A Lesson in Globalization: Food in Somaliland and Buying in Bulk

One of the most common questions I’ve gotten from friends regards the food that we get here. Do you get enough to eat in Africa? Do Somalis really have their own cuisine?

From my perspective on the ground in Somaliland, such inquiries sound naïve. The vast majority of Africans aren’t starving. Western charities and media love nothing more than a photo of a hungry-looking African child to attract donations and development dollars. (If you don’t believe me, read Michael Maren’s “The Road to Hell”, a scathing and disturbing analysis of NGO’s and the aid sector. Much of the book is based on the author’s experiences in Somalia.) Also, Somali cuisine does exist and it features elements from African, Arab, and Indian cooking. But to the average person in the West who is not familiar with the Horn of Africa, any mention of Somalia and food in the same sentence will probably lead to the topic of famine.

The famine that has crippled much of the Horn this year is an incredibly sad and serious situation that has no easy answer. Like almost every issue in Somalia, there are so many different factors contributing to the problem. Policymakers around the world have struggled for the last two decades on the issue of how to do something in Somalia without making things worse. Unfortunately, they have been largely unsuccessful and most attempts to build peace, stability, and development have been futile (see Blackhawk Down, the UN Operation in Somalia, the weak Transitional Federal Government, the rise of Somali piracy, al-Shabaab, etc.)

This blog post is about food, so although Somaliland has been fortunate enough to avoid the famine, I felt it necessary to put my two cents in about how tricky ‘fixing the famine’ in the Horn of Africa really is. Somalia is a classic example of a place where food aid has been used as a tool of war by warlords to prolong conflict and gain power. International actors meddling in Somalia’s affairs have historically created more problems than solutions.

I really had no idea what to expect in terms of food before I got here. I had read that Somali cuisine featured goat, beef, camel, laxoox (a spongy, fermented pancake similar to Ethiopia’s injera), sugary tea, and spaghetti – a remnant of the times when most of Somalia was an Italian colony. Interesting fact: the capital city is known as Mogadishu in English, Muqdisho in Somali, and Mogadiscio in Italian…

A typical lunch here. The only authentic Somali foods are laxoox (the spongy pancake) and xabxab (Somali for 'watermelon')

I was pleasantly surprised to find that a surprising amount of Western foods can be found in Somaliland. Peanut butter, Nescafe, ramen noodles, soy sauce, and Corn Flakes are all stocked on the school’s kitchen’s shelves. What I find interesting is where all of these products come from.

Kitchen shelf

From my international and development economics courses that I took in college, I remember learning about how Europe and the United States give enormous subsidies to their own farmers to incentivize them to keep producing agricultural goods. Even though highly-industrialized, technologically-advanced countries such as America and France have a comparative advantage in producing goods like automobiles, ipods, and heavy machinery, these countries also produce lots of agricultural commodities. In the US, attempting to reduce the size of the agriculture industry would be politically unfeasible. Politicians from ‘farm states’ represent constituents who rely on government subsidies to make it economically possible for them to continue being farmers. With these subsidies, Nebraskan corn farmers are able to grow massive surpluses of their goods. What does America do with all this extra corn? Some of it is turned into high fructose corn syrup and cattle feed. A lot of it is processed, packaged into bulk foodstuffs, and shipped to Africa to be handed out as USAID food aid.

As if offloading donations of ultra low-cost food isn’t enough to cripple African farmers, most Western countries also have high protectionist tariffs and import quotas to give their domestic agricultural producers an unfair competitive advantage. Just read about the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which provides subsidies to European farmers and places restrictions on imports of any agricultural goods from outside of the EU. Cotton producers from Europe are eligible for a subsidy under CAP. But if you are a farmer in Burkina Faso growing cotton, tough luck. Not only are you trying to farm in one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world, but you also find that when it comes time to try and sell your goods on the international market, your cotton faces high import tariffs that you cannot afford to pay and that make it a bad economic decision for you to keep farming in the long-run.

This is all a very long-winded way of explaining why nothing I eat here in Somaliland comes from Africa. To be fair, most of our fruits, vegetables, and fresh meat are bought in the local market and may be relatively local. But overall, I am amazed at how far the different things I eat seem to have traveled.

The ‘long-life’ powdered milk we drink comes from Saudi Arabia. Honey comes from the UAE. Soy sauce is a product of the Philippines, our ramen comes from Indonesia, and our ketchup comes from Kuwait. Even our eggs travel across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen to get to our plates. That blows my mind, because there are chickens everywhere in Somaliland – someone needs to start collecting their eggs!

Saudi Arabian 'long-life' milk. Always powdered, usually full-fat...

Ketchup from Kuwait

We place bulk orders through one of the local gas station/food supply stores, and they get their goods shipped over from Dubai. To know that my Indonesian ramen crossed pirate-infested waters to get to me makes it taste even better!

My awe at globalization aside, I now appreciate the difficulties of buying in bulk. We buy four months’ worth of Corn Flakes, toilet paper, and flour at a time.  A scary percentage of the food I’ve consumed since being here has been either close to the expiry date or substantially past it. My worst case was when I realized that what I thought were flaxseeds in my wheat biscuit cereal turned out to be baby cockroaches. Yes…I ate baby cockroaches unknowingly for a week! Then I checked the expiration date hidden on the bottom of the crate of Weetabix and saw that they had expired in September 2010.

Mark posing against the 'Corn Flakes Tower'

Despite the bulk orders of Western foods from around the world, we still manage to eat Somali food a good amount. Laxoox, the spongy pancake, is served at every meal. Xabxab (Somali for watermelon) is sliced for us a couple times a week. We also get goat stews and sambusas when we are lucky.

