When encountering the unknown it is sometimes best to possess as many mind-altering substances as possible and crossing into the unrecognised, and alcohol-free, ‘country’ of Somaliland seemed as good a time as any.
Unlike the Ancient Greeks who used papaver somniferum or magic mushrooms as protection in battles, I decided to chew as much qat (locally known as ‘chat’) to fortify myself against any checkpoint charlies or child-soldiers with guns.
After a delay at the border and a fight between a soldier and a passenger who objected to the former manhandling his wife, I finally jumped into a shared taxi for the bumpy 100-kilometre journey to Hargesia, the country’s capital.
As the benign qat soothed my brain and the taxi settled into an aqua-plaining rhythm, I read about where I was going. Somaliland used to be British Somaliland and in 1960 was the first African country after independence to transfer power from the military until it decided to cleave itself to its bigger neighbour, Somalia.
Bad decision. After years of tribal tensions, a savage civil war broke out until the Somalis were finally ousted and Somaliland retreated to its pre-Independence border and in 1961 unilaterally declared its independence.
Since then no country has recognised it despite having a free press, a free-market economy and a recent fair election that saw the incumbent President hand over power to the victorious opposition.
The closest they have come is when Somaliland officials were invited to the opening of the Welsh assembly, Wales having a large Somaliland community. And while there were a few hairy moments at checkpoints most of the soldiers were so wasted on qat to be any real danger.
Hargesia was insane. There are 16,500 Somaliland Shillings to the dollar and the largest denomination note is 500 shillings. Kids run around with wheelbarrows full of banknotes while qat-addled money-changers sprawl in houses of stacked-up money. All a bit 1930s Weimar republic with the valueless German Mark.
Seeing all this money was annoying because I didn’t have any of it and my only hope was a London friend wiring me some dollars through Dahabshiil, the Somaliland version of Western Union.
This seemed to be loaded with problems but I kept being told ‘no problem, no problem’ so I bought a Somaliland SIM card on credit after using THE FREE AND FAST WI-FI in my $10 hotel and gave my friend the details.
He then called me from a shop in London telling me it was all quite simple and asked for my Somaliland SIM and then he would call me back… Which he did ten minutes later… Five minutes AFTER I had received an SMS from Dahabshiil telling me my money was ready to be picked up.
Amazing. Now I could pay my bills and explore the country, but first I would have to ‘hire a soldier’ for $15 a day if I wanted to go anywhere outside the capital… TO BE CONCLUDED