Ethiopia, the homeland of Haile Selassi, is the heartland of Rastafarianism. As such Addis Ababa it is still firmly in the thrall of the Reggae that Selassi brought back from his exile in Jamaica. Before Reggae however the music heritage lay in Jazz and Swing. In the first decades of the 20th century Addis moved to the sound of Abyssinian Swing. Unfortunately the music lost popularity and in the 1940s and all of the recorded Abyssinian Swing music was lost in a fire. On the walls of many bars in Addis there remains evidence in grainy monochrome of Africans bopping in slim suits and sharp white shoes. However, sadly no record remains of what it sounded like.
Deep in the backstreets of Addis we walked into one such bar with Colin, a musician from Normandy and our host. Stepping through a heavy wooden door and into the smoky gloom, music struck us like a slap in the face. The attention of the room was gripped and only at natural pauses were ripples of applause allowed to flow from the spellbound crowd. This was not the tinny rendition of ‘the girl from Ipanema’ one might hear whilst waiting to speak to the bank. Our fatigue was grudgingly drawn from us and consumed by the energy of the brass lines. The two saxophonists vied for center stage, relishing the competition for our gaze. Wrapped in this veil of stirring rhythms and strong beer we settled the final plan for an adventure. We would deviate from our path south and away from the road more traveled. We would explore Somalia and visit the sea.
Somaliland fought for its independence from Somalia proper in 1991 and has been operating as a separate country since. It is presently trying to distance itself from its chaotic and politically unstable neighbour to the south. However, the only country in the world that recognises Somaliland as a sovereign state is Ethiopia, probably due to a friendly interest in their new port on the Gulf of Aden. Addis is therefore the only place one can find a Somaliland embassy, which would be our destination the following morning.
The embassy consisted of a steel gate in a residential street with only a hand-painted flag exposing its identity. We knocked and a smiling man in a faded purple T-shirt invited us in. No metal detector and no x-ray, not even a frisk. In an office containing two administrative women, identically overweight and identically dowdy, we handed over dollars, forms and a wad of passport photos. We were rewarded with grim facial expressions transposed directly from a human resources office somewhere in Croydon. The administrative staff were surly but efficient and we had all the visas and car permits necessary by the afternoon.
As we approached the border with Somalia the landscape changed. Rocks and sand replaced soil. Leafy shrubs were traded for knots of wiry bush, each bristling with a thousand three-inch spines. Despite its apparent cruelty we felt at home back in the desert. The desert is simple and minimal; it consists of only land and sky. There are no hoards of curious locals pawing at everything, no one to gather into a suffocating audience any time we attempted to drink a cup of tea. There are no whining mosquitoes or giant war-machine wasps. There are barely any fauna apart from the camels grazing lazily. One can lay serenely under the stars, safe in the knowledge that not even rain will interrupt the stillness.
The border was uncomplicated and we were soon in the capital city of Hargeisa. The differences between Ethiopia and Somaliland were marked. The first thing we noticed was the change from Christianity to Islam. All the scantily clad girls of Ethiopia were gone and in their stead were elegant burkahs in cheerful colours bobbing lightly along the streets like Pac-man’s ghosts. We approached a moneychanger sitting among many of his kind in a street market. He lounged like a prince on a bed of old sacking. Before him was a block of his wares arranged neatly in size order. Each brick of money was tied with elastic and placed carefully in the wall of this currency cube. We exchanged 20 US dollars with his lazy highness and received a wad of notes big enough to chock the wheels of the Landie. As we walked away we saw another moneychanger struggling down the road. Among the donkeys and the potholes he sweated and adroitly picked a path for his laden wheelbarrow, piled head-high with money.
Hargeisa is small but packed to bursting with minivans and Toyota land cruisers, resulting in permanent gridlock. The bright burkahs are complemented by the jolly shop fronts. All are painted with large, crude impressions of the products found therein. Khat stands line the streets and they are no exception to this rule. They are painted with bunches of green leafy stalks and usually an accompanying image of a lion or lightning bolt to assure the buyer of the potency of the product.
Even before we arrived in Hargeisa the influence of Khat was noticeable. We had to wrestle for our place on the road with Khat lorries racing to deliver their shipment. Khat is a leafy plant that is farmed all year round to supply the widespread and growing demand as a recreational drug. The leaves of the plant are chewed over a few hours to achieve first a stimulant effect and in higher doses a somnolent effect. The active ingredient in Khat degrades and becomes less potent quite quickly after it is harvested, which explains the terrifying urgency of the delivery lorries.
We settled into a hotel in Hargeisa and went out to dinner with a pair of Somalilanders. The food in Somaliland is confidently spiced and you can taste a strong Indian influence. Berbera on the north coast was a trade stop on the tea run from India during the early 20th century. Supper was an enlightening experience. Somalilanders describe themselves as a chatty people and true enough we sat quietly while our friendly hosts spoke fluently on the history, culture and current politics of Somaliland.
