Of Things That Make Me Growl

HARGEISA (Somalilandpress) – It was with great interest that I read an article published on March 14, 2010 entitled ‘Dream job turns into a nightmare’ on The Star, one of Malaysia’s leading English language newspapers, regarding telecommunications consultant Hor Chee Fei’s experience in Somaliland.

Somaliland is of personal interest to my husband and I as we lived and worked in Hargeisa last year as volunteer teachers, and intend to return to the country this August for another year.

After spending six months in the country and experiencing our own host of Somaliland adventures, I feel compelled to write in and express my disagreement with the tone used in this write-up. I will not deny that Somaliland is far from perfect and can definitely understand Hor’s situation. I can probably even relate to it a little having been threatened with deportation myself by a former employer in Hargeisa (one of many ‘adventures’), but the country (and its people) does not deserve the unflattering language used in Hor’s one-sided account published in The Star.

Somaliland was referred to as a lawless country not once, but twice in the article and it left me wondering what one defines as a ‘lawless’ country. Anyone who has been to Somaliland can attest to how far the country has come since being virtually leveled to the ground during the civil war almost twenty years ago. There is now a government, a more or less stable currency, a bustling and functioning main city and while there is plenty to be done in terms of public infrastructure and establishing a sustainable economy, people are happy (as happy as can be given their situation), proud and more importantly, peaceful. And let us remember that all of this was accomplished without formal international recognition. This is so much more than can be said about many countries in other parts of the world.

I will not presume to know how it was for Hor and his team members in Somaliland, I know nothing of the events that led up to their sudden departure from Hargeisa. The article talks about how Hor visited the country prior to his engagement and I can only assume that he and his team entered on appropriate work visas and had gone through all the normal government channels, of which there are many and admittedly, can be confusing at times. The government takes the security of the international population very seriously as all foreign workers are registered with the local police department and are required to be briefed upon arrival on security and safety measures in the country. Foreigners are technically not allowed to move about without armed personnel, especially in the later hours of the day and when traveling outside Hargeisa. While these regulations may sound a little frightening and alarming to newcomers and outsiders, they in no way suggest that Somaliland is unsafe or that foreigners are constantly in danger or harm’s way. If anything, it means that the Somaliland government prefers not to take any unnecessary risks when it comes to safeguarding the security of its guests and the overall peace that they have worked so hard to achieve since its formation in 1991. If this doesn’t speak of some working laws, I don’t know what does.

It is not apparent how much research was done by the writer before writing this article. From the international community’s point of view, the writer is not technically wrong in calling Somaliland part of Somalia, neither is he/she wrong when he/she writes that Somalia is currently one of the most dangerous places in the world; and yes, Somalia has been quoted as the most lawless place on Earth. However, I feel that it would be a grave wrongdoing to equate Somaliland with the rest of Somalia when the two countries’ political and social environments could not be more different. To put it briefly, most of southern Somalia is controlled by the Al-Shabab, an Islamist group bent on implementing its own interpretation of Islamic sharia, and the group continues to wage war against the internationally-backed, but weak government led by Sharif Ahmed.

Somaliland, in comparison, has succeeded in remaining independent and on the sidelines of this conflict and is governed by a democratically elected government, headed by President Dahir Riyale Kahin and Vice President Ahmed Yusuf Yasin. What this means on a more basic, day-to-day level is that while civilians are dying in Somalia whether from military offensives between Al-Shabab and government forces or from lack of basic necessities like food and water due to the war, Somaliland has peace and order on its streets, no one is dying a violent death, Hargeisa’s residents are not exactly starving and the country is moving forward despite the absence of international recognition.

To not acknowledge this difference, in my opinion, appears to be an oversight by the writer of this article. Even if one is only writing about Hor Chee Fei’s experience and not a narrative on Somaliland politics and history, journalist Shaun Ho has a responsibility to depict things accurately and objectively. Many are unaware of the existence of Somaliland and that it is not involved in the brutal war raging in Somalia. To write it off such as in the article, would be to disregard and disrespect the hard work of Somalilanders everywhere.

As for Hor’s situation, I can only share what I’ve learnt from my own experiences in Hargeisa. My husband and I left for Somaliland last year to join a university as faculty of engineering. Upon arrival, we found the university to be non-operational, and its founder and president had hired no administrative staff and was single-handedly running the whole show. He had yet to recruit students for our classes despite promises that it was already in the making. There were other issues as well, namely a lack of properly laid out job descriptions, and the realisation that our director had not really thought the whole thing through and wanted us to build and implement degree programmes from scratch when none of us were qualified to confer degrees (at least, not accredited ones)!

