Through Time and Space with Johannes Klaus
My childhood dream came true.
We’re travelling to the South Pacific.
‘Is that Hashish?’, asks the Somali border official while I’m waiting for my passport and rolling a cigarette.
‘Oh…no! Only tobacco’, I reply cautiously.
‘Too bad…’, the man mumbles, disappointed. In his left cheek, a lump of the intoxicating khat leaves becomes apparent, which he now shoves to the right side of his mouth. He turns to the bundle of twigs that lie next to him and picks off a few young leaves. I laugh.
‘Anyway, guys… welcome to Somalia!’
Wajaale is a minor, dusty border crossing. Small houses and barracks line the stony road that connects Ethiopia with Somalia. Colorfully painted trucks stand at the roadside, waiting to be allowed to cross the border or to be loaded with building materials, groceries and all sorts of merchandise. In the shade under the trucks, goats are chewing on rotten melon rinds, the sun, without mercy, burns from a cloudless sky.
The end of the world; this is what it must look like, I think, as I cross the bridge that spans a desiccated riverbed. This is the no man’s land in between two poor states. But it is full. Full of the plastic waste of the people who live on either side of the border. No one deals with its disposal.
A string stretches across the street. I lift it – and am in Somalia.
The political situation is quite confusing. During the colonial era, Somalia was split: the southern part, which was ruled by Italy, formed the so-called Italian Somaliland. Its capital being Mogadishu. In the smaller northern part, at the border to Ethiopia, the British established themselves and made Hargeisa their headquarters.
Today, however, the Somalilanders enjoy a stable governmental and legal system and fairly steady peace. Along with a small fighter jet, which was shot down and erected as a memorial at a junction in their sandy capital Hargeisa. But why is Somaliland not recognized as an independent state? There could be several reasons, for example, the fear of imitators from other African states which were randomly merged by their former colonial powers. Or the hope that the brittle stability might spread to other parts of Somalia. Or perhaps that there are no relevant resources to be exploited in Somaliland.
At any rate – the people of Somaliland therefore suffer many disadvantages. Be it state development aid, loans, insurance contributions or tourism: it is probably the most unfavorable situation possible to officially be part of Somalia, but, in fact, to be cut off from all payments to Somalia. Without the attention that one receives as a member of the United Nations, Somaliland won’t be able to further develop.
I am not alone in this forgotten area. Alex the Swede is accompanying me. We met in Montenegro where we were each mistaken for the other by a saleswoman at a mini market although we don’t remotely resemble each other. Of course, we became best friends. We make a good team at exploring remote areas together.
The Horn of Africa: Somalia is bordering Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti
We start our journey in Ethiopia, in Wajaale we cross the border to Somaliland.
With a little backpack as our only luggage, we travelled from place to place using the local public transport. We would play some or other song on our ukuleles, for our own amusement and to the astonishment of the people we met…
For travelers, there are a few five-seat Toyota station wagons from the 70s and 80s available, which are the customary means of transportation in Somaliland.
Here and there, people are lying in the shade of small houses and old trees, a little further away a few men are standing by their cars, waving. We hoist our backpacks on our shoulders and stumble towards them over the dusty stony ground. The elderly, nearly toothless man smiles as he and his wife move closer together to make room in the trunk for us.
With us, the taxi’s passenger cargo is complete: 12 people, stuffed on five seats and in the trunk, will spend the next hours relishing each other’s humid body heat while leaving the border station and rumbling towards Hargeisa.
But, hurry not, my friend! Unmotivated, we wait half an hour for nothing.
Then, when our hope has nearly vanished, we set into motion. Unfortunately, only two minutes later we stop because now it’s time to get gas, adjust the tire pressure and have a chat. But then, off we are! And how! Apparently, the young driver wants to prove to us that he could win the Paris-Dakar rally hands-down, cigarette butt in the corner of his mouth. I, for my part, have no doubt he would.
Our neighbor, the elderly Somali, obviously pities me. I must look a little pale in the face. He hands me a few twigs with khat leaves. Softly and insistently he encourages me to chew.
Khat? I already know this bush from Ethiopia, which has the largest growing area.
The young twigs are cut and sold in bunches. In Yemen, Ethiopia and Somalia this is the drug of choice for men – the juice of the leaves is absorbed through the buccal mucosa and has an effect that can be best compared to that of marihuana. At least, that was what I had heard.
