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Finding Calm In The Most Unexpected Place
By Louisa Norman
I’m a self-confessed disaster junky. I studied in Northern Ireland in the eighties, worked in Cambodia when it was still the wild west and not yet back-packer heaven; in Afghanistan where I would wake at night to wonder if it was an earthquake or a rocket attack; and Angola, where every day was a battle on a different and more personal level. And now here I am in the next hardship post - Hargeysa, Somaliland.
Mention Somaliland to anyone and once they have stopped looking blank, the first question is usually one of these: is it safe? are you mad? or… where?. The answer to the first is; ‘absolutely’, to the second, ‘maybe’ and the third, well, it takes a while. Still that’s what you get for choosing to work in a country that technically doesn’t exist.
My fascination with this place began last year when I was asked to come to make an assessment as to whether PSI should start a programme. Until that point I was also in the ‘…where?!’ category. But as soon as I arrived at airport I knew this place was different.
This is a country where the language was not written down until 1972 and the oral tradition is still strong – which may also explain why the phone network is as cheap as it is. Social and clan relationships are paramount. The strength of the private sector is due in large part to the strength of these social relationships – no-one would dare default on a transaction, as they would be ostracised by the entire community. There are no banks for instance but the informal system of money transfer works with extraordinary efficiency and money can be transferred to and from almost anywhere in the world to anywhere in the country within 24 hours. I remember a friend telling me some years back ‘if you want to move money, trust a Somali’ and its true.
There is virtually no crime here. The same social networks that control financial transactions, also ensure that theft is in no-one’s interests either. When I first arrived here I sat down with the NGO Security Officer and asked him to tell me what crimes had been committed in the last 12 months. He sat back, put his hands behind his head, thought for a while and said ‘well…last year someone stole some solar panels’. And really that was all he could think of. So, it is fairly ironic that friends in Nairobi and Johannesburg worry about my safety. Mogadishu is geographically closer to Nairobi than Hargeysa and about a million miles away culturally from the place I experience on a daily basis.
There is a drive and sense of potential here that I have rarely come across before. With very little donor support, the country largely operates on an entrepreneurial spirit and remittances from the large Somali diaspora. The flip-side of this is that, supported by these same remittances, Khat chewing is endemic. Nothing much happens in the afternoon when most of the men are indulging in this expensive habit which can cost between $2-$20 a day.
We have a beautiful office which is featured on a local poster of ‘New Hargeysa’ (copies available on request!) and has the best IT I have ever had anywhere: fast, dependable internet, an excellent wireless network, zippy little scanners and the cheapest phones in the world. We even have power 24 hours a day provided by the local hotel. So, no more power cuts or noisy generators, no more excuses to Washington about not being able to deliver reports on time, and no more faxing the monthly financials at midnight. That’s an adjustment in itself. Now, several months after arriving, the office is slowly filling up with staff and the compound with tortoises that the guards find on the street and re-house with us.
I have just moved out of the hotel I have been living in since I arrived and into a house with a huge compound which has bananas, papaya, guava, pomegranate and oranges. The house took 2 months of fairly intense project management to renovate, but it was worth it for the garden alone. As I write this my cleaner has just walked in and handed me sweetcorn that the guards have been growing at our office. It’s a fair swap, so tomorrow I will bring in some papaya from my garden.
OK, I admit, its not paradise. There are certainly downsides: entertainment is limited so it helps to be very low maintenance; we cannot buy alcohol or retire to the bar at the end of a long day; and the small expat community is still paying the price for the murders of foreigners four years ago with an overly cautious security policy and 24 hour armed guards. This is generally not as daunting as it sounds - until you go to the beach and find yourself prancing about in a bikini while Kalashnikov-toting guards in boots and fatigues look on in amusement. At least I think its amusement. Luckily my prancing and bikini days are just about over. Still, it makes for some good stories at parties (yes, we have them too).
I came here because in my ignorance, I thought there might be some danger to feed the disaster junky in me but instead I found something else. Life is about balance and I think the disaster junky may finally and unexpectedly have found some kind of equilibrium here in this dry, dusty spot. My friends and I regularly congratulate ourselves on discovering one of the world’s more misunderstood hardship posts.
Come to think of it, I’m not sure I should have just openly admitted any of this where my boss will see it – he still thinks it’s a hardship posting.
This article first appeared on PSI Impact.