Somalia has this image of a place where the kids have bellies bloated from malnourishment and the people walk around with rifles. But the story you typically see in the mass media is not the whole story. We, humans, are fascinating creatures who have the ability to choose what we focus on. And focus makes all the difference when it comes to happiness, in times of war or in times of overindulgence.
I wasn’t brave, I was curious. I wanted to understand and experience a reality that was radically different than mine. I chose to believe there was a positive story and I was determined to go there and find it. Before I visited Somaliland (a peaceful region within Somalia), the place was like a dark spot in my mind–I imagined nothing about it.
I found my positive story, and more. Somaliland is a self-made country, much like the entrepreneurs I met there who were happy and hopeful for the future they were building.
Somaliland is not Somalia but most governments don’t recognize it as a country and advise against all travel to it too
Ignoring the Level 4 travel advisory was a tough decision as it was meant to keep people away from traveling to the place. It gives you the worst-case scenarios that can happen to you.
“Do not travel to Somalia due to crime, terrorism, civil unrest, health issues, kidnapping, and piracy. Violent crime, such as kidnapping and murder, is common throughout Somalia, including Puntland and Somaliland. Terrorists continue to plot kidnappings, bombings, and other attacks in Somalia. They may conduct attacks with little or no warning, targeting airports and seaports, government buildings, hotels, restaurants, shopping areas, and other areas where large crowds gather and Westerners frequent, as well as government, military, and Western convoys. Methods of attack can include car bombs, suicide bombers, individual attackers, and mortar fire, among others.”
I must admit I was a little scared. I wanted to purchase a kidnap and ransom insurance, just in case. Apparently, I could buy that for any other country, but Somalia!
This was a self-funded, self-organized trip, like any other trip I took. I wasn’t on a humanitarian mission and there was no government to back me up. I bought a regular ticket for a commercial flight to Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, and invited a friend to come with me.
There were two direct flights to Hargeisa – from Dubai (FlyDubai) and from Addis Ababa (Ethiopian Airlines). The best option was to connect through Dubai, from where I got a return ticket for around $350. FlyDubai also had flights 3-4 times per week.
I imagined that the plane to Hargeisa would be empty and that we would be the only crazy foreigners on board, along with a few government officials. I was wrong. There were two Asians, a small British group, us, and plenty of locals to fill the whole coach. Apparently, Somalilanders and Somalis traveled a lot.
The rest of the world still doesn’t recognize Somaliland as a country. But Somaliland has its own government and has been independent and peaceful since Somalia became a failed state for nearly two decades. If you want to scratch Somalia off your bucket list but don’t want to push it too hard, visit Somaliland while it’s still unrecognized. You would be cheating but it will get you close enough to the realities of both countries.
Although I was officially traveling to Somalia, the stamp on my passport said Somaliland. For the $60 visa on arrival, The Somaliland Immigration and Border Control allowed me to enter the Republic of Somaliland.
Unlike other immigration authorities that focus on keeping people out, this one was open to “facilitate visits of genuine travelers by giving entry visas and welcome people from around the world to discover the vast opportunities Somaliland offers.” They also had a sleek website.
The locals, however, told me they couldn’t travel on their Somalilander passport and needed to get a Somali one. Rumour has it, you can buy a Somali passport and become a Somali citizen too, for about $100. Although you’ll have a hard time convincing anyone that your citizenship is legit.
I asked our host, the Operations Manager at the local tech startup accelerator Innovate Ventures, Bashir Ali, to clarify why Somaliland couldn’t get its recognition as a country. He told me an emotional story instead.
“Somalia is telling every country in the world that Somaliland is a part of them. They should not separate Somaliland from Somalia. For example, in Somaliland, if there’s a fight between a wife and a husband, the wife would get upset and she would move to her mother’s home. The man is left at home. The wife would talk to her mother and her father that she needs a divorce.
The two parents of the wife and the two parents of the husband will come together, along with some elders. They will talk to each other, presenting the issues. At the end of the day, anyone who wants the family to stay together is the winner. Anyone who wants to split the family is the loser.
So if the wife wants to leave the husband, unless she has a very practical issue, she can’t do that because the social framework [in Islam] is very tight. At the end of the day, the social framework wants the family to stay together. They don’t want the family to be destroyed easily.
At the end of the meeting, if the husband says, ‘I need my wife, I need my family together,’ he is the winner. So now, Somalia says ‘we need Somaliland.’ They go to the African Union, to America, to the UN, and keep saying that. Somaliland is like the wife, saying ‘we don’t need this husband called Somalia.’ But at the end of the day, the wife and the husband will be home alone.”
Is Somaliland safe to visit?