I pick off a few leaves and excitedly start to chew. How does it taste, asks the curious reader?
I shove the leaf mush from one corner of my mouth to the other and differentiate the nuances: red fruity aroma in play with floral appeal, notes of mocha and a hint of vanilla, balanced and juicy at the palate, with a tangy final note…
Nonsense: it tastes as if one were nibbling on a few juicy birch twigs or went munching on a hazel bush. Not good. Like green leaves (not that that’s something I do regularly, the chewing of leaves back home in the uplands).
Back to the taste. It is exactly this, which I’m soon no longer aware of because my oral cavity is going numb as if I were about to get a root canal treatment by my trusted dentist. Because there’s nothing for me to do in this narrow trunk, I continue.
All of a sudden, we lurch to a halt. A few houses stand along the road, the driver wants to take a lunch break. Our destination can’t be far, but apparently no one seems to care. The driver of a taxi, bus, truck or other motorized vehicle (and any vehicle here is capable of conveying people) holds the absolute power in East Africa. No matter what he does, rarely does one hear objections from the passengers. They patiently and obediently endure all of his moods.
To drive a vehicle is to wield real power.
Cautiously, I approach the food stand. There is spaghetti and a few pieces of mutton, which are simmering listlessly in a brown sauce. Next to the pot with the meat, the rest of the animal hangs in the sun. A swarm of black flies is certainly attracted. Me, not so much.
Nonetheless, I get myself a helping because I am really hungry! I’m also given a fork although the other guests are exclusively using their hands. A few tables are standing in the shade of the canopy, I take a seat on one of the plastic chairs. Carefully, I pick out a piece of meat and smell it. Whoa! I decide to stick with the noodles.
Shortly after we take off again, we reach the first suburbs of the capital. At a small square full of cars, buses, animals and small market stands we are let out without comment – without having the slightest clue as to where we are. It’s a pretty dumb situation because the basis for negotiation concerning a taxi fee is disastrous. In a situation like this, I usually remove myself from the hassle and take a minute to orientate myself.
Unfortunately, the use of khat leaves wasn’t beneficial in terms of achieving maximal mental performance. All the same, by actively asking around we are able to get a vague idea in which direction to move.
And so we start to trudge. Deeper and deeper into the capital of a country that doesn’t exist.
* * *
The Oriental Hotel is an institution. Not more and not less. Already during the colonial era, it was marked on the British maps. It is still here, serene and grounded, as befits a venerable hotel with a history.
Of course, times have changed and there are more expensive and bigger hotels than the Oriental in Hargeisa –but none of them are as centrally located and inexpensive at the same time. A room costs fifteen dollars – without air-conditioning, of course, but with a view of the street. And there’s much to see. The money changers are an astonishing sight: bunch over bunch, the Somaliland shilling bills pile up before them, stacked into thick little walls! The 500 shilling bills are the most common, even if one bill isn’t even worth 8 euro cents, it is still an enormous amount of money lying here on the street. Behind the money walls, the changers lounge on small carpets, doze in the shade of umbrellas or chat with their friends. Of course, everyone’s chewing khat.
I’d like to change 100 US dollars.
Close to 2,000 bills. That’s what I get for my one bill – an impressive stack of money! Naturally, there’s a plastic bag available, in which I can carry my new fortune back to the hotel. I ask the changer if he’s not afraid someone is going to steal his money, which lies here in the middle of the street. ‘No!’, he laughs. ‘Here everything’s safe.’ He looks convinced.
Several women pass, burdened with bags full of purchases. Following Muslim tradition, they all keep their hair covered, and except for their hands and faces, no skin is visible. Some are dressed in colorful burkas, others wear a headscarf.
A few meters away a man is yelling. Armed with a frightening sword, which he wildly waves around, he blares the very latest Jihad. I prefer to keep a distance. Who knows. Maybe he just thinks his watermelons are especially worth buying.
As suits an almost real capital, there is also lots of traffic.
At a crossing of the centrally located Independence Avenue, Somaliland’s first traffic light was erected. It may not be surprising that we found it far removed from any functionality, as far from it as a traffic light could only be. Admittedly, the idea is yet charming…
More and more people are moving to Somaliland’s largest city. According to estimates, it is already two or three million who seek their luck in the capital. And so it steadily spreads over the dry hills of the urban hinterland, the sea of huts and houses. Too hard the life as a nomad, too tempting the alleged opportunities in the city. One of the best ones being a higher education.
