A Traveller's Notebook; That Fortnight in Hargeysa

Photograph by Kate Stanworth

'...streets owe their colour to women in flowing robes...'

 

From the sleek aviation of Bole international airport, I arrive at the rough-and-ready Berbera International. It is only a two-hour flight from Ethiopia to Somaliland, but we have dropped a thousand metres in elevation and now the oven of Berbera welcomes me from the refrigerator of Addis. It is hard to imagine that the balmy sea breezes from the Gulf of Aden are only a few hundred miles away. I cannot go to the capital city directly because Hargeysa International Airport is undergoing a refit. But it is just as well. This is an opportunity to see more of the country. 

I am on the same flight with Somali scholar, Mahamoud Sheik Axmed Dalmar, who made his first return to Somaliland in thirty years only the year before. Bill Herbert, the English poet and Hadraawi translator has flown in with us as well. I make their acquaintance on the immigration queue. While we wait, I buy some local currency. I am impressed by the several wads of Somaliland shillings – the weight of bricks – that I get in exchange for a hundred or so US dollars. Has the nice lady made a mistake? I am still wondering if I should offer her a recount when Ahmed picks us up in a Toyota 4WD for the three hour-drive into Hargeysa.

And so I meet my stubbled desert. The eroded history of this land is plain to the sight. In the distance are picturesque stretches of highlands and chains of steep ranges that have better withstood the wind and water that over the millennia have sculpted this country into what it is today: lowland, flatland, goat and camel country. We pass nomadic groups with small herds. Here now is a rationale for a nomadic lifestyle: you live in a country too beautiful to settle for any one place.

SPU Soldier on Las Geel

'...a rationale for the nomadic lifestyle...'

The road is lightly-trafficked, but all the vehicles are 4WDs, and no wonder. This is no place for lily-bellied saloons. Ahmed drives hard, until a village surprises us in the middle of nowhere. It seems built for lunch and its major enterprise is a restaurant hosting an alarming number of hungry travellers. This is only Sheik Dalmar’s second time back in three decades but he seems ready for local politics: everyone seems to know him.

We tackle the food with gusto. My order is rice and fish, but I am in a minority, for the denizens of this land love goat. The meat portions are large and the default cutleries are the human fingers. Like most Nigerians, these Somalis appreciate the subtle flavour that human digits can impart to the worthwhile meal. My father’s old friend once declined to soap his hands after indulging my sister’s pounded yam and nsala soup. A good rinse was good enough, he said, and throughout that day a sniff of the fingers was enough to evoke the sensate memories of his grand repast. I look on longingly, but I will not make my acquaintance with Somali goat until later. My fish is competent and steak-like. We eat.

buying guavas

I try to pay but Sheik Dalmar will not hear of it. I defer to his superior years. Out by the car park, I try for a slim revenge: guavas are in season – whether imported or local, I have no idea – and I buy a bag full of the fruit dessert for my new friends and myself. I speak English, the trader, Somali, but with our fingers we settle the price and I pay. Turns out she meant thousands of shillings, not hundreds.

The currency trader at the airport didn’t make a mistake after all.

We go. Another hour-and-a-half and we enter Hargeysa. I am unconscious, of course, when we arrive – a full stomach and a chauffeured drive being an irresistible combination for sleep. You do not visit Hargeysa for the glossy shopping and sculpted walkways, but the size of the city surprises. I had imagined a handkerchief-sized burg to negotiate on the fly but it is half-an-hour between entry and arrival at my home for the next few days. We drive through cheerful, colourful streets which owe much of their colour to scarved women clad in flowing robes. We crawl past trucks unloading their freight – everything arrives in this town by truck, even the water.

I am delivered sleepily to The Mansoor Hotel, laid out on three floors with expansive gardens and far-flung chalets. The organisers are on hand to welcome us and I draw room 59. Between the reception and my door are curt notes that would have put many a hotel out of business, warning that I will need a marriage certificate to share the room. Our fellow guests in the grounds are an aristocratic family of antelopes that endure our plebian cameras with weary indifference – and a giant tortoise that I mistake over and over for a ubiquitous boulder until friends enlighten me towards the end of my stay.

But the hotel is also the social hub of Hargeysa, housing NGOs staff, World bank offices and government officials – including the affable newly-appointed minister for foreign affairs – and friend to the festival – who I meet at the reception on day three. From dawn till midnight, the kitchen and bars are busy. I do not know the owners of the hotel, but I would like to buy shares.

