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.

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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

Carpe Diem, Mexico

“The old/familiar and new/exciting co-exist,” wrote a friend, of getting back to her home country from Mexico. She is right. Returning to life in Guadalajara was not simply a matter of stopping travelling and going back to school. While I’d been away Jony had overseen a move into a bigger apartment upstairs, so I got to my front gate and was shown into a place I’d never been before. I knew the building, but not my room. This was strange, as was finding Nick had transformed into two lovely European girls. For two weeks everything was adjustment, swapping bedrooms around, cutting keys for everyone, getting out of the travelling mindset. (In many ways it was a relief to get home; not having to concentrate every day on finding places to sleep and eat, people to talk to, cash machines. A bit of stability and familiarity was very welcome after over a month of travelling solo. On the other hand, travelling is addictive: half-expecting at any given moment to meet someone amazing, to see something breathtaking, to experience something completely unforeseeable, is hard to let go of.) And then my final new housemate arrived and a rhythm suddenly emerged in our lives. All the mirrors disappeared from my side of the flat and pink fluffy covers appeared in the bathroom on their side. “Why are there so many dress shops?” demanded Sarah soon after arriving, pointing out the twenty or thirty that dot all the streets within a block of our apartment. “What dress shops?” I said.

The arrival of two European international students in my home and an almost complete change of personnel at school provided me with an interesting perspective on my own Mexicanisation. I was confused by the North American girls at school being worried about the details of our exams, deadlines and essay formatting; confused by the girls at home wanting to use every moment of the day proactively and, yes, be punctual. I don’t worry about those things much any more. Or I do, still, more than a Mexican, but much less than the recently-arrived. If I say I will be somewhere at ten, I may not necessarily be there until ten thirty or eleven. Feeling in something of a half-way condition, partly because of all the new people and partly through the process of re-settling into (relatively) permanent Guadalajaran life, I found myself reflecting often about the contrasts between Mexico and the west.

The most overt difference I remember feeling aware of after travelling was quite simple: the traffic. It is disheartening, when the cars are parked so thickly on the pavements that I can’t physically squeeze between them, and have to wait for minutes at a time before there is a space for me to cross the road. Stemming from that thought, I realize I no longer expect indicators to be used, and have almost stopped noticing that nobody ever dips their headlights. “We did sixty-three shots between the five of us,” recalled one of my friends about a recent night out. “How did you get home?” I asked. “Did you drive?” “I didn’t,” he reassured me, “one of the guys only had three or four so he dropped us all off.” Again, this didn’t surprise me. Because so many people drink and drive from the moment they are able to drink and to drive, they are well-practised and recognise their limits and weaknesses. They distinguish between a good drunk driver and a bad one. Also, sober traffic coming across cars with loud music playing in the small hours will assume that the driver is drunk and make appropriate allowances. In Britain, it wouldn’t occur to me, even at four o’clock on a Saturday morning, that a given driver might be drunk. I say this not because I’m an apologist for drink driving – Jony has had more than one friend killed on the motorway back to his home town, driving at over 100kph after going to a party – but just to comment that it’s hard to retain British zero-tolerance in a culture that has such a different approach.

These are wealthy, well-educated young people I am writing about; they have their own cars. None of them are much darker-skinned than I am. The racial issues in Mexico are drawn along very different lines from what I am used to. I have asked several people here if black Mexicans exist, and have been answered with screwed-up faces and possibly a few maybe on the coast? One of my teachers here, a two-time Premio Nacional-winning academic, was giving a class on the colonisation of Mexico and made a very brief reference to the Rwandan genocide of 1994. “I don’t know why they killed each other,” he said, “they’re all black to me.” Instead, the tension here is between Mexicans and the indigenous peoples. Virtually every homeless person I see is wearing traditional clothing and has the distinctive features of an Indian. Indians, legally, have the same rights as any other Mexican citizen, but in practise, they are stopped from entering shopping centres, eating in restaurants and even getting jobs if it doesn’t suit the owner. White is beautiful: Mexicans avoid the sun, have no interest in getting a tan. There is a food crisis developing as I write in the desert states in the north of the country, where whole villages of Indians are starving, and it is not an issue. It’s not on the news; I have heard no-one talk about it. I only hear of it via articles on the internet pointed out to me by friends keeping an eye on foreign news outlets. The government has promised over two billion USD to the region, but no long-term action has been planned until the rainy season restarts in four months’ time.

