Fear and loathing in Somaliland

I was pretty high on drugs, in Somaliland.

Yes, literally, high on a local drug named khat, a plant with some amphetaminic effects, typically consumed in the Horn of Africa and Yemen, Somalia being the country with the biggest number of addicts per capita.

Imagining the effects of a drug which you have never tasted before can be difficult but, for you to understand it, coca leaves are the closest thing to khat, but it’s a bit more intense, in the sense that you do feel you are stoned, plus it is kind of aphrodisiac.

You also become more talkative and it gives you some extra energy, like you want to party, but I was high in a semi-deserted, isolated village in Somaliland, sitting between a potbellied dude who spent his day watching African reality shows, and a very weird man who wouldn’t stop staring at me with his creepy smile.

I went for a walk, walking very fast, looking forward to socializing with anyone, something which, fortunately, turns out to be very easy in the unrecognized republic of Somaliland.

That night I couldn’t sleep…

My khat mate, and the owner of my guesthouse (the potbellied dude)

 

Backpacking in Somaliland, a peculiar experience

Somaliland is a territory that declared itself independent from Somalia in 1991 but, since nobody in the international community recognized them as such, they became one of those ghost republics, an unrecognized country.

Technically, Somaliland belongs to Somalia, but it acts like a fully independent country and the main difference between them is that, while Somalia is an authoritarian regime sunk in a Civil War, Somaliland is a peaceful democracy.

Hey, how is Somaliland? Is it nice? – I was frequently asked.

Well, I don’t know what to say, depends on what you mean by ”nice”.

If you are referring to things to visit, the truth is that besides a camel market and a few caves containing some pretty cool rock art – which is impressive by the way – Somaliland doesn’t have a big touristic potential, not even its capital Hargeisa, the most low-key capital I have ever seen, a pretty dirty and fucked up city, a direct consequence of not belonging to the UN, hence never  having received a single € from the World Bank.

However, if you like meeting local people, checking out weird things, and having stories to tell, I think Somaliland is the ultimate adventure for backpackers.

For you to have an idea about the country, this is Hargeisa downtown

 

Without going any further, the khat phenomenon is pretty interesting

A very peculiar fact about Somaliland is that there are many foreign Somalis, Somalis who were born in different Western countries but, at some point in their lives, maybe when they had saved enough money, decided to go back to their motherland.

I met many of them during my trip, most coming from London, but also from New Zealand, Australia, and the USA.

I remember one day when walking around Hargeisa, a guy with an impeccable British accent asked me:

Hey, where are you going? Are you a traveler?

He was a young Somali who grew up in London but when he turned 30, his family suggested he should come to Somaliland to work for a year, so he could learn about his culture. His uncle had a hotel, and he was working at the hotel’s restaurant. We went for a coffee.

And how are you handling the London-Hargeisa switch?

Well, it is a bit odd. So far, it’s good, interesting but, despite speaking the language, I am not blending very well in here.

And what do you do when you are not working?

So far, not much. I have been here for 2 months and sometimes it can be difficult to meet people whose interests go beyond eating khat.

Khat. It’s very bitter by the way

I believed him. During my trip, I also had the feeling that the hobby of most men was just eating khat, every day, from noon till evening.

Khat is a big social problem. Health problems aside, which are quite a few, eating khat is an expensive vice. A daily portion of a minimum quality costs around $3-$6 which, multiplied by every day of the week and bearing in mind the average country salary, the end result is that there are thousands and thousands of Somalis who practically spend all their money on chewing khat and, since khat takes away the hunger, they even forget to eat.

A khat chewer

In Hargeisa, the general vice is not that obvious, mainly because it is a big city and you see all types of people, but you just need to visit any other city where there isn’t much to do, like Berbera, to realize that people don’t do anything but eat khat and, wherever you go after 2pm, you only see khat stalls and people eating it.

Typical khat stall

Basically, all you see is groups of 5-25 people lying down under the shade and spending half of their day getting stoned. I always wondered what those people did for a living, and if they had a family. 

One day, I even met a dude who was chopping his portion of khat to almost dust because he had lost all his teeth.

But anyways, Somalis are mostly cool people and while, when you travel in Iran, people tell you to join them for tea, in Somaliland, they tell you to join them for eating khat.

