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This is a very pragmatic, take-me-as-I-am kind of city.
Hargeisa is known for its lively camel market © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library
Somaliland’s largest town has a dusty low-rise feel more in line with a provincial administrative centre than a national capital. There’s just one embassy in Hargeisa, few familiar airlines are represented, and other well-known international brands – be it McDonald’s, Barclays or Hilton – are conspicuous by their collective absence. There are no trendy nightspots or sushi bars in Somaliland’s capital, no neon lights or overhead passes, no five-star hotels or flash tour operators, nor any cinemas or theatres. Suffice to say that if cosmopolitan airs and transatlantic comforts feature highly on your list of travel priorities, humble little Hargeisa is bound to disappoint.
Therein lies much of Hargeisa’s low-key charm. Rebuilt and resurrected from the ashes of recent war, Hargeisa is a city whose down-to-earth character and lack of architectural pomposity is epitomised by the use of a crashed MiG fighter jet as the centrepiece of its most important Civil War Memorial. Similarly, government offices in Hargeisa tend to be plainly decorated and informally signposted, and in most cases they effectively close shop at noon, after which the obligatory midday siesta morphs into an afternoon khat-chewing session. Indeed, the ubiquitous obsession with chewing this mildly narcotic leaf – every street corner seemingly has its own khat stall – gives Hargeisa a mild and rather likeable aura of decadence, one at odds with the stuffy images that many outsiders associate with Islamic Africa.
Overwhelmingly friendly and practically free of crime, Hargeisa in many respects feels more like an extension of the surrounding countryside than a proper urban conglomeration. Goats and sheep wander through the suburbs, resting up wherever they find a sliver of shade, donkey carts jostle for road space with taxis and minibuses, and most men and practically all women dress traditionally in colourful flowing cloths. As is so often the case in small-town Africa, locals regularly stop you to ask your nationality and make small talk. Seldom, however, do such approaches appear to be motivated by anything other than plain curiosity – and, perhaps, the pleasurable implicit affirmation of nationhood associated with the presence of foreigners (who are often, and favourably, assumed to be journalists rather than tourists).
As national capitals go, Hargeisa is on the small side (though the estimated population has doubled from 560,000 in 2005 to more than 1.1 million today) and is unusually manageable. Most activity takes place within a block or two of Independence Avenue, the strip of asphalt that snakes for several kilometres from the western outskirts of town to the east. The town centre, a tight grid of narrow roads studded with mosques and centred upon the venerable Oriental Hotel, is one vast sprawling market, with all the energy that implies. And while suburban Hargeisa is lacking in must-see attractions, it is always rewarding to explore the back roads on foot, drifting towards the fabulous camel market south of town, the green compound of the Maan-soor Hotel in the burgeoning suburb of Jijiga Yar, or one of the city’s many handsome mosques.