In 1991 when Somalia descended into civil war, the northern third of the country broke away and claimed independence as the Republic of Somaliland. Today Somaliland has a capital city (Hargeysa), a national flag, a parliament, multiparty elections, an army, its own currency and an international airport. Somalilanders even have their own passports.
Last month, 82 people were killed by a car bomb in Mogadishu. Meanwhile, Somaliland’s 4 million citizens live in peace. Still, the government in Mogadishu rejects Somaliland’s independence. Thus, Somaliland remains without international recognition as a separate state. Somaliland isn’t even listed in the CIA Factbook.
So, if you’re interested in visiting Somalia — which isn’t safe these days — just go to friendly, peaceful Somaliland. Visas-on-arrival are issued quickly and easily for $60 at the Hargeysa airport. You’re likely to be the only foreigner in the queue for your visa. I was.
Somaliland is one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world. 60% of the national economy is based on the herding of sheep, goats and camels. There is little industry. There are few natural resources. Only about 30% of the children go to school. Within this bleak environment, a remarkable prep school has been created: The Abaarso School of Science & Technology. The school’s purpose is to educate the best and the brightest children of Somaliland to become the country’s future leaders. The school recruits from all over the country to ensure that every tribal group is represented. Admission is based on an exam — not political or family connections. 40% of the students receive tuition assistance.
Founded in 2008, this school has become a shining success. This is one of the sites that I especially wanted to visit in Somaliland. I toured the campus with the assistant headmaster. Later, I had dinner with one of his bright and articulate students. Click here to watch Anderson Cooper’s inspiring report on this unusual school and its students.
I was very impressed with this school. If this story resonates with you, please check out the school’s website. They’re always looking for teachers, volunteers and donors.
About 50 kms outside of Hargeysa are the stunning rock paintings of Laas Geel. I’ve seen petroglyphs elsewhere, but these rock paintings are some of the most vivid rock art I’ve ever seen. They depict cattle in ceremonial robes accompanied by humans and they’re painted in at least four colors, Estimated to be 5,000 to 10,000 years old, they’re amazingly well preserved.
For my excursion to see Laas Geel, I was accompanied by two armed guards and a driver / interpreter. The armed guards weren’t really necessary, though they were useful in negotiating passage through a few checkpoints. In reality, I think the guards came along because they wanted to visit Laas Geel, too.
Driving through the countryside, I saw a lot of temporary housing. As the herds move from one pasture to another, so do the people.
Somalia has been in a drought since 2014. In December, it rained for the first time in two years. On the night of my arrival, it rained again. Everyone was pleased to see the desert blooming, especially the camels who looked thin — but happy — as they munched on fresh greens.
Somaliland is an Islamic country with no alcohol. The alternative social vice is khat. Chewing on khat in Somaliland is like chewing coca leaves in South America or betel nut in Asia.
I’m not a regular coffee drinker. In fact, I generally avoid it. However in the horn of Africa, where all coffee originated, my favorite beverage is the coffee. This is how I started each day … for about 40 cents!
I spent only four days in Somaliland. It was easy to get to, and it will be easy to return some day if I decide to teach at the Abaarso School for a term or two. Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to my next destination. There are still so many places that I’ve never seen and so much that I don’t know.