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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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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My Name is Cabdiraxmaan Cabdillahi Cali Cabdifataax

I still don’t really know how to pronounce that. That could easily qualify as a normal Somali male name.

We still have a week until the students arrive and school actually starts, but I’m already worried about butchering the pronunciation of kids’ names. Yesterday I spent an hour entering the names of hundreds of exam takers into a spreadsheet and was totally overwhelmed by the way many Somali names are spelled.

In Somali, the English letter ‘c’ is pronounced like a glottal stop deep in the back of one’s throat. I really haven’t figured out yet how to use it correctly yet. ‘X’ is pronounced like an overly emphasized ‘h’. ‘Q’ is pronounced like you are saying the letter ‘k’ in the back of your mouth. As you can probably imagine, this is all quite confusing for me and my Somali language skills are developing at a snail’s pace.

The naming tradition amongst Somalis is unique. Funny enough, my only other experience in sub-Saharan Africa has been in Ghana, where people are commonly called by their day names (For me, that makes two African countries; two naming styles). Ghanaians often use a name that relates to the day on which they were born. Some examples are Kweku, Kofi, Kojo, Kwesi, and Kwame (For example, Kofi Annan, former UN secretary general, and Kwame Kilpatrick, Detroit’s disgraced former mayor). When I taught there, my students all referred to me as ‘Baba Kwesi’ because I was born on a Sunday.

Here in Somaliland, most people have three names: a given name followed by their father’s given name and their grandfather’s. It keeps going on like that – the fourth name is the great-grandfather’s, the fifth name is the great-great-grandfather’s, and so on. Many Somalis can recite their names to the 25th level as a testament to their clan lineage, which is of upmost importance in Somalia. Add to this the difficult pronunciation and the fact that many Somalis have similar names, and it starts getting very confusing very fast. I’ve never been good at remembering names and I finally understand why all of my teachers and professors over the years took attendance for months and commonly confused their students’ names.

For any non-Somali speaking readers who think they are up for the challenge, try pronouncing the following Somali names, consisting of the first four names for better identification. Remember, x’s are like h’s and c’s are glottal stops…

Bootaan Cabdiraxmaan Cali Ismaaciil

Casha Maxamed Yuusuf Muxumed

Xamde Cabdillahi Canaan Maxamed

Jimcaale Xasan Xirsi Gadiid

Cabdirisaaq Cabdiraxmaan Axmed Mux’ed

Mubaarig Mukhtaar Gaaxnuug Aadan

Ibraahim Xasan Jamaac Cismaan

Cabdifataax Hassan Cabdiqani Ducaale

I hope that was difficult. Needless to say, I have learned four key words/phrases in Somali so far:

Iska waran – How are you?

Mahadsanid – Thank you

Ha – Yes

Maya – No

Before my next post I will try and perfect my Somali pronunciation and hopefully will have started memorizing some names.

That’s all for now…signing off from the region in Somaliland where I live: Woqooyi Galbeed, also known as Maroodi Jeex (have fun enunciating that one!)

This is what Google looks like when you access it from Somalia.

Mafia, Rainstorms, Sambusas, and the Farm

The inclement weather has sabotaged our internet yet again, which is why I haven’t been blogging or responding to emails for days – sorry!

We have just begun our second week of ‘Abaarso Tech intensive English summer school’. We have about twelve students, ranging from 19 – 24 years old. Some are university students in Hargeisa, others are teachers at the Young Muslim Academy in town, and a few came all the way from the Sanaag region near Puntland. The two-week English bootcamp is supposed to totally immerse the students in English – the students signed a pledge at the beginning swearing that they would speak no Somali or Arabic for the duration of the program.

They are taking courses in vocabulary, reading, writing, grammar, logic, and computer skills. Outside of class, we have been playing basketball, soccer, and even a bit of American football with them. I’ve introduced the basketball shooting game ‘H-O-R-S-E’, which has become the new game of choice. They especially like it when someone beats me, so they can all chant “Somaliland wins, America loses!” We’ve had other activities for our students to improve their English as well, such as resume workshops, film screenings, debate, and the group game ‘Mafia’.

Mafia is played with a large group and each person is arbitrarily assigned to be a townsperson, detective, doctor, or a member of the mafia. The mafia secretly kills one person each night and then the whole group ‘wakes up’, voices their suspicions, and makes accusations against the people they think are members of the mafia. The students really enjoy it and it is hilarious to hear the defense of the accused.