For me, living in an affluent zona of one of Mexico’s richer cities, it can be easy to forget that this is a third-world country. Then I read that GDA has won the rights to build a multi-billion dollar technology park because the average wage here is less than a fifth that of the United States. The average wage, that says. The minimum wage is sixty-two pesos – roughly three pounds – for an eight hour day. My prize-winning professor earns 36,000 USD (23,000 GBP) a year, and he is a rich man. He owns his own house in a nice part of the city and his wife has never had to work.

Not that she would have that easy, necessarily. Sarah points out that every time we are presented with a bill in a bar, café or restaurant, it is automatically given to me. Quite literally, the man not paying for everything here is grounds for divorce. This can partly be explained by a machismo surface, but it is a symptom of how deep that culture runs. The chances of a woman earning anywhere near as much as her male counterpart are slim. I have heard stories of women being fired, completely illegally, from work they are overqualified for anyway because their boss doesn’t fancy paying them their eighty days of maternity leave. What is equally sad is that these women don’t rage into the CEO’s office, lawyer in tow, and point to the clause in the Mexican constitution that prohibits this kind of prejudicial behaviour. They shrug their shoulders, have their baby and look for another job. Clearly these anecdotes are simplifying a deeply complex social problem, but it is not for nothing there exists a wordplay between tapatío and apathy.

I haven’t even begun to talk about the drug war. Now is not the time: my reflections on Mexico were getting bleak enough already. But there is another side to this giant eagle-and-cactus coin, one that comes from looking at things a bit closer to home.

If the arrival of the girls made me reconsider my view of Mexico as a whole, the visit of one of my friends from university made me look at my immediate surroundings afresh. Sarah’s presence has been the perfect impetus to discover and rediscover the city and nearby states. Within GDA we visited all the places that I went to when I was first exploring the city in September and October, and many that I had been meaning to see since then but hadn’t got round to yet. We have wandered through Möbius-strip markets, listened to orchestras in bandstands, eaten piles of crépes and tacos, drunk cocktails to live jazz, met far more international students than we intended at a rooftop barbeque, and craned our necks at murals covering the roof and walls of one of the largest hospital complexes in Latin America. On the weekends we went away to Querétaro, one of Mexico’s oldest colonial cities, hitchhiked four thousand metres above sea level into snow and ice at the top of a mountain in Colima, and ate seafood by the busking bands and setting sun at Lago de Chapala, to the south. Two weeks is not enough; there is so much more to see just in GDA, let alone the rest of Mexico.

The important thing, though, has been the Mexicans. Virtually the first thing Sarah said after hugging me in the arrivals hall of the airport was “They’re all so friendly!” and not only is she right, she is importantly right. Cuba had made me notice it again, but trying to look at Mexico through my visitor’s eyes made it even clearer. It makes me very happy that my bus driver wishes me a good day, the girl in the coffee shop outside school says she hopes I like my drink, and that the taxi guy talks to me like an old friend for the whole journey and tells me to enjoy my weekend in his city. Sarah and I were hugged warmly goodbye by a middle-aged lady who talked to us for half an hour about Querétaro and holidays in Europe as we waited for space in a café. I walk down Chapultepec on Saturday evenings with my housemates and wonder why the news companies aren’t interested in telling the world about the busking teenage bands, the artists selling paintings and jewellery, the activists campaigning for education reform, or the old ladies running painting workshops for schoolchildren. What I am trying to say is that Mexico is not a country in despair, that problems are always worse from the outside looking in. The country has difficulties that Europe wouldn’t dream of, but the people don’t just survive, they take pleasure in life just as much if not more than the first world.

With my time left in the country now numbering a matter of weeks, the carpe diem mindset that having a guest has given me is something I am keen to retain. There is, however, another way to take advantage of being here, and that is to do nothing. When next in my life am I going to be able to take any given week and spend it relaxing at home, reading, writing, watching football or chatting to housemates? The opportunity to take it easy, not just for an afternoon but for days at a time, is something I suspect I will look back at with affection. Europeans knows how to live fast, but they haven’t learned how healthy it can be to slow down. It is hard to see with any practicality the relationships between Mexico’s overwhelming problems and its wonderful day-to-day existence, but in the end, I like to think, it is not much worse off than the countries of the old world, or its two northern neighbours.