Surrounded by Predators
Harar is the furthest we could get from the capital, Addis Ababa, in a single hop. It was a ten-hour bus ride. From here to the border with Somaliland we need to find transport. But first, we need beer. Shaking off the gaggle of hucksters, and very alert to theft, we stroll off to find a bar. There's one down a sidestreet. Paul and I chill out, taking our time to orient ourselves (is there a bus station?) and hand out token gifts to children across the road.
We decide to hire a private taxi for the remaining 100 miles to the border, and after much haggling agree on a price of $120, leaving tomorrow morning. Now, where are we to sleep? Shunning all advice, we decide to head off in a direction of our own choice in a dead straight line until we find a suitable campsite. Masters of our own fate, with iron resolve, we will not deviate to left or right until we can say: "This is a nice spot".
Dumber and Dumber
SomalilandUnusual in Africa, unsual in muslim countries, Somaliland is a democracy. They change government by election, with the outgoing President handing over without a fight.
Not to be confused with the dangerous Somalia, Somaliland was once a British colony. Thanks to us Brits, they write in a-b-c rather than wiggly squiggly. In 1960, we Brits and the colonial masters of Italian Somalia coordinated our departure and left 'em to it. After a period of calm and oppression, Somaliland broke away. There was terrible loss of life. Today, Somaliland is proudly independent. In the capital, Hargeisa, they celebrate this liberation every 18 May with much waving of their green-white-red national colours. This year was the 24th anniversary.
Paul and I timed our visit to witness the big parade, hoping to see the famous lions. We were not disappointed.
Paul had a bout of food-poisoning, and was confined to the hotel room on the day before the Big Day. I went walkabout. Walking along Independence Road, I hear a song being played from Tannoys, sounding like Manca Manca Manca. Its tune strongly resembles the French song Alouette. I happen upon a Russian-made MiG bomber on a pedestal and, snapping away, draw a crowd of locals.
Independence from Britain, on 24 June 1960 (or 26th according to the above pedestal) (the guy with the hairstyle says it was the 24th) was then supplanted by the 18 May 1991 independence from Somalia.
Paul and I were dubious about the Mig having been shot down whilst bombing Hargeisa. It turns out that, having bombed civilians in 1991, later engine failure at takeoff left it stranded at Hargeisa airport, hence its good condition to this day.
I asked my crowd of locals about the song. A couple of them gave me the lyrics:
Manta manta manta
Wa ma'alin wee'le manta
Manta manta manta
Today today today
Today is a big day
Today today today.
This was a big hit for a lady called Halimo Khalif Mogol in 1960. On this Big Day in 2015, we sometimes attracted crowds of curious locals, snapping photos of us in our green-white-red, who were very pleased to hear us sing the song.
The temperatures were very high, and I was wearing shorts. The sight of legs attracted some dubious looks, but only when a tall austere guy in a muslim hat pushed through the crowd and accused me of a lack of respect did I change my wayward ways and skedaddle to the hotel room to re-attach the bottom half. When in Rome.....
Watching the procession on the Big Day, a policeman calls us forward. "Come with me", he says. We follow obediently. He makes his way to the steps of a bank where a bunch of top brass are receiving salutes from the passing military. Next thing we know, we are among the local dignitaries, being saluted at. Such fun!
Did we see the lions? Yes we did!
Sadly, we failed to make contact with a former workmate, Mustafa, who was back home in Somaliland at the same time as us. It would have been great to have had an entrée into local society.
A word about the hat: one evening my adventurous hat with its lovely hatband was whipped off my head by a bunch of youths who yahoo'ed away into the darkness. I yelled, "Oh, no!", but declined to go rugby tackling 'em. Paul and I were immediately surrounded by apologetic adults, ashamed of the offence. One of them offered me the above trilby, which I gratefully accepted. And I got my hat back. Kids, eh?!
The Red TerrorIt so happens that Ethiopia is Christian, with a history going back to the 4th century. It is the only African country to have escaped European colonialism. From 1930 its emperor was the famous Haile Selassie. Before becoming emperor his name was Tafari Makonnen, later "Ras" (head) Tafari. For reasons beyond me, a religious movement in Jamaica adopted him as a figure of respect (or higher), and called themselves the Rastafarians.
Walking around Addis Ababa we would sometimes see a bewildered guy in dreadlocks muttering to himself or singing in a demented way. Go figure.
In 1973 I recall seeing a Sunday Times magazine item entitled "Ethiopia: the Lion Grows Old". The following year Haile Selassie was deposed in a military coup. For the next fifteen years a monster called Mengistu, with Soviet support, set about murdering hundreds of thousands of his opponents with special emphasis on the young. Today, a superb museum in Addis commemorates these dark days. The staff lived through those times. Mengistu lives on, given sanctuary by the lovely Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.
I try to avoid political comment on my travels, but let the following photos give their own comment:
A street huckster had latched onto us as we walked around the streets looking for a bus station and also the Red Terror Museum. At a certain point, he was pounced upon by a young man who gave him a right pummelling, ending in a pebble the size of a conker being thrown at his head with an audible "thwock". It was only that evening that we discovered the identity of the attacker: he was a huckster from outside our hotel, some miles away from where the assault took place, by the name of Dawyd. Seconds before beating up the other fellow Dawydd had said to me, "OMG! Fancy meeting you here!", but he had clearly been tracking us every step of the way and considered us his turkeys ready for plucking.
This is not nice. With the benefit of hindsight, we should have made greater efforts to get out into the countryside; out of the big bad cities with their hard people.
Border Control ProblemsWithout wishing to dwell unduly on the problems Paul and I encountered, our unwitting errors caused us great anxiety. Firstly, upon crossing from Ethiopia to Somaliland at the land border, we appear to have strolled right past the Ethiopian exit point without noticing it.
Our second unwitting error was to lack understanding of the visa system. It seems that, unlike on trips to France, there are single-entry and multiple-entry visas. Upon flying back to Addis Ababa after Somaliland, and without the requisite exit stamp, we were attempting an illegal entry after an illegal exit (their words).
They confiscated our passports and, in daily sessions at the Department of Immigration, we were subjected to severe questioning, with a silent fellow examining our body language. At one stage, questioned separately from Paul, my inquisitor put it to me that I had failed to spot the Border Control because I "didn't want to see it". (In fact, in their crappy country it's hard to tell the difference between a Border Control and a shithouse.) He went on to tell me that I would have to go on trial, and asked "do you have a lawyer?" I replied "I want the British Consul", which seemed to quieten him down. A later precautionary visit to the British Consulate yielded a phone call which may have helped.
During our daily visits to the Ministry we stayed in a nearby hotel. One evening a stranger sits near Paul and engages him in conversation. Paul is pretty sure that he was working for the Ministry, sent in to observe us up close. He told Paul a story about some Dutch tourists who had strayed into a conflict area and got imprisoned for five years. Gulp.
In the end, they let us off, although Paul had great anxiety at the airport. The passports were missing, and arrived only minutes before his flight closed.
I draw the following conclusion: Ethiopia has no concept of easing international travel; its officialdom, used to lording it over a cowed populace, feels entitled to lord it over visitors. It is a country best avoided by the tourist and probably by the business visitor as well. I for one will not be going back, and consider that I have had a lucky escape.
Last Minute Trouble
The Cradle of Humanity
In the minibus from the border to Hargeisa, a big guy sat next to me worked his way through a bunch of chat. He would pluck out the tenderest shoots, flick them with his middle finger and gleefully stuff them in his mouth. He seemed most amused at my disapproval, waving the stuff in front of me.