“Hamde accuses me of being mafia? I cannot be mafia!!! I think Hamde is mafia, because she said I was mafia!”

We are still working on explaining the concept of legitimate evidence and what makes a strong, compelling case against somebody…

The summer program has been a great experience so far, both for the students and for me. I have been able to spend lots of time teaching vocabulary, coaching basketball, and explaining the plots and characters in movies. The students have made noticeable improvements and seem much more comfortable using English as their sole tongue for communicating.

Abaarso Tech summer school students with two teachers

 

One of the jokester's of the group, Ayaanle

We are in the middle of one the rainy seasons in Hargeisa and it rains almost every day, usually for a couple of hours in the late afternoon. Because the school is located in an open valley, we have a clear view for miles in every direction and can see the storm clouds coming. I have gotten used to the unusual phenomenon of being able to see that it is raining a mile or two away, but not at the school. The flat desert landscape also means that we get remarkable flashes of lightning a couple of times a week that light up the campus.

Storm clouds looming over the school's mosque

Another sunset in Africa, photographed from the water tower

Life at Abaarso Tech revolves around the school, so it is nice to get out of the walls when possible. Leaving the compound isn’t as easy as it sounds because one of the school’s guards has to accompany someone whenever they leave. The law requiring us to have an armed guard is put in place by the government, but to me it often feels like a hassle.

The village of Abaarso is a 20 minute walk from the school. It certainly is not much to speak of and is largely comprised of little shacks selling qat. The main road from Ethiopia to Hargeisa runs through Abaarso and big trucks overflowing with qat are ubiquitous in the village, dumping the day’s supply off to many eagerly awaiting fiends (Qat is a narcotic plant that everyone chews here…I’ll write a post on it in the future). There are a couple of places in Abaarso to buy soft drinks and sambusas, the delicious Somali spin on India’s samosas. Somali sambusas are filled with goat, onions, and peppers and are deep-fried in front of you, costing about 10 cents each.

Our favorite soda & sambusa shack in Abaarso village

Like many developing countries, Somaliland has a serious litter problem. There is no garbage collection service in the country and you see plastic bags, bottles, cans, and broken flip-flops everywhere. We went hiking in a remote riverbed the other week and I must have spotted the skeletons of at least twelve pairs of sandals. Plastic bags are the main problem because they are what qat is packaged and sold in, and such a huge percentage of the population chews qat. Somaliland is a very windy country, and the combination of strong winds and plastic bags makes many areas very unsightly. Sharp bushes are all over the landscape and their thorns prove perfect for catching the plastic bags that the wind has blown in their direction.

A casualty of litter + wind: village tree covered in plastic bags

Kaise poses against a bullethole-ridden wall near the village

Even though the annual tuition that Abaarso Tech charges its students is far below the amount it actually costs to educate, feed, and house every student, many of the students’ families cannot afford the school fees and pay as much as they can. One student’s family owns a farm, and they contribute fruits and vegetables that they grow in lieu of money. They invited us out to their farm yesterday and it was a wonderful change of scenery from the school. It was a very bumpy 30 minute drive in a 4×4 to get there, but the farm seemed like it was in a completely different geographical zone. Unlike the brown, rocky landscape of the school, the farm was green and tropical. The family grows bananas, hot peppers, guavas, spinach, oranges, and pomegranates. We spent a relaxing afternoon sampling the different produce and eating lunch under a shady tree, a rare treat in Somaliland’s desert landscape.

That’s all for now; I’ll try and get another post up in a week or so. Take care.

Teachers relaxing in the shade on the farm

The remarkably verdant farm

“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...


How One Gets to a Country That Doesn’t Exist

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.

Inside the plane from Djibouti, notice the broken seat on the left

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.

Disembarking my Daallo flight in Hargeisa, Somaliland

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.

The Inaugural Post (from East London)

This blog aims to provide stories, photos, and anecdotes from the upcoming year I’ll spend in Somaliland. I’m writing this first post from my brother’s flat in Hackney and my departure to Africa is still three weeks away, but I just want to make sure that I figure out the ins-&-outs of blogging now. Transitioning to a new lifestyle on a new continent will be hectic enough, so hopefully I will be able to simply sit down and type once I’m there and not have to worry about formatting and layout.

Before I arrive in Hargeisa, the capital city of Somaliland, I’ll be spending some time in Istanbul, Dubai, and a brief two hours in Djibouti. Perhaps I’ll write something about my experiences there.

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