In 1888 Somalia was divided, Djibouti went to the French, the western horn and Mogadishu went to the Italians and Somaliland became the “British Protectorate of Somaliland”. It became independent from British rule in 1960 and unified with Puntland in the west and Somalia in the South under the rule of Siad Barre. Barre instigated a Marxist regime supported by the USSR, which soon became oppressive. Somalilanders became disillusioned with the idea of a unified Somalia under Barre and fought for there independence, achieving it in 1991. Since then they have gone from strength to strength. Today they have a democratic government, competent civil service, their own currency and strong borders. Excluding two suicide attacks by fundamentalists from Mogadishu, attempting to destabilise them, Somaliland has been safe for 20 years.
The International community refuses to recognise Somaliland as a separate country from Somalia. This is due chiefly to fears of “balkanisation” of the region and particularly violent reprisals by the warlords in Mogadishu. All the Somalilanders we spoke to had a strong opinion on this topic and it is presently a hot political issue. Somalilanders have a nostalgic love for Britain and the times of Empire. They feel, quite reasonably, that they have done all they can to foster a stable new democracy in the wake of British rule and that it deserves recognition as such. We could not help but empathise with the Somalilanders. The refusal to support their case has made Somalilanders feel, at best let down by the British government, and at worst betrayed.
The next day we set off to find the beach. The first military checkpoint was about five miles outside Hargeisa and we were fully expecting to be turned back to register as aliens and pick up a military escort. We did our best to appear legitimate. With our grinning checkpoint faces fixed we pointed at the paperwork we had and repeated, this is good, okay, okay. Eventually the soldier got tired of trying to explain why we had to go back and opened the barrier. Excellent news. We were free to explore Somaliland. Five miles down the road our celebrations came to an abrupt stop as we came in sight of another checkpoint. Four hours and eight anxious checkpoints later, we arrived in Berbera.
Berbera is a small coastal town housing Somaliland’s newest and only port. We found a dusty track to the beach and were confronted with a shock of turquoise water. A vista of steep green mountains loomimg over porcelain sand stretched as far east as we could see and further into Puntland. Reunited with the sea after so long, we were too excited for words. We leapt out of our clothes and ran headlong into the surf. The bright water renewed us. The dust and sweat of the desert were washed away. Every mile driven and every nerve-jangling checkpoint was worthwhile. We shared the endless gold haven with a group of five or six Somalilanders. The men were gleefully tearing in and out of the rollers in their bunched up briefs and sopping outsized T-shirts. Layered head to toe in diaphanous fabrics, the women smiled from the shore.
Washed and worn by the waves we eventually piled back into the car to find a deserted stretch of coastline on which to spend the night. We passed and repassed white colonial buildings along the sea front, dirtied by time but latterly spruced up with bright hand-painted signs depicting the wares if the fruit sellers now residing within. We found ourselves at the tiny airport west of Berbera still looking for the coastal road. I exited the Landie to ask directions.
Despite my walking 50 yards from the car in plain sight, the airport security guard was a little startled by my arrival in front of him. I had, it seemed, interrupted his vacant gazing out to the desert. As he pondered my question, a soldier raised the barrier behind him. Underneath slipped a sleek white saloon car with dark windows and beige furry mat visible on the dash. It stopped and a man stepped out in uniform. He had glinting medals on his breast, mirrored sunglasses and a proud paunch resting on his belt buckle. The officer stepped towards me and waited to be informed of what was going on. The soldier operating the barrier approached.
“Where you go?” said the soldier.
I decided against exposing our plans for illegal camping and said we were on our way from Hargeisa to Berbera and had become lost. I flapped our most official looking documents around while I spoke. The officer barked in Somali, the soldier translated, “where are you soldier, you need soldier!” It was looking like we were busted. It was time to abort this conversation before we found ourselves arrested. Delivering some excuses about being late for Wheel of Fortune and having left the iron on, I made to leave. As I turned, a third man in desert fatigues barred my way. His hand rested on the stock of his AK47 with an unsettling degree of familiarity. He explained that we had been found moving illegally in Somaliland and that we were to accompany them back to Berbera. I was ushered into the saloon and a soldier climbed into my seat in the Landie. Bas and Rich who were out of earshot of my conversation looked at me through the windscreen for an explanation. I offered nothing.
As we sped towards Berbera I frantically evaluated the situation. We were in trouble. It couldn’t be big trouble, surely. We have just broken a small bureaucratic rule. In Berbera there would be a small bribe, more stamps and forms and we should be on our way. Somalia is a bit of an unknown quantity though, maybe we were trespassing, maybe we were suspicious! I didn’t want to spend even one night in a Somali prison, thank you. All of a sudden those words I had disregarded on the FCO website came back to me with a shiver “there are is no embassy presence in Somaliland at this time”. I am definitely over reacting, it is time to remain calm and make some friends. I offered the man behind the mirrors a Marlboro Red. He took one without expression and began to smoke leaving the windows firmly shut. I chanced a little pigeon English conversation. I am from UK… Britain?… England? It is very hot today, it is very cold in England. I barked an anxious laugh, too loudly for the still air in the car. He remained silent and smoked. Perhaps he doesn’t speak English. I smoked as well.