Hargeisaland

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I flew to Hargeisa on a Saturday and left for work at 7.15 on Sunday morning. Losing a weekend ordinarily would be a cause for resentment, but in this case minimising empty time was a good thing. There is very little to do in Hargeisa, especially if you don’t have an established group of contacts outside one’s own organisation, so half a day to unpack was about right. There was no food in the house when I arrived: meals were provided twice a day, but not on Fridays and Saturdays. Typically of DRC/DDG, no-one tells new arrivals this. I ate bread found in one of the fridges.

The guesthouse is a spacious two storey building, unusually for Somaliland without an accessible roof but with a little terraced area outside. There are 11 bedrooms, but during my stay there were never more than seven filled. Guesthouse life meant that only one person was there for the duration of my stay: around ten other people in total arrived, left, or did both during what turned out to be only four weeks.

The office had changed since my last trip. We stopped renting the old complex, what had previously been a school, and moved into a three storey office block. Happily it was much closer to the guesthouse, although until I arrived and put my foot down the driver still arrived at the same time, 7.15am, making us some 40 minutes early to work every day. The new office was very new, the concrete stairs noticeably uneven, the water supply barely reaching to my second floor. Outside my office was a balcony upon which mugs, flasks, teaspoons, a box of teabags, and a jar of Nescafe and sugar were presented at 9am every day. One of the flasks contained Somali tea, which is delicious. It tastes strongly of cloves and so sweet it makes me wince.

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We had our bags searched thoroughly, every zip and pocket checked, and were metal-detected before the gate into the office is unlocked for us, one at a time. A herd of camels walked past my window most mornings at around tea time. I shared an office with Muhamed Ismael, Mukhtar, and Ismael Abdi. Later we were joined by a charming Pakistani who also moved into the guesthouse and I did much of exploring of Hargeisa with. Mukhtar helped me with hello, good morning, thank you, and goodbye in Somali, and tried to teach me see you tomorrow, a formidable composition which proved a step too far. Muhamed Ismael sheepishly admitted to being an Arsenal fan and after much investigation and phone calls added me to the office Fantasy Football league. I am 13th.

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I was underworked, sadly for the context. The days were nine hours long because the Somalis stopped for prayer breaks and had an hour for lunch. Lunch for the internationals was brought from the guesthouse in little metal lunchboxes, and was usually rice or pasta with fish or vegetables. I ate on the balcony. January and February is winter in Somaliland so it was not as hot as envisioned; I usually wore a jumper or jacket.

Free time in Hargeisa was a different beast. Much of my week revolved around managing long stretches of time with nothing to do. Normally something to be maximised and looked forward to, here it was not exactly avoided but was certainly treated warily. Going out to a restaurant or friend’s compound was possible, but only around once a week, if that. Otherwise we were confined to the guesthouse. On my one excursion out of the office to a conference at a hotel I met a middle-aged man working for one of the EU’s maritime organs. He had been in Hargeisa for a year and a half and compared it unfavourably with being in prison. “At least there you know you didn’t choose to be there,” he said, half joking.

As an introvert I coped better than many; I read a lot, wrote, listened to music, ran on a treadmill for the first time. On the weekends I sat outside in the sun and watched with delight the weaver birds, Borussia Dortmund yellow and black, building their magical cocoons in the tree, being reminded of poring over my dad’s bird books as a child. One of the seven cats, Elán, the largest, oldest, and most domesticated, adopted me. He had belonged de facto to the previous Country Director and clearly missed the attention. I remember her saying that the cats were therapeutic, and they were: as I stroked Elán, feeling how fluid and cephalopodic he was compared to a dog, it occurred to me that living in such a conservative society meant physical contact was absolutely minimal. I would occasionally shake hands with other men, and that was it. Elán demanded my attention, sitting on my laptop keyboard or shoving himself against my book until I tickled his ears or chin, at which he would sink his claws into my legs in delight and start purring like a helicopter.

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I was happier. The weather was good, the food was good, the Somalis were lovely. Work was a little slow but I was glad to be away from the politics of Nairobi. Hargeisa began to grow on me: it has restaurants and coffee shops, good ones, and I had a couple of friends in other organisations. I would go over to Mine Action Group or HALO and drink smuggled whiskey on their rooves, listening to the de-miners swapping stories about Afghanistan and Iraq and partaking in the curious self-effacing humour of the humanitarian community. The curfew was 9pm, unless you had an armoured car, which, as I heard no end of, HALO did and we didn’t. I rode in one a couple of times: they look normal, but the doors are so heavy it takes two hands to move them.

