Somalia has long represented the quintessential ‘failed state’. But it’s not the only country in the neighbourhood. Since 1991, when the end of Siad Barre’s dictatorship plunged the nation into anarchy, the northern region known as Somaliland has held four peaceful rounds of elections, established a central bank, printed its own currency, and built an elaborate security apparatus that keeps terror groups like Al-Shabab at bay. Though Somaliland also borders the tempestuous Gulf of Aden, virtually no pirates haunt its coast. During the 2011 drought that thrust the Horn of Africa back into the news, Somaliland dodged famine, spending around $10 million of its own resources to cope with the food crisis.
My first encounter with Somaliland’s shadow bureaucracy was in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian city that doubles as a regional diplomatic capital. In an ordinary looking home on a leafy side street, three female civil servants were delighted to hear that I was visiting their ‘country’, hand-writing my visa with elegant, antique script and passing my head-and-shoulders photograph back and forth with great interest.
That was the easy part. The flight into the capital, Hargeisa, remains one of the more harrowing experiences of my life. After Kenya and Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2011 — in retaliation for the wave of cross-border attacks and kidnappings prosecuted by Al-Shabab militants — both Kenya Airways and Ethiopian Airlines stopped service to the whole Horn. Undeterred, I learned my best option was an upstart carrier called Jubba Airways, which promised to get me there from the airstrip at Djibouti, the formerly French-colonised Somali nation at the fulcrum of the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.
The flight itself was via a tanklike propeller plane full of women bearing children and bunches of khat, the psychotropic plant chewed across east Africa. My seat belt was broken. The airline didn’t bother with safety demonstrations or a crew’s welcome. The pilot crackled a firm “Allahu Akbar” as we sped down the runway. And that was it. I pulled on a headscarf and thought happy thoughts.
In Hargeisa, it was clear the central Somali government in Mogadishu is as irrelevant as international safety standards. Green, white, and red Somaliland flags flew over the parliament building and the 23 ministries dedicated to everything from developing mines to taxing the lucrative Red Sea port at Berbera. I paid my way with a mix of American dollars and the Somaliland shillings I was required to buy upon arrival.
I spent five days in Hargeisa, reporting the story of the daring breakaway state. As a young woman raised in the US, I tired of the heavy polyester coverings after about five minutes. Day after day, I would struggle under my jilbaab, taking meetings with government and civil society figures in the oppressive heat. On my final full afternoon, I decided to drop the political (and literal) coverage, throw on some jeans and head out of town for a personal adventure. When I asked locals what to visit, there was only one answer.
About 50 miles outside of Hargeisa sits Laas Geel, an outdoor cathedral of Neolithic cave paintings estimated by the Somaliland Department of Antiquities to be more than 7,000 years old. Amber and white, with impeccably preserved images of hunters, worshippers, cattle, dogs and a lone giraffe, the small site rivals Lascaux and Altamira in its simplicity and clarity.
As nations with single touristic sites go, Somaliland might provide the best pay-off in the world. Pulling up in my 4WD, I was the only person for dozens of miles around. The armed guard I was required to bring leapt out of the car, curious to see the magic. A short hike up a rocky ridge and the walls and ceiling burst with images of life before time.
The landscape outside Hargeisa is dusty and barren — like Mars, it’s halfway between reality and fantasy. So it was astonishing to see images of grazing cattle painted on the stones above me. I found myself imagining the craggy current landscape and the dry riverbed as a green meadow irrigated by the Red Sea. Once upon a time, I thought, a shepherd took shelter here.
The broader Somalia conflict has been so disruptive that Laas Geel, which means ‘camel’s waterhole’, was only made known to outsiders — French archeologists — back in 2003. I marvelled at the generations of locals who knew that this clump of rocks held a secret: visual insights into a shared past.
I am not a connoisseur of caves, and so have no prehistoric artworks to situate alongside Laas Geel. But the story tracks the main theme of the book I wrote: when you peer around corners and look beyond the headlines in Africa, you find resilience, creativity and innovation. It has been so since grass grew and water coursed through Somaliland.
Dayo Olopade is a Nigerian-American journalist covering global politics, technology and development policy. The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa by Dayo Olopade. RRP: £12.99 (Gerald Duckworth & Co). dayoolopade.com
Published in the Jul/Aug 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)