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Issue 483 -- 30 Apr - 6th May 2011
Yoder & Sons: Somaliland Extends Warm Welcome
All-cash economy, lopsided exchange rate means a wallet isn’t enough
By Stephen Kreider Yoder and Levi Yoder
Berbera, Somaliland, April 30, 2011 — STEVE: Last night, I suddenly began to feel uncomfortable about where we were.
Levi and I were sitting in a waterfront restaurant here, watching the sun set over the port. The eatery wasn’t my concern: The staff were friendly, other diners smiled at us and Levi gave thumbs-up to his camel-meat stew. It wasn’t the weather: The day’s heat had died away with a cool breeze off the water.
After furtively glancing around, I leaned over to share my nagging doubt with Levi.
“How many shillings do you have left?,” I asked in a low voice. “I’m not sure I have enough to pay the bill.”
Getting money, it ends up, has been about our only major worry, traveling here in northern Somalia.
Which isn’t really Somalia at all. We’re not in the Somalia that many people in the West might visualize — the tortured country of pirates and Black Hawk Down.
We are in the Republic of Somaliland. Technically, it’s still part of Somalia because it hasn’t been internationally recognized as a separate country. But Somaliland — to the north of Somalia — has run itself as an independent nation ever since its civil war with the South two decades ago.
We got here easily enough, overland by bus from Ethiopia after two weeks in that country. (”Welcome to Somaliland!” the Somaliland consular official back in Addis Ababa told us, in what would become a familiar refrain, when she presented us our freshly-stamped visas.)
Although foreign tourists still must get a travel permit and hire an armed guard to travel east of the capital of Hargeisa, it’s safe to travel in many parts of this country.
The capital at first blush projects an alarming air of disarray that’s easy to mistake for anarchy. Its streets are mostly potholed dirt with makeshift markets crowding their curbs. Even in the center, some stone buildings are crumbling. Somaliland’s cities have still not completely rebuilt after the South bombed them to smithereens in 1991.
But we soon found that the predominantly Muslim Somalilanders are possibly the most welcoming people we’ve met so far in Africa. “How are you!” we heard at least 125 times in our first few hours wandering the markets and dusty alleys of Hargeisa after arriving overland from the South. Scores of locals — shopkeepers, students, office workers — walked up to shake our hands. “Welcome to Somaliland!” we heard from dozens.
Many people we’ve met are quick to distinguish themselves from the South. “We are different from Somalia,” a computer technician told us in an open-air cafe over sweet cups of “Somali Tea” one night. “Somaliland is peaceful. We like foreigners…We like Americans.”
Our worries about losing money to crime quickly fell away. But for the first time in our two months in Africa, we’ve had to worry about getting access to money in the first place.
Until now, my debit card has reliably tapped my bank account in California to instantly generate Ugandan shillings, Kenyan shillings, Tanzanian shillings and Ethiopian birr from ATM machines. There’s been no need to stand in line at banks with traveler’s checks, as in the old days, nor to keep masses of cash in reserve.
But Somaliland is a strictly-cash economy. There are no ATMs here for international banks. Credit cards aren’t accepted. So we have to pull our U.S. dollars and Ethiopian birr out of our secret stashes and take it to money-changing stalls to exchange for stacks of local cash.
Large stacks. The Somaliland shilling is valued at about 5000 per dollar. But the largest denomination is the 500-shilling note. So changing $100 produces a brick of cash 1000 bills thick.
Things got really interesting when we asked our hotel clerk where to change money. “Right there,” he pointed, as if it was obvious to anyone, not to a bank but to a street corner where dozens of money changers were sitting on mats under umbrellas behind walls of shilling bundles two-to-three feet high.
After I found that all changers provided the same rate, I took to changing about 20 dollars at a time to avoid carrying a wad of cash that felt like a conspicuous fortune.
Which is how I came up short in Berbera, Somaliland’s main port city, from which the country exports mainly goats and camels. We arrived here after visiting ancient rock paintings in Laas Geel along the road from the capital. We swam for two hours in the Gulf of Aden before checking into our $6-a-person hotel and walking to the restaurant in time for the sunset.
The bill came to about seven dollars, but my shilling stack had grown thin. Levi, keeper of our emergency stash, delivered, and we had plenty to spare for a night-time tea (10 cents each) at a ramshackle roadside stand on the way back to our hotel.
Back in Hargeisa, I’ll have to hit up my favorite money changer, Mohamed. “How are you, Steve?” he’ll say in English as I fork over enough to acquire another brick of Shillings.
LEVI — Dad may worry about getting money here in Somaliland, but spending it is another story altogether.
Things have been so cheap here that we have actually been looser with our money than in other places. We can get a meal of nicely seasoned camel meat and rice for just a dollar or two, a hotel room for $6, and a fresh mango juice for 20 cents.
To add to that, people are so honest here that when we don’t wait for our change at a market stall, the seller runs down the block just to give us our 10 cents. We’ve started to not even ask prices before we order at restaurants.
We’ve stopped obsessing about our budget. We can splurge on 10-cent tea and 20-cent juice frequently during the day without thinking twice.
That’s had at least one good effect: Often when we have tea, other customers will start to talk to us if we hang around more than a few minutes. Once we were approached by three young men at a tea shop, and we talked until nine in the evening about a broad range of subjects including the history of Somalia and Somaliland, religion, how “Black Hawk Down” casts unfair associations on Somaliland and frustration over the lack of international recognition.
We met with two of them later — one at the same shop — and talked again about religion. Another helped us get 4 giant baguettes for under a dollar.
People are extremely friendly here, they seem reserved at first but once we smile and greet them they become very sociable. Because of the anti-anti-western feeing here, I feel safer at night than many places in America.
I am realizing when I’ve been thinking about all the cheap food that it’s probably because of the poverty here. Back in America, we don’t consider ourselves all that rich, but I have completely changed my mind on that after seeing the poverty here.
But through all the troubles they have here they have a strong sense of optimism about the future of their country.
Source: The Market Watch