After four weeks, though, I began to feel the tentacles of cabin fever. I wanted to go for a walk or out for a drink. I was living with a handful of middle-aged men of varying degrees of personability, and missed my women friends. My work permit was still processing but I had another three weeks in Somaliland before my annual leave, and then would be based there until October.

Hargeisa

And then we had a security incident. The news arrived on a Thursday afternoon and we were instructed not to leave the guesthouse for the weekend. On Tuesday I received an email from my boss and 48 hours later I arrived blinking back in Nairobi. My work permit was rejected.

Having had too little to do in Hargeisa, Nairobi was a shock. The boss was leaving and the organisation going through a significant restructure. I was put in a meeting with two Regional Advisers and told that management didn’t have the capacity to “spar with us” as much as they would like; with an average age of 29 and a combined 11 months of service in the organisation, we were designated a “self-managing team”. I worked until 8 or 10pm most nights that week. I couldn’t stay long; Nairobi was over its limit of foreign staff, Hargeisa obviously not an option, Kampala was full, and Mogadishu was judged unwise given the elections there had only just finished. I was sent to Addis Ababa. On a tourist visa, I have now spent a week sitting in a guesthouse on my own. I have four more days here before a much needed break in UK.

What I’m listening to:

  • Sybille Baier, Colour Green
  • Riton ft. Kah-Lo, “Rinse and Repeat”
  • Card on Spokes, As We Surface EP
  • Sons of Kemet, Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do
  • Burial, Untrue

What I’m reading:

  • Still Aeneid
  • Aldous Huxley, Mortal Coils
  • Emmanuel Katangole, The Sacrifice of Africa
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Nairobi and Hargeisa

It was a non-transition, in a way; arriving in Kenya felt very much like going into something normal. It had all the trappings of a big change: the many, frequently rushed goodbyes, packing my Limehouse room into two rucksacks and ferrying the remainder to my parents’ house, and flying for many hours with a stopover in Addis Ababa’s great pretender of an international airport, all generating an expectation that things would feel adventurous.

Arriving in Nairobi felt, therefore, unbalancingly routine. Perhaps this was hardly surprising given that I’d lived there for several months not very long ago, and was even living in a familiar area of town. The traffic was still terrible, the wealth divide still stark, the people still laughing. October is a lovely time of year to arrive, not too hot, lilac jacaranda lining the streets and not yet wilting, the giant carapace of the sky clear and blue as jazz. It was good to be back.

I now stay in a guesthouse owned by my employer and share with up to five others, depending on how many people are passing through Nairobi in a given week. As one of only two long-termers it has the feel of living in a hotel, with the attendant perks and drawbacks. I was initially put in a bedroom without access to a bathroom, and it took delicate negotiations with Agnes, the clipped and impenetrable bookings secretary, to move into one of the better rooms. After two weeks of increasingly pointed discussions she moved me into something that is not so much a room as a wing, with a balcony the size of some of the spaces I lived in in London and a family-size bathroom. I was mollified.

My work was slightly unclear to me before leaving UK, and I’m conscious therefore that many of you aren’t sure what exactly it is I’m doing. Let me explain.

I work for Danish Demining Group, a subsidiary of the better-known Danish Refugee Council. DRC focuses on refugees and migration, while DDG focuses on the causes of migration and displacement, especially armed conflict. As well as its eponymous demining wing, DDG has an armed violence reduction wing, which is where I work.

My project is looking at armed violence reduction specifically in relation to border areas in the Horn of Africa. The logic of treating borderlands as areas of particular interest has three explanations: one, Western donors are presently very concerned with international migration, for obvious reasons, of which border crossing in eastern Africa is an important locus. Two, many eastern African countries have recently discovered oil reserves in their hinterlands. Vast tracts of territory that since independence had not been worth governmental attention are suddenly the subject of sharp contestation. Three, border areas are crucial in regional terrorism dynamics, especially with regards to Somalia’s Shabaab.

At present I’m concentrating on the Kenya-Somalia-Ethiopia border, known as the Mandera Triangle, and the Kenya-Uganda border, known as the Karamoja Cluster. Until January, my job is to collate DDG’s institutional knowledge on border security and management and publicise it on a standalone website. The idea is that any organisation interested in border issues will be able to quickly see who’s doing what where, and identify gaps and opportunities to work together.

