IMF, or Western companies would. Chinese laborers are hard-working, rarely complain, and are willing to work for comparatively low wages in dangerous and desolate locations. Dambisa Moyo, a renowned Zambian economist, has praised China for its no-strings-attached, results-based investment in Africa, a far cry from the Western aid that she believes has crippled the continent and has accounted for its ongoing stagnation.

With all of this laid out on the table, the question remains – where are all of the Chinese in Somaliland?

Well, there are some, and I think Beijing will become increasingly interested in Somaliland in the years to come. I polled my students to see how many of them had ever seen a Chinese person in Somaliland, and was surprised to find that about 70% of them had. They assured me that there were Chinese dentists in Hargeisa, businessmen responsible for importing goods from Beijing, and engineers working for the country’s telecom and satellite television stations. One girl even said her next-door neighbors in Hargeisa are Chinese. I guess I have been looking in the wrong places.

To emphasize the magnitude of China’s takeover of Africa, I asked my students to think of everything they own – clothes, mobile phones, shoes, even their traditional Somali macawiis, a skirt-like piece of fabric worn by men here. Then I asked them where all of these things came from. They all replied, “China!” Their homework assignment for the next class was to ask their parents whether they owned anything from China when they were growing up in Somaliland or Somalia. The answers were overwhelmingly no. I pointed out to the students how cheap Chinese goods have effectively killed many African textile and clothes manufacturers, and they agreed that being a Somali shirt-manufacturer would be a doomed profession; one would clearly go bankrupt trying to compete with dirt-cheap Chinese products.

Realizing the potential importance of Somaliland, Beijing has begun to develop ties with Hargeisa. Somaliland’s president, Ahmed Silanyo, made a two-week trip to China in August to discuss potential opportunities in the country for Chinese investors. A trilateral deal has been signed between China, Somaliland, and Ethiopia to develop oil and infrastructure projects in the region. Reportedly, China plans to invest close to $4 billion on the project, which would build oil and gas pipelines from the Ogaden in Ethiopia to the Somaliland sea port of Berbera. In addition to the pipelines, China would expand and renovate Berbera’s port and build a major road and rail system from Berbera to Addis Ababa.

With a population of roughly 70 million, Ethiopia provides a huge market for Chinese goods. However, the country is land-locked and Djibouti’s port currently has a monopoly over the Horn of Africa. The hope is that a modern, renovated Berbera port could provide some competition and potentially overtake Djibouti or Mombasa as the premier port in East Africa. Such an investment in Somaliland would provide a much-needed boost to the country’s economy, which largely relies on diaspora remittances and livestock exports to keep afloat.

The question I am curious about is when the Chinese ultimately decide to come to Somaliland, will they be well-received or will they quickly wear out their welcome?

I am sure that China’s expansion into Somaliland is just over the horizon. There are roads that need to be built, a power system that needs to be laid, and plenty of opportunities for business-savvy entrepreneurs to introduce their goods to a new market.

Until that happens, the roads are potholed, consumer goods remain pricy, and I still can’t find any decent chow-mein in the whole country!

**If you are interested in reading more about the Chinese in Africa, check out:

The Atlantic’s “The Next Empire” and The Guardian’s “China’s Economic Invasion of Africa”

**Regarding China’s potential investment in Somaliland:

Reuters’ “Somaliland in Port Deal with China Businessmen” and SomalilandPress’ “Somaliland, Ethiopia and China to Sign Trilateral Deals”

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The Most Likely Way to Die in Somalia

A recurrent theme of my life in Somaliland is people from back home asking me about the plethora of dangers that exist here. There is a permanent US travel warning in effect for Somaliland and Somalia, and for good reason. Kenya’s recent military offensive against al-Shabaab in Somalia has destabilized much of the region and raised the security threat level throughout the Horn of Africa to code red. Al-Shabaab has responded to the invasion with a series of bombings and kidnappings throughout Kenya, Somalia, Puntland, and Ethiopia.

In addition to the current turmoil in southern Somalia, years of civil war and a fragile, unrecognized democracy have contributed to an “AK-47 culture” – many people here own automatic weapons and we are accompanied by armed guards wherever we go. With a conservatively Islamic population that has learned to be suspicious of the West, anti-American sentiment is prevalent. No substantive US-Somaliland diplomatic relations exist, so there is no American embassy to bail us out or provide useful security intelligence. A crippling famine struck much of the Horn this year and the Gulf of Aden, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, now holds the clear title as the most dangerous, pirate-infested body of water on planet earth. I also recently found out that the valley surrounding our school was scattered with landmines during the war, and a major de-mining NGO has been active in removing mines in our local village through this year.

