The Challenges of Life in Somaliland

I haven’t written a blog post in awhile because I have been busy with teaching, grading, and being sick. Although I am really enjoying my experiences here, there are a number of things that, at times, make life challenging. I decided to brainstorm a list of these obstacles for this week’s blog post. The purpose is not to complain about these common dysfunctions or challenges, simply to shed some light on what it is actually like living here. I try to tell myself that these difficulties are simply unique characteristics of Somaliland, and one day I will look back and laugh about the discomforts that marked my year in a country that doesn’t exist.

Here are some of the things I came up with:

Relying on a Generator: All of the power in Somaliland comes from generators that run off gasoline. Environmentalists would be up in arms, but welcome to the developing world. The government already struggles to provide services to the country on a measly budget of 50 million USD per year. It certainly does not have the resources to undertake a massive infrastructure project like building power lines or providing utilities to its citizens. So, all of our electricity in the school comes from a generator. We actually have two generators, a small one and a big one, and the big one only runs from 6 pm to 5 am to conserve fuel. From 4-6 pm every day, we switch from the small generator to the big generator and there is no power at all. So every afternoon from 4-6, the internet is down, the lights don’t work, and the refrigerator gets tepid. I use this hiatus as an excuse to be outside working or doing activities with the students. Still, periodic power outages occur and the daily shutdown of all electricity means I have to carefully plan when I will charge my computer, use the internet, or try to do anything productive indoors with no light. Generators are also pretty loud, and I fall asleep every night to the machine’s dull buzzing.

Islam: As a secular person, living in a conservative Muslim society is very interesting and quite eye-opening. It is also difficult at times. All women, regardless of whether they are Somalis or foreigners, must cover their head and neck with a hijab. When the female teachers are within the staff housing, they don’t wear headscarves. But any time they are to be seen in public, they must cover up. It seems like an odd thing to say, but I miss seeing women’s hair! Always seeing women in a concealing hijab, or sometimes burqa, can get a bit…predictable.

There are other difficulties in running a school in a very conservative Islamic culture. On a couple of separate occasions, the school has had to lobby hard to try and convince families to let their daughters attend Abaarso Tech. To a Westerner it seems crazy, but some parents have been very reluctant to let their girls come to our school – they want them to stay home and do all of the cooking and cleaning in the house. Luckily, the school’s efforts have been successful and some of our top students are girls whose parents initially did not want them here.

One final issue, which I have not encountered yet personally, is the problem of students trying to use religion as an excuse. Unfortunately, cheating is endemic in Somali schools. All of our incoming 9th graders are accustomed to cheating and copying on their exams, and it is one of the first habits I have been trying to drill into my students – the importance of doing your own work and the immorality of cheating on tests. Despite our efforts, some students do continue to try and cheat, and it is fairly common for students to get detentions, suspensions, and even expulsions for cheating (expulsion is rare – only if a student has been caught cheating numerous times).

A problem that has arisen is that some students refuse to confess to cheating, even when they are caught red-handed. Before I arrived here, there were a few instances of kids completely denying that they cheated, even when multiple witnesses (teachers and other students) saw them do it. Many of them refuse to acknowledge their wrongdoing, making the excuse that “I am a good Muslim, and Islam condemns lying, cheating, or stealing, so it is impossible that I cheated”.

It is true that Islam condemns these things, but multiple people witnessed these kids clearly cheating. The fact that these students try to use Islam as a reason why they would never cheat is ridiculous. If people see you murder somebody, you cannot deny that you committed the crime by using your faith as an excuse! If you murder someone and then deny it because you are a “devout Muslim”, then you are either A) not a devout Muslim or B) a complete liar, or both.

Don’t get me wrong: cheating is not the Islamic way, and I’m sure that if I discussed this with any sheikh in Somaliland, he would agree with me. But when students clearly lie about a wrongdoing they have committed and then use their religion as an excuse, it undermines the concept of what that student really thinks it means to be a ‘good Muslim’.

Alcohol vs. Qat: Obviously, Islam also dictates that alcohol and pork are not to be consumed. Although I’d love a pulled-pork sandwich or a roast pork loin, I don’t find myself missing it too much. Alcohol is tougher, though. In the US, I’m a social drinker. I don’t fiend for alcohol, but I enjoy a cold beer or rum and ginger ale as much as the next person. Being able to relax and drink a Guinness after a long day would be awesome.

Why I mention the issue of alcohol is because I do find it hypocritical that many Somali Muslims I meet are very strong in their disapproval of drinking alcohol, but they see chewing qat as tolerable and as an integral part of Somali culture. I think this is utterly ridiculous. Qat is a highly-addictive narcotic plant that is chewed by the overwhelming majority of Somali men, contributing to a loss of productivity and a huge waste of money. Not only is it expensive, addictive, and time-consuming, it is not even grown here – all of it is imported daily from Ethiopia. In fact, the amount of money spent on annual qat imports is greater than the entire annual government budget for Somaliland! That is unbelievable, and disturbing. The signs are evident everywhere I look: qat is crippling the country and Somaliland’s progress and development will be hindered by its national addiction to a drug that is classified by the US and many other countries as a Class A Narcotic.

