Thursday, September 30, 2010

47 - Half-Time in Hargeisa

Hargeisa's MiG monument
Time for a breather, so it's Hargeisa with its pleasantly balmy climate for a couple of days to watch the World Cup finals, a viewing apparently banned in southern Somalia under pain of death by the Islamic fundamentalist (with the emphasis on fundament) Shabaab areseholes.

The city, of course, is a mess given its history over the past 25 years; the roads are broken-up bits of tarred surface, mud and dust, bordered by mini sand dunes, but there are plenty of fresh green trees, some buildings going up, and it's very lively and busy with market stalls everywhere, and cars and vans jostling with pedestrians, donkey carts and goats.

If the place looks in a serious state of disrepair now, it must have been a post-apocalyptic wasteland before reconstruction cleared up much of the devastation wrought by Somali dictator Siad Barre's planes and tanks in the 1980s civil war, in which 50,000 people are estimated to have been slaughtered in the systematic destruction of the city, street by street, row by row. By the time Barre had finished, not a single building was said to have remained with a roof, and the independence leaders even considered leaving the ruins and building a new capital elsewhere.

Independence Avenue, Hargeisa's main drag
Now on Independence Road, the main drag, a downed green camouflaged MiG fighter from Barre's forces has been hoisted atop a plinth as a victory memorial. It was shot down in 1988 after taking off from Hargeisa airport a few miles away to bomb the city. Also now, in 2010, muggins' photo shoot is interrupted by the polite (I believe) shouts of pleasant smiling kids. I'm standing in the MiG's shadow, right in the middle of their marbles pitch.

The Savoy, Hargeisa Style - The walled presidential palace at the eastern end of the centre is protected by large blocks of concrete against any Shabaab suicide or other attacks, and photos are clearly verbotenissimo. Nearby is the Imperial Hotel, where it's all at; the building is run down, but its meal and tea garden is THE watering hole for the local literati, gliterati, politicati, reporterati - and mugginsati - since it's bang in the centre of government offices.
Main drag
Here, at little tables scattered amid copses of flowering bushes and trees, the latest scraps of 'news' can be gathered and regurgitated in the 'information bourse.' Strangely nobody seems over-eager to rush over to see if muggins has any tasty morsels to offer, and I sit in splendid isolation under my tree, daintily raising a cup of tea to my lips. I continue reading the weekly Somaliland Times, looking up every now and again to give an in-the-know wink, to no avail - nobody takes me for Somaliland's 'deep throat.'

More main drag
I forgot to bring a barrow-load of Somaliland shillings with me and only have high denomination dollars, so I purchase the second-hand paper, which goes for the equivalent of 32 cents when virgin, from a kid with an Ethiopian 10 birr note – about 75 cents. After half an hour, the transaction totally forgotten as I'm about to indulge in another in-the-know wink, he returns with a wad of shilling notes - my change. Wow, such honesty deserves to be rewarded. Keep it, young man, quoths I, in awe at the exception to the 'money, money' treasure-hunt call you get from some passersby - and not just the kids.

At afternoon tea muggins is more successful; a winning smile has replaced the in-the-know wink and I'm in deep globe-engirdling tidbit exchange with a Somalilander - who lives in Sweden, came back to help monitor the elections, and speaks English - and his two white-bearded uncles, who wear round embroidered caps, play with their worry beads, and don't-a speak-a de English. Thanks to us, all global problems are now solved and the world is at peace.
Tailor's corner
Bearded Vulture Up - Well Hargeisa may not have Djibouti's discos and booze bars, but there is life after dark and the city seems pretty safe to wander round, with the central stalls still active at 10.30 or 11 p.m. But there's no night glow on the horizon as you approach from the countryside since there are no street lights, just the fluorescent strips in the shops and the weak naked bulbs of the stalls.

And, oh shit, even though it's dark - and it may be black hawk down in Mogadishu - the bearded buzzards are up and about in Hargeisa, bellyaching from their loudspeaker aeries atop scores of mosques to crack the spiritual bones and feed on the marrow of the faithful. Despite that, though, there could be a bright future on the horizon if they can get their act together; Somaliland is said to have large oil, gold and diamond resources.

Ministry of Commerce
Supreme Court
Imperial Hotel garden cafe - 'Deep Throat' Time
More deep throat
More garden cafe
And more
There but for the Grace of God - Wow, perusing my Somaliland Times - this just in: 'On June 22, the Chemin de fer Congo-Ocean (CFCO) rail company announced that a train derailed on the railway line between Brazzaville and the southern coastal city of Pointe-Noire in the Republic of Congo. At least five rail carriages plunged into a ravine near Yanga station, about 66 km (40 miles) northeast of Pointe-Noire. Initial reports indicate that at least 50 people died.' And to think that I was at that very time toying with the idea of taking that train instead of entrusting myself to the notoriously untrustworthy wings of Africa's Fly-Me's.

