Wednesday 2 October 2013

Name and Shame


I'm filming a wheelbarrow full of intricately stacked bananas. They glide by me at a busy market interchange in the middle of Hargeisa in Somaliland. Filling the frame of my camera it passes like a yellow ocean liner through the sea of people, stalls and money changers an inanimate object in a very animated world. I've asked about and people are cool with me filming Then for the first time since I’ve been in Hargeisa I hear an aggressive tone in a voice that shouts:

Hey whiteman don't point that camera at me , what you doing ? That’s illegal you know”.

I look over to see a guy in a 4x4 addressing me.

Don’t worry I'm not filming you .”

He seemed not to hear me and continues  to rant about not pointing the camera at him.  I obliged by turning my back on him and filming the money changers who were more than happy to show off their activities, blocks of cash like piles of bricks , hundreds of thousands of Somaliland Shillings ,Dollars and Euros all left out on the street overnight. A testament to the country’s security or Sharia law I’m not sure which.

Back in the car my colleague Ali says to me not to worry about these guys as they are diaspora and they are often rude. He apologises for them.

”These people come back from the UK and abroad and they think they are something special because they have money and have been living away.

It's unusual to hear Ali speaking harshly of anyone and he continues

 “They’re in noman’s land neither here nor there, culture-less. They haven't assimilated abroad and they don’t try to fit in here, they're trouble.”

The 4x4 pulls up next to me in the car. The guy has obviously clocked that I'm with some locals and says:
“Sorry about that mate what are you filming for ?
“I’m making a film trying to show what a cool friendly place Somaliland is” I answer
Really ?”
“Yeah, it’s great here. You're living abroad aren't you?”
“ London”
he says
“How'd you know ?”
“Because  you're the first person with an aggressive  attitude I've met since I got here “.
His face registered surprise
“Spread the love brother”
“I am spreading the love man”
he says smiling
“The guns are in the back” and he drove off.

We all knew he was joking but it was not funny to Ali and Abdi who are suffering as a direct result of everybody thinking Somalilanders are gun totting extremists and those two are far from being like that.
They work with DAN: Disability Action Network, dedicated to giving equal right to all people with Physical disabilities. With one of the highest rates of landmines and unexploded bombs and a non existence road safety campaign Somaliland has to deal with hundreds of children that need amputations of limbs every year.

There is something deeply disturbing to see a perfect little seven year old girl sit down in a clinic and lift up her skirt and take of a prosthetic limb. The stub below her knee is smooth and rounded and she rubs it gently. It’s skin and certainly part of a body just appears defiled it is  especially sad as she lost it needlessly.

Through the funding of the STARS Foundation DAN now makes prosthetic limbs, wheelchairs, crutches and offers physiotherapy support to similar children. They also help the mothers of children with cerebral palsy cope and coax movement out of their young ones. It is a tough life having to look after a child with special needs anywhere in the world, in Somaliland without health care and a support network  it is even harder. Mostly the care of children with disabilities comes down to Mothers and eldest daughters.

I am despairing of men when I meet one Mother who is unable to walk unassisted and was once a beneficiary of DAN, she is there with her ten children and one of them has cerebral palsy. She has not seen the husband in years and just has to cope trying to make enough money sewing. How can he sleep at night ? It’s not as if he can get pissed and forget what he has done.

Men, man up and deal with what we’re dealt if you don’t you’re still a boy.

If ever there was country that needed to rebrand itself it must be Somaliland. Just the mention of an intention of going there caused family rows over fears for safety.  Stories of pirates, memories of warlords and the fact that there are bounties on White folks' heads ensures that few people come here from Europe unless paid.

But Somaliland is not Somalia they are vey different places . Once British Somaliland it joined with Italian Somaliland to become Somalia after independence in 1960.For a few years it was seen as a model democracy by the west, eager to make things look right after the colonial era. But this was not a sublime marriage and when president Siad Barre led a military coup in 1969 things began to break down. He imposed “scientific communism “ and an extreme  authoritarian rule. Old British Somaliland began to feel marginalized and the new country’s stability started to rock.The Somaliland National Movement was formed and discent boiled over into civil war which at one point had the Siad Barres  forces surround Hargeisa and flatten it. Most citizens had escaped to Ethiopia or abroad if they could afford it.But many that stayed died.

The war finished in 1991 with hundreds of thousands dead but a newly declared state of Somaliland in existence. To this day the world powers have refused to acknowledge Somaliland as a sovereign State even though they were at war for 4 years and in Scotland you get to vote about it.
Doesn’t seem right and it would make such a  difference to this country. All the agencies are here doing their bit but it’s pointless when the world is in denial about a country’s existence. It’s actually a waste of money and as usual the local currency is nowhere near as useful as the dollar.