Fancy meeting you in Hargeysa, I write in Michela Wrong’s copy of my The Ghost of Sani Abacha. Or perhaps it was The Diaries of a Dead African that she bought? She writes something equally literary in my copy of her book on Eritrea, I Didn’t Do it For You. (Yes, her titles are even crazier than mine.) Indeed it is fair cast of writers from all over the world that have arrived here at The Horn, hauled in by the irresistible combination of Jama Musse Jama’s enthusiasm and Ayan Mahmoud’s plucky persistence.

I first met the ‘sociopreneural’ couple behind the Hargeysa International Book Fair at the Kwani Literary Festival in Nairobi in 2012. Of course I will come to Hargeysa, if you ask me, I had said to Musse at the time, thinking that that was the end of the sociable chit-chat. But several phone calls and emails followed from Italy and a couple of dinners in London, and… here I was in Somaliland.

Kenya is the country of focus and I meet up with old friends Billy Kahora and Kenyan resident, Katrina Manson, but make new friends in the writers Stanley Gazemba and Phyllis Muthoni whose poetry I am addicted to before long.

From the host country, I meet Hadraawi and Ibrahim Awale, I meet the Diasporan Somalis, Said Salah (USA), Abdirascid Ismail (Djibouti) and old friend Saed Jama (UK). Also from England, is Mary Harper (whom I first met at the Royal African Society’s Africa Writes Festival some weeks earlier) Kate Stanworth, and Hamish Wilson whose pictures might have showed some city residents a thing or two about their nomadic countrymen. From Nairobi is Mark Bradbury and Nuur Sheekh of the Rift Valley Institute as well as Ed Pomfret, who will be showing me his burg in a few days. From Italy comes Giorgio Banti, and from Holland via Addis, Petterik Wigers…

My major discovery of the Book Fair is of course a literature that I couldn’t even read. I am illiterate in Somali, but this is a land that takes her language seriously. I discover a vigorous vanguard of young writers flashing their first books – all written in the Somali language (blogged earlier). Ngugi wa Thiongo would have loved this place. Indeed, a major Somali dictionary is scheduled for a launch. I meet many Somalis born and raised in the Diaspora reveling in their fluent, if western-accented, Somali. The Somalis are a signal exception to our modern African determination, for whatever reason, not to pass our languages onto our children. There is also a hunger to embrace other cultures and before I leave we have the bare-bones of a pan-African book club going, anchored by Hamdi Ali. With books denominated in English.

Reading from The Ghost of Sani Abacha at HIBF

Reading from The Ghost of Sani Abacha at HIBF

Sadly, Ugaaso Boocow, who was to chair my reading couldn’t make the trip, but Somalilander and London resident, Baar Hirsi, gets to crack the whip in her place, and a fine time is had by all. I probably enjoyed my reading the least because a Djiboutian writer, Cabdiqadir Limaan, reacting to my short story, High Fidelity, makes a couple of contributions from the floor that has everyone in stitches. Unfortunately he makes them in the Somali language and while everyone else is laughing tears I have to chuckle politely. Baar’s translation can hardly be heard over the laughter and although she brings me up to speed afterwards, there isn’t much fun in laughing well after the party is over.

What he said? Well he gave a couple of examples of male jealousy in solidarity with my poor hero in High Fidelity, but one will suffice: there was the man whose wife was listening to the sultry voice of an Imam calling the faithful to prayers. This man of God has a fine voice, she said piously, and her jealous husband exploded: I divorce you! I divorce you! I divorce you!

An Image from the Caves at Laas Geel

I peel back the spell-binding psyche of the modern Somali in an ever-increasing cast of new friends that make sleep such a waste of time in Somaliland. Juban, means Burnt, in Somali, explains Abdi-Latif Ega, the Harlem-based Somali author, holding forth on his new book by the same title. We spend many evenings in conversation. I discover that despite his deep knowledge of his people, about whom he had written an anthropological novel, Abdi-Latif was yet to visit one of the most iconic historical sites in both Somalia and Somaliland – the caves at Laas Geel. Naturally, I acquire the desperate desire to become more ‘Somali’ than Abdi and many of my motley crew of Diasporan Somalis by seeing Laas Geel before them.

The very next day I swing it, although at the cost of missing Kahora’s session: I hitch a ride in a 4-wheel drive caravan with Miles Moreland, Coco Ferguson, Veronica Varekova, Ben Stein and Jonathan Foreman. We spend a couple of hours on the road to Berbera before swinging off-road. The vehicles barely lose speed. We descend into dry river courses and ascend the banks again, until we arrive at the lip of a climb where we are finally on our own.

There is a small gallery with pictures of the caves – for the infirm who cannot climb – but the real prize is up in the hills.

Up in Laas Geel, the hilltop refuge that has drawn humanity from millennia past, caves gouged into the mountainside by the elements, a mountainside from which the countryside rolls away forever… You enter the caves and the images etched into the walls draw you into the neolithic prehistory of this land and her people.

