Reflections on my time in Hargeisa: In the country of strong women and broken men
by Khadra Yasien Ahmed–I have only visited Somalia once before this trip- this time is different. I am not here on neither holiday nor visitation, but for work. Coming to this country, I thought I would get robbed, threatened and mistreated. I have not met one single individual who have treated me as anything less of a sister, daughter, mother or next of kin. I should be ashamed of my self for underestimating my people, their integrity and hospitality. Presumably I am not the first diaspora to think in those terms, and surely not the last either. On that note I am writing this article to make aware of the possibilities of our country, as well as the challenges.
First encounter and traffic: I remember once I got off the airport that I felt so peaceful. I was glad, though I did not what I would face. I was exited and optimistic. It was slightly windy, but in a cool and calming way. The heat was not burning, but rather pleasing. So far I though, I like my country. Through immigration, it was OK. I had to unfortunately go to the section of “foreigners”, and not “nationals”, which I assume is a fair slap in the face for carrying another passport. You have to pay 60$ for visa. Then I got picked up- in a land cruiser!
The road out of Hargeisa International Airport is actually fair. The landscape is breathtaking, and sentimental for those of us who grew up in the deserts of Somalia as children. The landscape is dry, sandy and filled with mountains. Perfect for urban nomads. However, traffic security is a major problem in Hargeisa. I can’t count how many “almost-accidents” I was involved in. The culture is to beep the horn whenever you want to drive pass someone. I am amazed by the courage of the drivers driving on such rough roads, not to mention the by walkers who risk their lives everyday. Drivers are not aggressive, just stressed. I would encourage walking during the night, as driver for some reason calm down and the streets are filled with people. Major accidents usually happened during the day in the most jammed areas of town. There is always space for walking on the sides of the road, but take your precautions.
Hargeisa is a vibrant city. It is the hope of Somalia. Peace, security and brotherhood triumphs all. I believe Hargeisa is the safest city in Africa. Only one remark ladies: you will run into two types of men: the type that stares you to death, and the one that tries to have a conversation with you. I suppose its up to one self to determine which one is the worst. Boy, do the women of Hargeisa answer them back! Northerners have an extremely direct and straightforward way of conduct. Never will you encounter their culture anywhere in Somalia. A college of mine said “northerners will both kill you and revive you with their words and direct demeanour”. They will call it the way they see it- wether you like it or not. Don’t worry fellow diasporas, you´ll come to like it. Their dialect is charming, but be aware there is no such thing as a “northern accident”. It is said that the north-westerners have a softer tongue than the people of the northeast. Frankly, I could not make sense of it, but started to notice the difference after a bit, especially between Borame and Burco. I also had to opportunity to visit 5 of the most northern states of Somalia, from Awdal to Sool. I met with chief-caaqils, IDPs, youth, women and children. I also saw the richness and diversity of Somalia with regards to vegetation, soil, people and dialects. Wherever I went, I was overwhelmed by the grace and the persistence of my people. It was a life changing experiments, and I strongly encourage all Somali youth of the west to visit their homeland. Surely, there is no place like home.
Religion: I remember on a Thursday night, the Sufis close by started their dhikr. It was heart-warming and recharged my iman. On religious groups, you will see members of the “xerta”. They have a distinct hair figure. Other than that, the taqlibis are big in Hargeisa, and they are serious about their dacwah. That brings me to my next point. Mosques. Mosques are no joke in this country. You will see one in every isolated area, in all sorts of fashions, colures and sizes. Lets just say- this is not the type of country to find excuses for not praying. On the other hand, when the Atham and Iqamah, is made, each imam will say his, being unaware of the 100 neighbouring mosques that are doing the same.
It is hard to follow when you are reciting after the Imam. All of a sudden you find yourself saying the prayer after Atham for the 10th time, still unsure if you did it right. You can listen to the Khutbah for Friday prayers from the comfort of your own window. That leads me to my next point. There are few rooms for women in the mosques. I visited one in Gabiley that had some room for women. I counted the prayer mats- only 15. I did not dare think how many the men had. We have a long way to go before a female section is an integrated part of every mosque in this country.
Hargeisa, despite being relatively liberal, is in reality a deeply conservative city. All men and women are encouraged to observe Islamic clothing. Islam is the prevailing religion, Sunni-Islam more precisely, with the Shafi’i branch of jurisprudence. No other religion is acceptable, though I am sure there are Christians and Hindus in Hargeisa. The church-debate created an outcry in Hargeisa, and took us by surprise. You will mostly see boys and men with their khamiis and women in their burkas-some even with niqab. In spite of this, women fare alone in the city at all hours of the day.
They drive cars and they run businesses. Hargeisa, and Somalia at large, in indeed the country of strong women. I even saw white women who had on her dirac and walked around with no one bothering her. Personally, I walked 30 minutes every morning to the central bank area, with not so much as a conversation with anyone. I never felt demeaned or anything less. I felt respected and honoured by most of the men I met, never disrespected. However, as a young unmarried girl from the west, you are likely to run into men of higher positions that underestimate and investigate your background in order to see wether or not you could be a fitting match for his son- or worse, himself. You learn to not care with time.