I can’t guarantee your safety and give you safety advice, especially when that goes against all travel warnings. The locals will tell you that you’ll be just fine in Somaliland and that it’s safe. But that’s a decision you have to make on your own and this is not safety advice. Do your own diligence to assess the risk. I can only give you my personal perspective.
A Level 4 travel warning shouldn’t be taken lightly. For the rest of the world, you will be going to the country of Somalia. If you get sick or in an accident, your standard travel insurance won’t cover it. You probably won’t get roaming coverage either. You can, however, get medical help, as there are hospitals in Hargeisa.
There are four countries that have embassies or consulates in Hargeisa: Turkey, UK, Denmark, and Ethiopia. Far less than in Mogadishu, where there are 17 embassies. If you lose your passport and your country doesn’t have an embassy in Hargeisa, the government of Somaliland will help you get to Ethiopia.
And the kidnappings? We met a British woman at the Hargeisa airport who worked for a humanitarian organization. She told us they’ve had cases of kidnappings. ‘We don’t pay. We have a negotiator who tells them they have families and they’re working for a good cause, and the kidnappers release them. They’ve released them all. These cases are much rarer in Somalia now. In Somaliland, the last one happened many years ago.’ Governments (US, UK, Canada, Australia, etc.) also don’t pay ransom–they have negotiators who will do their best to set you free in case you do get kidnapped.
During our five-day visit, I never felt threatened or in danger. Even when I walked around on my own, people stopped to ask if I was okay and needed help with direction, they were curious to hear my story.
It’s not uncommon for random strangers to stop and greet you with “welcome to Somaliland, a peaceful country!” And then carry on with their errands. The only time when I felt uncomfortable was when we took pictures of people without asking for permission.
Every time I pulled my phone to snap a colorful character, a group of people appeared and yelled at me. ‘Okay, okay, no photo. I’ll delete it!’ I told Vlad we needed to stop taking pictures as we were either going to get beaten up or get our phones snatched.
Later on, I asked one of the startup founders I met at the accelerator to explain why this kept happening. Why every time we took a picture it made people so angry and seemingly violent. She laughed and told me it was because of the community way of life. When people noticed any wrongdoing, they interfered. The locals always reacted when they needed to protect the innocent and punish the guilty. In their perception, we were guilty of privacy invasion. We couldn’t understand what they yelled but it scared us. This was just their way of communicating which was a little louder than what we were used to.
But if someone tried to steal something from us and we screamed for help in the middle of the street, the locals would protect us too. So if you want to take pictures in Somaliland–ask before you shoot. Unless you’re armed with Slo-Mo and you’re shooting videos from a moving car.
From the outside, we imagine Somalis as people with guns. But the people with the guns were us, with our smartphones and cameras, pointing to shoot as the locals hid their faces and dodged the invisible bullets of the shutter.
The entrepreneurs rebuilding the country
Like happiness, entrepreneurship grew here too. Visiting the tech startup accelerator in Hargeisa was the main highlight of the trip and the reason why I came here in the first place.
The seed-stage accelerator Innovate Ventures welcomed and trained young entrepreneurs from both Somaliland and Somalia. They didn’t take equity as their goal was to create a startup ecosystem and more jobs in the country.
In the midst of a mobile revolution, the business in Hargeisa was booming. I met the founders of a mobile payment app, a recycling company, a digital ad agency–all of them secured seed funding after the demo day where they had to pitch their projects in front of local investors.
‘Access to finance has been very challenging,’ said Bashir who ran the operations for the accelerator. ‘There are only three banks in Somaliland and they make if very difficult for entrepreneurs to get a business loan as they are perceived with the highest risk. We put a lot of pressure on the founders of the business to utilize the money in the best way possible.’
Bashir also added that this is the first time they had accepted two founders from Mogadishu, Somalia. ‘We give them full sponsorship to be here. We are open to all of Somalia and we are planning to open an office in Mogadishu. We receive 30% of our applications from Mogadishu. This year, we had 1200 applications. Out of these, can you imagine, we only accept 15.’
One of the startups Innovate Ventures had supported in the past now has a turnover of $200,000/month–an e-commerce company that sold electronics. As I learned that Macbooks and iPhones were in high demand here too, I had to clear a few misconceptions in my mind. Smartphones weren’t a luxury here, they were an everyday necessity. Globalization had penetrated this part of the world too. And entrepreneurs could leapfrog and build businesses that earned them six-figure amounts a month (in USD terms).
The future of Somaliland was in the hands of the people like the ones who ran Innovate Ventures and the founders they supported. Entrepreneurship seemed to be the answer for both Somaliland and Somalia to rise up and clear their image for the rest of the world.