Put simply, the list of hazards is long and diverse.

Despite such a troubling array of potential threats, the most likely way to die here is from a car accident.

Like most developing countries, Somaliland is cursed with a perfect storm of atrocious roads, vehicles that look like they have been salvaged from auto junkyards, and old, shared taxis crammed with two or three times the healthy occupancy. Although the Chinese have been busy building and improving infrastructure throughout the African continent, they don’t seem to have made it to Somaliland yet. The decaying roads are pockmarked with potholes and it is not uncommon for a camel, tortoise, cow, or hyena to suddenly decide to cross a major road. Most of the infrastructure was laid by the British in the 1950’s when Somaliland was a protectorate, and then later by the Soviet Union during the US/USSR Cold War standoff in Africa.

The standard of automobiles here is beyond bad. Used vehicles in Somaliland are usually being bought for the third time – they were sold new in East Asia, then used in UAE or the Gulf, and finally dumped here to live out their short remaining lives being driven haphazardly through Somaliland. Cars in Somaliland drive on the right side, but the driver and the steering wheel is also located on the right side. Anyone who drives could tell you that that is not safe. The only tires for sale here are bald, discarded ones that would be sitting in a garbage dump in any other country. Discovering that your vehicle has a seatbelt is like finding a four-leaf clover, and I still don’t think I have ever seen a Somali wear a seatbelt, even if the car has one.

To maximize profit per trip, most trucks, cars, and taxis will cram as many passengers aboard as possible. It is not uncommon to see a full bus with an assortment of luggage, oil cans, fruit, and people all loaded on top of the roof. A five-seat sedan might hold ten people; our school’s fifteen-person bus usually takes almost thirty kids into Hargeisa on tutoring days.

Riding unsafely in Hargeisa - a common sight

The serious risk of auto accidents became crystal-clear this past week. An unexpected problem with the school gave the students a few extra days off for the weekend and with quite short notice, we resumed classes on Monday. Most of our kids had gone home to Hargeisa for the weekend and were making the 40-minute drive back to school on Sunday night, after dark. The road from Hargeisa to Abaarso is pot-holed and has no street lights, and many trucks bringing in khat from Ethiopia drive at maddening speeds to deliver their shipments on time.

As I was sitting in on a fellow teacher’s class in Hargeisa, we got a call informing us that seven of our students had been involved in a car crash while coming back to Abaarso and that three of the kids had been rushed to the hospital with serious injuries.

The students, all boys, had been sharing a taxi from Hargeisa to Abaarso. In addition to the seven boys, there was also the driver, a woman whom the students didn’t know, and the woman’s young child riding with them. The rusty station wagon was carrying ten people when it probably could have safely carried five. The taxi had attempted to pass another car when the driver saw an oncoming vehicle and swerved back into his lane to avoid being hit head-on. Apparently, the driver yanked the steering wheel too hard and caused the vehicle to flip without actually colliding with any other cars. The station wagon flipped a couple of times and the passengers, none of whom were wearing seatbelts, sustained a variety of injuries, many of which were serious and life-threatening.

Mike and I, upon hearing about the crash, immediately left the university and rushed to the hospital, which was luckily located right across the street in Hargeisa. There was a huge crowd of people outside of the hospital and a large mob of angry, crying, and screaming Somalis all pushing at the entrance gate to the clinic. The hospital had a few armed guards who were responsible for keeping people out, and they used a combination of yelling in Somali, cocking their AK’s, and forcefully pushing back the crowd with sticks and canes  to prevent the visitors (who were presumably family members of victims in the hospital) from entering.

Our purpose in going to the hospital was to check that our students were alright and that their families were aware that they had been involved in a serious car accident. Nevertheless, I found it incredibly unsettling that even with a desperate stampede of people being pushed back from entering, we were quickly whisked inside the hospital because our white skin made the guards think that we were important and took priority. I couldn’t help but notice the looks of the other Somalis clamoring to be let inside as the guards pushed them out of the way to let us in.