The purpose of this post is to show not only what I eat over here, but also the unintended consequences that can occur from political decisions made very far away. UN food aid used as ‘conflict currency’ by Somali warlords, EU policies making it nearly impossible for Malian farmers to sell their rice  – all of these political actions have far-reaching effects across the globe.

Maybe all I want at the end of the day is to eat a peanut butter & jelly laxoox sandwich and drink a cold glass of milk while resting assured that everything I’m consuming has been produced on the African continent…

**Please enjoy the edible luxuries available to you in the Western world and go stuff yourself after reading this. Never take pesto or guacamole for granted again; someday you may move to Somaliland and have to live without it for a year.

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13 thoughts on “A Lesson in Globalization: Food in Somaliland and Buying in Bulk

  1. wpse says:

    You may be homesick for pesto and guacamole, but your photo of a “typical lunch” in Somaliland looks like something from the pages of a California foodie magazine. We all want what we don’t have…. Still, a very interesting post!

  2. Peter Winfield says:

    John,
    Interesting.

    You may be interested in the following link, which talks about global hunger and malnutrition (http://www.worldhunger.org/articles/Learn/world%20hunger%20facts%202002.htm).

    The site also has a short thoughtful review of the book you mention.

    Regards,
    Peter
    (Edinburgh)

    • John Enos says:

      Thanks for the comment, Peter.

      I checked out the link and the book review – interesting stuff. The book reviewer is right that Somalia is an extreme example, but I disagree with how he says he thinks Maren generalizes about aid in Somalia – Maren lived and worked there for six years, even if it was only in a few locations. Is Maren’s book too tough on the aid industry? Yes. But is it too tough on the aid industry in Somalia? I don’t think so. Somalia is a complex place with dozens of factors contributing to its problems, but I really do think international involvement (aid, military deployments, etc.) have almost always caused more harm than good.

      Hope you and Vickie are doing well and that you continue to check out the blog! Take care.

  3. habiba says:

    Hi John,

    I liked your aritcle because it shines a light on the other side of Somalia. The side where there is relative peace (if you’re silent) and a chance for prosperity (if permitted by the regional authority). I must add that although there isn’t a famine in the region of Somaliland, one can hardly assume that all of Somaliland is as “well-fed” as Hargeisa, just as one cannot assume all of Somalia is as “starved” as Mogadihsu.

    The issue of food security is a huge underlying problem can be observed by the alarming increase in cases of non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and stroke partly due to lack of nutritionment. More and more of these “long-life” food items are being replaced by locally grown foods which is very disturbing. I think there is a perception that by eating these “western” staples ie. cereal you appear more sophisticated and modern. I wish to change that way of thinking the next time I go back and encourage local farming to bring more variety to the table.

    May I also encourage you to visit Borama (a quite getaway from the hustle and bustle) and get a feel for the local way of life. Also, try some garow w/ milk (millet, somali cereal) for breakfast, sabayad (flatbread), khameer (fried sweet dough), adis (lentils) and halawad(i like the hard ones) to name a few traditional foods.

    Enjoy yourself cause if anything, there’s no place like it.

    –Habiba

    • John Enos says:

      Thanks for the comment, Habiba. You are 100% right that Somaliland is not without its problems and I’m sure that certain areas have been affected by the famine or malnutrition in general. I will definitely try and sample these Somali dishes you mentioned. I also teach a few students from Borama. Take it easy

    • Elyas says:

      ..SMH…As Somalis we have this crippling tribal bias..Habiba, by reading your comment I have figured that you hail from Borama. The residents of Borama are known who they are. They are opposed to this secesionist aspiration of Somaliland.

      However, your suggestion that Somaliland does have hungry people suggest that you intended to prove something expectacular. Will it wont take a rocket scientist to already know that Somaliland faces so many social problems, just like all the third world countries.

      I just got this impression of anti-Somalilandism from your aforementioned comment. All I would tell you is that I wish the best for all of Somalia. Although my tribe hails from Somaliland it pains me to see what is happening to the rest of Somalia. However, for you to be straightup hostile towards Somaliland is just preposterous….SMH

  4. Yuxi Lin says:

    Hi John! Your time in Somaliland sounds amazing! Too bad about the baby cockroaches… wow, ignorance is bless when it comes to expired food? We’re doing a Horn of Africa Week for SAC this year, so reading your blog has been pretty insightful 🙂 What are some good aid programs there? Keep up the writing!

    • John Enos says:

      Thanks for the comment, Yuxi. Amelia told me about the Horn of Africa week – sounds cool. Mmm can’t think of many good aid programs here, but I’m also not too familiar with them. The Halo Trust is a de-mining NGO that does good work. I have barely seen any other expats or NGO workers, and when I do they tend to cruise around in Land Rovers and eat at expensive hotels (trying not to sound too critical haha). But Somaliland is ineligible for a lot of foreign aid because it is unrecognized internationally, and this may or may not be a good thing.

  5. I love your Blog, it’s nice when you can tell somebody actuallly puts effort into a blog, and gives the blogs value.

  6. Who did you pay to do your blog? Its really nicely designed I bet that is why you get so much traffic!

  7. Gale Evans says:

    The cockroaches won’t hurt you. Just extra protein.

    Good blog, I continue to enjoy it. Also I am learning more about Somalia and Somaliland.

    Check out John Evans’ blog on the “Occupy Oakland” protests and police response. Pretty disturbing stuff.

    http://theoaklandspecial.blogspot.com/

    Thankfully he is not (a) in jail or (b) hospitalized. Otherwise I’d be calling Stephanie and Walter.

    Chau,
    Gale

    • John Enos says:

      Thanks for the comment, Gale, and I’m glad you’ve been enjoying the blog. I haven’t read much about Occupy Oakland, but I’ll definitely check out Beau’s blog. Let’s hope he remains out of jail and out of hospital!

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