Friday, March 9, 2012

Wajaale


There are few entries into capital cities – would-be capital cities – more depressing than the entry into Hargeisa. There are few more depressive ways of entering a capital city than the way we entered Hargeisa today.
It all started quite well, with the best scrambled eggs we have had so far (admittedly, combined with the worst coffee), with the tuktuk driver of the previous day waiting for us outside the hotel to take us to the bus station, and with a reasonable size bus almost ready to depart to Wajaale, the border town between Ethiopia and Somaliland, the self-proclaimed independent state that officially still forms part of Somalia, because nobody else recognizes its independence. We got the last seats in the bus – or that is what I thought, and then they managed to fit another 6 or 8 people in, too. Jam-packed, interestingly almost only with women – I suppose they make the better smugglers, why else would anybody go to Wajaale? – we finally left Jijiga half an hour later. Fill a bus with men, and nobody talks. Fill a bus with women, and you have constant chatter, all the way from Jijiga to Wajaale. Good fun, though, never mind that we were all squeezed on top of each other.
The country side became more and more desolate, the only thing left outside was sand, some yellow grass, low shrubs and the occasional acacia tree. And, of course, more of the round Somali huts, as far as I could see semi-permanently arranged in communities of 10-20 huts, surrounded by cactuses and thin aloe trees, the type that has very small branches and even smaller leaves – and thus provides no shadow, whatsoever. I think this is the most impressive realization, driving through this land. There is simply no shadow, yet, there is a lot of sun, and it is getting pretty hot here, already early in the morning. Hardship, and wretched poverty, despite the still large herds of cattle and goats roaming, despite the groups of camels, 100s of them, trying to find something to eat in between the sharp thorns of the low shrubs.

(1, 2) hamlet of round nomad huts, and one in close-up

(3) barren country side, with roaming herds of camels struggling to find anything to eat

(4) poverty comes to the road, too, and not the rubbish in the trees- there is rubbish everywhere (I know I have complained this before, in many other countries, but I don't think I have ever seen it so bad as here, in Eastern Ethiopia and in Somaliland)

Just before Wajaale we encountered a road block, a rope across the street, no more. No uniforms, nothing to indicate that this was official, yet everybody got out, and a guy in a Barcelona football shirt searched the bus. Passports were checked, and everybody got back in – except that we now no longer fitted, so even more people were standing next to the door, which didn’t close anymore. With open door we drove into Wajaale, disembarked from the bus, chased the porters away – lots of them ready, with wheel barrows, very efficient on the dirt road – and made our way to customs. I seldom had a smoother border passage. The shed on the Ethiopian side looked distinctly unpromising, yet inside there were computers, passport scanners, cameras and fingerprint machines, friendly customs officers who immediately distributed evaluation forms on how we thought they were doing, then switched on the AC to ensure the evaluation would turn out positive, in short, excellent. In Somaliland same story, except for the forms and the scanners, and five minutes later we were in the self-proclaimed independent state.
(5) the border - note the rope across the road; a colourless town, dusty, typical frontier town

(6) and the ibusses, scavengers who have a field day in the rubbish accumulated on both sides of the border, and in the no-mans land in between

(7) still, even in grey, dusty and rubbish infested Wajaale there are colourful moments to be recorded

Next, we needed to find transport to Hargeisa, some 90 km further on. No busses, here, no minivans either. Shared taxis, in the form of 20 year old Toyota station-wagons, that is the only thing available. Two people in the passenger seat, four in the back seats, and at least two, plus any children, all the way to the back, in the luggage compartment – luggage itself goes on the top, needless to say. I don’t think we ever had a more uncomfortable way of transport than this one, and that for 2.5 hours. First, with the car finally full – despite the fact that we were obviously the last passengers, this still took about an hour more -, stop at the fuel station, and fill up, thanks to my contribution to the journey. Then, stop to put some air in the tires, clearly some routine necessary before every trip. After all of this, 500 meters on, first road block, another rope.

(8) a shared taxi, half full - this is a truly uncomfortable way of transport, believe me!

The windows of our Toyota were opened and closed using a wrench; a screw driver in the ignition contact was used to start the engine – and switch off again -, a process that was frequently repeated because of the five more road blocks we encountered on the way to Hargeisa. At each of those we needed to show our passports again, and the later it got, the more time-consuming this process became: each time police officers, increasingly stoned from chewing chat, had more difficulty finding our visa in our passports, and once I even had to explain why we hadn’t received an exit stamp yet (really).
The first half hour we drove through the fields: the road was obviously too bad to use, and next to the road a network of tracks had developed, smoother than the road itself – although smooth is relative the way we were packed into the taxi. Then we hit the tarmac, and things got slightly better. Our driver was good in avoiding the pot holes if he was not on the mobile phone; he was on the mobile phone a lot.
(9, 10) a network of tracks has developed beside the road; the tracks are not only used by cars, of course...

Outside, the country side hadn’t changed. Still bone dry, still livestock and small round huts – I don’t think we saw any normal building, defined as four mud walls and a corrugated iron roof, for at least two hours, outside the occasional small village. Flat landscape, save the occasional hill, without any vegetation. And then the rubbish along the road! In fact this was something that had been appearing in increasingly worrying amounts since Harar; plastic bags, bottles, scraps of paper, everywhere on the ground, and thanks to the wind also in all the scrubs and every tree, however rare.

The only things changing with the approach of Hargeisa was even more rubbish, and appearance of the occasional wall in the fields, without any obvious reason. In the distance were some houses, mostly of the mud and corrugated iron type, still in the middle of nowhere, desert surroundings, really, and that turned out to be Hargeisa. Before we realized it, we were in the town centre, if that is the appropriate terminology for a couple of two story buildings. And even more dust than in Jijiga. A town cannot possibly give you a more depressive impression than this. And all that seen from in between the squeezed bodies of our fellow passengers in a Toyota shared taxi.
(11) the outskirts of Hargeisa (any other picture would be too depressive to close this entry with)

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