It’s Always Sunny in Somalia
In Somalia, killing is negotiation. –Black Hawk Down
It is hard to think of a country anywhere in the world with a worse reputation for war, brutality, and sheer chaos.
The moment Somalia’s poor reputation hit home for me was when an Afghan I met in Kabul expressed abject horror at the idea of visiting Somalia. Things are bad when people living in an active war-zone are terrified of a country.
Google’s auto-complete is also an interesting exercise. Type in Somalia and the letter “A” and Google returns anarchy, “B” gets you Black Hawk Down and bombing, “C” for conflict, and so on.
The question: Is there another side of Somalia?
One country? Or many?
My old friend, the US State Department, treats all of Somalia equally. Not surprisingly, it emphatically advises against all travel to the country.
It only once mentions distinct regions — and in doing so makes clear they are all equally dangerous: “All U.S. citizens traveling to Somalia, including Somaliland and Puntland, are advised to obtain kidnapping and recovery insurance prior to travel.”
I check my travel insurance policy and find kidnapping nestled between lost luggage and delayed flights.
Arriving in Somaliland
Through friends, I learn the autonomous northern part of Somalia, called Somaliland, is considered much safer than the south. I book a flight. An unannounced schedule change leads to a last-minute red-eye flight on an antique Jubba Airways jet. Sadly, the old MD80 looks better than the American Airlines planes I flew on in Dallas.
I finally land in Hargeisa, Somaliland’s capital, exhausted.
The airport is a breeze. The staff are exceedingly friendly. The immigration officer beams when he sees my US passport. The customs officer teases me over my minimal luggage. A janitor whistles and says hello. I wonder if everyone is secretly members of a Somali off-Broadway troupe, ready to spontaneously break into a musical routine – or if I accidentally popped an Ambien instead of a malaria pill.
Upon exiting into the bright Somali sunshine, my host is nowhere to be seen. I feel panic welling up inside: I don’t know where I am staying, my phone does not work, and I have no local currency.
A man asks if I need a taxi. I decline and brace for a hoard of other drivers to descend. Yet, no one else approaches. The original driver returns with a chair and suggests I wait in the shade.
My host, Mohammed, arrives and apologizes profusely. He expected it to take longer to clear immigration; it took me less than 20 minutes from touch-town to exit. I hope you’re taking notes, LAX.
We drive into town, only 10 minutes away. We stop at a statue commemorating Somaliland’s independence.
A Crowd Gathers
As Mohammed explains the statue’s significance, a crowd gathers around us. I feel nervous. Isn’t rule #1 of travel to avoid gathering crowds? I suspect rule #2 is to avoid being the cause of said crowds.
It turns out people are eager to have their picture taken with the statue and share their stories.
“Until we won independence in 1991, we were not allowed to build anything greater than one-story high, own phones, or obtain any managerial government jobs.”
“The southern Barre regime bombed us and committed many other crimes against civilians. Everyone educated was either kidnapped or killed.”
“People only hear about warlords and pirates in Somalia. But we are peaceful.”
The short history: British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland joined in 1960 after gaining independence from their respective colonial powers. After years of repression by the south and a civil war, Somaliland declared independence in 1991. Somaliland, with almost 4M people, comprises about a third of Somalia’s population.
However, Somaliland’s self-proclaimed independence remains unrecognized by any other country.
A Different Somalia
- It is safe to walk around at all hours of the day and night
- In the last ten years, there has been the sum total of one incident of terrorism
- Presidents step down peacefully; the country has democratically elected four leaders since 1991
We walk around town freely, eat at local restaurants, and drive into the countryside. Locals approach out of curiosity, not to harass or beg. Mohammed explains, “Somalis are a nomadic people. Visitors are therefore treated as respected guests.”
I inquire about Al-Shabaab, the Somali Islamist group notorious for attacks throughout Eastern Africa. Mohammed gets visibly animated. “People in Somaliland have no patience for extremism. If someone were to espouse Al-Shabaab ideology, they would be immediately reported and detained. Al-Shabaab is not welcome here.”
West Knows Best?
A friend of Mohammed’s, Khadar, joins us for dinner. He works for a NGO, somewhat uncommon in Hargeisa. Since Somaliland is officially unrecognized, it receives less aid than the southern government in Mogadishu. I ask whether more aid would help Somaliland.
He responds, “Maybe yes, maybe no. Aid comes with strings attached. The West often tried to instill its own values and culture. This does not always work. Look at Mogadishu – or Haiti – two of the foreign aid and NGO capitals of the world.”
He gives the example of local elections.
The 2003 elections were funded internally; the 2012 elections by foreigners. The foreign funding including certain requirements such as banning candidate symbols (e.g. a camel) on the ballot and requiring named candidates instead of parties for each local race.
The result? A ballot with thousands of candidates that many illiterate Somalis did not understand. Voter turn-out dropped and violence increased due the resulting confusion.
He concludes, “The West does not always know best. Local culture and customs matter, even if they seem strange or antiquated to outsiders. We do not send Somali observers to America, despite the Florida fiasco in the 2000 presidential election.”
Similarities and Differences
Similar to Kurdistan, Somaliland proved that one country can have many different realities.
Somaliland also echoes my experience in Burundi, where locals felt that outsiders unfairly claim superiority without respecting local customs and culture.
Finally, like Afghanistan, Somaliland highlighted media skew. No one reports on the two decades of relative peace in Somaliland, its growing economy, or desire for independence.
Instead, media coverage goes straight from Black Hawk Down (warlords) to Captain Phillips (pirates). Perhaps the next movie about Somalia could instead be It’s Always Sunny In Somaliland, featuring the trials and tribulations of the goofy yet lovable Hargeisa airport workers.
As one Somali tells me, “It’s day and night between us and the south. We feel in control of our own destiny; we just need the world to recognize us and understand we are different.”