Trade and the shopping-scene Hargeisa is all about business. The competition for costumers is high. Keep in mind that you can always negotiate your way down from a price- even in the most luxurious of stores.. As a diaspora you probably should not even
try- leave that to your local friend. People will see right trough you. I tried once and totally failed. You will find corner stores, street vendors, high-end malls, and all the above. The number of stores, hotels, restaurants and shopping centres is incredible. I almost believe there are more hotels than IDP camps in Hargeisa. I can’t help but to wonder if they manage to fill the empty rooms. There is room for all types of costumers. You will always find a corner shop and a resultant that is willing to serve. The service is also really good. No awkwardness related to tipping.
Though you will probably run into a beggar or two outside, they are neither aggressive nor insistent. I would encourage you to give 3-4000 shilling, more if you can. You will also always run into fellow diasporas in restaurants, I remember having a Somali-Norwegian family eating next to me. Mostly, I ran into people from Britain with their annoying east-London and Birmingham dialect. No hard feelings. The price level in Hargeisa is really good. For hotels you spend 10-15-20$ a night. At restaurants you will leave with a full stomach for less than 10-15$. The better restaurants in Hargeisa have parking lots, which is scarce in the city centre. Not to mention the food, you´ll find whatever you desire. Though, I am not sure how vegetarians or people with food-allergies will cope. Good luck with that!
Social problems Khat. On some of the most important main roads in Hargeisa you will see warnings of the social and economical tragedies of Khat. But you will also see men whom Khat has devastated, that are unemployed, who have gone mad. The ones who spend their days in the streets, and their nights in the gutter. Hargeisa and Somalia may be a lot of things, but in its essence, it is also indeed the country of broken men. Khat is a destroyer of our society. There is no doubt in my mind that Somalia is a country where Khat and the Quran are equally loved. If we held a referendum on Khat or the Quran, I believe we would have had a country of women and a country of men.
I remember on our way out of Hargeisa, we saw the Imam of a certain town, with Khat in his hands. I also remember the debate we had about Khat in the car. The locals argued that without Khat Hargeisa would turn into Mogadishu. They stressed the social importance of Khat- that Khat really occupies people who otherwise would have turned the city up-side-down. I was not sold on the first argument, but I could understand its social importance. I saw the massive effect it had on our men, it was heartbreaking to watch. Entire generations of fathers, sons, husbands and brothers, just withering away. I really I am not sure how we should tackle this. Impose heavy taxes? Sharia-laws? Imprisonment? Awareness-campaigns is one way, but a lot remains, as it seems that Khat is a part of the social and local way of life. It will take strong mechanisms to battles this thoroughly.
I also witnessed enormous differences in wealth and social position and status. I saw elderly beggars, deprived Oromos, and ironically I mostly socialized with directors and academics. I drove by an area in Hargeisa that was only for the deprived, entire communities living in poverty. Some lived in straw-houses. Other parts of Hargeisa probably had some of the most magnificent architecture and design. Social inequality is on the rise in Somalia, politicians needs to put down a plan to tackle widespread poverty before it becomes too great to handle.
Trash is a challenge in Somalia. Can you believe it is socially accepted to just throw out bottles? It made me furious. There are few public and private trash-collectors. Unfortunately, in all cities of Somalia you will see a lot of garbage in the streets. People don’t seem to be bothered by it. However, we ought to beautify our country, not add garbage to garbage. As private citizens, we ought to do our share. Clean up after yourself!
Unemployment is also a social problem in Somalia, where graduate students have to wait tables in order to make a living. The country is loosing out on great potential, and serious policies need to be put in place to handle the mass unemployment among youth. If politicians don’t to that, they are almost accepting the fact that the youth have to cross the sea for better opportunities.
I travelled to the east and the west, saw poverty and wealth. Sat down with IDPs and professors, I realized that despite all these external differences, we are all Somalis. As a Somali living anywhere outside Somalia, you will always be a Somali. Why this public alienation of other fellow Somalis? Keep in mind that the north might have peace, but the true wealth of our country rests in the south; mostly in its fertile soil and rivers. The north and the south have both untapped recourses of human capital that needs to be put in use. We cannot do without each other. Face it. There are vast opportunities in Somalia for the one who has eyes to see, in business, in real estate, in education and all other aspects of society. Lets make use of them.
I will always stress the importance of unity of Somalia as a whole. I feel an unbreakable bond to the south, although I have never been there. I also feel a deep sense of belonging in the north, as well as the east, the central states and wheresoever Somalis live. I long like all human beings, to find myself at home wheresoever I am. And I suppose that is what we are all searching for, right? A sense of belonging. I might be naïve and young, but I am the future, and I can’t imagine a future Somalia that is divided along something as pity as politics and clan.
We can’t continue down this path for the next 20 years. I hope you draw your own conclusion. I surely have, and I can’t wait to be back.
Khadra Yasien Ahmed