Hargeisa side street
Shoeshiine and marble boys beneath MiG memorial

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

46 - Double Security

Erigavo street
At the little basic inn in Erigavo, capital of Sanaag district, I not only have a laden pomegranate tree outside my room, but vastly reinforced security too. There's qat-chewing Mohammed, of course, with his drooping rifle, but it so happens that there's a bunch of officials from the UN's security section doing an in depth study of the situation in Somaliland after the deadly 2008 bombing of UN offices in Hargeisa in preparation for increasing its staff – at present limited to 50.

The eastern districts of Sanaag and Sool, to the south of it, are considered particularly sensitive because Puntland to the east, named after the ancient land in 5,000-year-old Egyptian accounts, claims part of them based on clan links. Such is the legacy of the colonial European map-carvers of Africa. Some tribal militias in Sanaag and Sool don't want to be part of Somaliland, but to join Puntland, which claims autonomy within Somalia as opposed to Somaliland's independence. There's ample room here for exploitation by Shabaab, other multiple complications and clashes. Puntland's claim reaches to a couple of dozen miles or so to the east of Erigavo, so if they're thinking of setting off a little fireworks display, tonight's fine by me since UN security's security, bristling with automatics, inspires a little bit more confidence than Mohammed's qat-addled WWI bolt-loaded bang-bang.

Erigavo main drag
Lust In Translation - The fully veiled young lady next to me in Erigavo's rough and ready cyber cafe tells me in perfect English what to do to get the silly machine to work; and no, she's not Carruthers MI6 in drag. A lot of Somalilanders have lived in Europe, speaking flawless English, Swedish or whatever else was the language of their land of sojourn.

And now I'm having currency troubles again: Somalia's shilling is the tender in Erigavo and it's some five times more worthless than the Somaliland shilling, so if Somalia's highest note is 1,000 shillings and it takes 32,000 shillings to equal $1, just do the math. I'm joining the crowd in carrying huge bricks of them piled high on my shoulder.
With UN in Daallo forest
Ramped up security
For The Birds - And not just for the birds. Perched well over 6,000 feet above sea level, Daallo national forest, a mecca for endemic species and for the few foreign bird watchers hardy enough to venture this far, is in a truly spectacular position on the ridge of a massive amphitheatre of sheer reddish-brown-banded cliffs with a perpendicular drop of thousands of feet to the green valleys and plains below. Not the place to get an attack of vertigo, muggins!

There was a small group of Finnish birders here a few weeks ago, but fortunately none today - past experience has proved it difficult to tell which are the more exotic, the local feathered fauna or the birders themselves whose faces seem to have developed a striking resemblance to the objects of their fanaticism.

The local tourism chief has come along and the UN security guy has also decided to have a decko, so now we're five in my vehicle along with three UN land cruisers, two of them full of automatic- and rifle-toting guards. Mohammed has never been to this region before and his girl friend is calling his mobile from Hargeisa, so he's cock-a-hoop. Hussein is sure we've got lost as we jitter-bug along a corrugated stoney track amid moss-draped trees, and he's bleating 'too far, wrong road' all the time. What road? But we're on the right track; shortly we're on the brink, literally; the security guards playing chicken and clutching tree branches on the rim of oblivion, while vertigo-incipient muggins does a nice little cringing dance - one step forward, two steps back.
The precipice

Beyond the vertical drop and the wide bowl of plain and valleys below, the folds of further chains rise in the haze before dropping to the shrouded sea shore. A large tusked boar rustles its way through the bushes. There are also deer, hyenas and leopards in the park, the latter rarely seen due to their stealth and nocturnal habits. External visitors recently included a National Geographic team.

A Matter of Principle - We move back from the brink to a clearing where the British built a rest station with stone houses back in the 1950s, when Somaliland was still their protectorate. All that remain now are roofless ruins and battered stone walls, the result of Somaliand's war with Somalia in 1988.

More precipice
Hussein, Abdi and the guards start discussing politics. They're praising the recent elections and are fully up to date on latest developments, including British Prime Minister David Cameron's cautious pro-Somaliland statements in the House of Commons yesterday. They want the world to recognise their independence. And why not? It's a question of principle and hypocrisy. After all, if world governments recognised their referendum in 1960 to join up with Somalia, on what grounds will they not recognise the 1991 convention and referendum to separate from Somalia?

Our convoy starts moving back to Erigavo. Ha, one of the UN's escort vehicles has got a puncture - nanny nanny poo poo! And Mohammed's started mooing at the cows.
Precipice close-up
Manny, Get Your Gun - Back in Erigavo, Hussein gets his knickers in a twist because I've driven off to the internet cafe with Abdi - but without Mohammed.

