Tag Archives: Harar

Berbera and Harar Round II

I have really fallen behind on blogging lately. I have been busy at the school working six days a week and teaching three different classes. Most of my free time now is spent trying to figure out what I want to do after my contract ends on July 30th and identifying jobs I might be interested in after Somaliland. If anyone has any input about business analyst-type positions in frontier markets (Africa, Central/Southeast Asia), please send me a note.

In the month since I wrote my last blog post, I have managed to make two small trips, one to Berbera and one to Harar.

Berbera is Somaliland’s biggest and most important deepwater port. Located on the Gulf of Aden, Berbera has the potential to be a major player in the shipping and logistics industries in East Africa and the Horn. However, due to Somaliland’s lack of recognition and poor infrastructure, Berbera continues to be overshadowed and outmatched by its western neighbor, Djibouti. The Djibouti port handles almost all of the cargo heading from Asia or the Middle East and destined for Ethiopia. As a landlocked country with over 80 million people and one of Africa’s fastest GDP growth rates, Ethiopia needs a reliable port capable of handling its rapidly expanding imports and exports. There are talks of a trilateral deal between China, Somaliland, and Ethiopia to expand Berbera port and build a new road from Addis Ababa to Berbera, but until that happens, I do not see Berbera as realistically being able to serve Ethiopia’s freight needs. I am most clearly reminded of this every time I go from Somaliland to Ethiopia – the last 45 minutes from Somaliland towards the border in Wojaale are spent swerving and bumping on an unpaved dirt road. Without a sealed, tarmac road linking Somaliland with Ethiopia, there is no way that Berbera will ever become a legitimate cargo hub.

Ships at Berbera port

When Somaliland was a British protectorate, Berbera was used for shipping livestock, frankincense, and myrrh to Aden, in Yemen. During the hotter months, the Brits had to move their colonial outpost to Hargeisa, because it was simply too hot to live in Berbera year-round. It is reportedly one of the hottest regions on earth, and even when I visited in January, the temperature was probably over 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

Despite this, the beaches in Berbera are really beautiful and completely isolated. The town itself now has a population of less than 30,000 (mostly people who service the port or the international airport) and the beach that we went to was totally empty. Although beaches I visited in Kenya, Zanzibar, or Southeast Asia were more visually appealing, I actually preferred Berbera, purely because there was no one else. Being constantly hustled by beach boys or sharing the sea with hundreds of other tourists really cannot compare to being the only group of people on the beach as far as the eye can see. Not many travelers pass through Somaliland or the Gulf of Aden, and the only locals around seemed to be fishermen. I realized that Somaliland and Somalia must be some of the only places in the world where one can visit a phenomenal beach and be literally the only person there to enjoy it.

Dylan enjoying the scenery in Berbera

What the Gulf of Aden washed up...

Teachers

I made the 3 hour drive north with a group of other teachers and we spent the day swimming around, eating fish and chips at the Maan Soor Hotel, and generally enjoying the fine weather and peaceful surroundings. It was a great day trip, although the beach was much nicer than what we saw of the town itself. A lot of the aerial bombing damage from the Somali Civil War seems to have never been repaired, and the skeletons of decrepit buildings are still visible throughout town.

Camels on the way to Berbera

My most recent trip was last week for our midterm break. I visited Harar in eastern Ethiopia with a group of other teachers. This was my third visit to Harar, and it is quickly starting to feel like a second home for me. It is a great place to go for a short trip and to experience some of the things we cannot get in Somaliland (good food, beer, freedom to walk around without an armed guard, women without headscarves). Despite knowing the city well, I always enjoy exploring the alleys of the old town and finding new restaurants and cafes to sample.

Although eastern Ethiopia is predominantly Muslim, there are a number of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians in Harar. Although I am not religious, one thing I like about Ethiopians is that they are quick to come together with friends and family to celebrate the vast number of Christian and Muslim holidays. My last visit to Harar coincided with Eid al-Adha, and I was able to attend the massive Eid prayer at Harar Stadium. This time, we visited during the holiday of Saint Mary and were treated to a massive neighborhood feast. Our good friend in Harar, Ermiyas, explained to us that the whole neighborhood had been invited over for a celebration of the holiday – and this meant lots of injera, tibs, and talla to go around. Last trip, I sampled tej, which is a local Ethiopian honey wine. This holiday, we were each given a bottle of talla, a different Ethiopian homebrew. Talla is dark and not carbonated, with a malty flavor. I enjoyed it, and it just added to the celebratory, communal atmosphere.

