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June 7, 2011 / calebdresser

Landing in Africa

I stepped onto the soil of Africa wearing a hat meant for a woman and a belt stuffed with three weeks wages in cash. The approach had been bumpy, the jet bouncing in rough air as we crossed the wide beach along the Gulf of Aden and descended onto the old military airstrip in Berbera. Halfway through our rollout, the tilted hulk of a Russian turboprop flashed past, abandoned to the mercy of sunshine and blown sand. We taxied up to a bare patch of ground near some scrubby trees, parked next to the aircraft that was going on to Boosaaso and Gaalkacyo, and disembarked into a whistling furnace. Hot wind tugged at my clothes, and the cheap straw hat from which I had only recently removed a pink ribbon did its best to blow off onto the runway. I stuffed myself into a little bus bound for immigration, got off next to a pair of men in civilian clothing lounging in the shade of the terminal with their assault rifles, and set out to look for a man named Faisal.

Things had not gone entirely as planned. It turns out Jubba’s flight from Berbera to Hargeisa doesn’t actually exist. Instead, they put people on a bumpy, three hour bus ride through the desert. Edna caught their mistake, though – she is one sharp lady – and sent me a hasty email the night before I flew explaining that I was to meet a man named Faisal at the airport, and that he would bring me to the hospital. It was with some relief, then, that I said “Faisal?” to the tall, elegant man who asked me if I was going to Edna’s hospital. He gave me a confused look, and then introduced himself as the airport manager and took me aside into a long, air-conditioned room lined with couches that still had plastic covers on them.

“Today, you are VIP! Give your passport to the man and he will bring you visa.” The man, it transpired, was legit – the Somalilanders lucky enough to make it to the room of the plastic couches were all giving him their passports, so I joined in the fun and passed him my passport, temporary visa, and a fat wad of dollars bound up in a blue rubber band. Shortly thereafter, I found Faisal, and we commenced a smiling trilingual conversation in English, Somali, and Arabic – him knowing Somali and Arabic with a few words in English, and I knowing English and a hint of Arabic. We got on swimmingly.

A few minutes later, the man returned and told me with a broad smile that I was a rich man. Into my hand he pressed a four inch thick pile of blue Somaliland shilling notes with a building on the front and goats on the back, and for the first time I truly understood the utility of cargo pockets. Great place for storing a sandwich-sized pile of banknotes. Faisal smiled, I tucked away my passport, and we headed out the back of the building to the jeep. Inside I found a man in a tan uniform playing wailing music on his cell phone while cradling a battered stockless Kalashnikov. Welcome to Somaliland.

The drive was mostly uneventful. I said good morning to my bodyguard in Arabic, one of the few phrases I know, and was rewarded with a smile and a response I actually understood. We drove out of the airport in heat so intense that I didn’t feel cool even when I stuck my head out the open window. We bounced past dry brown trees that poked their way up between dry brown stones, while dry brown hills loomed on the horizon. We passed a checkpoint, where a man in chocolate chip desert camouflage let down the wire so we could pass and then returned to his place beneath a piece of cloth that provided the only decent patch of shade for miles. We passed tiny, round shelters thrown up by IDPs and slightly more substantial structures of concrete blocks. We passed camels and goats and donkeys, which grazed by the road or stared dumbly out at the heat rising over dry, sandy riverbeds.

An hour into the drive, we stopped to buy charcoal and the guard ran to the bathroom, leaving us the AK. The driver took this moment to wander off to refill his water bottle at a nearby house, leaving me with a gun and a car in the middle of nowhere. I had a good laugh and took a picture. Another hour of driving got us up through the desert hills to Hargeisa, where the air was cooler and the land a bit greener. I reached the hospital just in time to introduce myself to Edna and head upstairs for luncheon.




Leave a Comment
  1. Winslow / Jun 8 2011 3:24 pm

    Sounds like you’re off to a good start. Great photo too! Nice to hear you’ve already met some friendly folks.

  2. Julia Moore / Jun 8 2011 4:18 pm

    Caleb: What a wonderful, gritty adventure. Also glad to see you’re working on your tan! Much love, Aunt Julia and the boyz moving out of 80 William

  3. Margaret McCandless / Jun 9 2011 12:24 am

    Will we see a photo of the hat that no longer has a pink ribbon?
    Your road-side photo is amazing, even the road reflection in your glasses.

  4. Leeann Louis / Jun 10 2011 4:36 am

    Really liked your description of your trip over – sounds like an intense and informative experience. It also sounds like Hargeisa will give you a whole new understanding of what “tropical heat” really means! I look forward to hearing about Edna and what the hospital is like.

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