'You're out without a gun,' quoths he over Abdi's mobile phone; 'you must return to the hotel.'

'When I'm finished,' quoths I.

'It's OK for a foreigner to wander round Hargeisa, Berbera or Burao alone,' quoths he, 'but in Sanaag and Sool the government insists on an armed escort because of the proximity of Puntland to the east and Somalia to the south. Not that there's any risk at all,' he adds as an afterthought, 'it's just government regulation.'

On emerging, we find Mohammed sitting outside with no sign of his gun, but with a goofy grin on his face to fend off my putative assassins or kidnappers.
Playing chicken on the brink

On the 14-hour trip back to Hargeisa, Mohammed demonstrates even more versatility. I give him some chewing gum, and he is now producing a whole series of octaves in smacking noises right in my left ear. Now he's serenading us along with the tape deck in oriental sounding songs – a pretty good voice, actually. And now he's beating out the rhythm into the back of my seat with his knees and toes. Wow, I thought that only happened on airplanes.

And Into The Sunset - The sun is already setting way before we reach Hargeisa. The curfew tolls the knell of parting day/The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea - only this times it's hordes of dirty great snorting camels over a parched dun plain with scattered green shrubs.
The brink

Chickens returning from the brink
A look back
Ruins of guesthouse from British colonial days
Flowering bushes
UN puncture
The plateau
Home, home on the range
The range
Camel herd
More homes on the range
A lonely mosque
Yet more homes

Saturday, September 25, 2010

45 - O Flower of Africa

Berbera waterfront
We continue on down to the coast to Berbera, Somaliland's main port on the Gulf of Aden, stopping off on the way at a little village where Mohammed goes to see his father (he's out of town), and at a home for handicapped children for whom Abdi has brought a big bag of sweets (they seem to be suffering from some forms of autism but are very sweet.) Berbera, an old town that goes back to Turkish, Omani and even earlier times, is disappointing, with no buildings of interest although it has a massive white beach that is a magnet for holiday makers in winter.

 Like Burao, Sheekh and Erigavo it was badly damaged, as bombed out buildings and sunken ships still show, in the civil war in the late 80s between Somaliland and the central government before Somalia finally disintegrated into an ever changing factional kaleidoscope. It also has a massive forest of African flowers - that's what Hussein calls the millions of discarded blue, pink and yellow plastic bags playing in the wind, flapping vigorously from the branches of trees or swarming in a mass assault over the bushes.

Waterfront with garbage
We drive away from the heat towards the crags and pinnacles of bush- and tree-clad escarpments, past yet more baboons and up onto the 4,000-foot plateau to the coolness of the small towns of Sheekh and Burao. On the way, we stop off at a little tea shack run by a woman with six sons and a daughter (the husband is working in Burao). Mohammed plops down on a plastic chair, his gun dangling earthwards; it's bolt-loaded, and looks like World War One vintage. It's loaded at the moment but it's not clear whether it's cocked. Whatever, a fat lot of good that's going to be against a  kalashnikov in the hands of a Shabaab or other unsavoury character!

O Flower of Africa
Yet more flowers
A 'field of flowers'
Sea front near Berbera
Berbera courtyard
Nomad Max - OK, they're not exactly racing over a dystopian outback on turbo-powered motorbikes, but here on the high plateau of Somaliland there are many nomads with many, many more camels loping across the sandy savanna, part of it covered with close tufts of green and copses of flat-topped trees, much of it totally treeless. There are eight police checkpoints, and at least one burned out tank from the 80s civil war, on the 60 odd miles of tarred road from Burao to the boondocks turn-off. And, what else, here's Mad Muggins with his suite of three, now jolting across the horizon on an eight-hour obstacle course of ruts, rocks and ridges.
Road rises to the central plateau
Looking down from the heights
It is here that you can truly see the nomadic and pastoralist life of Somalis: flock after multiple flock of goats and black-headed sheep, little stone wall-enclosed encampments of low domed structures made of sticks, tarpaulins and anything else at hand, more permanent villages of similar domes, rock houses and the ubiquitous little green and white mosques and minarets - and thousands upon thousands of snooty camels. In fact camel raising is a major industry, Somaliland having exported over 31,000 of them to Saudi Arabia in 2008 amid 2 million head of livestock overall.

All the women are head-scarved with billowing robes, quite a few of them fully veiled as well. We stop in a little village to drink tea and watch the clearly affectionate interplay of siblings with each other - that is except for Mohammed who has nipped into a little shack and is now emerging with his rifle slung over one shoulder and a fistful of qat in his hand. Here's hoping he doesn't get too euphoric with his freaking gun.
Termite castles

Road to Erigavo
Termites take over tree
Pastoralist village
Camel herd
Village mosque
Lurking grey baboons