Archive for March, 2012

The Horn is like no other place in Africa, at least that is what I thought prior to my six months research trip to Ethiopia, with a brief visit to Somaliland. The truth is that no two places are the same in Africa. Yet, I discovered that whether I am in the Horn, Southern or Central Africa there is a common thread connecting the people of Africa, that of unbridled warmth and kindness, otherwise known as Ubuntu.
I set out for Ethiopia in August 2011, fortunately it was not my first visit to the country; however, the nature of the current visit was vastly different from the previous one. Not speaking Amharic the official language, nor sufficiently familiar with the society, I was apprehensive. The obvious fact that I am an African from Africa did not in the least ease my apprehension; in fact it made it worse! It is common knowledge that the ‘typical image’ of a researcher in Africa is not that of an African female from Africa.
Starting off in the comfort of the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, the research process was set in motion. Addis is a typical capital, in addition to being Africa’s diplomatic capital; it is cosmopolitan, fast-paced and connected to the rest of the world. I had to start in Addis; it is where the main archives are kept, it is also the location of the oldest and leading institution of higher learning, Addis Ababa University. After nearly two months in the capital, locating the archives, speaking to people at the university and registering as a researcher, it was time to head for the main research site.
The research site is the eastern Ethiopia borderlands or periphery, some 500+kms from the capital, the area stretching from Harar to Togochale on the border with Somaliland. The greater part of this area is in the Somali regional state of Ethiopia as arranged under the current federal system. Here, my interest is to discover the processes at play in the development of citizenship by investigating specific interactions between the periphery/lowlands and the central/highland state over a period of time. This is all in an effort to answer the main question of why the states in the Horn are more prone to fight over their borders than other African states.
I began in Harar, an ancient former Muslim city-state dating back at least one thousand years. In Harar I was received with curiosity and a degree of scepticism. Some said that I am investigating a ‘sensitive’ subject. They thought that my focus is on the actual status of the contested Ogaden region of Ethiopia. This region has been the source of great animosity between the Ethiopian and Somali states since the latter gained independence in 1960. Nevertheless, it is in Harar that I met Mohammed Jami Guleid, the man who would become my assistant. Mohammed is a capable man of many talents with a vast knowledge of the region; he also embodies the nature of Somali identity in the Horn: born in Ethiopia to northern Somali parents, and with family in both Djibouti and Kenya.

I then moved on to Jijiga, the capital of the Somali regional state where I had to get permission to go to the border town. The plan was to conduct interviews with immigration and customs officials at the border, and to make observations on the usage of the border. I was not expecting such a high degree of cooperation at the border town of Togochale (Tog Waajale in the Somali language). The officials were highly cooperative. In fact one of the interviews took place after lunch one day. This is significant because in this part of Ethiopia and in Somaliland the period after lunch is when men and some women (the latter more discreetly) chew the mild stimulant leaf called khat or qat. You will find the men wearing their sarongs and relaxing on pillows with the occasional shisha and chewing way into the afternoon, usually discussing current issues. I was lucky enough to join in many of these sessions (bercha). Work usually resumes after three in the afternoon.
The border town itself was a challenge, with little to no water for the most part. However, the people and the Somali food made up for it! Being on the border was an interesting experience; so much that I decided to cross over to Somaliland. The plan was to try to see and understand things from the perspective of those on the other side of the border. After getting back to Addis and preparing for the trip, Mohammed and I set off for Hargeisa, the Somaliland capital. Crammed in a small car on a nearly three hours’ drive from Togochale to Hargeisa was a somewhat surreal experience. Upon discovering that I am not Somali, my co-passengers were fascinated, some invited me to their homes in Hargeisa for a meal. It also amused them that at the five checkpoints between Togochale and Hargeisa we were waved through without any hassle as it is customary to request identification from foreigners on this route.
Going to Somaliland is a risk in every sense of the word, but one well worth it. Most western countries have a travel warning for all the Somali regions; there is no insurance coverage and you must bring all your money in cash ($US). After being stamped out of Ethiopia I felt decidedly vulnerable. There was no need to feel this way as the Somalilanders go out of their way to make visitors feel safe. In Hargeisa I visited a peace and conflict research unit based at Hargeisa University, a local research NGO, and had the pleasure of meeting a few high ranking state officials. From the cheerful immigration officers at the border, to meeting the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the family members of my assistant, the people of Somaliland rewarded me for going to their country.
Overall, I had what I believe to be a truly exceptional experience, where there was a mutual feeling of being one and the same with the people while still retaining my researcher’s hat. Going back I will be more confident, knowing that my identity is my greatest asset. I look forward to what promises to be a long-term personal and professional relationship with this region of Africa.

Namhla Thando Matshanda, CAS PhD student

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