A Guide to the Capital of Somaliland
By Karsten Potts
Tucked away in northern Somalia, Hargeisa is truly a hidden treasure. Whether your want to explore the vast, vibrant markets, or chill at a coffee shop this city has something for you.
Hargeisa is the capital of a breakaway region called Somaliland, which is located in Northern Somalia. When Somalia collapsed in 1990, Somaliland declared independence from the rest of the country and formed its own government. Although Southern Somalia is still ravaged by war, here in the north, the war ended 20 years ago. Although the government of Somaliland is not internationally recognized, it has managed to keep the peace, provide public services and hold elections which were widely considered free and fair.
The city of Hargeisa offers much of what one would expect when traveling in the Horn of Africa. If you feel like exploring the classic aspects of Hargeisa, there are markets, local restaurants and a livestock bazaar. In the central market travelers can find anything from exotic desert goods such as frankincense, myrrh and handcrafted items to everyday clothing, furniture and modern products like cell phones and TVs. It’s a good place to practice your bartering skills.
If you are feeling more adventurous, you can venture out to Saylada where livestock is traded. There are hundreds of animals, mostly camels and goats, and dozens of traders bartering as the animals mill about. Closer to the city there are many small restaurants and tea stands, where you can sit for hours talking to locals and relaxing in the warm desert air. The tea they serve here tastes like the chai lattes sold at Starbucks, but one cup costs only $0.25. Some of the more familiar dishes are chicken or goat served with rice or pasta, and some of the bolder options include camel liver, and cow stomach. Keep in mind, while some venues do have silverware, it is much more common to eat with your hand–so why not give it a try!
The most shocking thing about Hargeisa, however, is not the exotic allure of the unknown, but the surprising familiarity of some of the features of the city. The first and most important is the peace. Technically, Hargeisa is located in Northern Somalia, which has been a name synonymous with war and anarchy. You will find neither in Hargeisa. The war here ended 20 years ago. I felt safe walking around the city until around at least 11:00 pm in downtown, It is so safe that money changers leave piles of cash at their stands when they go to pray at the Mosque. As long as you practice basic common sense, you will be safe. One time, when I was walking down the street a man asking for money became very persistent and grabbed my arm. Immediately, five other people around me started shouting at him and came over, not leaving my side until he left and they were sure I would be safe.
This leads to the next treasure of the city, the people living there. The people in Hargeisa are incredibly friendly. Don’t be surprised if people call out to you while you are walking down the street. Ninety nine percent of the time, they just want to talk, practice their English, and want to know what you think about the city. If you need directions, people are more than willing to give them. If they do not speak enough English to help you out, they will find somebody who does. The next surprise is the relative prosperity and obvious economic potential. The growth here is staggering. You will see modern office buildings and hotels under construction, the first shopping malls are beginning to open in the city (not anywhere near the scale of the Mall of America, but shopping malls nonetheless). They even sell frappachinos and paninis at some of the new coffee shops.
This growth is all the more impressive considering it all happened mostly the last decade. Toward the beginning of the war Siad Barre flattened the city in a series of bombing raids. Instead of sinking into despair, the people of Somaliland built a new city from the ruins and Hargeisa is now one of the safest places in East Africa. Beyond the physical signs of prosperity, the telecommunications infrastructure is on par with the United States.
There is amazing cell phone coverage that is affordable. You can buy a SIM card as soon as you get off the plane, and as a result of the competition between coverage providers in the country, minutes are very cheap. I spent around $5 the entire trip for local and international calling and texting. You can buy a phone or bring your own unlocked one, insert your SIM card and be on your way. As far as internet, you can choose from 3G or internet cafes, and almost every hotel has free wifi. If you are wondering what currency to use, don’t worry, almost everyone accepts dollars. Even if they don’t, there are dozens of money exchange booths in the city center. There is even an electronic payment system that you can access through the cell network. Shoppers can buy things at most stores without even using cash. If you prefer to use Somaliland Shillings, however, just keep in mind that you might need to bring a backpack, a day at the market may require a few bricks of currency.
• It is nearly impossible to transfer money directly from the United States to Somaliland. You must bring all the cash you need (bring small, new bills)
• Dress modestly. This means no tank tops for guys (even if you see locals doing it) and longer garments for women.
• Sometimes it is necessary to barter at smaller vendors