Once inside the gates, the hospital was just as crazy and chaotic as it had been outside. We were essentially standing in the ER, which was just a cramped set of six operating rooms with plastic curtains cordoning off the patients. Doctors were furiously running around tending to the patients, all of whom had very serious injuries. It reminded me of images I’ve seen of hospitals in Rwanda, Somalia, and the D.R.C. that try to treat lots of critically-injured people with not enough staff or equipment.

We found our three students who were being treated and made sure that their families were either present or had been notified. Two of the boys had serious head injuries and had large sections of their heads shaved as they were being stitched up. They were both conscious and able to hold conversations with us, even with dried blood caking their faces and patients screaming from behind the other closed curtains.

The third student who was injured was hurt pretty badly. We identified him as a 9th grader who I teach and is one of my favorite kids – always enthusiastic and with a positive attitude. His left arm was severely dislocated and his entire arm had been shredded. It was the worst open wound I had ever seen and there was a bucket under the metal gurney collecting the large amount of blood that he was losing. A doctor was attempting to stop the bleeding and clean the wound, and then began to try and stitch up part of his arm. He had no visible IV’s and it was pretty clear that he was being operated on without anesthetic – his painful screaming filled the room, along with that of the other patients.

Eventually, his arm was bandaged up and his screaming turned into more of a quiet sobbing. We learned that the other four boys had all incredulously emerged from the wreck relatively uninjured, except for a few sprained wrists and bad bruises. Once we determined that all of the three students were in stable condition and that their families were with them, we thought it would be best if we cleared out and notified all of our kids back at school that the injured boys would be ok.

The experience at the hospital was really horrific. When I contracted malaria in Ghana, I remember thinking the same thing. The hospitals in both Somaliland and Ghana had long lines of desperate patients and were disturbingly understaffed, underequipped, and unhygienic. At the hospital in Hargeisa, privacy of the patient was non-existent and the perpetual screams of other patients and the shouting of angry guards made it an unimaginably terrible place to be.

Despite the event, I soon realized how fortunate we were to have our students sustain non-life-threatening injuries. We later learned that that the driver of the taxi was in a coma and that the woman who had been traveling in the front seat had died. All of our students had been riding in the backseat – had they not been sitting there, they almost certainly would not be here today.

Our students are all now in stable condition and recovering from their injuries, but this event was a serious wake-up call to me about the threat of auto accidents here and also the miserable state and clear limitations of healthcare facilities in the developing world.

The boy who sustained the worst injury received a blood transfusion because he lost so much blood and wasn’t even given painkillers by the hospital until we realized this and insisted that he be given them. To treat the multiple fractures in his arm, the doctors immediately set his arm in a hard cast.

Yesterday, we learned that he would undergo his first surgery, which was to remove potentially life-threatening tissue that had become infected because the doctors had not properly cleaned his wound before incorrectly putting it in a hard cast. That surgery cost $150, which I find pretty disturbing seeing as it was only necessary because the doctors who treated him screwed up in the first place.

On top of the improper treatment, there is the financial issue of the boy’s medical expenses. I don’t think medical insurance even exists here, and most students’ families simply don’t have the money to pay hospital bills. The injured student’s family was reluctant to move him to the much better medical facility because it cost an extra $10 a night. The head of the school has assured his family that we will work to make sure that all the costs are covered and emphasized that their priority should be on getting the best care for their son, not worrying about the price they will have to pay. Many of the parents from the school are chipping in to help cover the cost, and lots of the teachers and staff are also helping out.

As another teacher pointed out, it is really inspirational to see how this tragic event has brought the students, parents, and teachers together to help these injured students who are such an important part of the Abaarso Tech community. The students involved in the accident are all resting at home now and should be back at school relatively soon.

For me, this disaster reemphasized the importance of wearing your seatbelt and driving cautiously on third-world roads, as well as exposing the harsh reality of medical care in Somaliland and the financial worries that accompany it for many people.

We are incredibly fortunate that we did not lose any of our students and this event showed how precious life really is.

Our kids are awesome...student vs. staff Thanksgiving day football game

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Harari Hyenas and Ethiopia for Eid

Sorry for not having posted in awhile. We had a five day midterm break from school for Eid and I went to Harar with some of the other teachers. I was really excited to go to eastern Ethiopia because I hadn’t left Somaliland once in the three months since I had arrived.