You do wonder at the pigments that our ancient artists used: I remember the ‘evidence’ contained in fax messages from my early days in legal practice fading away in the security of their box files. Here on the other hand are paintings exposed to wind and baking temperatures for thousands of years, still leaping vividly at the beholder in their reds and whites and ochres…

Even the value system of the artists have endured. Cattle, Somaliland’s prime export, is as central to life today as it was back then. Indeed in the imagination of the cave artists, cattle looms large, standing far taller than their milking, adoring humans. From cave to cave we go. Goaded on by a risk-averse Coco, I develop a goat-like affinity for heights, and take a few risks that might have invalidated any life insurance policy. We discover the famous look-out spot and when the party has moved on, I slink back for some solitude, and there, begin a new poem (since blogged), which will find its way into my next collection.

The Children of Laas Geel

Scattered
on the shoulders
of the mountain of Laas Geel:

boulders
of a broken god,
on her journey to the plains.

Crevices of stone
decant their
poetry…

hollowed
by the elements,
denuded by her foes,

in hues of
cows and kudu, she
is painted by her sons,

with hadhuubs
of peace she is watered
by her daughters

till, from the grave
of dead gods,
great folk emerge

*

Meanwhile, back in the hotel, I try to get past the Somali Goat in my investigation of Somali cuisine. Unfortunately the flavour of the meat presents an insurmountable problem. I first ate the boiled goat on my second day at the hotel. It did not sound particularly promising, boiled goat, but I was prevailed upon to try it for lunch on Day Two. The meat arrived with a side plate of rice.

Prodigious in size (later, on the plane back, I make a note to self: go vegetarian for a while to restore the balance of grains and meats), all the flavour of the beast was caught and accounted for in the bowl before me. I asked after the spices that had tangled with the meat in the pot but the names, rendered in Somali, went in one ear and out the other. Thus began an addictive bingeing on goat meals. In my defence it is clear that the flavour of cattle is signally nuanced by the pasture on which it is raised. On the wall in Ibrahim Awale’s office, and on my trips around this land I see their conscientious goats grazing high in the branches of aromatic trees, so it could also be the exercise, of course, as much as the fodder. Whatever it is, I am unable to experience much of the breadth of the local cuisine, on account of the goat meat problem.

And yet you cannot forget that two of the largest countries in Africa have redrawn their borders in the blood of brothers spilled in wars of partition. The brand new state of South Sudan was painfully minted from the old, but Somaliland’s border, though purchased in the blood of Said Barre’s martyrs, is still drawn in pencil.

Beneath the earnestness of country lies the insecurity of an autonomous region that would be a state. Despite the two decades of self-government that has followed a declaration of independence on 18th May 1991, the relevant news on Somalia, with which Somaliland is perennially paired, arrives via the prism of war and piracy and terrorism. A journalist would later grumble that his report on the Book Fair was spiked by his editor because it was not ‘interesting’ enough. (Sadly no bombs went off in the midst of the HIBF opening ceremony.) Somaliland continues to be defined by the conflict and insecurity beyond her borders. The green-liveried SPU soldiers are a silent, ubiquitous sight. They are relentlessly polite and retiring but you cannot forget that they carry heavy guns for a reason.

But for now, the bloodletting seems to persist in certified states of Somalia where Mogadishu seems to wake up to a regular prayer call of gunfire, Nigeria where the malevolent Boko Haram rain their terror on Northern highways, and more recently Kenya where the deadly siege of Westgate completed a season of anomie. It is almost enough to make us want to exchange our berth at the United Nations for the indifference of the world. If there is a message for Somaliland in all this, it is this: states exist for her citizens, and in satisfying this end, column inches in foreign media pale beside the pillars of a strong economy and stable society.  

Back in the book fair, I can report that the Pan-African spirit is alive and well. It is hard to believe this, with the several million miles of artificial borders that we have inherited from colonists and reinforced with our own concrete, landmines and wars. Yet, after an event at the Ambassador Hotel I am approached by three Somali university students, Jamaal, Bashir, and Abdifatah. We fall into conversation. They tell me that I am the first Nigerian they have ever met.

I will hear this many times before this trip is done. It is curious this: Nigerians are reasonably well travelled, as are Somalis. Indeed, these two nationalities discomfit South Africans with the large numbers of their immigrant populations, yet Somali-sightings on Lagos streets are rarities indeed. I wonder what has raised this wall between Nigeria and greater Somalia. I recall that when I was boarding my flight in Lagos, the ground staff of my airline has asked for my ultimate destination.

Berbera, I had said.

Berbera? she had asked, Is that in Africa or Asia?