Serving out injera and talla for St. Mary's Day in Harar

Another highlight of the trip for me was going to see Arthur Rimbaud’s house in the Old City. The famous French poet is rumored to have lived in the house in the late 1800s, although even our guide told us that he may never actually stayed in it. Either way, he lived in Harar for a few years during the time, and the house has now been converted to a spectacular museum.

The house is filled with poems he wrote and photographs he took in Harar, Yemen, Djibouti, and even Berbera. It was fascinating to see what the city of Harar looked like back then, and also to see portraits he took of local Hararis.

Arthur Rimbaud's House in Harar

Portrait taken by Rimbaud

Ethiopian portraits, circa 1880s

The part of the house that I enjoyed the most was the attic, which provided a colorful panoramic view over Harar’s Old Town. The varied colored glass provided a really cool photo opportunity and the room would have been an amazing place to have a meal and look out on a sunset over the city.

The attic at Rimbaud's house

Multi-colored view of Harar

Our last mission in Harar was to successfully feed some hyenas. Back in November when I visited, we tried to feed the beasts on the day of the Eid feast, and the hyenas were surprisingly not hungry at all. We realized that their lack of appetite was due to the fact that sheep carcasses littered the streets of Harar for the slaughter, and the hyenas had spent the day chomping on bones in rubbish piles throughout the city.

This time, we were lucky, and the menacing hyenas had regained their appetite. We watched with excitement as the Hyena Man whistled and lured them in with his bucket of meat scraps. They circled him and got disturbingly close, before one boldly ran forward and began eating scraps of meat out of his hands. After the Hyena Man had warmed up and was steadily feeding a group of three hyenas, he asked us if we wanted to try.

I had a great, yet terrifying time, feeding the hyenas first from a stick held out from my body, and then from the same stick held in my mouth. As my brother later pointed out, the fact that I didn’t get any rabies shots before moving to Africa must have been absent from my mind. Regardless, it was a thrilling experience and definitely something I will laugh about for years to come.

Feeding the beast

Danger is my business

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Harari Hyenas and Ethiopia for Eid

Sorry for not having posted in awhile. We had a five day midterm break from school for Eid and I went to Harar with some of the other teachers. I was really excited to go to eastern Ethiopia because I hadn’t left Somaliland once in the three months since I had arrived.

A friend’s guidebook described Harar as the ‘Fez of East Africa’, and seeing as how I loved my visit to Fez in November 2009, I had high expectations for Harar. An ancient walled city, a labyrinth of narrow, colorful alleys, and the wonderful scent of spices and roasting coffee – all of this sounded perfect to me and a far cry from the last three months of life in Somaliland.

Hararis walking outside the Old City

Although I could not wait to explore Harar, first I had to get there, which is a bit of a chore. Actually, getting anywhere from Somaliland is a chore. We had all gone to the Ethiopian consulate in Hargeisa weeks before and gotten our only-available-to-Americans 2-year multiple entry visas for Ethiopia. Good thing, because I plan to hop over the border many times before I leave Africa.

One of the school’s drivers and armed guards drove us the hour and a half to the Somaliland/Ethiopian border. After about 45 minutes driving along a sealed road, the tarmac disappears and the rest of the way is bumpy, dirt tracks. It is mindblowing to me that the Somaliland side of the road is in such atrocious condition – dozens of khat trucks cross the border from Ethiopia every day. Hassan sped through the dirt road, and every time we slowed down for a bump or a turn, a thick, brown cloud of dust would catch up with us and engulf the entire car. Luckily, we had all our windows up.