A friend’s guidebook described Harar as the ‘Fez of East Africa’, and seeing as how I loved my visit to Fez in November 2009, I had high expectations for Harar. An ancient walled city, a labyrinth of narrow, colorful alleys, and the wonderful scent of spices and roasting coffee – all of this sounded perfect to me and a far cry from the last three months of life in Somaliland.

Hararis walking outside the Old City

Although I could not wait to explore Harar, first I had to get there, which is a bit of a chore. Actually, getting anywhere from Somaliland is a chore. We had all gone to the Ethiopian consulate in Hargeisa weeks before and gotten our only-available-to-Americans 2-year multiple entry visas for Ethiopia. Good thing, because I plan to hop over the border many times before I leave Africa.

One of the school’s drivers and armed guards drove us the hour and a half to the Somaliland/Ethiopian border. After about 45 minutes driving along a sealed road, the tarmac disappears and the rest of the way is bumpy, dirt tracks. It is mindblowing to me that the Somaliland side of the road is in such atrocious condition – dozens of khat trucks cross the border from Ethiopia every day. Hassan sped through the dirt road, and every time we slowed down for a bump or a turn, a thick, brown cloud of dust would catch up with us and engulf the entire car. Luckily, we had all our windows up.

We reached the border town of Wojaale at about 2 pm. I am whole-heartedly convinced that Wojaale is hell on earth. If not, Earth’s creator was in a very bad mood when he made the place. The town is straddled by two countries, but both the Somaliland and Ethiopian sides are miserable. The dirt road is so bumpy that it seems like it has been peppered with landmines. I thought it would be a great place to test-drive an offroad Jeep, and that is about it. It is hot, difficult to get to, completely covered by trash, and offers little for sale except for khat, warm Coca-Cola, and bald tires.

We caught a bus from Wojaale to Jijiga, another run-down place about an hour and a half into Ethiopia. Almost as soon as we crossed the border, the road drastically improved to a brand-new, sealed road (Chinese-built). The bus driver crammed about 22 people into a mini-bus built for 12 and we were off. Unfortunately, the bus stopped about four times at checkpoints so that we could be thoroughly patted down and our bags checked. Supposedly, certain electronics goods are cheaper in Somaliland and people try to smuggle them in. After arriving in Jijiga, we caught another two hour busride to Harar. The scenery began to change rapidly and I noticed hills, mountains, and green lowlands for the first time in months. It was such a refreshing change to see a different landscape – Somaliland’s dull, rock-filled brown had started to wear on me.

That night, the six of us celebrated our arrival (and our departure from Somaliland) with cold Harar beers and delicious Italian-style pizza. Our waiter must have thought we had just escaped from prison as he watched us wolf down pizza, salad, pasta, and many beers. Such a wide variety of tasty food (and alcohol) cannot be found in Somaliland, and definitely not at Ethiopian prices! A Harar draft beer in a restaurant cost about 8 Ethiopian birr (45 US cents) and the large pizza was about 2 USD. In Hargeisa, the beer would have been unavailable and the pizza would have been 8 USD and soggy.

Another teacher, Siler, and I spent most of the next four days wandering the old streets of Harar with our local Harari friend, Ermiyas. Harar is really an amazing place and one of my favorite cities I have ever been to. It has been one of the most important trading towns in the Horn of Africa for years and is “the fourth holiest city in Islam” because of how many mosques it has. The old walled city is Harar’s claim to fame and is reminiscent of a Middle-Eastern medina. The 16th century was Harar’s Golden Age, and culture, poetry, and craftwork flourished. Ermiyas walked us around the entire old city and many of its vibrant passageways, in addition to showing us the five gates of entry to the walled city.

Ermiyas and me outside one of Harar's five gates

A Harari alley

Another one of Harar's ancient gates to the walled city

One of the highlights for me was the Muslim meat market. It is a quiet square in the old city where butchers slaughter and sell halal beef and goat. The cool thing about the market is that large hawks and birds of prey lurk on the rooftops, waiting for meat morsels to be dropped so that they can swoop down and scavenge them.


Hawks wait to swoop

People-watching was great fun in Harar. In Hargeisa, I am always going somewhere and have little time to observe what people are up to. Even if I did have more free time, the city is so dusty, dirty, and congested that I wouldn’t really want to sit outdoors and watch residents go by. In Harar, all of the Ethiopians that I saw seemed so upbeat and positive. Women hawked onions and tomatoes, men sipped coffee, and little kids played in the streets showing off the new clothes they had received for Eid. There was a certain liveliness and energy that I rarely see in Somaliland, and it was great soaking in the new atmosphere.