I now work in the office, unlike my last time when I worked from home. I much prefer it: meeting people, attending staff meetings, and just being around is much more three-dimensional than sitting alone at my kitchen table all day. It does bring challenges though. Malcolm Gladwell talks in his book Outliers about something called the “power distance index”. The power distance refers to how directly subordinates are culturally permitted to challenge superiors. In the USA, and to a similar extent Britain, speaking your mind directly is basically encouraged, especially in the world of work. If you spot a mistake, you are normally expected to report it; if your boss tells you to do something that you can see a weakness or oversight in, it normally reflects well on you to raise it with him or her. The power distance in these cultures is short, and these countries are near the bottom of the index. According to Gladwell, in places such as Korea and Colombia the power distance is much greater, and dealing with tricky work situations must be done far more circumspectly.

I don’t know how much the index is accepted social science, but it’s a useful way of framing differing cultural norms. I would say that Kenya is nearer the top of the index than the bottom, and it’s taking more getting used to than I might have thought. For example, Veronica has my key to my office. She knows that I need it. My assumption is that she will find me and give it to me. This is not the case: she will wait respectfully with the key until I go and ask her for it, even if I don’t know that it exists and spend three weeks politely asking my two office-mates if I can use theirs. In another example, I need to have a meeting with David, and offer him a time on Tuesday or Wednesday. Whichever I confirm, he says the other would be better. After several oscillations I conclude David is pitifully inept, before realising that suggesting another time is a polite way of saying he can’t do either.

In many ways it is learning a new language. My speaking and listening skills are still rudimentary, and the real target of my irritation should be my own literacy level, not the people whose language I’m learning.

For reasons like this my ex-flatmate Barbara, mercifully still in Nairobi, frequently chaperones me around the city in my non-work life, puncturing my vision of myself as a streetwise Nairobian blending perfectly into the crowd. On hearing I was going to a clothes market one weekend she insisted on joining me, and not only because she needed a new pair of work trousers. We wandered into the knotted centre of Toi Market where the cubicle stalls are so stacked with goods you can no longer see the stalls themselves at all, an entire geometry of Vietnamese apparel. Barbara ducked into a tunnel of khaki trousers and began full and frank discussions with its caretaker about the dimensions of her hips. She eventually found a pair that she liked but were too long in the heel. “No problem”, assured the vendor, “the tailor will adjust.”

“How much?” demanded Barbara.

“Very cheap,” evaded the vendor.

“How much?” Barbara called after his disappearing shoulder. “If I have to pay a hundred shillings for this because I’m with your lily-white butt I’m going to be furious,” she hissed at me.

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Later, hidden behind a curtain at the back of the stall, I took my jeans off and began trying on the pairs of work trousers that the vendor had given me. I had a paranoid fantasy of a terrorist choosing that exact moment to set off a bomb in the market and having to flee, my picture propelling me to international fame as the mzungu running away from the Toi Market Attacks in pink stripy boxers.

As well as Barbara I met up with a small handful of other old friends, hanging out in their flats or plunging into Nairobi’s glittering, pulsing nightlife. Nairobi’s affluent young are incredibly stylish, the first generation born and brought up in a black middle class and accordingly able to mix a deep exposure to Western fashion with the work of professional African designers. We drank cold beers in the warm nights, watching drunken old men dancing with the gorgeous hookers in the cantinas or going to rooftop bars resounding with Tanzanian r’n’b and Nigerian dance tracks.

After a month, I was sent on my first trip to another DDG office and made my first visit to Somaliland. I flew via Addis again, feeling smug at being part of the small crowd who transferred to a separate terminal for the Hargeisa flight and scowling at two blond tourists for making me look less intrepid.

East Africa is red and green: Somaliland is white. White sand, white walls, white dust, white goats. Hijabs shone turquoise, red, or golden like paint on canvas. There were few people on the streets, which were wide, and often gave onto areas of rubble or scrub with black plastic bags clinging to pointed surfaces. In the centre of town smartly painted banks and hospitals stood out against the weary housing blocks, no structure apart from the minarets rising more than two stories from the ground.

Hargeisa was bombed to the ground by Somali dictator Siad Barre in the late 1980s but won its freedom from him in 1991. It is an irony of the international system that Somaliland, with a bicameral parliament, multi-party elections, its own military, and an independent currency is recognised as a state by zero governments worldwide, while Somalia, barely able to pacify its own capital city since Barre’s demise, is recognised by every government in the world.

