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Celebrating Independence Day in Somaliland

Somaliland is a fascinating place, still struggling to gain international recognition despite having self-declared independence in 1991. It has its own government, military and a separate currency. It holds elections and even has a national passport. With 70% of the population under 30, most locals do not even remember being a part of Somalia. Thus far it has been a democratic success despite concerns, and has built up an (admittedly fragile) economy in complete isolation. I couldn’t begin to imagine the absurdity of celebrating independence in a country that is not officially recognised, and so I set off on an incredible adventure to the Horn of Africa.

I arrived in Hargeisa, Somaliland’s largest city and was immediately taken with the unique landscape, featuring the Nassa Hablood hills, and the buzz of the city. We ate in a Syrian restaurant, mixing with the locals, as well as the Syrian owners who are sheltering in the de-facto country. Unlike its neighbours, Somaliland is safe enough for visitors to walk around at night and the locals in great spirits, providing an excellent atmosphere.

The next day, we explored the tragic history of the country, encapsulated in the Hargeisa War Cemetery, including casualties from both World Wars. It was fascinating to hear about the country’s history from learned locals, before heading off on a walking tour to take in the sights, including the downed Somali Air Force MiG jet fighters which now serves as a memorial to those killed in the civil war. The bustling market was a great place to pick up some unusual souvenirs from such an interesting country before heading out for an epic night out on the town.

May 18th was Independence Day, and celebrating it in an unrecognised country was just as surreal as I had thought. The streets were awash with activity, a crazy, joyous atmosphere that you can’t help but get caught up in. Civilians, soldiers, bands, dancers, gymnasts and a fair amount of animals marched down Independence Avenue in a sea of red, white and green, the country’s flag colours. It was incredible to be a part of it, to see their traditional dance and costumes, and to hear their Independence Day songs. The buzz was beyond belief, as they represented their proud culture and society. However, the heavily-armed soldiers served as a jarring reminder of the country’s fragility and continuing struggle.

We next set off for the city of Berbera. Berbera’s combination of architectural styles, including Persian, British and Ottoman, is incredible. The port was a hive of activity, and sailing out to see the shipwrecks in the Gulf of Aden was both fascinating and tragic. With so much coastline, it’s only natural that Somaliland has some beautiful beaches with crystal clear water, and we took full advantage of that. Watching the sun go down over the water whilst chowing down on fresh seafood was the perfect end to the day.

Seeing the cave paintings at Laas Geel, dating back 10,000 years, was an incredible experience. To see something so old yet so vivid and perfectly preserved was beyond description. Sipping tea and speaking with former child soldiers who have now become successful businessmen was a strange mix of sad, yet hopeful and inspiring. Meeting the children of the Abaarso School, and learning of how they can make their way to MIT and Harvard was such an amazing experience. The scenic mountain town of Sheikh was beautiful and unique. Watching national sports and smoking shisha with the locals was unforgettable. Somaliland is magnificent with such a wide variety of culture, and their Independence Day is a spectacle everyone should try to witness. There were so many events going on throughout the week that the atmosphere was beyond comparison. I’ll never forget my adventures in Somaliland. 

Check out the itinerary for our tour of Eritrea, Somaliland, and Socotra