Friday, October 12, 2012


I am not going to be able to pull this one off again.  In May, when I returned from Islamabad and finally told my mother that I had not been in “India” but rather in Pakistan, she said “Kristen – just promise me that you will never tell me that you are going to Somalia.”  Noted.  As I had, at that point, been providing technical assistance to a Somaliland project for almost a year, and knew that travel there would take place in the next few months, I filed that little tidbit away in its most literal sense.  She used the future tense of the verb.  I will tell her in the past tense.  (And using the blog - that way she has time to cool off before she actually starts yelling at me.)
It all started out reasonably enough – 4:30 am at the Nairobi airport presenting my UN passport at the UNHAS counter (United Nations Humanitarian Assistance in Somalia) – then going upstairs to drink a chai latte and watch the first presidential debate.  The first plane took us from Nairobi to Berbera on the coast of the Red Sea (and the only runway in Somaliland capable of handling a jet).  Berbera looked straight out of a movie set.  Miles of nothing but dust in two directions, ocean in another, and dusty city in the fourth.  Planes scattered around the tarmac in various stages of disassembly and occasionally set off nicely against the blue of the sea.  A pack of feral dogs.  An airport fence made of piled thorn branches.  A humanitarian assistance lifer smoking in the shade (for those of you that have never met one of these creatures – beware – spending your entire life bouncing from one dangerous disaster to another does things to a person.  Not good things).  We claimed our bags from the old man on the Chinese tractor and climbed about the prop plane to complete the last leg of the journey to the capital of Somaliland, Hargeisa.  Whereas the jet with its Mexican crew (Mexicana apparently bid and won the contract to supply the pilots for the UN charter service – I cannot imagine how many bales of marijuana you must have been caught trying to smuggle that you get exiled to Somalia – or maybe the Sinaloa cartel is networking) sort of inspired confidence, this ancient prop plane showed a bit more wear and tear on the emergency exits than I was comfortable with.  And on the landing – unless we ran over an extremely large quantity of loose change – something was seriously awry in the belly of that beast.  But I landed safely.  And got stamped into what the Economist referred to last week as an “independence minded fledgling semi-autonomous statelet.”


This might be a good “time out for history” moment.  There are three regions in the country formerly known as Somalia.  The first is Central South (think Mogadishu and ‘Blackhawk Down’ – as K’Naan would say "Warlords and Beardos”).  Then there is Puntland (think pirates).  And then there is Somaliland.  Somaliland used to be known as ‘British Somalia’ during the colonial administration (as opposed to the rest of the territory that was Italian administered).  It has always been considered to be relatively stable – though I did learn at my security briefing that there is an active war going on in the southern part of the country.  And the western border is heavily mined.  Otherwise – totally calm.
The four days in Hargeisa (the capital) were relatively uneventful.  We used the Hotel Maansoor as our base of operations as there really isn’t much in the way of secure and functioning commercial office space yet.  We went to meetings in heavily fortified compounds of government, United Nations, and NGOs (though there hasn’t been a set of coordinated car bombs since 2008).  We faithfully did our evening radio check with the Security Base (I am now quite good with the Alpha Bravo Charlie alphabet).
Along the way I noticed a few weird quirks about town – such as despite the fact that the country is a left-hand drive country (like the US) it is cheaper to import right-hand-side drive cars from Dubai.  So it is the only place in the world I have ever been where you drive right-hand drive cards on the right.  It is really strange.  Also, the power lines.  In their lifetimes – powerlines die.  They get worn-through, broken in storms, cut by rebel groups, etc.  In most places these power lines would be replaced.  Not in Somaliland.  There they just pile another round on top of the same polls – leading to snarling masses of black wire throughout the downtown.  It becomes almost sculptural.  And that every third business establishment sells qat – that green leafy chew that ensures a zero-productivity afternoon.

But beyond all of this – Somaliland is a fascinating little country.  It’s hot and dusty and poor – but I will be honest – it is not the hottest nor dustiest nor poorest place I have ever worked.  What is interesting though is that they got there without us.  None of the component parts of Somalia have been eligible for large scale foreign aid in the past 20 years.  So in the endless debate about whether aid money helps or hurts a country, there is at least one counterfactual waiting to be explored.  On one hand – we might find a completely broken society – with people dying and potential going unfulfilled for want of the most basic of services.  On the other hand – we might find a Tea Party Utopia.  A sub-Saharan African country that managed to develop a robust tax base and free-flowing remittances from abroad that were sufficient to – while maybe not get them ahead of their neighbors – not let them fall too far behind either.  I am not yet sure to which extreme the truth lies, but it will be interesting to study nonetheless.

(And apologies for the lack of quality pictures.  I took them with my iPhone out of the tinted window of a moving car.)