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Hargeisa - A view from our expert author
Camel market in Hargeisa © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library
Possibly the world’s most low-key capital, this charming city is all the more characterful for its lack of low-rise buildings.
Somaliland’s largest town – one hesitates to use the word city – has a dusty low-rise feel more in line with a remote provincial administrative centre than a national capital. There’s just one embassy in Hargeisa, no 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 billboards, no overhead passes or traffic lights, no five-star hotels, no grandiose office blocks, no secular bookshops or flash tour operators, nor any cinemas or theatres or museums. 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, this is a very pragmatic, take-me-as-I-am kind of city, one whose down-to-earth character and lack of architectural pomposity are 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 side roads, resting up wherever they find a sliver of shade, donkey carts jostle for road space with taxis and minibuses, and most people 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 (it has an estimated population of 350,000) and 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, comes across like one vast sprawling market, with all the energy and informality that implies. And while suburban Hargeisa is distinctly 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 Mansoor Hotel in the northwest, or one of the city’s many handsome mosques.