Alex and I try our luck and take a taxi to the university, which is located on the outskirts on a hill. We hope we’ll get a chance to talk to some students there, in order to learn more about life in Somaliland. It is semester break and only a few students are sitting in the library. Most of them in front of a few computers, where they are hanging around on Facebook. One guy employs the Google image search to show him a few titty pictures and hastily opens a Word document when he sees us. Too bad the computer isn’t the fastest.
Three female students and a fellow student have time to talk to us. Amina is the first one to come sit with us. She wears a blue headscarf, has soft features and big, bright eyes. Amina is not opposed to talking to us, and that is a great boon, as most women have avoided us so far. Alex asks her about her wishes for the future.
On our way out of the library we encounter a white-haired, clean-shaven man who beams at us. ‘Hello! I’m the dean!’. He is the dean of the school of medicine, and is simply called ‘Dean’ by everybody – we never learn his real name. He leads us to his office. The walls are painted a pale pink, a skeleton stands in the corner, next to it an old computer. Books are lying around everywhere. When he hears that I am German he excitedly bursts out ‘I’ve also been to Germany, to the DDR, for one year! A great country, I saw so many cities: Schwerin, Dresden, Leipzig, Halle… unfortunately, I’m no longer in touch with anyone.’
He proudly shows us his small department library. He seems like a person who has seen and experienced a lot, and has still kept a positive attitude towards life. We want to learn more.
‘What matters to you in life?’
This he finds most important: no hate, no greed. The dean has impressed me, not only because of his words of wisdom; his entire being radiates this attitude. To strive for ideas, not prosperity. To assign higher value to content than to tangibles. And to always keep a kind heart – that makes him a big role model.
* * *
We leave Hargeisa the following day. On the road to Berbera, only 50 kilometers to the north-east, we come to a junction. A stony track leads to Las Geel. Here we are supposed to find one of Somaliland’s main attractions. It is said that it would have long been protected by the UNESCO if the political situation had allowed it. ‘Las Geel actually means camel water’, explains our driver while he steers the car with his left hand and his right hand shoves a few khat leaves into his mouth. ‘Apparently, this used to be a watering place where the herds were watered.’
Of which nothing can be seen as the rattling car lurches to a halt in front of a few stony hills. A sandy, desiccated riverbed bears witness to the fact that there must be precipitation in the rainfall period – but now it is as dry as bone. So far, it is a rather unspectacular area. A plain hut has been erected behind the riverbed, in the shade of the bare porch, a man lies on the concrete floor. He is wearing traditional work clothing made of an airy, light blue fabric, a long dagger with a haft made of horn hangs by his side. He doesn’t move until we have almost reached him. Tediously, he lifts his head to let it sink again. It isn’t all that hot, but he is completely overcome by lethargy.
After a few moments of composing himself, another movement: his right arm languidly reaches out and I press the envelope with the license from the Ministry of Tourism into his hand. The hotel manager of the Oriental Hotel organized it for us and got a few dollars off us – but one needs this scrap of paper in order to visit Las Geel. But he is not further interested in what is inside the envelope and, without comment, closes his eyes. Like in slow-motion, his arm sinks to the ground.
Behind the hut, a few rocky hills rise from the savanna-like plain. We climb up the smaller and bigger rocks; there are no trails nor even signposts. On one of the opposite hills, a boy is standing on its plateau and blandly watches us while his goats eagerly nibble off the few leaves of the thorny bushes. When I step past a ledge, I finally see why we have gone through the trouble of coming here.
I am impressed: The style of drawing could also have come from the hand of a contemporary illustrator.
It is amazing that these, many thousands of years old works of art are still perfectly preserved.
Unimpressed and almost without any protection at all, they withstand the semi-desert’s adversities; where goats are bopping around and every few weeks a tourist. I feel very privileged to be able to experience this mystical place in the middle of nowhere.
The landscape becomes more and more surreal as we continue our drive to Berbera, towards the coast.
