The fact that I’ve been in Somaliland for nearly a week and that this is my first blog post is a testament to how hectic things have been here. Somtel, the large Somali telecom company through which the school gets its internet, has had problems with its towers and this is the first time the internet has worked in four days.
After spending three rainy weeks in London, six sunny days in Istanbul, and four scorching days in the UAE, I left the extravagant duty-free shops and first-world luxuries of Dubai Int’l Airport to begin my journey to Somaliland. Seven of us new teachers all flew together from Dubai to Djibouti and then on to Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland. We were flying with Daallo airlines, one of the few and very brave airlines that actually offer flights throughout the Horn of Africa. Despite the chaos, they have continued to fly to such beacons of peace and stability as Mogadishu and Bosasso.
Our flight left DXB at 3:00 am on August 18th, but we had been warned to show up no later than midnight because Daallo has supposedly moved up departure times in the past by an hour or so. I spent the last of my UAE dirhams on an issue of the magazine Esquire, which was the Middle East edition and thus predictably hilarious. Slowly the passengers began to trickle towards our departure gate; an odd mixture of Somalis, Pakistani zealots on their way to Mogadishu, and a couple of regular-looking Indian guys who looked nervous. All of the women, including the four American female teachers with us, were wearing the hijab headscarf and I noticed that a number of the Somali women had beautiful henna patterns covering their hands and feet.
The flight from Dubai to Djibouti was surprisingly smooth and normal, much more so than I had expected. The flight attendants were all Russian and got a bit frustrated when their heavily-accented English wasn’t understood by the non-English speaking passengers who made up the majority of passengers. A couple of interesting occurrences interfered with my sleep and reminded me that I was not flying a normal airline to a normal destination. I got up around 4 AM to use the toilet and waited in line for about 20 minutes before a Pakistani man emerged, dripping wet and wearing traditional Islamic garb from head to toe. The flight attendant looked in the bathroom and yelled at the man, instructing him that it was not permissible to shower in an airplane toilet. The man had clearly done just this, because there were soggy paper towels and water everywhere. He feigned ignorance and walked back to his seat. Throughout the night, the group of roughly ten Pakistani men took turns unfolding their prayer mats and praying quite loudly in the airplane aisle. I kept dozing off only to be accidentally bumped and groggily awakened to a bearded Pakistani chanting ‘Allah Akbar’ a couple of feet from my face.
We arrived in Djibouti around 5:30 in the morning and spent two hours sitting in the airport as ‘in transit’ passengers. It seemed like none of the passengers from Dubai were actually staying in Djibouti and I don’t blame them. From what I’ve read, Djibouti is small, hot, and flat, and from what I saw I can positively reconfirm these three descriptions. The country also hosts the United States’ largest military base in all of Africa, which was apparent by the sheer number of servicemen and women in the terminal. They gave us hard, uncomfortable stares and when one of the teachers told a soldier why we were going to Somaliland, he sarcastically smirked and said “have fun with that”.
The flight from Djibouti to Hargeisa, although only 45 minutes long, was a whole different story in terms of safety, standards, and comfort. Our vessel was a tiny Soviet prop-plane which was commandeered by hired Ukrainian pilots. There was one ‘flight attendant’, which is a very liberal usage of the term to describe the Somali man with a Daallo shirt who didn’t seem to speak any English and definitely did not go over any safety procedures. The plane had no air-conditioning and had spent the last two hours sizzling on the Djibouti tarmac, so the inside temperature (even during the flight when we were in the sky) never really dipped below an arctic 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Roughly ¼ of the plane’s seats simply did not work – they were not bolted to the floor or they were bent/snapped in half and couldn’t sit upright. There was also no place to put one’s luggage and the ceiling of the plane was shiny metal. The nervous looking Indian guys I’d glimpsed in Dubai were now looking very, very unsettled.
Luckily, I was so tired that I slept through the short, unpleasant flight and woke up to a crackling voice on the loudspeaker speaking rapid-fire Somali, presumably welcoming us to Hargeisa, Somaliland, my home for the next 12 months.
Stepping off the plane was magnificent, as Hargeisa’s weather is refreshingly temperate because of its elevation and constant wind. We walked to the ‘immigration and customs line’, which is a very official name for an angry Somali man with terrible teeth yelling at you through a cracked piece of glass for your passport and $23 for the visa.
All passengers arriving in Somaliland are forced to change 50 USD into Somaliland shillings at a terrible exchange rate. As teachers, we had an official ‘exemption letter from money exchange’ that spared us this bureaucratic nuisance. Because Somaliland is not internationally recognized as an independent country, its currency, the Somaliland Shilling, is not traded on international currency markets. The government forces visitors to exchange a certain amount of money into the local currency to try and support the inflated Somaliland Shilling against the much-favored US Dollar. I believe the exchange rate is about 6,000 Shillings = 1 USD, and the largest bill is 500 Shillings, about 8 US cents.
The Somali working the immigration line tried to process all of our visas at once and kept muttering, pointing his finger, and yelling at us. A kind British-Somali man took pity on us and got into a shouting match on our behalf with the immigration officer. He later told us that the officer was trying to rip us off and that he had no manners. I still haven’t figured out when a Somali is displaying good or bad manners – Somali is a loud, angry sounding language and there is lots of finger-pointing, physical contact, and animated expressions.
Somalis are quite pushy in airport lines so I had to fight the elbows and box out a couple of chattering elders to eventually get to my bags. Amazingly, all my luggage arrived safely and we headed off to Abaarso Tech, the school where we will be teaching in the village of Abaarso, about a 20 minute drive from Hargeisa.
Hopefully this first post from Africa paints a picture of what it is like getting to a country that officially does not exist. Months went into all of the trip planning, visa forms, online research, and other logistical issues, but I found it really comforting to just relax and not worry about whether or not I would ever actually make it to Somaliland. With the logistics all taken care of, all there was left for me to do was show up. As it turned out, the flights were not nearly as dreadful as I had expected and the red-tape we encountered in Hargeisa was not that bad at all.
I’ll try and get another post up sometime soon when I can find the free time and when the internet cooperates. The power has just come back on and the Islamic call to prayer is echoing from the minaret of the school’s mosque…just another sunset in Somaliland. Take it easy.