The Somaliland shilling, mobile payments, and ATMs
In the past, when locals wanted to buy something from a shop, they had to take a big bag and fill it with stacks of dirty cash. ‘I remember that before, all the stores had piles of money in the back,’ explained one of the startup founders at the accelerator. Somaliland has its own currency called the Somaliland Shilling. It’s more inflated than the Somali Shilling. For $1, you can buy 8500 Somaliland Shilling.
Even small purchases like paying for coffee required a lot of counting and calculations as 5,000 was the highest note they had. There were very few POS terminals in the country so credit cards weren’t that useful, although my Revolut card worked at one of the local ATMs. I thought the ATM would give me Somaliland Shilling and tried to withdraw a four-figure amount. It didn’t go through due to insufficient funds. And then it hit me. The ATM used USD! I typed the number 10 instead and it spit out a $10 note. Revolut didn’t charge me a fee for it.
Imagine withdrawing money from an ATM in Somalia (that’s what the bank sees) with your regular credit card. It will either get blocked immediately, or the bank will charge you a fortune for the transaction.
To solve the hyperinflation problem, the local telecom operator and one of the main banks had developed a mobile payment system called ZAAD. At every shop, street stall, or shack, you will see phone numbers written on the walls. These numbers are not there by accident. They are both phone numbers and payment accounts. Dial *223*the number*the amount#, and the transaction is done.
ZAAD worked with every phone, smart or not. As a foreigner, however, your only option is to stick to paying with USD in cash. The good old dollar was king here and it was accepted everywhere in the country.
Because of the hyperinflation, Somaliland had one of the most interesting money exchange places I had seen–a market where the money changers stood behind their piles of cash and wrote every transaction in notebooks. After exchanging some dollars, they got incredibly friendly and let us take pictures with them and their cash.
Getting high on khat in Somaliland
“Don’t take pictures of the policeman. He’s chewing khat.”– my friend Vlad told me as we got to one of the rocks in Las Geel. He was talking about the same policeman who was our guard for the trip and was supposed to protect us.
In this part of the world, everyone chewed khat–men, women, government officials, children, policemen. It’s a stimulant drug that’s fully legal, unlike drinking alcohol that could get you in jail if you possessed it here.
The fresh khat arrived at around 2 pm from Ethiopia. We were told that the main supplier, Amina, was one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the region and made her millions selling the tree leaves. It didn’t surprise me. The plant was more popular and demanded than bread.
We waited in the car, right next to her stand, and soon enough a young guy came with two big batches–the highest quality we could get. Fresh, so fresh, and it cost us less than $10/batch.
We put the khat in a plastic bag and smuggled it in the hotel room, underneath my scarf. It wasn’t illegal to bring it inside but it was frowned upon as it made a huge mess. Walking on the streets of Hargeisa, you could recognize the khat shops where the leaves on the ground looked like green carpets.
When you chew khat, it’s best to stay inside and drink lots of water or Sprite. And so we stayed in on that day. The astringent taste of the first leaf I tried made me gag. How do they do it? I can’t possibly go through this whole bush in front of me. I wanted to experience what the high was like but how much was enough? One stem? Two? The locals took their time. Chewing khat was their version of the Spanish siesta.
I’ve never been a kid who refused to eat her greens, but now I felt like one, as I forced myself to eat khat. Eek. In the meantime, Vlad devoured it like a goat. He lied on the couch and sang, holding onto his precious plant and failing to hit the high notes of Empire State of Mind. Hargeisaaaaaa, concrete jungle where dreams are maaaaaaade ooooooof. The plant was his mic while I, the audience of one, wondered if we could get kicked out of here for singing and laughing out loud.
Finally, the high hit me too when Vlad asked me to go to the restaurant and get him something to drink. He gave me three choices: tonic, soda, or coke. I didn’t walk down the stairs, I floated. ‘Do you have tonic?’ I asked. Apparently, there was no tonic in Somaliland as every time we requested it, the locals looked at us with an expression similar to that of cute puppies who titled their heads when they tried to hear you better. Watcha say?
Okay, what were the other two options… I think he said… ‘Do you have Sprite?’. Vlad wasn’t happy when I brought him his least favorite drink and I could now understand why every time I asked for something extra at the restaurant, I had to ask at least three times to get it. Forgetting was that easy on khat!
The plant can make you feel relaxed, floaty, light, talkative, or super smart. I had to write an article and struggled to complete it as Vlad would not stop talking. Overall, I found khat to be more fun than alcohol.
