With the full economic, social and military might of Somaliland behind me and wearing my recently acquired native apparel, I held my tiny red, white and green flag and began the Independence Day parade, waving to the president as I went.
It was a surreal experience but I think my favourite moment was the shock on the journalist’s faces — why were there a bunch of foreign misfits with big grins waving flags and leading the parade? I’m not sure I can answer that question myself and I was one of them.
We were in Somaliland for Independence Day. Somaliland has been independent of Somalia for 28 years but is not recognised as a country which is a difficult position to be in. Whenever I regale people with my international parade leading skills they inevitably ask why it’s not recognised as a country. To which I don’t really have a good answer. “Umm, I think it’s something to do with the complexity of recognising self declared states… or the African Union or something…” before quickly changing the subject. It’s very stable, and while culturally similar, is a distinct contrast to the volatility of Somalia.
The sad reality is they may be too stable for their own good, without the sound of gunfire the media pays little attention and there’s no reason to put them on the international stage. It’s a political and marketing battle they must win in order to gain the recognition they so deeply desire.
After kicking off the parade in style we moved over to the journalist’s enclosure to get a good view opposite the president and his generals. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting at first, with a caged lion and people on stilts but the parade kept on coming, each new wave a new colour and theme, green soldiers, white sailors, blue policemen and bright red firefighters — some of whom carried guns, I’m not sure how effective they are at putting out fires. Perhaps they’re just for getting cats out of trees.
After a while I found myself at the back of the crowd. Sure enough my white face was enough to get a military escort to the front again where I could take a nice comfy seat on the kerb, beating back the locals with hose pipes felt a bit unnecessary but I didn’t want to stand all day.
After the success of the parade we thought we’d try to talk our way into the President’s Palace — maybe have a chat about international diplomacy. Surprisingly it actually worked although we only managed a wave of acknowledgment as the president got in his car to drive away. As a consolation we were invited to return later that evening for iftar, the breaking of their fast for Ramadan.
Returning to our hotel we were greeted by the staff excitedly pointing and shouting “TV”. We’d made it to the big screen and were now officially a big deal.
We walked the dark dusty streets back to the Palace that night. The streets were still alive with the exuberance of the parade. Everywhere was glowing with red, white and green strips of lights. It was hard to tell if they’d just left their Christmas decorations up or if they’d made the effort for Independence Day. They seemed particularly keen on having them flashing at epilepsy inducing speeds. I actually felt quite unwell after walking past a particularly strobing building — it was genuinely disorienting and can’t be good for you.
Arriving at the Palace I was excited if a little underdressed. The guards didn’t appreciate us turning up fashionably late to the President’s party, after waiting about an hour we realised we were not getting in. My dreams of mingling with the ambassador while butlers offered me plates of Ferrero Rocher were broken. I’d been looking forward to my new political career, perhaps an international advisor, or just a mascot, I’d start anywhere. I don’t usually give travel tips but if you’re invited to the President’s party — try to turn up on time.
Ramadan is not the best time to be a tourist in a strict muslim country, the logistics of eating and drinking during daylight are challenging and the people are generally less tolerant of your strange ways. What may be seen as a delightful quirk normally can be annoying and offensive when you’re hungry, thirsty and tired. But, it was a good excuse to have a little siesta and take things at a slower pace.
All was going so well at first, we’d been for a wander through the market and had a play with the bundles of cash the money sellers have on the streets. We very quickly got to see their guns when we asked what stops people running away with the money. The mood changed a little when we entered the food market though. Machetes were being taken to carcasses all around and the faces were definitely less friendly. I left my camera well alone and walked with purpose. Others weren’t so lucky — anyone lingering or using a camera was greeted with free samples of meat. To save on plastic bags they just threw it at them.
I don’t get this hostility that markets seem to show tourists, I could appreciate it if they were overrun with us getting in the way but I don’t think that’s a problem in Somaliland yet.
