Return to Somaliland – January 2023 by Kitty Hotchkiss

Kitty and Ian at Hiddo Dhawr
Kitty and Ian at Hiddo Dhawr

By Kitty Hotchkiss

In January 2023 I returned to Hargeysa, my place of birth, for the first time since I left in 1959. Despite the enormous political changes that have taken place during the last sixty years the countryside, town and people all felt very familiar.

On our first taxi ride round the town my husband Ian and I were able to see how much Hargeysa had changed with its contrasting high rise blocks alongside the traditional single storey buildings. It was lovely to see how much the town had grown and developed bustling with people in the shops, stalls and cafes. We much appreciated our driver’s skills negotiating the traffic, people and goats through the packed lanes and alleys! We also visited the Camel Market and saw the devastation caused by the Waheen Market fire. We heard from people there about the time and resources that will be needed to repair the damage. Driving through the town we saw the war memorial dedicated to the victims of the aerial bombardment of the city in 1988 which features a MIG fighter plane balanced high on a columned plinth.

Close by, there was a government building dating from the colonial era with its plaque to Queen Elizabeth II, which I do remember being situated in an open area surrounded by single storey administrative offices. Now, of course, that environment has been overtaken by urban development. Not many other structures from the colonial era remain intact. When my father, Tony Scawin, returned to Somaliland in 1995 he saw the remains of the DC’s bungalow where we used to live which had been bombed in 1988; the same must have happened to most of the buildings from that time.

The next day we visited the Cultural Centre, home of the Hargeysa International Bookfair. The centre is a fascinating place to spend some time and the walls are lined with colourful murals recognising the cultural links made with other African countries. Our guide described the centre’s ambitious project to transcribe and digitise thousands of cassettes to create a valuable historical archive.

We were also shown a wide range of old and modern Somali artefacts including beautiful handmade textiles and a model of old buildings in the ancient city of Bulloxaar. The display of metal tools was being used to revive old blacksmithing skills which have died out in the face of modern mass production. It is hoped to revive these skills and retain them for the future.

Dr Mussa Jama Mussa, the director of the Cultural Centre, has led efforts to build a comprehensive collection of books, maps and pictures to ensure the history of Somaliland, much of which was sadly destroyed during the Civil War of the early 1990s is archived and preserved for future generations I was able to donate my late father’s book collection which I hope can be used by researchers in the future.

The Hargeysa Museum is next to the Cultural centre and includes an impressive collection of historical photographs of the people, towns and countryside of Somaliland. The reconstructed Akal, with its handwoven screens, textiles, furniture and household wares was fascinating. It left us left us full of admiration for the women who would construct and dismantle their homes and load them onto camels to be moved on with the family to the next grazing area for the livestock.

We were privileged to visit the Edna Adan Maternity Hospital which I had heard so much about from my father who had visited it in its early stage of construction. It now has modern medical wards, a library and classrooms. It was wonderful to meet the inspirational Edna Adan Ismael who made this project a reality and changed the maternity experiences for Somali women beyond recognition.

We were also able to tour the University with the Dean of Midwifery, who had recently moved from the UK with her family. We saw the many different Schools including Dentistry, Public Health, Nursing, Pharmacy and Midwifery and were impressed by the studious atmosphere and the vibrant student body relaxing between exams. One ambition is to attract funding to support more less well-off students and further the valuable work of midwifery in the rural areas.

Our visit to Laas Geel was truly memorable. The artistic skills of the ancient inhabitants of the caves are evident in the images and the coloured pigments used. They tell us so much about the climate changes over the centuries; the predominance of pictures of cattle point to a much wetter countryside than the present day. The cows are depicted in a stylised form with a striped head covering and long curved horns. Giraffes, dogs, monkeys and humans were also clearly painted and preserved, protected from the elements for more than five thousand years.

Laas Geel cave painting

Our visit was considerably enriched by the information provided by the knowledgeable guide and guardian of the site. The summit of the rocks gives stunning views across the landscape of dry riverbeds and occasional rocky outcrops now inhabited by camel herders with their slow-moving, munching animals. Flowering plants grow along the paths which ascend the rock and probably survive protected from the animals outside the compound.

We continued our journey to Berbera which I recalled from holiday visits with my parents in the fifties. My mother was an artist and painted views of the area with its exotic vegetation which was such a contrast with the countryside around Hargeisa. I am reminded of the tranquil surroundings of the Sheikh Yusuf Mosque by her painting which still hangs on my living room wall. Another view from the garden of the rest house was reproduced as a Christmas card for the Protectorate.

Ian and guide at Laas Geel

The wide streets of Berbera town have a very different atmosphere from the capital. The long beaches were clearly enjoyed by many local people swimming and strolling along the shore and the recently constructed Berbera Port showed evidence of much commercial development.

On the journey back our car developed a mechanical fault and while we waited for a replacement vehicle we were invited to share a shady spot under an acacia tree with a nomadic family With the help of our driver and police escort’s translation skills we enjoyed half an hour’s pleasant conversation with the inhabitants.

One of the highlights of the trip was visiting Hiddo Dhwar to enjoy food and music with some friends. The venue was decorated with traditional Somali artefacts, furniture. textiles and woven mats collected by the owner who was also the principal musical performer. The variety of music produced by numerous musicians, including a skilful oud player, was very enjoyable and our host explained the close links with Somali poetry.

Our visit to the beautifully kept Commonwealth Graves site was very moving and contained graves from many different nationalities and religions, whose soldiers had lost their lives in Somaliland over many decades as well as a memorial to a Somali civilian, presumably representing many others caught up in conflict. The contribution of the Somaliland Scouts, King’s African Rifles, Somaliland Camel Corps and other regiments is recognised on a tall structure in the cemetery. The late Brigadier Malcolm Page was largely responsible for obtaining funds to restore the site which had fallen into disrepair.

Herding camels near Laas Geel

Lastly, we visited the Cheetah Sanctuary which cares for cubs which have been poached and fetch a premium price in the pet trade abroad. These magnificent animals have now been moved to a spacious conservancy away from the city which will provide them with more suitable accommodation in the future.

We both look forward to returning to Somaliland for a longer visit in the near future when we hope to see more of this wonderful country.

Kitty and Ian at Hiddo Dhawr

• Kitty Hotchkiss is current member of our Council

and past Treasurer of many years

SOURCE: Anglo-Somali Society

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