I’d gone into Somaliland with an open heart and an open mind. I’d read so much good news online from the tight knit community of international country collectors. Somaliland wasn’t Somalia; it was supposed to be safe, interesting, and welcoming.
Before entering Somaliland, at the gate in Djibouti, I hadn’t covered in my hijab. All of the ladies who had seen my hair now starred a hole through me as I stepped into their country. They were smiling. They were beautiful and mysterious and traveled in women-only-groups. I, on the other hand, even though I was covered, wasn’t mysterious at all. They knew exactly what I looked like without my hijab. And I never particularly felt beautiful when I had to wear it, quite the opposite actually. At the airport, people were excited to have foreigners. They were surprised that we had come prepared with our small passport photos as we pulled them out of our folder. Unsure if it was a compliment or if he was playing a joke on me, a man at the entry-fee window was insistent that I looked Arab. “You from USA?” as he looked over my passport. “You have Arab face”. “I think your mother Arab”. Amused at the irony, my mother was as (say these next two words with an exaggerated accent) T e x a s W h i t e as you could get. I giggled, at what I probably thought was a compliment, but nevertheless bewildering. (Similarly bewildering to the time I was told that I looked like Shakira in Dubai. Both of which were clues that the conversationalists were not exposed to many outsiders.) All of the niceties quickly disappeared after getting out of the airport. I was quickly wondering if that aforementioned online information had been over sensationalized as I dodged scowls walking around Hargeisa in my long black skirt and hijab.
“Where are they from?” people on the street repeatedly asked the fixer.
“British” he repeated over and over. He recommended from the get-go, that for safety, we shouldn’t tell them that we were American. We’d gone with the company Somaliland Travel, one of the handful of tour operators in the region.
I knew that Somali people were suspicious of having their pictures taken. To avoid conflict, I avoided taking photos of anyone or their property directly. I didn’t bring my camera out but managed to capture a few photographs with my phone.
I admired the group of camels for sale at our first stop, the livestock market. The camels were painted to show ownership. There had to be at least one hundred congregated camels. Goats, sheep, and chickens were also available for purchase. An old woman pulled me toward her stall. Her hand wrapped around my forearm. She was speaking Somali as I took a few steps with her away from the camels. Loud Somali language quickly rolled off the tongue of the fixer. He was concerned as I turned back to look at him for help. A hostile crowd began to congregate. “Married!”, “married!”, the fixer finally shouted in English. The wrinkled woman let go of me when I muscled out of her grip. She got in my face, and made some pantomime gestures (which weren’t funny at the time but looking back on them were sexual and hilarious) with her hands and fingers. I understood, I shook my head yes, I was married, and stepped back beside my husband. She began to negotiate with the men while the fixer translated. “She wants you to stay here, get nice husband, with big house, and many animals.” She was trying to broker the sale of. . . me.
In the back of my mind, I’ve known that women have been for sale as brides all over the world. But this was the first time that my body was on the proverbial meat market. I felt violated. Women typically sold for about $3,000, which added up to about 3 camels and a couple of goats. I felt a legitimate sense of concern for the groups of schoolgirls as they walked by in their matching school uniforms. “So white” they would giggle and say to me. “Man with the long hair and beautiful wife”. But comedy wasn’t on my mind as I considered the fact that 98% of the women in the country had undergone genital mutilation, many of whom had died in the process, or undergone the maiming unwillingly as children or preteens.
Later, I wiped the spit from a passerby off of my face when walking away from a confrontation. “This is SOMALILAND!” a man dressed in all white shouted as he aggressively waved his hands running out of a mosque. What he was saying was, your western ass is not welcome here. Our fixer pointed to the state required armed guard who had been tailing us all day with an AK-47. The policeman stepped between me and the religious fanatic as I backed away. Was this really what religious fanaticism looked like? I’d been to a handful of Islamic countries and had been treated relatively well. But in Somaliland, it didn’t feel like a pillar of peace that Islam was supposed to be known for. Not only did it seem like many people were hostile to the idea of Westerners being there; I also witnessed hostility in how they treated each other.
This was the first country that I have ever been scared to leave the hotel on my own. I ate my meals in the hotel restaurant. A young wife raised her voice at her husband who was spending too much time with a new woman. She was a spitfire, slamming her dishes and yelling. He was older, clearly wealthy, and apathetic. It was socially allowed for him to own up to four wives. I kept my eyes downward. I was shocked that she was so unrestrained in public. But I also empathized with her anger and frustration.
