Winter in Somaliland (2019)

Updated: Mar 23

Seeing Somaliland for the first time in the week for Christmas was a great experience. This involved an overnight flight from London to Dubai and a connecting flight from there to the capital of Somaliland, Hargeisa.

Somaliland lies in the Horn of Africa, on the southern coast of the Gulf of Aden. It is bordered by Djibouti to the northwest, Ethiopia to the south and west, and Somalia to the east. Its claimed territory has an area of 176,120 square kilometres (68,000 sq mi), with approximately 3.5 million residents in 2014. The capital and largest city is Hargeisa.

The name Somaliland is derived from two words: "Somali" and "land". The area was named when Great Britain took control from the Egyptian administration in 1884, after signing successive treaties with the ruling Somali Sultans from the Isaaq, Issa, Gadabursi, and Warsangali clans. The British established a protectorate in the region referred to as British Somaliland. In 1960, when the protectorate became independent from Great Britain, it was called State of Somaliland. Four days later on 1 July 1960, Somaliland united with Italian Somaliland. The name "Republic of Somaliland" was taken upon the declaration of independence following the Somali Civil War in 1991.

The reason for the trip was to assess whether the AMAR International Charitable Foundation could operate in Somaliland. During the time we were there, our host was Ahmed Elmi, director of Somaliland's first national library. Ahmed set up the library & inspired the creation of many more libraries throughout Somaliland. With Ahmed as our host, we visited the Minister for Health, two hospitals in Hargeisa, a hospital and two maternity clinics in Gebilay and a hospital in Berbera. We also visited the medical school in the Amoud University Medical School in Hargeisa.

The need for assistance was clear, with a national health budget of less than ten USD per person per year. Somaliland has an estimated GDP per capita of just $950 in 2019.

On the way to Gebilay, we stopped briefly to stretch our legs. Lying on the sand by one of our vehicles was a spent bullet, possibly fired from an M16 rifle. This was a reminder of the severity of the fighting in the 1991 civil war.

The hospitals in Gebilay had been built many years ago, but were well maintained, but minimally equipped and staffed. The need for investment in infrastructure and equipment was clear. Our host also showed us two maternity clinics, one established and the other newly built. Below is a photograph of one the midwives:

There are not enough experienced doctors in Somaliland, but efforts are being made to train more new doctors. The pay differential between public and private sectors is significant and one of the factors driving shortages of medical professionals in the public sector.

Berbera, Somaliland's most important port was a three hour drive from Hargeisa along unmetalled roads for most of the way. After a visit to the port, we visited the main hospital in Berbera. Built by the British, the hospital was functional, but in need of modernisation. The buildings were built in a style that I had seen in colonial buildings Pakistan and India.

Leaving Berbera just before sunset, it was clear that we would be driving on the unmetalled road in darkness. We halted briefly and watched as a convoy of trucks passed us shrouded in a shifting cloud of dust. The unmetalled road between Hargeisa and Berbera is being upgraded. This important step is needed because of the planned development and modernisation of Hargeisa port.

The sun slipped behind the distant hills and the day gave way to night.

Camel meat and milk were on offer, so had to be tried. I was warned not to have camel milk tea before setting out on a long journey, due to its purgative impact. Camel meat was very tasty and I would be happy to eat it again. Tea made with camel milk had a very strong taste that made me decide that I would give it a miss next time.

When I asked if they could take me to the Pirate Shop, my hosts looked puzzled. I told them I wanted to buy some "pirate" souvenirs for my children - a pirate hat, a parrots and a scull and cross-bones flag. They then understood and explained: "There is no Pirate Shop in Somaliland. You have to go to Somalia for that!"

Despite being in the heart of Hargeisa, the local wildlife around the hotel seemed to be able to live in harmony with the urban landscape. Every evening a pair of vultures nested on a telegraph pole behind our hotel. One afternoon, a giant tortoise wandered slowly across the carpark in front of the lobby. Coloured birds perched on the shrubbery in front of the the hotel reception.

In the morning of our last full day, our meeting with Somaliland's president was confirmed. We had time to explore Hargeisa's livestock market with goats, sheep and camels. Our audience with President Muse Bihi Abdi went well, signalling the end of a successful trip. Before we left, we started the registration process and are now registered to operate in Somaliland.

The onset of the COVID pandemic has delayed most of AMAR's plans to operate in Somaliland. However, a successful fundraising effort raised enough to fund the construction of a mobile COVID testing lab. This has now been built and is being shipped to Somaliland.

#somaliland #PresidentMuseBihiAbdi #hargeisa #berbera

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