The bushes give way to a barren rocky desert, several perfectly cone-shaped mountains rise a few hundred meters above the flat plain. So far, we have been the only passengers. But after a short while, seven more passengers, who are also coast-bound, board at the roadside of a small town. That means:
This time we’re lucky enough to find some room on the rear seats, while two fully veiled ladies and an elderly man are less fortunate and have to get comfy in the trunk. The closer we move towards the coast, the hotter and hazier it gets; we are all covered by a fine layer of dust.
Mohamad, a young man, who was also lucky and is now nestling against Alex, comes from Mogadishu.
For him, it is still a long way back home. Now that the fighting has abated, he wants to return to his family. It will take him approximately four days to make the 800 kilometers home. His English is good and he wears an orange polo-shirt over his muscular body. Suddenly, he hastily demands a bag from the driver, which he then hands to the back. Both women are loudly moaning and wailing.
* * *
With gloomy eyes, a man absently looks into the distance. He is leaning against a crumbling pillar of an old villa from the era of the Ottoman rule, which lasted until the end of the 19th century.
The edifice caught our attention. As most of the houses of the old town are single-storied, white plastered buildings – charming, but simple. Located on a small hill, with a wooden veranda and surrounded by plenty of space, this villa greatly stood out, so we wanted to get a closer look. Here, we meet Ahmed.
Ahmed is probably in his late twenties and is wearing a sleeveless shirt. He cordially greets us in broken English. We go stand by him in the shade of the patio and converse, as best we can.
His wife is inside preparing food. ‘We don’t have children, yet’ he says in a low voice. ‘Our first child died at birth.’ Despondently, he pauses. Then his face brightens up. ‘But now, my wife is pregnant again.’ He smiles shyly. Both are from Hargeisa, but here in Berbera he found work at the port. They have made their quarters in the old villa. Like many of the beautiful old buildings, it desperately needs remodeling. But it lacks of nearly everything, most of all money. And he’d much rather move back to the capital: he finds it way too hot here at the coast!
And it is hot, hallelujah.
Sultry 47 degrees!
On arriving in Berbera the previous day, we were rather taken by surprise to be immediately turned down by every single one of the few hotels: fully booked! We never quite understood why this place was so popular a destination for a weekend trip that all the hotels were booked out, considering that every step becomes a torture in this sweltering heat.
The evening was drawing to a close and we were slowly getting nervous. A night without accommodation, in a foreign city on the Somali coast – that was not what we had anticipated! Our expectations for our room rapidly sank. Yet everything we heard was ‘Sorry, we are full!’. Then, at last: narrow-spaced, unplastered barracks in a yard. We get a windowless room, with two rickety beds. The gaps in the wall are patched-up with cardboard. The highlight is a rattly air-conditioner – a godsend, considering the temperatures. 25 US dollars per night. Thank you and good night.
In the morning, already at sunrise, we go out to explore the area. Like a heater fan, a hot and heavy wind is blowing at dawn, across the wide, unpaved roads of the old town, and I become aware that in just a few hours, the temperatures will be beyond all endurance.
As it is still too windy for the small boats to be put out to sea, other work is being accomplished in the meantime: most of the men are sitting on the ground next to the giant nets and are mending the holes by knotting new ropes into the net, replacing the ones that had torn.
Approximately a hundred meters away from the shore, three gigantic shipwrecks are halfway sunk into the bay.
These freighters were probably sunk in the course of the 90s‘ bombings, but no one can or wants to provide me with any information. Now they picturesquely rust away, waves wash over the decks and crash against the slowly corroding ship walls. It seems so unreal, like a Hollywood set, that a somewhat unimaginative set constructor developed for a civil war movie in Somalia. But it’s real. Crazy.
As if this scenery wasn’t bizarre enough, a few meters away from the wrecks, groups of children, fully dressed women and several shaggy dogs enjoy themselves in the shallow sea while the low tide is setting in. They are screaming and playing in the waves or standing motionlessly in the water in order to better endure the heat. In the washed-up garbage, flocks of crows plunge into anything that somewhat resembles food. A few of them rejoice in bothering a dog. By hopping on his hindquarters and then flying out of reach again, they mockingly screech as it tries to lunge at them.
The beach is so polluted that, in some places, the sand entirely disappears under a layer of blueish shimmering plastic bottles. In the North, the loading cranes of the deepwater port, which has meanwhile become the most important employer for the men in Berbera, are visible in the mist.