The museums that I visited were lacking. I could have curated the museums using a day’s worth of research off of Google. Educated and privileged bia*ch, I hated myself for even thinking the snide thoughts. At the Saryan Museum it became apparent that much of the history of the war-torn country was unknown. The museum had some interesting photographs of generals and the Civil War but little was dedicated to country-life, peace-times, or tribal history. Perhaps my expectations were too high after coming from culturally rich Ethiopia, who’d worked so hard to preserve their cultural treasures. The museum was mostly to commemorate men of high ranking power. There was no evidence of history pertaining to women, or even the layman masses. It was as if neither even existed in their version of history that was presented to the public. The information was also very religious-centric, with little to no separation of church and state. So much of the knowledge of these people was either lost to time, intentionally wiped-clean, or (intentionally or unintentionally) kept unknown from outsiders.
Days later we drove the three hours to the treasure of Somaliland, Laas Geel. Set in the arid landscape of scrub brush, goat herder boys worked the land as their elderly fathers sat in the shade of barren and thorny trees. Women watched over their infant children outside of their quilted tarp yurt dwellings. These were the people who guarded the road with eyes that noticed everything. This was the trampled trail that led to Africa’s oldest cave paintings. We set in using 4X4 then hiked the remainder of the way. The rocks were a wide lookout over the water-washed wadi below. I watched for snakes, although I felt that my vision was impaired by my hijab which was constantly falling onto my face. The depictions of cows, dogs, humans, and wildlife, thought to be from 9,000 to 3,000 BC, looked as if the paintings had been created yesterday. My mind flashed back to the rust colored bulls on the cover of my textbook from freshman college art history class (which coincidentally spent most of it’s time on the dorm room floor until the week of cramming for finals in December).
A museum consisted of printed information on white computer paper that was taped to the wall. I estimated that the number of visitors that it received each year was less than sixty. The security of the museum looked like he had been living inside of it. He rolled up his sleeping mat on the floor and cleaned up his dishes when we arrived. We shared a thermos of coffee and pet his cat.
Information about local wildlife was also unclear as we hiked. I pointed to a set of tracks that I imagined to be either honey badger or porcupine but was quickly brushed off by the guide. Clearly he wasn’t into discussing local wildlife. It became evident that we hadn’t really paid for a tour to learn about anything. The cost of the tour was to keep us safe and out of trouble. The fee that we had paid was to get us in and out alive. And what we wanted to learn about Somaliland? Well that was left up to what we could find on Wikipedia or read in our guide book, which were also both very vague. This was a place that wasn’t ready to share about themselves with the rest of the world yet . . . either that OR locals didn’t know enough about their home to share. At one point, when visiting the monument of a warplane that had crashed, a local television reporter even tried to put us on the news. Feeling unsafe and unsure, we declined to take his interview after the cameras were already rolling.
On the day of departure, I made small talk with the fixer: “Do you have another tour after we leave?” Awali looked refined and educated as he reclined with a dense book. And then it happened. With the most ill-mannered attitude he replied:
“Yes.” (and gave a thoughtful pause)
“Russians” Of course, they travel well. I like Russians, I thought.
“Three men”. Typical.
“It’s good to have men clients.” “They make less problems for me.”
Upset, I held my tongue. Never before had my mere existence abroad been such a pressing problem. Even the person I was paying, the person I had been nice to for several days, and tried to adopt his cultural norms, didn’t want me there. It became clear to me that this man, the one who had been responsible for saving me from being sold into bride-slavery was himself a mysogynist. I began to connect the dots from a confusing comment he had made when we left the bride/livestock market on the first day. Apparently he’d taken a single, beautiful blonde, German 20-something to the livestock market and they’d only managed to escape because he had told the locals that he was “Saving her for himself”. Apparently trying to by Western women was commonplace. I imagined that life for women probably wasn’t much different in the time of the cave paintings at Laas Geel, 11,000 years ago. Insert harsh scowl and eyebrow raise here.
Even for the hardiest of nomads, I can’t in good faith recommend going to Somaliland. If you are a part of the solo female backpacking community, I’m begging you to heed my warning. It’s a place where young women can easily disappear. And if you do have to go, because you’re on your way to all 193 countries, save it for the end– when you’re wrinkly– and take a male family member or fake husband with you. I was totally powerless and at the mercy of the men that surrounded me, which was a very surreal, shocking, and scarring experience. It’s one that’s left me questioning whether or not I really do want to go to every country on Earth.