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Somaliland: building a nation
When it achieved independence from the rest of Somalia in 1991, there wasn't much to work with. The capital had been destroyed, a large number of people were homeless and without work, and the country wasn't recognized by the outside world. Recognition still hasn't come, but Somalilanders are slowly building their nation.
Buildings are going up everywhere, thanks to the investment from local Somalis and expats. This second group is important. In the Seventies and Eighties many educated Somalis fled dictatorship and civil war to other parts of the world. Some did very well for themselves, and when Somaliland stabilized they saw an opportunity for investment.
One modest example is a Somali man I met who works as a crane operator in Germany. He makes a good salary, but is far from rich by European standards. Yet in Somaliland he's able to own a beachside home in Berbera and recently bought property in Hargeisa that he's planning to build on. This, of course, will bring another contract to one of the local construction companies and more work for its employees.
Further up the economic ladder is Hassan Ahmed Hussein, owner of the Hadhwanaag Hotel and Restaurant in Hargeisa. He lived for many years in Virginia before moving back two years ago. Hassan's hotel mostly serves Somalis although he's interested in expanding into the developing tourist trade as well. The main draw of his place is the restaurant, which quickly became a favorite local hangout. The goat and camel meat his chefs cook for three hours in a clay oven is simply the best meal you'll eat in Somaliland, and judging from the number of Somalis who show up for lunch and dinner this isn't just an outsider's opinion. The hotel part of his operation is good value too, with little bungalows surrounding a pleasant garden.
"I do believe a lot of things can be done without recognition, look at Taiwan," he says. "The focus on the private sector will have long-term benefits. We want people to be self-sufficient. Without so many NGOs coming in with their own ideas and their own agendas, we have to do things ourselves."
Somalis are doing more than just opening businesses, they're fixing social problems as well. Dahabshiil donates a lot of money to hospitals and universities, and individuals have set up their own NGOs since most foreign ones won't come to Somaliland. Any foreigner visiting Somaliland will be invited to see several.
The Hargeisa Rehabilitation Centre helps people with physical disabilities. There's an orthopedic workshop that makes artificial legs, wheelchairs, and crutches. It's so productive, in fact, that it exports to Somalis living in Ethiopia, Djibouti, Puntland, and Somalia. Doctors offer physiotherapy to patients for as little as $2 a month, and many come from the war-torn regions of Somalia to be treated. Dr. Abdullah, the head of pediatrics, told me they have anywhere from 15 to 25 child patients at any one time, mostly suffering from cerebral palsy, clubfoot, malnutrition, and injuries.
He and his small staff work long hours with limited, antiquated equipment. Because Somaliland isn't recognized, it's hard to attract foreign aid or foreign volunteers. It's also difficult for him and his fellow doctors to get visas to go to medical conventions abroad. Despite these troubles the center is a pleasant place, with a quiet garden and a dedicated staff doing the best they can.
Another homemade project is the Gandi Public Library, named after a former minister of education and founded by his son in 1999. Housed in a small building next to the empty shell of the central post office (Somaliland has no postal service since it's not recognized by the Universal Postal Union), it's the only public library in the country. While local residents eagerly read the small collection of books, there are no new ones coming in. The library hasn't received a donation in ten years. The biggest demand is for textbooks on medicine, economics, community development, law, and other practical subjects.
Not far away is the Sancaani Technical Institute, which offers free training 700 students in computer science, electronics, journalism, and media. Founded in 2002, it helps disabled people, the disadvantaged, and those from non-Isaaq clans. The Isaaq are the largest clan in Somaliland and many people complain that members of minority clans don't have equal opportunities. When I visited, one class was learning how to use Microsoft Access, while another practiced fixing mobile phones.
Noor Mohammed, an IT lecturer, told me there's a huge waiting list for the free classes and not nearly enough funding to take all applicants.
"We can change the lives of thousands of the poor, but right now we are working at the limits of our capability. The children here, their interest level is very high," he says. "We have just 16 computers and 200 students waiting to use them."
While I only made brief visits to other towns, I got the impression, confirmed by several Somalis I spoke with, that the vast majority of investment and development is in the capital. The government still hasn't fully asserted its authority in all areas of Somaliland and this is slowing the rush of investment. The port at Berbera, for example, needs improvement. A company from Dubai is discussing leasing the port and this might help improve the city in the next few years.
It's hard to predict where Somaliland is heading. Development will continue, and as infrastructure improves the economy will too, fueling more investment. It's an exciting time for this portion of the Horn of Africa, and it's exciting for a traveler to be able to witness it.
Don't miss the rest of my series on travel in Somaliland.
Coming up next: Some thoughts on travel in Somaliland.