Concrete blast absorbers the size of hippos lined the entrance to every compound, watched over by guards dressed in fatigues and carrying old, wooden-stocked rifles. I didn’t see anyone else carrying a gun. We weren’t allowed out alone or after 9pm, and for the week I was there I saw only the office, the guesthouse, and the inside of a van with tinted windows. I went out once, to a shop, full of Turkish biscuits and fizzy drinks. The few photos I managed to take were snatched on the way to and from the airport from the back of the moving pick-up. It didn’t feel unsafe at all, and whether that validated or invalidated the pervasive security I couldn’t tell.

I spent a week there attending a security training. The corridors of the office were lined with disabled ordnance. The Somalilanders laughed a lot and talked more, naughtily picking up their phones and checking their emails despite being told repeatedly not to. They chewed gum with their mouths wide open, filling the lecture hall with obscene quiet squelching. I learned how to say hello and thank you in Somali and practiced frequently, but either my pronunciation was so bad or they were so unprepared for a white newcomer saying Somali words it never elicited a reaction. The men were either indifferent or would greet me with big grins and laugh at everything I said. I would reach towards the women for a handshake before their stillness would remind me. They must have thought an awkward half lurch was a traditional British greeting. In the guesthouse in the evenings I played with Ninja and Elan, the house cats, and watched movies or football with the expats.

In the airport at the end of the week, passengers’ bags were passed through four X-ray machines and our carry-on luggage was unpacked and searched through by hand. We were asked to switch every electronic item on and off in front of the security staff. The painstaking diligence was dispiriting and slow (why is there such a strong urge to get through bureaucracy even when there is only a waiting room on the other side?) but also faintly inspiring. Not just a national security incident but the reputation of a would-be nation is at stake in the security of Egal International, and if was my nation, I’d be diligent too.

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I landed in Kenya at 1.30 on Friday morning, not looking forward to catching the minibus to work at 7.30. As soon as I switched my phone on it chirped with a message from Safaricom, my Kenyan network provider: “Welcome home!” it smarmed. OK, I thought.

 

What I’m reading:

  • David Shields, Reality Hunger
  • Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow
  • F Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night

What I’m listening to:

  • Ben Pearce, “What I Might Do”
  • Alice Coltrane, Journey in Satchidananda and P’tah the El Daoud
  • Nina Simone, “Ne Me Quitte Pas”
  • Serge Gainsbourg, Histoire de Melody Nelson
  • Arvo Part, Tabula Rasa

 

Adapting to Guadalajara

I arrived in Guadalajara (often written GDA for the sake of fingertips) after a seven hour journey from the capital. Mexico’s bus services continue to put the rest of Central America to shame and I was treated with leg rests, a bag of food – croissant filled with ham and jalapeño pepper – and Jim Carrey movies dubbed into Spanish. Partly because I consider myself to be hardcore, but more because I’m a cheapskate, I took the local bus from the station to the city centre rather than getting a taxi. My first glimpse of GDA was not promising: dishevelled, dirty streets covered in plastic litter and graffiti, few people, much traffic. The nearer I got to the centre though, the more things improved, and by the time the bus pulled up next to the cathedral, the afternoon sun bouncing off the towering spire, I was impressed. Two fountained, golden plazas on either side of the cathedral were criss-crossed with youths buying ice-creams and suited businessmen heading home for the day. Two sauntering girls spied me a taxi from between bus lanes and commuters and within a few minutes I was outside the gates of 2603-1 Garibaldi, the house of Señora Ruth Auroze Ortega.

Inside I was presented with my roommate James, aka Jaime, a friendly, laid-back American a couple of years older than me, Juarez, and Señora Ruth.

Husband Juarez is a small, unhurried man who must be pushing eighty, and has the voice of the Godfather which makes understanding him a matter of strict concentration. “Oh yeah,” said James when I admitted this to him, “I mostly lip-read.” Juarez may be a little frail but his mind still works fine, and he often quizzes me about the finer points of the British royal family or the value of the pound to the dollar.

The walls of the house are covered with photos, and an old black-and-white one from Ruth’s quinceañera caught my attention. The quinceañera is a teenage presentation tradition similar to the “debut”, as far as I can gather, and the photograph of Ruth shows her fifteen-year-old self to have been a rather beautiful sylph, which is an alarming statement to make given that presently she lacks several teeth and her circumference greatly exceeds her height. Ruth, which in Mexican is pronounced “Root”, is a strong Catholic grandmother with forthright opinions on everything from washing hands before meals to the climbing of volcanoes. She has the final say on most things in the house and is also in charge of feeding me and James. Fortunately she is a very good cook, even if all Mexican food is, with a few exceptions, variants of tortillas-with-something-spicy-in-the-middle. (The levels of spice, apart from at breakfast, are not as intimidating as I was expecting, and within a week I was taking part in the awkward silence when Ruth forgets to put a bowl of salsa verde on the table.)