There are a couple of things that I do have trouble with though, no alcohol is allowed in the country and all women have to cover their heads, as far as I am concerned that is abuse of human rights.

Beer is part of British culture and to force people to wear things is the same as forcing them to take them off.

It seems hypocritical to hermetically seal off your culture but accept outside help, to live by such old fashioned standards and cherry pick what new ones you want and it is simply wrong to prevent evolution of a people and its society. Somehow all the visiting agencies ignore this and abide by these archaic standards. Though it is amusing seeing the usually non-head wearing community trying to deal with keeping it on whilst eating their cornflakes at breakfast and as the wind whips up in the late afternoon.
Additionally bar a few they look daft. You might as well give them flippers, a snorkel and mask.
I meet one female American mayor from Florida with a token scarf wrapped round her head who is there to teach good governance. She is so proud to help out and can’t wait to tell all the people back home about what she has been doing (whilst securing re-election). Then she told me she hadn’t been out the hotel for 2 weeks!

The course is run by. a Serb and staffed by Americans, draw you own conclusions.
The hotel was great though and staffed by intelligent inquisitive, welcoming men and women, though the women did only cleaning, I didn’t see one in a managerial role. The security was tight, so tight that the concrete filled barrels forming the chicane at the entrance to the hotel had paint marks left by the 4x4 that had scraped through. Each time I entered the hotel my bags and body were searched.

The city of Hargeisa is a new town and as a result there is very little that stands out in it as being remarkable. A tank commemorates the war and the jet that took off at Hargeisa airport to drop bombs on Hargeisa town is mounted nearby as a reminder. People gather there to have their photographs taken.
The city is expanding in every direction over the dry brown hills and there are surely no planning permissions or even a town planner in the country. It continues unchecked like lichen on rock.

I walk with Ali and Abdikarim along the ridge above the city it spreads like grey Lego over a couple of rises as far as I can see. It was from here that president Siad Barre blew up his own people. The land behind me stretches off into deep country, dark  broken volcanic rock and hard yellow dust. Little grows apart from cactus and spikey scrub plants with small purple flowers protected by the thorns. Beyond my horizon lays more of the same, outwards in all directions from Hargeisa. Yet still people live, commune and survive out there in a harsh and uncompromising existence and have done for centuries. They will be there still after we’ve burnt out, blown up or faded away.
Herds of camel cruise by all heavily branded and destined for slaughter, their final destination is some plate. Their gait somehow appears arthritic and not fit to take them the vast distances they travel. I am amazed each one could cost $600 and they’re eaten, the hotel sells Camel sandwiches.

As we drive through the city outskirts everything is draped with plastic bags, and rubbish, there seems to be no waste collection here or maybe the efforts to clear up are just not strong enough to fight the rubbish that is being dumped. I see trees that are draped in plastic bags,they look decorated or it as even they have to cover up.

 So much is broken, or bent or falling down, out of kilter, dirty or unfinished. Many things appear temporary or makeshift, poverty and history are conspiring to keep smart and new at bay. 
This place keeps its beauty hidden.
The brightest building is the Ministry of the Exterior which has strings of coloured lights that are illuminated at night, it looks like a nightclub
But the people in the city are so happy and positive. Through the veil many women’s eyes give me smiles and old men want to talk to me, some using their english from previous times and others just to shake my hand and hold on to it talking at me in a language I cannot comprehend.
Children shout “How are you” and follow me down the street. Complete strangers offer me lifts up the road and policewomen with caps with a built in headscarf smile and offer greetings. Wonderfully I see two policemen sauntering down the road hand in hand whilst outside the President’s house security guards sit back in chairs texting and reading papers.

All the big new houses many of which are empty belong to Somalilanders that live abroad, the diaspora, they buy up land and build and come and visit once or twice a year, Ali drives me through one area that’s called half London.People are worry  he says, about what will happen if these people with money that are coming back start buying influence.A new power base will develop and government will tilt towards a more corrupt and easily bought group of fogies. I can see it happen and trouble will start all over again, the people  here are as fixed in their ways as the land itself and they will not stand for anything they don’t want. History has proved that.

The first thing Somaliland needs to do is change its name. Distinguish itself from Somalia I talk with Ali about this and joke with the Hotel Management saying you have to change your name, all laugh and agree but nobody can agree on what to change it to. 

Later as I pass along the  road that runs down the hill from the hotel into town, past shops and coffee houses I respond to the various greetings and waves and smiles and it suddenly becomes clear.
The name of this country should be changed to Smileyland !


mike ormsby said...

That mayor, she'll certainly get my goat. As ever, a lively and Interesting update, Tim, keep up the food work, you and your mighty thumb.

mike ormsby said...

typo: i meant 'good work'! sorry.

The thumb is mightier... said...

like the idea of food work, you would have eaten that mayor alive