I had only visited Somalia once before this trip. I am neither here on holiday nor visitation, but for work. Coming to this country, I thought I would get robbed, threatened and mistreated. I have not met an individual who has treated me as anything less of a sister, daughter, mother or next of kin. I should be ashamed of myself 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.
Once I touched down at the airport, I felt so peaceful although I did not know what I would face. I was excited and optimistic. It was slightly windy, but in a cool and calming way. The heat was not burning. My passage through the Immigration was fine. 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 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. It is perfect for urban nomads. However, traffic security is a major problem in Hargeisa. I can’t count how many accidents I was almost involved in. The culture is to beep the horn whenever you want to drive past someone. I am amazed by the courage of the drivers driving on such roads and the pedestrians who risk their lives every day. Major accidents happen during the day in the jammed areas of town. There is always space for walking on the sides of the road.
Hargeisa is a vibrant city. It is the hope of Somalia. Peace, security and brotherhood triumphs all. In Hargeisa, ladies will run into two types of men: the type that stares at them to death, and the ones that try to have a conversation with them. 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 colleague of mine said that “northerners will both kill you and revive you with their words and direct demeanour.” They will call it the way they see it-whether you like it or not. Their dialect is charming. It is said that the north-westerners have a softer tongue than the people of the northeast. I could not make sense of it, but started to notice the difference a bit, especially between Borame and Burco. While visiting the five most northern states of Somalia, from Awdal to Sool, I met chief-caaqils, IDPs, youth, women and children. I also saw the richness and diversity of Somalia with regards to vegetation, soil, people and dialects. I was overwhelmed by the grace and the persistence of my people. I strongly encourage all Somali youth in the West to visit their homeland. Surely, there is no place like home.
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. You will see mosques in every isolated area, in all sorts of fashions, colours and sizes. This is not the type of country to find excuses for not praying. When the Atham and Iqamah, is made, each imam will say his, 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 tenth 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 fifteen. 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, although 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 run businesses. Hargeisa, and Somalia at large, is indeed the country of strong women. I walked 30 minutes every morning to the central bank area, with not so much as a conversation with anyone. I never felt demeaned. I felt respected and honoured by most of the men I met.
Hargeisa is all about business. The competition for customers is high. You can always negotiate a price downwards 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 through 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 customers. You will always find a corner shop and a restaurant 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. 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. I am not sure how vegetarians or people with food-allergies will cope. Good luck with that!
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 who Khat has devastated, are unemployed, have gone mad and spend their days in the streets, and their nights in the gutter. Hargeisa may be a lot of things, but it is also an abode of broken men. I remember the debate we had about Khat in the car. The locals argue that without Khat, Hargeisa would turn into Mogadishu. They stress the social importance of Khat- that Khat occupies people who otherwise would have turned the city up-side-down. I have not bought that argument but I understand Khat’s social importance. I saw the massive effect it had on our men - entire generations of fathers, sons, husbands and brothers, just withering away. I am not sure how to tackle this. Impose heavy taxes? Sharia-laws? Imprisonment? Awareness-campaigns? Khat is 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. 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. Social inequality is on the rise in Somalia, politicians need 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.
Unemployment is also a social problem in Somalia, where graduate students have to wait on tables to make a living. The country is losing 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.
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 need to be put to 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. Let us 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 wherever Somalis live. I long like all human beings, to find myself at home wherever I am. 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.
By Khadra Yasien Ahmed