‘Food is ready!’, Ahmed’s wife calls from the house, and we say good-bye. It’s late in the morning and the heat is getting absolutely unbearable; we have grown very fond of our stinking air conditioning. ‘You are always more than welcome,’ he says with a firm handshake. ‘And one last thing: please say ‘hi’ to the people in Germany for me!’
There are supposed to be gorgeous reefs at the Somali coast, where one can go snorkeling and diving – but without any tourist infrastructure this is difficult. We want to try it anyway. We ask the hotel manager if he can find someone who can take us out on a boat. There are no explanations, maps or documents where one can find good reefs here. We wait for one day. The following afternoon, a boy knocks on our door: we should go to the beach…
When I climb on board again I’m glad. Glad that both fishermen with their boat are still here. Glad that they aren’t pirates and don’t want to exchange us for ransom. And glad that we took this little adventure – because Somalia’s underwater world is beautiful.
* * *
Let’s talk about music. A very difficult subject here. As I walk through the streets, passing shops, small market stands and waiting taxis, there’s much to hear. People are talking, praising their goods; donkeys are screeching and hens clucking, motors are stuttering and drivers honking; the muezzins sing at prayer time from the minarets of the countless mosques.
This much I hear – but no music. No radio blaring away. Only when entering a taxi, is it on. But even in the car: instead of vocals and instruments one hears male voices reciting the suras of the Koran.
Music, be it traditional or modern, is oddly frowned upon. I find that really strange. The strict Islamic majority of Somali society seems to pursue a philosophy that is very hostile to entertainment – at least concerning things that are usually considered ‘fun’ in Western societies. Pretty much everything (except for the intoxicating khat leaves) is at least hidden from the public eye: dancing, music, alcohol.
But by no means does that mean all people abstain from it. No; this aspect of life belongs to the private sphere, where one can sit with the like-minded and relax.
In a café, we get to talking with a man, he’s a musician and his name is Al-Dawid. He invites us to his place for the afternoon where he wants to play us his music. We won’t miss this opportunity in this music-hostile environment! A few hours later, we knock on the door of his rather big house. For a gift, we brought two bags full of khat twigs. Our host opens and leads us into his living-room. There’s not much here, a few carpets and pillows on a tile floor, a bare, energy-saving light bulb hangs from the ceiling and radiates a cold light. But it is pleasantly cool here. Four young men are lying on the floor and warmly greet us. They are already chewing khat by the bunches, several Coke bottles are standing around, cigarettes are being smoked.
It doesn’t take long until the first song is played. For that, Al-Dawid uses a large stringed instrument.
And he knows how to play it! After a few minutes everyone is starting to sing unfamiliar melodies, polyphonic. One of his friends is holding a cell phone in the air and recording the performance.
After a few songs, the khat also starts to unfold its relaxing effect, and the conversations certainly get downright. This time, we let them chew alone – my first encounter in the taxi was sufficient… We are interested, however, in what effects the leaves have in the long-run. Are they addictive?
‘That doesn’t sound like too much fun if it causes so many problems!’, Alex reflects on the newly gained insights. They nod avidly.
Alex and I get out our ukuleles and sing ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’, in a rough-and-ready way. This is also recorded by the cell phone – might we soon be Somaliland’s secret Youtube stars? Our performance is a raving success! Obviously, khat also dramatically limits one’s ability to judge.
Great stuff, these leaves.
* * *
When foreigners travel from city to city in Somaliland, they have to be accompanied by a police man from the so-called ‘Special Protection Unit’, short ‘SPU’. We had already experienced this on our route from Hargeisa to Las Geel and Berbera: bored, the police man sat down next to our driver, chewed khat and got all grouchy when we’d stop to take a picture or to take a look around. That was kind of a drag.
But such a police man comes in awfully handy when it’s about passing road blocks, which occur every few kilometers and are occupied by soldiers that are just as bored. That’s quite useful.
By word of mouth, we had heard that one can get a letter issued by the police in their headquarters in Hargeisa, which permits traveling without this said police man. And, as a matter of fact: when we asked for such a permit there, it was granted to us outright – it would be absolutely safe for foreigners to travel on the roads connecting the cities was what the man in charge told us. But with one constraint: the Chief of Police didn’t get along with the Minister for Tourism. And he was the one who insisted that a security official came along! In order to avoid that the argument escalate, the Chief of Police would therefore only give his verbal permission for traveling alone.