As I headed towards bed on the first night, Ruth stopped me and solemnly inspected my necklace, the elastic bands around my wrist and the two old, very cheap, rings on the fingers of my right hand. “Nothing gold?” she asked. “Anything?” I said no, tired and off balance, and she looked me in the eye. “They will take it from you,” she said in a low voice, making a snatching motion across her throat. “If you wear gold in the street. They will take it.”

The socket lit up like a sparkler when I plugged my laptop in. I was grateful to have internet, contact with the rest of the world, in my bedroom.

Settling into life in GDA revolved mostly around CEPE, “Centre for Foreign Students,” the language school that the University of Warwick is partnered with. Returning to a school setting, where I sit at a desk in a classroom and copy down what the teacher tells me, has taken a bit of getting used to. After a mere three days of being in travelling mode in Mexico City, I was instinctively ready to move on after a couple of nights, but instead I found myself putting photos up on the wall, unpacking the last of my backpack , and completing the day’s homework.

The teaching is incomparably better than in the school at Warwick, which I increasingly think must have been some sort of practical joke, but nevertheless the mathematical approach to language still feels unnatural to me. Having learned my Spanish by filtering it out from the island english of Honduras’s bay islands, I have to bite my tongue at the frustration of now having to progress by memorising the specific rules for each conjugation, structure and form. “Es” + adjetivo + INFINITIVO = sujeto indefinido. Only the fact that I am actually learning a lot keeps me from getting too irritated by what feels to me the artifice of it all.

I get tired quicker here, and I am somehow drinking Coke on a regular basis. I no longer see prices in pesos and convert them into pounds in my head (which is a good thing, because it tended to take me a long time.) The mosquitos here are like teenagers outside corner shops pretending they aren’t aiming to get someone with ID to buy them cigarettes. They hang around in a harmless sort of way, trying to land a cheeky nibble. This is a big improvement on the mosquitos in the Caribbean who regard the islands as theirs and become aggravated if you try to hit them, or those up in the mountains of Central America, where they are actually relatively unused to humans and so will descend slowly in happy clouds onto climbers, who then slap themselves and kill four at a time.

I went to church last Sunday morning, Ruth’s mistrust (“but what are you Protestant against? God?”) allayed, and had to contend properly with the grid system on my own for the first time. I am still getting used to it. It’s great when I’m not entirely sure where I am and then I hit a street I know, because it’s then guaranteed to take me where I want to go. In the hodgepodge of Oxford city, street names are virtually useless and people work via the plentiful specific landmarks. However, if you get onto the wrong street here, or even the right street going the wrong way, it can take an awfully long time to get back to where you actually want to go. I have been lost more than once. There is also a one-way system to contend with: sometimes when I’m looking for traffic, I look right, which in Britain would be the wrong way but in Mexico is the right way, only to find I’m actually looking the wrong way because the right way is one way the other way. So it can be hard to tell.

If there is a knock on the door of the house, Ruth or Juarez will always shout “who is it?” before opening up. I couldn’t be sure if this was a culture thing or a security thing until one afternoon when James put his head outside the door to see if it was raining, then went to his room without shutting it properly. A few minutes later, the door had swung open perhaps a foot and there was a commotion in the kitchen. Ruth burst into my room without knocking, which has never happened before or since, hammered on James’s door and berated him for being so careless. “He left the door open!” she explained to me on her way back to the La-Z Boy, sounding as though he’d just drop-kicked a blind orphan into a rubbish bin. “I could be watching TV and anyone with a pistol could just walk in!” How the potential gunman would deal with the two sets of heavy steel gates before the door I don’t know, but Ruth departed shaking her head and muttering that it didn’t bear thinking about.

The house is located in one of GDA’s more affluent areas, so the streets are well lit and there are people wandering to and from restaurants until quite late. I have started running in the evenings just as it begins to get dark and cool, but having not run seriously for several years I can only manage about fifteen minutes around a few blocks. After the first exploratory effort I shambled back into the house, red-eyed and gasping, to find Juarez watching the news. “What happened?” he asked, eyes wide. “Did you get lost again?”