By: Katrina Manson
In its Reporting Back series, Financial Times-FT asks its foreign correspondents to tell us about a recent trip. Katrina Manson, the FT’s east Africa correspondent, tells us about her visit to Somaliland.
Why now? It was the perfect chance to visit the annual Hargeisa International Book Fair, now into its sixth year. For a nation that wrote down its script only 40 years ago, traditions of poetry and oral history still dominate – whether in assessing the value of a camel, the improprieties of a corrupt state or the riches of secret romance. For six days, writers from Kenya, Nigeria and the UK fly into the small capital as it celebrates its nomadic traditions with daily readings, dance, music and book sales of works from local favourites to Anton Chekhov and George Orwell.
Somaliland – a self-declared republic that announced its separation from the Mogadishu government in Somalia 22 years ago – is also trying to improve itself in the absence of international recognition and in spite of dire finances.
The visit was an opportunity to attend the reopening of Hargeisa airport following a $10m injection from Kuwait and to see how the territory was coping with a regional financial crisis after the UK’s Barclays Bank said that from the end of September it would no longer work with Dahabshiil, a global money transfer company started in Somaliland, which sends back about $1bn in remittance to Somalis every year and provides an essential lifeline to the nation.
What impression did you take away about the situation on the ground?
my faviourite description of the country came from Souleiman Youssouf, a 35-year-old Somalilander who lives and works in Canada but tries to visit every year. “Somaliland is a naked man in a tie,” he told me, in a vivid reference to the way the country spans extremes of development. Ageing nomads still walk the plains with their camels, but they can also call the US at cheap rates on the territory’s extremely competitive and successful mobile telephone networks. And although no other territory in the world recognises it, Somaliland strives to run itself as any other nation-state. It holds elections, passes laws and collects taxes – however meagre – and has developed an impressive clutch of commercial mobile phone, mobile internet and money transfer services.
Mr Souleiman is not alone in maintaining his ties to home. Wandering the dusty yellow streets of Hargeisa, whether in banking halls, shopping malls or city camel markets, I regularly bumped into Somalilanders from Cardiff to Canada. Many Somalilanders left in the late 1980s, when a bombing campaign waged by the Mogadishu government flattened the city. Soon after the territory soon declared independence. Some can still remember the long walk to the Ethiopian border and on to refugee camps. Many only come back for holidays but others, eager to move back permanently and help rebuild the nation, have become civil servants, ministers and businesspeople.
What was one of the most interesting things you learned?
Somaliland faces a horrendous balance of trade deficit. Every year, it sends $529m to Ethiopia for the drug qat. And it is all one-way trade.
Just about every street in the city is lined with small counters painted green and illustrated with pictures of bunches of leaves. Come morning and afternoon delivery time, the city’s men queue up for their bundle of of the narcotic stimulant (soon to be banned in the UK), and regularly chew through a bucket’s worth of the stuff, at $20 a throw. It suppresses appetite, awakens the nerves and, say some businessmen, creates just the right, heightened and heady atmosphere to agree a business deal.
The widespread habit is critical for keeping petty traders on the go in the city, but it eats away whole afternoons and evenings and divides families. It also means a territory with a budget of only $125 million a year spends its small supply of hard currency on importing the plant – which doesn’t grow in Somaliland – from its dominant neighbour Ethiopia.
Tell us about someone you met. Born a nomad into a camel-herding family in Somaliland, Mohamed Ibrahim Warsame attended school in Yemen and then moved to Mogadishu, where he was later jailed for “anti-revolutionary activities” because of his dissident poems that castigated autocracy under the regime of Siad Barre in the 1970s.
Today, Somalis look upon him as a national hero. This year, Mr Mohamed – known by his nickname Hadraawi (“the big talker”) – opened the Hargeisa International Book Fair with his rendition of the poem Sirta nolosha (“Life’s Essence”), 27 years after he wrote it. His translator W N Herbert describes it as “a devastating dismissal of political corruption and venality” over 550 alliterating lines.
His staccato, aspirated and rhythmic words combine with expressive hands that dance their way through each line as if they belonged to a sprite. Listening to him in a hot, packed-out room in Hargeisa is mesmeric. Here are two tiny excerpts:
“life’s essence is not got by force,
it is not aggression and persecution
“Anyone who refuses to see you as equal –refute his superiority:
you were born in the selfsame way
or was he carried for ninety months instead?”