Now that I’m settled in and the internet access seems to be a bit more reliable, I think it makes sense to write a post about what I will be doing for the next year and why I came here in the first place.
I am living and teaching at Abaarso Tech, a non-profit secondary school located on a hill above Abaarso village, which is about a 20-minute drive from Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland. Before I arrived, I found that about 95% of people I talked with had never heard of Somaliland and assumed that I was going to Somalia. I was often met with expressions of shock and amazement, followed by stern warnings about pirates, Black Hawk Down, famine, and al-Shabaab.
It turns out that Somaliland is quite a different story. In the ‘Scramble for Africa’, Puntland and Somalia were both colonized by the Italians. Somaliland, however, was known as British Somaliland and was a UK protectorate. British Somaliland was briefly independent in 1960 before unifying with Italian Somaliland to form the Somali Republic, better known as Somalia. In the mid-1980’s, the Somali Civil War began and Somalia’s president, Siad Barre, launched a number of military airstrikes in Somaliland. With anarchy and war plaguing the region, Somaliland formally split from Somalia and declared itself an independent state on May 18, 1991.
Today, Somaliland is in an unusual position. To the international community, it is seen as an autonomous region of Somalia and its independence remains unrecognized. Somalilanders, however, see their land as a sovereign country whose independence has been ignored by the rest of the world. Unlike war-torn Somalia, Somaliland has rebuilt and now has a remarkably stable political system that held peaceful elections in 2010. Without formal recognition, the economy has been forced to develop without much foreign aid and diaspora remittances have kept it afloat. The country is still extremely underdeveloped and its relative peace and security have been marred by threats and attacks by al-Shabaab, the Al-Qaeda linked Islamic extremist group operating out of southern Somalia. Overall, Somaliland is making significant strides as a young, unrecognized state in the Horn of Africa, arguably the most tumultuous region on the planet.
Even after explaining the differences between Somaliland and Somalia, none of my friends and family seemed to understand why moving here had any appeal. I had studied the Horn of Africa in college and knew that I wanted to live in the developing world upon graduation. When I randomly saw the Abaarso job posted on Idealist.org in January, the location was listed as ‘Hargeisa, Somalia’. My first thought was that this was a hoax – no one can just move to Somalia. Reading more about it, I learned that Hargeisa was actually in Somaliland, a region I had studied a bit in class. The allure of moving to a place that I knew little about and where there would be no US diplomatic protection was undeniable. Much to the chagrin of my family, I accepted the job, primarily because after sixteen years of American schooling I was eager for adventure.
My job is to teach 9th grade world history and reading at Abaarso Tech (AT for short). The school was founded in 2008 by a former Wall Street banker who had an uncle from Somaliland and was interested in providing a top education to the best and brightest in the country. The school is a non-profit organization and is entirely funded by contributions and grants from a variety of donors around the world.
Upon completing 8th grade, every student in Somaliland must take a national exam, and the top 1% of scorers are invited to take AT’s entrance exam. Our students come from a variety of different backgrounds and many are on full scholarships – no student has ever been denied admission because they could not pay. AT is a boarding school, so the students live here and can participate in a variety of sports and activities outside of class. As the brightest middle-schoolers in the country, we expect our students to go on to top US and UK universities. One student took a practice SAT exam a couple of months ago and scored a 720 on the math portion. He had never seen an SAT or any standardized test before! In total, AT has roughly 150 students and 20 teachers. Most of the students come from Somaliland, but there are a number of diaspora students from Kenya, Ethiopia, the US, and the UK. The majority of the staff is American, but there are also teachers from Canada, Egypt, Russia, and England. In addition to the secondary school, AT has launched an undergraduate university in Hargeisa (ATU) and an executive MBA program.
Secondary school classes don’t start until late September, but our group of new teachers has been busy cleaning out the boys’ dorms (cockroaches don’t faze me anymore), doing teacher training, and getting accustomed to life here. The school is perched on a hill above Abaarso village and the surrounding valley is beautiful. The landscape reminds me of parts of the American Southwest, but although it seems hot and desert-like, we have been getting a ton of rain and there is plenty of green, healthy shrubbery. It is windy most of the time, which keeps the heat in check. As for animals, I’ve seen a variety of goats, baboons, antelopes, and frogs. I am still waiting for a hyena spotting, though I hear them howling every night. That’s all for now.