Obviously, that’s a problem.
Here, having a verbal permit is worth as much as… having none at all; as the soldiers at the checkpoints mostly don’t speak a word of English and many can’t read either. Bored, they wait at their stations for anything (!) to happen, and that’s when a bunch of foreigners come in handy! If you can’t stick an official-looking document in front of their noses, it gets very complicated.
Now in Berbera, Alex has a good idea. ‘How ‚bout we write down the verbal permit and print it out, without changing its content?’, he says to me. And, of course, without forging a signature or stamp – simply documenting what we were told. I like the plan. No sooner said than done. A Word document is quickly produced, we add our passport numbers and are able to print the document in a copy shop. It doesn’t look very official, but we are hoping that the simple fact that it is printed will make enough of an impression.
The hotel manager finds us a driver, and we head out the following morning – slightly nervous – to start our last trip through Somaliland. We’ve planned to go up through the mountains, then to Hargeisa and back to the border with Ethiopia. Will the soldiers accept our permit or will they send us straight back to Berbera?
Excited, we leave. It is a real pleasure when we are waved through at the first checkpoints! Every time, the bar goes up and we are allowed to pass – but only after we have shown our piece of paper. How cunning we feel! We go up into the mountains, then down to the plain, back to the capital. Bar after bar goes up, and we are mighty happy. Yes, we even get a little boisterous!
Had we known what awaited us, we would probably have been a bit more cautious.
We are about to start our last leg from Hargeisa back to the border when our Toyota station wagon, packed with eleven passengers, is waved to the side and painstakingly inspected. We are unconcerned as one normally doesn’t need an extra escort as a foreigner on the way back to the border. But all of a sudden, the inspecting police man changes his mind! We have to bring along a SPU! As we routinely pull out our note in order to solve the problem, the situation escalates. The eager police man storms away, gets his supervisor. An elderly man with a white beard and a little paunch comes our way and nervously orders us to get out. The driver of the taxi tries to talk to him, and is also ordered to come along. Together, we get into the rattly police car and rumble over the sandy roads to the headquarters of the Somaliland police. It’s a bit outside of town, and we already know it, because that’s were we’d gotten our verbal permit. I’m a bit nervous now because we have to catch our flight in Ethiopia the next day! What if we are kept here due to this matter?
After waiting for a short time, we are shown to the commander. Several police men are sitting in his office, awaiting his orders. He is wearing a military uniform, dark glasses and frowns at us. ‘What was all that about?’, he barked. We cast our eyes to the floor. ‘We thought..we didn’t know..we’re sorry!’, we mumble.
„Don’t do that again! Goodbye!“
He turns back to his subordinates.
Covertly, we look at each other. We don’t let on our relief. The police man leads us back to the police car. ‘Phew,’ I say to Alex, ‘that was a close call…’ We both laugh with relief. What an endeavor! That could have gone pretty wrong.
Back at the taxi, we get back in with the other eight passengers, which had to wait for us for nearly to two hours. However, waiting is normal here and is nothing anyone would complain about. The elderly police man amicably smiles at us and says goodbye.
‘Happy travels! See you again soon!’
He gushingly waves us off as we slowly jolt towards the border.
When I cross the bridge – the no man’s land between Somaliland and Ethiopia – I am glad. Somaliland hasn’t made things easy for us. It is hard to even come close to understanding a country that is so far from anything familiar in just a few weeks. Which keeps so many aspects of life hidden from the public eye. It was very exhausting to travel here, the heat and the uncomfortable rides got to us. Some reactions on the street were gruff or defensive, and with our slight arrogance to self-compose a permit we ultimately didn’t succeed.
But when we were able to get into a conversation with someone, amiable people like student Amina, musician Al-Dawid or shy Ahmed let us peek a little into the thoughts and dreams of the Somali. No trace of hostility towards us or the West, but the desire to approaching each other, to lead a better, less restricted life without losing one’s own identity. Developments such as the increasing number of female students at the university raise one’s hopes that Somaliland will make a still better and peaceful life possible for its inhabitants, despite the disregard by the rest of the world.
And someday it might also need working traffic lights. And I will come back to see those.
Translation by Kate Weyerer.