My hosts have billed me as the first Nigerian writer in these parts, but this is probably just the internet age. Our memory is very young, but the world is very, very old. All the same, I have to promise my hosts not to return alone next time.

I love the colours on the streets of Hargeysa. The locally-quarried granite is available in attractive shades of laterite and used everywhere, from external walls to fences. Eventually I have to ask if there is a law prescribing the street art.

New friend and fellow lawyer, Quman Akli, takes me to a meeting with Jama Ismail and other officers of the Somaliland Bar Association. The walls of the secretariat are grand granite blocks that could do justice in a Sudanese pyramid. The benefit of these thick granite walls, of course, is a home that stays cool for much of the hot afternoon, and stays warm well into the cool night.

Another peculiarity of Hargeysa, from where I am coming from, is the ubiquitous provision for private dining at restaurants. At the first restaurant on the drive from Berbera there was gender-segregated dining, with some private rooms into which ladies disappeared, leaving the main enclosure to men – which was perhaps responsible for the most zealously unrestrained eating I have seen in a looong time. In Hargeysa there is no segregation in the hotels, but there are small quaint huts where private meals – and meetings – could be had. It was in one such tiny hotel dining room that I interview Hadraawi.

Hadraawi reading at the HIBF; Photography by Kate Stanworth

Hadraawi reading at the HIBF

I had watched him read at the opening event of the Book Fair. Because he read in Somali I did not understand a word of his reading, but it was nonetheless a spell-binding performance, not just because of Hadraawi physicality, but because of his audience. And what an audience. Usually an old man can expect to have the elderly in his audience. Hadraawi’s audience was significantly young. They filled the hall to capacity, and then they stood at the back of the hall, and then they packed the windows. In one of Kate Stanworth‘s photographs they looked like (grinning) detainees at a local jailhouse, but no, they were young people listening to a Hadraawi poem. In one of my tweets from the Book Fair, I had said that ‘In Somaliland, poets are the popstars’. This was what I meant.

 Young Hadraawi Fans @ the HIBF; Photography by Kate Stanworth

Young Hadraawi Fans @ the HIBF

It is clear that I have to have a private chat with this man for African Writing magazine. I arrange it with Ridwan Osman, a doctoral student at Cambridge Uni, and returnee Somali-resident, Zahra Jibril, who – just when I thought she could not be any more resourceful – turns out to be a Hadraawi expert too. On the day of our chat with Mohamed Ibrahim Warsame, it is not hard to see why his old teacher nicknamed him ‘Hadraawi’ (the big talker): I ask a ten second question, and he gives a ten minute reply in Somali, while Zahra gives me a one minute translation in English. I have long wondered about those ‘embezzled’ minutes. And the laughter that went with it. Were they debating the colour of my beard? My Nigerian accent?

I have kept the raw tapes.

One day I shall learn Somali.

For now, I can share the most startling thing I discovered about Hadraawi: He composed his first poem at the age of 4. And he still remembers the verse. I must have looked cynical, because he went on to repeat the verse, along with the circumstances of its composition in great detail. With a memory like that, I could have… I could have… I have forgotten what.

Hadraawi & Chuma Nwokolo

The Post-Interview Handshake

Finally it is time to leave Somaliland. Goodbyes verge on the emotionally traumatic, but have to be done. Ahmed runs me down to the airport with Jonathan and we leave so early we go without our guards. There is a collision with real life on the way: Ahmed had heard radio reports of deaths by flooding and we see evidence of it on the road to Berbera. On this road, rather than bridge the ubiquitous wadis, the engineers mostly build the road right across the riverbeds which are dry through most of the year anyway. When it floods, the traveller had to wait for the swiftest floodwaters to pass, and then 4WDs can usually cope. Sadly the night before some travellers had miscalculated and the flood had capsized their cars and claimed some lives. We pass the upturned vehicles on the way to the airport. It is a sombre note on which to leave, a reminder of the very real world.

I say my goodbyes to Ahmed. At the departure gate at the airport, I am hit with an interesting exit tax: I am to pay a total of US$40 before I can catch my connecting flight through Addis Abeba. I see the potentials of this tax right away: to stay on legally forever, all one has to do is to turn up broke at the departure lounge. I weigh my options briefly. Then I pay up: I am heading for Kenya and the Kenyans are nice too. All this is getting boring, actually: nice Ethiopians, nice Somalis, nice Kenyans… My writerly instincts tell me that the population of the Horn have to be more complicated than this. There is clearly a conspiracy to put on an amiable front for public relations purposes. They can sustain the front for a fortnight, if I stay a little longer surely they will crack under pressure; then I can see them in their true colours.

Clearly I have to revisit Somaliland in the near future – strictly for research purposes…

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