Siler pulling a Harari girl on her street sled

Life

Commerce

Ethiopian food is delicious and can now be found around the globe, but there is nothing like splitting a carpet-sized circle of injera with beef tibs, cabbage, and a feta cheese-like dish amongst six Americans and ten Ethiopians. Of course, injera is meant to be eaten by hand, so we never used any cutlery. Because I am left-handed, it is very awkward for me to try and eat using only my right hand, and I was a bit anxious that I would offend some Ethiopians by eating with both hands. Luckily, no one seemed to care and we all feasted until the table-sized dish was gone.

Never one to pass up a strange foreign liquor, I also made sure to sample tej, the traditional Ethiopian honey wine. I had heard that bad distillers try and cheat by adding sugar instead of honey, so I got Ermiyas to take us to his favorite tej spot. I was surprised by color of the stuff – it glowed a bright tangerine color, to the point of looking artificial. The taste was quite odd…at first it tasted like a combination of orange juice, hard cider, and cigarettes. Gradually, the flavor grew on me and I enjoyed it, especially when I realized that the warm buzz I had from my own personal 1 Liter bottle would only cost me 10 birr, about 60 US cents.

Tej, glowing

Another highlight of the trip was the massive Eid celebration at Harar Stadium. Nabil, one of the guides from the hotel, was going to the stadium to pray and invited us to join him. Battling sleep deprivation and a bit of a hangover, we pulled ourselves out of bed at 7 am and joined the massive exodus of Muslim Hararis walking to the stadium. It was a pretty unbelievable experience witnessing a couple thousand people all celebrating the holiday and praying together.

After the Eid prayer, Nabil invited us over to his family’s house for a traditional Harari breakfast. Many of his relatives were there celebrating the holiday and we were treated like two more members of the huge, happy family. It was really kind of his family to host us and we were stuffed with bread, Ethiopian cheese, stewed spinach, sweet, milky tea, and Harari coffee. The coffee was the best part. Coffee is thought to have originated in Ethiopia and the country’s beans are highly prized and exported around the world. Hararis drink their coffee unlike any I had ever tried. It is common for them to make a pot of coffee using somewhat salty butter. Sounds gross, I know, but it was actually really rich and tasty and the butter helped counter the overwhelming strong coffee.

The wonderful Harari family that hosted us for breakfast

On our final night, we paid a visit to the Hyena Man. The Hyena Man is now world famous and has become one of Harar’s biggest tourist attractions. Lots of Hararis I met bragged how Harar is the only city in the world where hyenas roam the streets and don’t attack people. Multiple times when walking home from bars at 2 am, we would see a pack of hyenas wandering on a pedestrian footpath on the side of a boulevard in downtown Harar!

Every day, Hyena Man buys up unwanted scraps of meat from local butchers. At night, you pay a guide 50 birr (roughly 3 USD) to take you to his house, which is on the outskirts of the old city. We sped through the old city on a rickshaw and arrived at dark at the Hyena Man’s hut. He sauntered out, cigarette in hand, and whistled and called for the hyenas in Amharic. Supposedly, he has been feeding them for decades and no one has ever been bitten or attacked.

After a couple of yells, the hyenas slowly emerged from the shadows. Even though there were probably ten of us, I got a bit nervous when I realized that there were probably ten hyenas lurking closeby. I remembered what I had read before I left for the trip – hyenas’ jaws are so powerful that they can bite through human skulls. Hyena Man sat down on a rock and began to lure the grungy beasts in, meat-in-hand. Slowly but surely, they approached and one at a time would lunge forward and snatch the meat from Hyena Man. Another teacher, Siler, sat and fed them as well.

Eid is the day when Muslims slaughter a sheep and feast, so unfortunately for us, many of the hyenas had spent the day munching on sheep carcasses and remains. They were surprisingly not very hungry, and only ate a bit of meat before running away into the dark. It was still a thrilling experience to be encircled by a wild pack of Harari hyenas.

