Hargeisa and Berbera, Somaliland
“Hi, where are you from?”
–“I’m from Canada.”
“Oh, I’ve always wanted to go to China!” Mohammed pulled me into a juice shop and ordered two orange juices. “We’re new best friends! What is your phone number?”
–“Well yes, I’m of Chinese descent, but I’m from Canada!”
He blushed, and shifted into fluent English. “Oh, I’m so sorry! I hope I didn’t offend you!”
Well, that’s a new one.
“I’m from London. I came back here to start a jewellery business. We do lots of business with China and Asia… I know you’re from Canada, but if you know anyone… Anyways, you want food? There’s this restaurant right there, Adaani. You should try it, it’s good.”
–“Wait, which one?”
“That red one. Right there.”
“Yeah. Adaani Cafeteria.”
Well, lesson learnt about the Somali alphabet. The c is silent…sorta? And the x and the kh make supposedly different “hhhhh” throat sounds, but I can’t tell them apart either.
“Are you from China?”
–“No, I’m from Canada, but yes I’m Chinese.”
“Oh, why aren’t you from China? I don’t like white people. They always interfere. But look at China! They give us money and development and do not interfere. If you’re in Somalia and you run into al-Shabaab and you say you’re from China, no one will touch you!”
We had a really pleasant, well-informed political discussion — a little odd, since I was told later by a new friend that world politics are rarely discussed here, and that such distrust of white people was both uncommon and not personal. But I get it. The land of Somali people was cleaved into so many pieces by colonial powers, and now that they’ve all left, it’s mostly chaos. The Middle East, home to their Muslim brethren, has suffered the same fate — just look at Iraq and Syria, what happens when the West steps in, and what happens when they step out.
But perhaps his opinions on “white people” and “China” are both a little misguided. For one, China’s sunk in $60 billion into East Africa, with no strings attached and without asking for human rights changes like the US does. Governments and locals by and large appreciate this, since the carrot-on-a-string approach has tended to impede much-needed development, while the human rights promises often go unfulfilled anyway. But China wants East Africa’s resources. And while Western governments have screwed up in the past, by and large they want to fix the mess. If they get involved again, people get mad. If they don’t, people still get mad. It’s a no win situation. The average white person probably doesn’t even care, let alone want to step on other countries for their own gain, as this man felt.
We left on good terms, exchanged emails, and had something new to think about.
“Hello my friend! What is your current location?”
–“Hi Mohammed! I’m heading to Berbera tomorrow. I’m sleeping now. I’ll call you when I get back. Bye!”
Five minutes later:
“Hi! You are going to Berbera tomorrow?”
–“Yes. I’m sleeping. Good night.”
6:45 am. It’s Mohammed again.
“Good morning my friend. How are you? What is your current location?”
–“You woke me up. And I’m going to Berbera today. I told you, I’ll call you when I get back.”
“Oh, sorry, bye.”
“Hi, I’m Abdirahman.”
“I am also Abdirahman. And that’s Abdi.”
Okay, so not a completely accurate paraphrase, but I’ve met at least 20 people who go by Abdi, and maybe 8 of them being short for Abdirahman. (Of course, if you spell it out in Somali, it’s “Cabdiraxmaan”.) Maybe also 5 Mohammeds, 5 Abdalas, 3 Ahmeds, 3 Hamzas, even an Abdirahman Mohammed. I’ve gotten a bunch of phone numbers, first names, and no last names. Oh look, Abdi’s calling. I wonder which one.
While women tended to be more shy (though still super friendly) and I interacted with them less, I swear I’ve met an Ayaan every time I’ve met a girl or woman.
–“I’m not kidding you. I just saw a woman pass by, wearing a hijab and a Santa hat. It’s January 12th, and this is a Muslim country.”
Free country, I guess.
One of two Abdalas sitting at a table turns to me.
“Could you write maybe five lines about what you think of Somaliland?”
–“What is this, a homework assignment?”
I oblige, strangely enough. All compliments, all incredulity about the lack of recognition. They read it slowly and approve. The other Abdala then turns to me.
“Do you think you could get interviewed by a newspaper in Canada and tell them about Somaliland?”
Huh. That’s a first. Not the first Asian country I’d have in mind!
“What is your tribe?”
“Hello my friend! What is your current location?”
–“I told you, I’m still in Berbera. You’ve already called me 12 times today, I’ve even had to turn my phone onto airplane mode since it’s killing my battery. I’ll call you when I return. Bye.”
I walk into a cafe for breakfast. The typical China/Korea/Japan calls start. They settle on China.
No choice in the matter. Plate of stir-fried minced camel meat served with bread, not bad. Eventually, the eyes are off me, and back on the TV. People start talking in Somali, and I can hear the word “China” thrown around. One man walks up to the TV and flips through the channels, then tries to get me to look.
–“That’s from Thailand. Not China.”
He continues to flip through the next five channels, again hoping to find something he thinks I’ll understand.
–“Hargeisa’s got so many people hanging around all day… is unemployment a problem?”
“Yeah. Most people are merchants.”
–“But not everyone can be merchants, there’s only so much selling and buying people can do. What about the youth? They seem well educated.”
I’ve met so many young people on the street. They ask for my profession, and I ask for theirs. Civil engineers, med students, economists, international relations… Many of these people have studied abroad and they’ve come back to a country that isn’t quite ready to have jobs for all of them. There’s a bright future for the country if they stay, but it seems like there’s some danger that they may leave for a place that they may find relevant work.
On the other hand, some of the returnees are opening businesses. Import and export, restaurants, dental clinics and health clinics… The ones willing to be their own bosses, to start something with their own initiative — they’re definitely the ones building the country.
My last night in Somaliland, back in Hargeisa. In bed. The phone rings for the 15th time all day.
“Hello my friend–”
–“Seriously? We said goodbye like 20 minutes ago.”
“I was wondering if you could take a picture for me…”
–“Sorry, but I’m already in bed, not feeling so well. Good night.”
Well, you could have asked earlier… maybe the first five phone calls… maybe in the morning…
Five minutes later, there’s a knock on my hotel room door.
“Hello my friend!”
Wait, how did he–? Ughhhhh.
Sitting in a taxi on the way to the airport, filling up gas. Two kids walk by in the distance, and they happen to look my way.
“Peace by Allah!” Big smiles, they salute. Awww.
I’m stewing in the departure lounge after my taxi somehow gets to the airport after my plane has already left. I’ve lost $100 to change my flight, already been sitting in the airport for four hours waiting for the next one, and the hotel manager who arranged the taxi for me hangs up everytime he hears my voice on the phone to complain. I don’t even have any more phone credit left to pester him any further. There’s a rambunctious kid sitting next to me, kicking the bench over and over and over again. Blehhh. He tries to get my attention, and I give him a faint smile before turning back to quietly stew some more.
He runs over to his mother, who is on the phone, and pries something from her hand. Running back, he pokes me again for attention.
It’s a single stick of gum. Just for me. My smile returns.