“Somaliland?…You’re moving to Somalia?!?!”

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.

The valley near my school in Abaarso.

One of our armed guards, Axmed, and I.

The view of the valley, taken a few minutes' walk from the school.

The football pitch at Abaarso Tech, where the next Didier Drogba is being groomed...


18 thoughts on ““Somaliland?…You’re moving to Somalia?!?!”

  1. Dick says:

    Awesome stuff, dude. There are certain people you meet along the way who you know are going to do something truly original and intriguing with their lives. You are one of the few who fit this category, and you should take pride in that. I’m excited to hear more.

  2. Sheryl says:

    Found your site by a link from Chris Guillebeau (The Art of Non-Conformity)… great blog! This sounds like a fascinating opportunity. I’m sure you will have a wonderful year full of more stories to share with us. It’s inspiring to read about someone who is willing to get outside the norm and have an incredible life experience like this.

  3. praisedone says:

    Welcome to Somalia, or Somaliland as you like to call it 🙂

  4. Somalilander says:

    Dear John.

    Firstly, as a Somali, I can only appreciate your work and I am forever grateful.
    Being from Hargeysa myself, I also appreciate you enlightening the people of your world on our situation. However, I do think your piece written is a little one-sided, and not really an accurate image of Hargeysa, Somaliland or Somalia for that matter.

    What we’ve focused solely on, is establishing peace in the region, so more Somalis do not have to suffer. Moreover, on the Civil War back in the 1980s has numerous of stories and lives were lost on both sides, and I think it is paramount for you to bring all the details of the war when first writing about it, and not portraying our brothers and sisters in Somalia as the Evil ones.

    We have large problems in Somaliland, for instance, government reports state that 550,000 US dollars are being spent on the drug Khat daily in Somaliland, and therefore little development is taking place in the region. Clan-rivalry has controlled the region ever since our independence in 1991. Have you not notice a great part of Somaliland wants only to be part of the Great Somalia? Which again, has contributed to a lot of problems.

    I love that you like Somaliland and what it has to offer, especially like the way you spelled Axmed in Somali.

    Once you get to experience Somalia as a whole, your views would change instantly!

    Thank you again John.

    Take care

    • John Enos says:

      Thanks for the comment! I understand the issues you raised, but I was only trying to provide a brief overview of what Somaliland is to an audience that is largely unfamiliar with the country and the region. I am sure that atrocities were committed on both sides during the Civil War, and I did not mean to portray Somalia as “evil”…my point was simply to contrast the relative stability of Somaliland with the turmoil that has plagued southern Somalia. Of course Somaliland has problems, and I see the monumental amount of time and money wasted on khat every day. I would love to experience Somalia as a whole, but as I’m sure you know, that is not really possible right now – it is incredibly expensive and dangerous to travel to Puntland or southern Somalia. Again, I didn’t mean to portray Somaliland from a one-sided perspective, I am simply trying to blog on my experiences while living here as a Westerner in the Horn of Africa.

    • Yusuf Dahir says:

      That is not a ” Somalilander Saying” you don’t need to deny the facts that has been mentioned here, stick with the topic and stop confusing others.

  5. hamze says:

    People please read and understand before you commenting something,
    Mate we do really appreciate the work you doing to help this bright kids and you’re honest article.
    It is true that lot of people around the world don’t have clue what is the difference between Somali and Somaliland.

  6. Yusuf Dahir says:

    Welcome to Somaliland, am sure you will enjoy there and as you witnessed Somaliland is not Somalia.

  7. Washington Capitols says:

    I think that this man’s work is a noble one, and every humanitarian should be appreciative of the said efforts, no need to worry about the competition/history about Somaliland and Somalia for now, he is an educator and a humanitarian!! People should do what they can to better the lives of those disenfranchised, and forgotten due to what nature has dealt them!!!! As a “somalilander” you should know your history and not look to a Yankee from my necodawudz to tell you!!! By the way I am a fellow Yankee with Somaliland roots :-)…Good job and keep it up bud!!! Much love from Washington D.C, our nations’ capitol. I will be in Somaliland myself as our DC. based NGO is doing work in Healthcare and Education in Burao!! hope to link up once I get to Hargiesa and hoop it up with y’all!!! I got a mean crossover though… ankle protection maybe the order of the day.. lol

  8. John,

    Not sure what else to say except: thanks for the great writing and incredible pictures on behalf of those who are living vicariously through your life-changing adventures.

    • John Enos says:

      Thanks, Katharine – it’s great to hear from you! I’m glad you enjoyed reading the blog and looking at the photos. Do you have any upcoming travel plans? Take care, and I hope you are doing well!

  9. Dear John,

    I just stumbled across your blog while going through tumblr and let me say kudos on blogging about this unheard part of the region! Somaliland is called Africa’s best kept secret and that isn’t an exaggeration. So its always a pleasure to read about someone talking about it and not recoiling in shock or fear. I wish you all the best during your stay and may you make many wonderful and unforgettable memories here. 🙂

  10. Annabelle says:

    HI there
    I so want to go and support the Somalilanders and see their wonderful country but I keep being told that I would be putting myself at risk. Now of course I wouldn’t expect yu to persuade me to go but I wonder if you could give some advice?

    • John Enos says:

      Hi Annabelle,
      Unlike Mogadishu and southern Somalia, Somaliland has been remarkably peaceful and stable. I would certainly recommend anyone to come and visit or work here. It is mandatory that foreigners have armed guards here, so that provides a good amount of protection. That being said, Shabaab did launch attacks in the capital in 2008, and the country is constantly on the lookout for any signs of trouble. But overall, I feel very safe here.

  11. yasmin says:

    Hi,I enjoyed reading ur entry about the Somaliland.Anyway I’m from Malaysia and I would like to be adventurous like u do.enrich ourselves by exploring different vision of life splendidly 😀

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