All in all, the short break was one of the best trips I’ve had in a long time. Perhaps the challenges of life in Somaliland made everything in Ethiopia seem so alive, free, and foreign. But I definitely did notice a fundamental difference between Somaliland and Ethiopia. People in Harar seemed more relaxed and laidback about daily life. At the same time, the spirit of enterprise and commerce was alive and well, and everywhere I looked there were roads being paved, bridges being built, and goods being sold. An Ethiopian-American whose hotel we stayed at in Harar talked with us for hours about his mother country. Even with a population of about 70 million, Ethiopia is still one of the poorest countries in the world, but the country’s rapidly growing economy (11% annual GDP growth) is a sign of good things to come. Ethiopians are hard-working and optimistic people and there was something in the air that gave me the feeling that the country is making serious progress and that Ethiopia’s future will be bright. The country certainly has its problems, but much of the clan bickering and bureaucracy that I feel stonewalls investment and infrastructure projects in Somaliland seemed refreshingly absent in Ethiopia.

This is why you should visit Harar...

I cannot wait to get to back to Harar in a month’s time. Until then, I recommend you look into making a visit. I’ll be looking for future jobs in Ethiopia…

Dehna hun! (Amharic for ‘goodbye’)

TreeMosque

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Cutting-Edge and Cutthroat: Telecommunications in Africa

As long I can remember, my cellphone has been the laughing stock of my friends. When everyone else had flip phones, mine still had an antenna and a bad tendency to pocket-dial people. While others got 3G and international roaming, I could never get bars inside my house. And in the last year, before I moved to Somaliland, my friends all converted to iPhones, Blackberrys, and Droids while I continued using the Motorola burner that my dad bought in 2005.

I’ve always paid my own cellphone bills, and as a student on a budget, opted for low-end, pay-as-you-go monthly plans. Most of my phones never had T9, so my texting skills are infantile. I’ve become accustomed to having a phone that doesn’t work half of the time, charges me 25 cents per text received, and functions more as a pager. Just ask my friends…I usually get their calls on my mobile and then call them back from my house landline phone.

Before moving to Somaliland, I tried to mentally prepare myself for a new life without many of the things I had always taken for granted – fast internet, a wide variety of food, and functional TV channels. I didn’t think much about whether or not I would have a mobile phone here.

Having traveled a decent amount, I’ve noticed that almost everyone I meet around the world has a mobile phone. It seems that no matter how poor or underdeveloped the country I travel to, everybody still can scrounge together enough money to afford a cellphone. Migrant fishermen in Malaysia, sketchy street-lurkers in Colombia, grandfathers in Morocco. When I was in Ghana four years ago, our driver had two cellphones. I can travel thousands of miles from home and back again, and the only person I ever meet without a mobile is my mom, who is quite happy to live without one.

I took this out of our van's window - I bet you 73 million Somaliland Shillings that she owns a mobile phone

Because of my travels, I was not at all surprised to discover that the telecommunications industry is alive and booming in Somaliland. In fact, all of Africa is becoming saturated with cellphones, and mobile companies and phone manufacturers are paying close attention. An emerging African middle class combined with the increasingly low prices of mobile phones mean that the continent now offers millions of potential customers in a large market that is only beginning to be tapped.

Somaliland is an ideal example of why the telecommunications industry is booming in Africa. In the late 1980’s, Siad Barre, the repressive dictator of the Somali Republic, launched repeated air attacks on Hargeisa. The bombing completely destroyed most of the city and crippled the infrastructure and development of the northern region. I doubt that telephone poles had been erected in the country back then, but if any did exist, Barre’s assault surely took them out.

Fast-forward 20 years and the story is quite different. Although Somalia remains trapped in continuous civil war, Somaliland has begun to develop, albeit slowly, and some foreign investment has trickled in – largely from Somali diaspora. Many of the major infrastructure challenges hindering development, such as poor roads and no electrical grid system, are incredibly expensive and difficult problems to solve. But what about phones?

Infrastructure challenges in downtown Hargeisa

That is where the mobile phone industry comes in. In the US and the UK, landline phones existed for decades before cellphones ever came around. Almost all of the continental United States is criss-crossed by telephone poles providing phone service to landlines in every household. Although arguably more reliable than the satellite coverage used by cellphones, landline phones come at an enormous start-up fee: the cost of installing thousands of telephone poles throughout the country.

For a country like Somaliland, where infrastructure is already poor and the government struggles to provide services with the small budget that it does have, mobile phones have provided the perfect solution. Not surprisingly, the telecommunications industry has taken off in the country.