We were warned before visiting the camel market that people can even be less friendly here, perhaps even aggressive. They’re there to do some serious business (something involving camels) and don’t want a bunch of foreigners messing around whilst they’re working. My experience was cautiously positive, at worst I experienced a general disinterest of me which I’m more than happy with. I had a few broken conversations with people relying more on gestures than words. I was only half paying attention to this man as his English was pretty limited and I assumed he had no point, that he just wanted to talk to the strange foreigner. I did however pick up pieces, but I was unsure as what I was hearing sounded like a horror story. He told me that his brother tried to escape the country, to get to Europe. He made it to Libya where he was killed for his organs, his heart and his liver.
It seemed so strange at the time but we stumbled across a cultural centre that had a gallery of modern Somaliland art. Seeing this it clicked, these were people seeking asylum, running from war or poverty. The paintings showed cruelty, slavery and betrayal awaiting those who tried to leave. They felt more of a warning than a deterrent.
Riding high on our new found political significance, stars of the parade, as seen on TV and pretty much best friends with the president, we headed to the port of Berbera to see what the seaside had to offer. We were here to see some mosques, go out on a little boat trip, head to the beach, check out some shipwrecks and just see another side to Somaliland.
Clearly word of our political significance hadn’t reached this far. Wandering the streets at night felt safe but I wouldn’t say I felt welcome. It was the next morning in these same streets that things got less hospitable. We’d just arrived near an old mosque when one of the nearby workers took great offence at our presence and made his feelings very clear, a mild altercation with our local guide ensued. The shoving match was broken up by our token armed guard. Fortunately this happened in the morning. Our guard liked to take the afternoons off, apparently we were only in danger in the morning before it gets hot and everyone’s tired and grumpy from fasting for Ramadan.
A few minutes later as we rounded the corner a car drove past us and stopped, out came an official and a pair of soldiers. The official had an air of calm about him, not the usual shouty behaviour of the locals I’d become used to. It began pleasantly, we went through the usual formalities before he asked me what we were doing here. Apparently we were taking too many photos and causing a disturbance, we agreed to disagree but he then asked to see my papers. I didn’t have any papers. “Erm, you should probably speak to our guide... he’s just…” Looking around I realised he was nowhere to be seen… “Oh, I don’t know where he is — he was here just now…” After a few uncomfortable moments he eventually came round the corner. It turns out we did have the correct papers to be here, it’s just he’d left them in the car. The official was unimpressed, we were ordered to report to the Governors Office with papers in hand if we wished to remain in the city.
So, off we went to the Governor’s Office, a brief wait outside and we were called in for a formal apology from the Governor. Perhaps word of our importance had reached here after all. Sadly after all this faffing around we didn’t have time to visit the other mosque. Mind you last time they visited the mosque they were pelted with stones so perhaps that was for the best.
The majority of people were very happy with our presence here. Anytime we stopped for a moment a crowd would gather, cars would stop and we would immediately be causing a scene — in a good way. They were just very interested in us, in where we were from and to practice any English they had or to just point at an Asian and say “Chinese”. There were however a small handful of people who didn’t want us around, I noticed the odd person who would be trying to make his displeasure known, occasionally things were thrown, gestures were made and words were shouted. But they were drowned out by the overwhelmingly positive crowds we had. This occasional but extreme lack of hospitality didn’t make any sense to me. I asked our local guide why this was and he explained “They’re from the countryside, they’re not educated.” I still don’t understand the hostility, well, not when it’s nothing to do with religion anyway.
There are recurring themes on this physical and mental journey, unfortunately I seem to be slow at learning, give me a book and a test and I’ll pick it up quickly as though it’s important. Take a step back and look at my life and I don’t have the same sense of importance. Yet, this is really the only thing there is of importance. The best moments in travel — and in life — are the ones you’ve not planned for, where you just turn up, get involved and go with the flow, but giving up control is a hard thing to do.
Arriving at the airport in Hargeisa it was clear my 15 minutes of Somaliland fame were over. No glances of recognition here and no free upgrades. The airport was is littered with broken planes. I should be glad they’re not using them I suppose but somehow it’s not what you want to see at an airport.
The flight out was a dramatic one, taken up by a passenger the other side of the aisle from me having recurring epileptic fits for the duration of the flight. I knew those strobe lights were dangerous.