After two weeks of consideration and deliberation with three other volunteer teachers in the same predicament (two of whom had arrived two months prior to our arrival, and were still waiting on classes that were supposed to have begun weeks before), as well as attempts to voice our concerns with our employer in hopes that we would be able to work things out, we decided to submit our resignations and find work elsewhere in Somaliland. We had all come to Somaliland to teach and experience Somali culture, and we were determined to do just that. None of us had actually signed an employment contract with our director, so we felt that it was within our rights to merely inform him of our decision, and leave. He was understandably quite disappointed with our decision, but we parted on good, if not amicable terms.

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We had found employment with another local college on the other side of Hargeisa and was just settling into our teaching schedules when our new employers informed us that our former employer had submitted a formal complaint to the Ministry of Education, accusing them of underhandedly stealing away his teachers. He claimed that our departure had incurred unexpected costs and that our new school be held responsible for this. He also requested that we be deported from the country immediately. We were shocked (and somewhat fascinated by the absurdity of his accusations) and worried that we had bitten off more than we could chew as we were told by our college and the Ministry of Education that we had failed to go through the proper procedures of leaving one employer for another within Somaliland. Procedures that involved firstly, approaching the ministry with any grievances towards an employer in order for them to mediate the situation between the employee and employer and avoid ill feelings. Secondly, if disputes cannot be resolved by ministry officials, they will then bear witness to the resignation process. And lastly, the new employer must meet with the old employer as an act of courtesy and goodwill.

We were made to sit through what seemed like countless meetings with ministry officials and our new college president and his administrative staff. Our former director refused to back down on his demands and the ministry tried everything in its power to placate him without giving in to him. At the same time, they made it clear that our rights were not to be abused and since no contract was signed, it was our prerogative to seek new employment. While we were confused with the course of action taken by all parties involved (it seemed rather unorthodox to us that the ministry tried so hard to appease our old director, and our new president actually had to meet with him and apologise for not approaching him earlier), we were impressed with the effort made by the authorities to make us feel safe, secure and welcome to stay and contribute our expertise to the country. Despite our former employer’s accusations and demands, not once did we feel threatened or at risk of being harmed by anybody.

I understand that our situation differs from Hor Chee Fei’s. I can imagine how frightful it can be being in a situation where your employer threatens to make life difficult for you. Not to mention how his men followed Hor right up to the runway leaving Berbera (although, we’ve stopped a plane on the Hargeisa runway ourselves. We bought last minute tickets as the plane was pulling out and we ran down the runway chasing after the aircraft. I am happy to report that we succeeded in boarding it). Things are especially frightening when one is not accustomed to the local culture and cannot predict how people would respond to you and the things you do.

We’ve found ourselves in rather stressful situations ourselves, not knowing what to do or whom to turn to. Our accommodation was once broken into while we were away, allegedly by people that we knew. We felt a little uneasy for days afterwards, but let it slide as none of our things were missing. I was regularly approached by well-meaning men who felt it appropriate to comment on my un-Islamic dressing (ie pants instead of skirts) despite the fact that I was extremely covered and modestly clothed especially by Malaysian standards. My husband was constantly yelled at on streets, mostly unsolicited greetings, sometimes obscenities (which usually meant it was the only English they knew), and it took him a while to realise that raised voices did not necessarily precede aggressive behaviour. Children threw rocks at us from across the street. But then we noticed that parents threw rocks at children (to get their attention), so then rock throwing became commonplace.

The armed guard who sleeps in front of our house once fired his AK-47 and we almost got heart attacks wondering what could possibly have happened (it turns out that some teenagers were bothering him). And once, a man followed us all the way down the street inquiring where our armed guard was and thinking back he could easily have been mistaken as a potential harm doer. It took time and patience, but as we became more familiar with Somaliland, occurrences that were once frightening became less frightening and eventually we became used to the unexpected and learnt to roll with the punches a little more easily.

All our time there has taught us this: that the people of Somaliland really do value peace above all else. They have seen too much war and frankly speaking, they are sick and tired of it and want no more fighting. So we knew that no matter how unnerving some individuals were towards us, we had faith in the people. We had (and have) faith that whatever trouble we faced, we could trust the Somalilanders to choose the most peaceful solution to our problems.

by M. A. Abdullah
21 March 2010

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