We reached the border town of Wojaale at about 2 pm. I am whole-heartedly convinced that Wojaale is hell on earth. If not, Earth’s creator was in a very bad mood when he made the place. The town is straddled by two countries, but both the Somaliland and Ethiopian sides are miserable. The dirt road is so bumpy that it seems like it has been peppered with landmines. I thought it would be a great place to test-drive an offroad Jeep, and that is about it. It is hot, difficult to get to, completely covered by trash, and offers little for sale except for khat, warm Coca-Cola, and bald tires.

We caught a bus from Wojaale to Jijiga, another run-down place about an hour and a half into Ethiopia. Almost as soon as we crossed the border, the road drastically improved to a brand-new, sealed road (Chinese-built). The bus driver crammed about 22 people into a mini-bus built for 12 and we were off. Unfortunately, the bus stopped about four times at checkpoints so that we could be thoroughly patted down and our bags checked. Supposedly, certain electronics goods are cheaper in Somaliland and people try to smuggle them in. After arriving in Jijiga, we caught another two hour busride to Harar. The scenery began to change rapidly and I noticed hills, mountains, and green lowlands for the first time in months. It was such a refreshing change to see a different landscape – Somaliland’s dull, rock-filled brown had started to wear on me.

That night, the six of us celebrated our arrival (and our departure from Somaliland) with cold Harar beers and delicious Italian-style pizza. Our waiter must have thought we had just escaped from prison as he watched us wolf down pizza, salad, pasta, and many beers. Such a wide variety of tasty food (and alcohol) cannot be found in Somaliland, and definitely not at Ethiopian prices! A Harar draft beer in a restaurant cost about 8 Ethiopian birr (45 US cents) and the large pizza was about 2 USD. In Hargeisa, the beer would have been unavailable and the pizza would have been 8 USD and soggy.

Another teacher, Siler, and I spent most of the next four days wandering the old streets of Harar with our local Harari friend, Ermiyas. Harar is really an amazing place and one of my favorite cities I have ever been to. It has been one of the most important trading towns in the Horn of Africa for years and is “the fourth holiest city in Islam” because of how many mosques it has. The old walled city is Harar’s claim to fame and is reminiscent of a Middle-Eastern medina. The 16th century was Harar’s Golden Age, and culture, poetry, and craftwork flourished. Ermiyas walked us around the entire old city and many of its vibrant passageways, in addition to showing us the five gates of entry to the walled city.

Ermiyas and me outside one of Harar's five gates

A Harari alley

Another one of Harar's ancient gates to the walled city

One of the highlights for me was the Muslim meat market. It is a quiet square in the old city where butchers slaughter and sell halal beef and goat. The cool thing about the market is that large hawks and birds of prey lurk on the rooftops, waiting for meat morsels to be dropped so that they can swoop down and scavenge them.


Hawks wait to swoop

People-watching was great fun in Harar. In Hargeisa, I am always going somewhere and have little time to observe what people are up to. Even if I did have more free time, the city is so dusty, dirty, and congested that I wouldn’t really want to sit outdoors and watch residents go by. In Harar, all of the Ethiopians that I saw seemed so upbeat and positive. Women hawked onions and tomatoes, men sipped coffee, and little kids played in the streets showing off the new clothes they had received for Eid. There was a certain liveliness and energy that I rarely see in Somaliland, and it was great soaking in the new atmosphere.

Siler pulling a Harari girl on her street sled

Life

Commerce

Ethiopian food is delicious and can now be found around the globe, but there is nothing like splitting a carpet-sized circle of injera with beef tibs, cabbage, and a feta cheese-like dish amongst six Americans and ten Ethiopians. Of course, injera is meant to be eaten by hand, so we never used any cutlery. Because I am left-handed, it is very awkward for me to try and eat using only my right hand, and I was a bit anxious that I would offend some Ethiopians by eating with both hands. Luckily, no one seemed to care and we all feasted until the table-sized dish was gone.

Never one to pass up a strange foreign liquor, I also made sure to sample tej, the traditional Ethiopian honey wine. I had heard that bad distillers try and cheat by adding sugar instead of honey, so I got Ermiyas to take us to his favorite tej spot. I was surprised by color of the stuff – it glowed a bright tangerine color, to the point of looking artificial. The taste was quite odd…at first it tasted like a combination of orange juice, hard cider, and cigarettes. Gradually, the flavor grew on me and I enjoyed it, especially when I realized that the warm buzz I had from my own personal 1 Liter bottle would only cost me 10 birr, about 60 US cents.