People in Somaliland were among the happiest and most relaxed people I’ve met. The downside of chewing khat was that it seemed to make their short-term memory go away. You can talk and agree on things with someone and then the next day they won’t remember it. It also gave their teeth a brownish color sometimes.
The trip to Las Geel is a must if you go this far
To exit Hargeisa, you need to pay a premium price for a car, a driver, and a guard who’s required by law to protect you. We wanted to visit both Las Geel and Berbera, but in the end, we decided to only go to Las Geel which was a half-a-day trip.
The best cost we found was with The Orient hotel, although the car they took us with was very old and uncomfortable. Make sure that whoever is taking you there has a Range Rover with the AC on so that it filters the air. It will make all the difference. The dusty road and the toxic stuff cars pumped in the air made my lungs hurt.
At the first security checkpoint, the policeman looked at our car, talked to our guard, and signaled he was letting us continue by lifting a rope. Every security checkpoint we passed on the way to Las Geel looked like that–a policeman sitting on a plastic chair, holding a rope. Next to him, there usually was a shack painted in blue with a police sign on it.
Driving through the barren land of Las Geel, the driver saw a little boy in the distance and threw him a pack of candies out the window. He had a bag full of them for the kids who lived here and distributed them as if he was Santa. With just his body language, he showed the boy roughly where to find the candy.
As we arrived at something that seemed like a museum where we could read more about the cave paintings, our guard left us and headed to the caves. Wait, wasn’t he supposed to protect us? The urge to chew khat was calling. Traveling outside Hargeisa and especially Las Geel didn’t seem dangerous though. People here seemed even friendlier.
I was more impressed by the serene view from the edge of a rock next to one of the caves. There was only one particular piece of art in the caves that grabbed my attention. A drawing of two cows having sex, where the male appeared twice as big and powerful than the female. An image of the ancient people who giggled as they painted it popped in my head. But of course! What else would they do.
The overall cost of the trip to Las Geel was around $170-$200 for two people, including the car, all-inclusive. You can try and haggle, but you won’t get it for much cheaper than that.
One camel burger with French fries, please
In a country where there are more camels than people, eating camel meat was like eating chicken. It tasted like beef, but slightly greasier. After five days of eating spaghetti with spices and meat, I craved a burger. The smells, the flavors, the sounds, they all hit me hard and made me feel overwhelmed at times. I needed to take a break and eat something that was a bit more Western. Like a camel burger with French fries on the side.
It cost $8-$10, which was the standard price for a meal here, and it was a must-try item on my bucket list. The best place to try a camel burger in Hargeisa was Cafe Berbera–a local cafe/restaurant with a modern vibe where you can see locals in suits, working from their Macbooks.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can also try the local street restaurants. We decided to stick to the hotels and the famous cafes as the difference in flavors was overwhelming enough.
What to wear in Somaliland as a woman
Somaliland is a very conservative Muslim country where women don’t wear pants. It’s not uncommon to see men in skirts, but if a woman wears jeans, it’s a big taboo. Wear a long skirt instead. You can probably get away with not wearing a scarf, although I recommend that you wear it. You won’t see a single woman on the street who is not wearing a long skirt and who has her hair exposed.
Remember that you are a tourist in a country that has close to no tourism. Whatever you wear or do, you will attract a lot of attention. People are generally friendly and will greet you or want to talk to you. And if you walk alone (without a man), expect guys to court you and ask for your WhatsApp. In my personal experience, men had a very respectful attitude toward me. Women in Somaliland were free to work, own property, get an education, and vote, but unlike men, they dressed conservatively.
After five days of wearing clothes I had to borrow from my mom, I craved to be able to wear my short skirts with heels once again. The whole experience made me appreciate living in a time and place where I could wear whatever I wanted.
Where to stay in Hargeisa
Man Soor was the most popular choice for travelers and one of the safest hotels in the country. It had a blast wall, a big perimeter between the wall and the hotel, security checkpoints for cars and luggage, luggage scanners. On the inside, the hotel was a bit old and run-down, although it was comfortable. We initially booked it because we thought we needed that extra level of security. It turned out we didn’t.
Soon after we arrived, Bashir and the other locals convinced us that the Damal hotel was a better option. The most famous hotels for tourism in Hargeisa like Man Soor and Ambassador were far from action, while Damal was central. It was inside one of the modern buildings in town. The locals called them skyscrapers, even though they were five to ten stories high.
We got the VIP room at Damal for $60/night (compared to $70 for a smaller room at Man Soor). It also had a huge king bed and a balcony from where we got good aerial shots of Hargeisa. The food in Damal was also a lot better than in all other restaurants we went to. Alternatively, you can book a room on Airbnb which also worked in Hargeisa.
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