I understand that Islam forbids alcohol, but I think that if Somalis are pious enough to obey the Qur’an and avoid booze, they should also avoid qat. Comparing the US, a country where alcohol is legal and widely used, to Somaliland, a country where qat is legal and widely used, I can say with conviction that qat is more detrimental to a society than alcohol. Alcoholism is definitely a real problem that afflicts many Americans. But do many Americans go to work drunk? Are the majority of American men addicted to alcohol? Do males in America spend every afternoon sitting around getting inebriated with their friends? Does the US spend more money annually on importing alcohol than it spends to run the entire country? The answer to all of these questions is no. But replace the word “America” with “Somaliland” and the word “alcohol” with “qat”, and the answer is yes.

Somalis who do use qat chew it constantly – at work, at home, and while driving. People get high on it and crash their cars. As a boss, productivity in the workplace cannot be good when your employees are all comfortably numb from chewing.

I’m planning to dedicate an entire post to qat later in the year, so I will move on. But I find Somaliland’s laissez-faire acceptance and attitude towards qat creates a contradictory double standard between classifying alcohol as haram and qat as halal.

**One important thing to mention is that although the majority of Somali men use qat, many people here are adamantly against it and recognize its damaging effects on the country. Our students in particular understand the problems it creates for society.

Isolated, Inconvenient, Inflated: The last difficulty I can think of for this litany relates to the actual cost of goods in Somaliland. My previous post was all about the food here – where it comes from, how it gets here, and why none of it is produced domestically. Although you can get some Western items here, the options are limited and if you want something specific, you’re probably going to have to pay a good amount to get it. A jar of Nutella costs 5 bucks. Fake beers from Saudi Arabia can cost $2 a bottle. Kleenex is pricy. So is gasoline. And water. A small, cold vegetarian pizza (often without cheese) at a local restaurant is about 8 dollars.

Getting goods to Somaliland is a tedious, bureaucratic, and expensive process, and the merchants mark up the prices accordingly so that customers will bear the higher cost. Almost everything is imported here, and because it is inconvenient for suppliers, all the prices are pretty inflated.

The good news is that there really isn’t much stuff I want to buy anyway. Most of the clothes, fabric, and the few souvenirs to be seen in the market are all low-quality imports from China being sold at unreasonably high prices. I’ve decided to spend as little money as possible while I’m here, instead saving my paychecks for places like Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania that I plan to visit and that offer greater options for lower prices.

There are dozens of other challenges to life in Somaliland, but I don’t need to list them. Overall, I am still having a great time absorbing all of the unique aspects that come with living a new life on a new continent.

Until next time, nabad… (nabad means ‘peace’ in Somali)

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10 thoughts on “The Challenges of Life in Somaliland

  1. Reading your post, I got to wondering if there’s a relationship between the endemic cheating and qat culture. For a kid growing up in a family where the father is zoned out on qat all the time, cheating for good grades must seem positively industrious!

    • John Enos says:

      I definitely think there is. One of the biggest problems with cheating is that many of the students don’t even realize it is wrong – they have often been encouraged to cheat in their other schools and the concept that it is immoral is quite foreign to some of them.

    • fatma says:

      Actually it’s more complicated than that . Different schools in different regions represent different clans . So alot of the times when it comes to the 8th grade national finals or the GCE (not the actual British GCE) . Every region/ clan wants to brag about how it scored the highest. So the teachers and supervisors all pich in to make sure their school is well represented . Many times the students scoring the highest in these exams are the sons and daughters of Clan seniors/ members of parliament or a relative of someone “Important”.
      The scoring system is never fair on any of these exams .

  2. Andrew Ma says:

    you should still be gooning there. hard.

  3. Elyas says:

    Woow..This cheating situations have nothing to do with Islam. As a Muslim person I think these kids are using every excuse known to man to take advantage of your lack of their culture. Just remember that this a human behavior and I think it is a new behavior in this society because cheating is frowned upon in the Somali culture. Islam totally forbids cheating. As we all know, a lot of us pick and chose what part of the religion we would like to obey and which we pretend doesnt exist. Even Qat is forbidden islamically but they still use it never-the-less.

    I would like to tell you that this Qat situation is discussed a lot by the religious figures in Somaliland. It is also discussed by many farsighted people, who see the handicapness it has on our society.

  4. Amina says:

    spot on, as a somalinder living in the diaspora, i can tell you one thing; all you have written here is true, i will admit that we are a bunch of hypocrites; one minute praying and the next minute chewing to insanity.

    i honestly cannot stay more than a month in somaliland… the morning azaan drives me insane. it is really out of tune…. and it goes on forever. They either need to send their azaan priests to learn how to say it better- ie in saudi arabia or play a well tuned azaan on recorder..

    I think for a foreigner to survive there for long you must be alittle bit insane or totally lunatic…

  5. abdi says:

    John you being in somaliland is a sign for that someday somaliland is going to be an independent country and thank you for visiting there, you’re a few non-somalilanders that have been in somaliland.
    There’s just one thing I couldnt understand when read youre blog, especially this blog post. It’s about cheating in tests and exams I tried to get it in my head that it could be possible and it could but not this amount of students since somaliland is islamic country.
    You also said that they use religion as excuse not to get caught “I’m muslim, how could I do it”. I’m just so confused about this issue ans also worried. I’ve only been in somaliland since I moved there so I cant really if this issue is true. Would like to know more about it.
    Another topic was qat and I enjoyed your post about it also totally agree with you, I’m against it and it’s toxicating just like alcohol but its just a part of our culture. Like oppium is part of afganistan culture, alcohol part of western world. I’m not a scholar or sheikh but it’s forbidden in islam to use it. A lot of my relatives use it in Somaliland, its common as you may have noticed. But thanks for this blog and again enjoyed reading it. 🙂

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