It is interesting to note that not only are mobile phones ubiquitous here, they are also far more advanced than many of the phones I’ve seen in America. Sure, iPhones and Blackberries haven’t quite flooded the Horn of Africa yet. But the mobile I was given by my school here has many more features and capabilities than my mobile back home. A cheap Chinese model, it has a radio, camera, television, video recorder, and Bluetooth options. You can also use it for file storage and load mp3’s onto it. Those of you with smart phones are probably laughing, because I must sound out of touch if I think it is ‘cutting edge’ for a phone to be able to play mp3’s. But can your iPhone simultaneously hold two SIM cards and receive or place calls from both?

If you still think that my Somali phone’s capabilities are pathetic, I will ask you this: can you walk into a store in America with no cash or credit cards on you and buy a box of cereal with only your cellphone? No, you can’t. You can over here. Light-years ahead of the West, the mobile banking/payment frenzy has hit Africa.

In Somaliland, the service that allows you to make purchases with your cellphone is called Zaad and is provided by Telesom, the largest and most popular mobile provider in Somaliland. How it works is quite simple. You find a money changer on the street and give him a fixed amount of money, say $50. This money changer will take your cash and in return, text you $50 ‘credit’ on Zaad. This credit can be used like cash, and every merchant in the country has a Zaad account – even small qat shacks! So if you want to buy a Coca-Cola from a roadside stall, you can just Zaad the amount owed to the seller (a Coke costs about 3,500 Somaliland shillings, roughly 50 cents). You will then get a notification on your phone showing that your Zaad balance has been decreased by 50 cents and the merchant will get a text saying his Zaad balance has been increased by 50 cents. The beauty of Zaad is that it has the possibility of transforming Somaliland into a cashless society. In fact, many of our students pay their semester tuition via Zaad!

Mobile banking/payment services are an interesting topic and innovations in the fields will continue to help Africa for years to come. For many Africans who live in countries with few traditional and trustworthy banks, mobile banking is the sensible alternative. Companies are also expanding their range of services; in addition to mobile banking, some offer the options of international money exchanges and remittance transfers.

The West needs to catch up.

These guys are chewing qat under a tree on a hot Somali afternoon. They may have bought their qat via Zaad, a mobile payment service

I’ve discussed why telecommunications in Somaliland is cutting-edge, now I’ll talk a bit about why it is cutthroat. In America, if I have a plan with AT&T and my friend has a plan with Verizon, we can call each other’s phones even though we have different service providers. Having grown up in the US, I never even stopped to consider how incredibly inconvenient it would be if you were only able to place a call to a person who had your same service provider. Thankfully, a functional US legal system means that if AT&T tried to block its customers from being able to call Verizon customers, the US government would probably intervene and rule this action illegal, stating that AT&T was acting as a monopoly and abusing its market power – harming  the average American consumer.

The key assumption in the example is a functional judicial system where legal action can be taken and lawsuits can be filed if companies abuse their power. Welcome to Somaliland, where despite a relatively stable democracy and some legal process, disputes are most often settled through clan mediation.

The result of this is that the two largest telecommunications providers in Somaliland, Telesom and Somtel, do not connect to each other. Most people in the country use Telesom, but if they want to call a Somtel number, they cannot do it. They can only reach that number by calling it from a Somtel SIM card. This is very inconvenient because all of the teachers use Somtel, unlike the rest of the country. As I mentioned earlier, most phones here have a dual SIM capacity. I have two SIM cards, Telesom and Somtel, with two completely distinct mobile phone numbers. My phone can hold both SIM cards at once, and it asks me whenever I try and send a text whether I want to send it from my Telesom or Somtel number.

Truth be told, ‘cutthroat’ is a bit of an overstatement. Although the companies are ferociously competing against each other for market share, Telesom is far more popular than Somtel. In a country where two different service providers do not connect to each other, it is a huge barrier to entry that Telesom already dominates the majority of the market. If Somtel wants to get a new customer, it has to convince him that Somtel is a better company and also that other people will soon follow him and join Somtel. If Axmed switches from Telesom to Somtel, but no one else does, then nobody can ever call Axmed again.

Until next time, remember that although you may have a fancy new iPhone, I have two Somali numbers operating from one cheap Chinese phone. And it has a color TV feature! Step your game up, America…

A Telesom billboard

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