The khat phenomenon is something you must see and experience for yourself.

CHECK OUT HOW I ATE KHAT!


 

The authorities don’t really understand the concept of the independent traveler

I had just arrived in Zeyla, a small, very isolated village, built on a peninsula on the shores of the Aden Gulf, 30km from the Djibouti border.

I had entered Somaliland from Djibouti, a pretty tough journey, tiring, but getting to Zeyla was a relief, as it seemed to be a pretty peaceful, chilled-out place, noiseless, very traditional and filled with kind-hearted Somalis, a place where I decided to relax and spend a few days writing a few things I had in mind.

However, things didn’t turn out as expected.

Hey, you, come here – a not-very-nice-man in a 4×4 told me from 20 meters away, just when I started my first walk.

Why? No, you come here.

I ignored him and kept with my walk but, after a few seconds, he turned on his vehicle and stopped right next to me.

Hey, I am the Governor of this region, show a bit of respect.

Right there I realized that, despite being a democracy, Somaliland was just another of those extremely hierarchical countries in which people with these sorts of jobs believe they are superior and have the right to impose their arrogant and authoritarian attitude on the rest.

Why are you here? You can’t walk around without a guide, it’s not safe.

Well, what’s the danger? – I said.

Just show me your travel permit.

What permit? I just have a visa. I can show it to you.

He took a quick look, made a phone call, and left, never saw him again.

I sat down in one of those shacks where they serve coffee, and where I could finally talk with normal people, nice, curious, and kind Somalis, the people I like to meet when I am on the road. I was talking to a young guy who worked as an accountant but it didn’t take much time until one of those annoying men came to bother me once again.

The accountant I was talking with

Hello, can you show me your travel permit? – He told me while showing me a badge that said Ministry of Tourism.

Sorry, I don’t know what permit you are talking about. Yesterday, I came from Djibouti, I passed several controls and nobody told me anything about a permit. I have a valid visa and the respective entry stamp.

They called the owner of my guesthouse – the potbellied dude from the introduction – who arrived sort of stressed, and sweating.

They were talking for a while about I don’t know what, until he said:

OK, no problem, but you can’t take photos.

What? Why not?

They started murmuring again.

OK, you can take photos except for military stuff.

Rules weren’t written. Everybody just dictated whatever they wanted, whatever they felt like at that precise moment, maybe to show you their power, their superiority, arrogance, who the hell knows, but things didn’t end up there.

Very nice locals in Zeyla
Somalis during khat time

 

The story with Somaliland police

Despite not being more than an isolated settlement, Zeyla is home to one of the oldest mosques in East Africa and its harbor has been mentioned in documents that are more than 3000 years old and, even though today it is not the most important harbor in the country, it still is quite significant due to its strategic position.

Anyways, after all those discussions, I went for a walk following the shore of the peninsula, until I got into a dock. A couple of meters away, I could spot one dude who was filming me and making fun of it with his friend. They were very stupid, but then I approached them and started filming their faces as well. In the end, we just had a few laughs.

The guy who was filming me

I walked around the dock and on my way back, from far away, I could see a man in a uniform who was yelling at my direction and making gestures with his arms. Honestly, I wasn’t sure if he was yelling at me but in any case, I just thought – screw him – and went back to the place I came from.

Suddenly, I saw him running very fast towards me and all I could understand him saying was:

Hey, FUCK YOU, FUCK YOU, FUCK YOU!!

I was like, what the hell. What’s his problem?

Dude, what the fuck, FUCK YOU – I said.

That policeman was hysterical. He wouldn’t stop yelling, and I told him to calm down and did an attempted to leave, but one of his colleagues grabbed my arm.

WE WILL FUCKING KICK YOUR ASS IF YOU TRY TO ESCAPE!

I am transliterating his reaction, I swear, but I want to believe that his English was basic, so he was not aware of the gravity of those words.

They took me to the police station, a creepy place composed of a few shacks.

There was a group of people, all in uniform and, in the middle, there was a man with a big beard who looked like the boss, an extremely arrogant man with sunglasses who didn’t even bother to look at me, but was giving instructions about what should the others do with me:

What were you doing in the harbor? That is a military area. Why did you enter?

Well, I was simply walking until I suddenly found myself inside. If it is such a sensitive place, next time put a fence and a warning sign – I was in a very bad mood

Their English was basic, so they didn’t really understand me.

