By John Fox
When I tell people that I am off to Somalia or Somaliland in the morning they usually offer some kind of commiseration. But they needn’t. A trip there is never boring, especially when you know that you will be catching a plane back in a few days’ time. Anyway, I enjoy a little shot of adrenaline now and again.
Mind you, they are right to be solicitous about the time you have to get up to get to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport or Wilson for the flight out — the worst time of day, which is the middle of the night. And is it some kind of punishment for being such unruly neighbours that all planes to Somalia or Somaliland take off at such an ungodly hour?
Last week I was scheduled to fly to Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, via Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. But when we got to Mogadishu we were told to get off the plane and wait in transit for four or five hours — that turned out to be six hours. They told us, as they usually do, that the problem was a technical one.
There were three of us thus stranded. But our shared irritation was dissipated somewhat when the Airways ground staff somehow managed to wangle us into the VIP lounge, where we could settle on comfy chairs and help ourselves to coffee, cakes and the internet.
Looking around, I was surprised to see how egalitarian the VIP lounge was. The few VIP-looking men in suits and ties were well outnumbered by guys in open-necked shirts — some even sporting baseball caps. I guess this is in tune with the fiercely democratic spirit of Somalis – a spirit strongly asserted in a poem by the popular poet, Yam Yam:
No-one who breathes oppresses me. Because I believe in equality no-one is placed above me. When you come to visit mesee no half-hearted hospitality. I AM SOMALI
Meanwhile, my Somali colleague was on the long and rough road from Garowe, the capital of Puntland, to meet up with me at the Maan-Soor Hotel in Hargeisa. His passport had run out, so he couldn’t fly — not that there are many flights between Garowe and Hargeisa.
When I told him in an email that I had never done that safari and I fancied the idea of joining him, he wrote back: “My friend John, you continue to surprise me. No mzungu has done that road trip for at least 25 years”. By that I assumed he was telling me that it wasn’t a good idea. When I reflected on the tensions that occasionally flare up about the disputed border between Puntland and Somaliland I had to agree with him.
Eventually, the three of us ensconced in the VIP lounge were told we could board the plane again. (By then we had found out that the real reason for our delay was that some proper VIPs — a group of MPs — had finished with their conference in Garowe and needed to be transported back to Mogadishu. So “our” plane had been diverted to do that.)
NOT THE WORST OF OUR TROUBLES
However, that wasn’t the worst of our troubles that day. Over Hargeisa there was a rain storm; the clouds were low and dark. The pilot began his descent, but he was obviously having difficulty finding the runway. Three times he circled, and three times he overflew the runway. In another of my lives I was a pilot, and that was no comfort.
I’m glad I didn’t understand the message I’m told that our pilot gave out to passengers — telling us that he didn’t have enough fuel to return to Mogadishu and assuring us he would be able to land. Anyway, despite the clouds and the pouring rain, he did make the landing.
Meanwhile, my colleague from Garowe was stranded by a flash flood only 30 kilometres from Hargeisa. I made the Maan-Soor Hotel for a late afternoon tea; he made it for a very late supper. The Maan-Soor is a lively and cheerful hotel. It is a place where you can meet old friends — and that I did, even as I was checking in.
When we found free time from our daily rounds of interviews and group discussions, we took a taxi drive around the city. It has grown and prospered since I was first there in the mid-1990s.
When I landed then, they were still clearing mines alongside the runway. Now, there are office blocks and supermarkets rising above the clutter of dukas and tea shops.
In the middle of the city there is a monument, a reminder of a painful history. It is a MIG 17 fighter-bomber mounted on a plinth — one of the planes that dropped bombs on the city in 1988 during the civil war.
It must be a memory that is still sharp for those Somalilanders who are so determined to maintain their county’s independence.