Tej, glowing

Another highlight of the trip was the massive Eid celebration at Harar Stadium. Nabil, one of the guides from the hotel, was going to the stadium to pray and invited us to join him. Battling sleep deprivation and a bit of a hangover, we pulled ourselves out of bed at 7 am and joined the massive exodus of Muslim Hararis walking to the stadium. It was a pretty unbelievable experience witnessing a couple thousand people all celebrating the holiday and praying together.

After the Eid prayer, Nabil invited us over to his family’s house for a traditional Harari breakfast. Many of his relatives were there celebrating the holiday and we were treated like two more members of the huge, happy family. It was really kind of his family to host us and we were stuffed with bread, Ethiopian cheese, stewed spinach, sweet, milky tea, and Harari coffee. The coffee was the best part. Coffee is thought to have originated in Ethiopia and the country’s beans are highly prized and exported around the world. Hararis drink their coffee unlike any I had ever tried. It is common for them to make a pot of coffee using somewhat salty butter. Sounds gross, I know, but it was actually really rich and tasty and the butter helped counter the overwhelming strong coffee.

The wonderful Harari family that hosted us for breakfast

On our final night, we paid a visit to the Hyena Man. The Hyena Man is now world famous and has become one of Harar’s biggest tourist attractions. Lots of Hararis I met bragged how Harar is the only city in the world where hyenas roam the streets and don’t attack people. Multiple times when walking home from bars at 2 am, we would see a pack of hyenas wandering on a pedestrian footpath on the side of a boulevard in downtown Harar!

Every day, Hyena Man buys up unwanted scraps of meat from local butchers. At night, you pay a guide 50 birr (roughly 3 USD) to take you to his house, which is on the outskirts of the old city. We sped through the old city on a rickshaw and arrived at dark at the Hyena Man’s hut. He sauntered out, cigarette in hand, and whistled and called for the hyenas in Amharic. Supposedly, he has been feeding them for decades and no one has ever been bitten or attacked.

After a couple of yells, the hyenas slowly emerged from the shadows. Even though there were probably ten of us, I got a bit nervous when I realized that there were probably ten hyenas lurking closeby. I remembered what I had read before I left for the trip – hyenas’ jaws are so powerful that they can bite through human skulls. Hyena Man sat down on a rock and began to lure the grungy beasts in, meat-in-hand. Slowly but surely, they approached and one at a time would lunge forward and snatch the meat from Hyena Man. Another teacher, Siler, sat and fed them as well.

Eid is the day when Muslims slaughter a sheep and feast, so unfortunately for us, many of the hyenas had spent the day munching on sheep carcasses and remains. They were surprisingly not very hungry, and only ate a bit of meat before running away into the dark. It was still a thrilling experience to be encircled by a wild pack of Harari hyenas.

All in all, the short break was one of the best trips I’ve had in a long time. Perhaps the challenges of life in Somaliland made everything in Ethiopia seem so alive, free, and foreign. But I definitely did notice a fundamental difference between Somaliland and Ethiopia. People in Harar seemed more relaxed and laidback about daily life. At the same time, the spirit of enterprise and commerce was alive and well, and everywhere I looked there were roads being paved, bridges being built, and goods being sold. An Ethiopian-American whose hotel we stayed at in Harar talked with us for hours about his mother country. Even with a population of about 70 million, Ethiopia is still one of the poorest countries in the world, but the country’s rapidly growing economy (11% annual GDP growth) is a sign of good things to come. Ethiopians are hard-working and optimistic people and there was something in the air that gave me the feeling that the country is making serious progress and that Ethiopia’s future will be bright. The country certainly has its problems, but much of the clan bickering and bureaucracy that I feel stonewalls investment and infrastructure projects in Somaliland seemed refreshingly absent in Ethiopia.

This is why you should visit Harar...

I cannot wait to get to back to Harar in a month’s time. Until then, I recommend you look into making a visit. I’ll be looking for future jobs in Ethiopia…

Dehna hun! (Amharic for ‘goodbye’)

TreeMosque

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