They left me there for an hour. Meanwhile, I was observing them. There were like 10 o 15 policemen doing nothing, and a 25-year old woman who didn’t stop serving tea and bringing them things.

Once in a while, a policeman approached me to ask the same question. I gave them the same answer, but they just didn’t get it.

In the end, they decided to call the owner of the guest house, who arrived shortly on my rescue, once again kind of stressed-out, and with a certain difficulty in breathing, like if he had come running.

Poor man – I thought, but it was definitely funny.

He talked to the authorities and they let me go. On our way to the hotel, he said:

Joan, they say you entered the harbor without permission. Why did you do that?

Man, seriously, I told them 10 times already. If there is no warning sign, how can I know?

I wasn’t afraid. If there is something I learned traveling in these countries is that, as a European, or a Westerner, you have certain privileges. They won’t do anything to you because they know you are just a rich tourist, but Somaliland police like to show off their authority, and the truth is that they managed to run me out of my good mood so after all that trouble, I went for a walk just outside of town until I got into a very isolated area composed of a desert peninsula and a mosque, one of the remotest landscapes I have ever seen.

CHECK MY DRONE VIDEO

At night, I came back fully loaded with my good mood, but at the guesthouse, the owner was waiting for me with a very concerned expression on his face:

Joan, the police just called me and they said they saw you again taking photos of military things.

Man, what the hell, seriously, I was not even here in the whole afternoon…

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

On the next day, we spent the day eating khat, with the guesthouse owner and the weird man with the creepy smile.

I started to feel high, and that night I couldn’t sleep…

I loved Somaliland, for me, it was ”nice” but I do agree that it’s not recommended for everyone.

eating khat

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8 comments

  1. This is great! Really looking forward to visiting this area soon – my head is now whirling with thoughts and ideas for my travels- any details around planning and route much appreciated. Cheers Andy

  2. Funny experience. Doesn’t sound like my cup of tea. LOL I would have been so stressed. I’ll continue to live vicariously through you.

  3. I didn’t have any problems at all with officials when I was there a few years ago. All the people I met were nice, it seemed like a generally hassle free place beyond what you’d expect in a poor country. It was certainly a lot more pleasant than the endless rip off in Ethiopia.

    1. Yeah, it was mostly all right, just a few minor issues in Zeyla (not sure if you went there) but the rest of the trip was pleasant and wonderful, except for a couple of locals who didn’t like cameras at all.

      1. Generally in Africa you have to ask or be discrete with taking photos of people so l always expect some people to not like it. Hopefully you were just a bit unlucky and my experience was more typical

  4. Alfredo Ribeiro

    I thought it was Yemen the most khat-addicted. When I visited it, everyone seemed to chew it after lunch. I peeked into a(male) wedding tent and there was huge pile of khat leaves in the centre with men sitting around chewing. Also Yemen being in a whole more fertile than Somaliland, they must be the largest khat producer.
    I was given some leaves and I was not impressed to say the least.

    1. Hello Alfredo, let me address your points below 🙂

      I have been to all Horn of African countries where khat is consumed and Somalia was by veeeery far, the country with the highest consumption. I traveled around Somaliland extensively and also there, everybody was just eating khat after lunchtime and basically, life stopped during khat time, to the extent you couldn’t even order a coffee. Unfortunately, I haven’t been to Yemen, but if Somaliland consumption is not higher, it should be the same.

      Moreover and controversially, in Somalia they don’t grow khat (even though you would be wrong if you thought Somaliland is not fertile), but it comes from a border city in Ethiopia named Awaday, the biggest khat producer in the world. I have visited the city and it’s insane. It’s basically a khat city. Every day, hundreds and hundreds (if not thousands) of trucks loaded with tones of khat travel all the way to the Somali border.

      Also, quality and type of khat varies enormously per region. Apparently, Yemeni khat has more relaxing effects, while the one produced in Aweday is definitely amphetaminic.

      Also, like happens with weed and basically, any available drug, there are many types of quality. If you eat cheap one, you will barely feel anything, while expensive one (which can cost up to $20 for just a small portion) definitely gets you high.

      Moreover, you need to eat quite a lot of khat for a few hours to start feeling anything.

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