Sunday, December 05, 2021
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My first visit to Jigjiga: A reflection -part 1

By Mohamed Salah Ahmed

Enormous excitement and anticipation filled me when I received an email from the organizers of the 14th Somali Studies International Conference (SSIC) extending me with an invitation to present one of my papers at the conference. Much of the exhilaration and happiness were induced by the news of traveling to Jigjiga for the first time, which was hosting its first SSCI conference. Despite the eagerness for exploration, experiencing different food, and learning new things that always come with traveling to a new destination, the invitation also presented to me a lifetime opportunity as an upcoming academic to meet with Somali scholars both the established and emerging ones.   

Since then, I entertained a lot the idea that some of my idols in academia, especially in the field of Somali Studies, will participate in the conference giving us as young and emerging academics the opportunity to meet with them and exchange ideas about the current situation, and the future of Somali people, as well as that of Somali studies. These include pioneers like Ahmed Ismail Samatar, Abdi Samatar, Ali Jimcale, Abdi kusow, Lee Cassaneli, and many others, who are the prime institutors of the SSCI, with a nonpareil contribution to Somali studies. However, to my disappointment, most of these names did not feature in the panel discussion.

I wondered were they were not invited. Do they need to be invited anyway? After all, this is a conference that would not have existed were it not for their efforts, benevolence, and dedication to create a platform to convene Somali scholars and researchers. I soon realized that the unforgiving impact the coronavirus pandemic has on restricting people’s movement prevented these academic giants from gracing the conference, and that pacified my anger and rage.

Another reason why I was so thrilled about this trip was the euphoria and jubilation prompted by the imagination of seeing Jigjiga, and the Somali region for the first time. This region produced a rich heritage and was home to a great civilization in which powerful sultanates such as the Adal thrived and flourished. This same region produced and accommodated many Somali legends, scholars, and poets such as Wiil Waal, known as the wise leader, Imam Ahmed Gurey, Raage Ugaas, and Professor Said Sheikh Samatar. I idolize Prof. Samatar in particular due to his knowledge of Somali society and culture, and his mastery and command in writing, which you will only realize when reading his academic works, and commentaries.

Just a few years ago, all you could hear about those who have been to the Somali region was about how hard its to cross the border in Wajale. Many reported being harassed and abused with impunity by the Liyu Police. Despite all these rumors and buzzes, it seemed imaginary and whimsical to me that I was traveling to Jigjiga to participate and present at the conference. Moreover, I was curious to take this journey to quench my curiosity about the socio-economic and political nature of the Somali region.  

Drama at the airport

The first time I landed at Hargeisa airport was back in 2018. I was a graduate student coming back from Turkey and was traveling to Puntland. Before the trip, I talked to all my friends from Hargeisa to get enough information about the necessary procedures and instructions. They assured me that I will not face problems as long as I provide my student identity card proving that I am studying abroad. I did what they told me when I arrived at the passport check and the authorities allowed me to proceed without making any payment or facing any trouble.

This time around things was different. I was traveling from Mogadishu with a Somali passport and with no Student identification. I planned to get to Wajaale with friends where pick-up cars were set up by the Jigjiga University to pick the participants. As we landed safely on a warm afternoon and a calm breeze gently slapped our faces, we were asked to stop and queued under the plane stairs. Shortly after, we moved to the passport control area. The officer inquired about my purpose of travel and I told him that I was heading to Jigjiga for the conference. The officer demanded a certain amount of money. I obliged and asked him not to stamp my passport with an entry visa. He chuckled but accepted my request.

Once I was done with the passport check, I proceeded to the baggage claim area to collect my bags. Like any other airport in Somalia, there was no modern baggage claim area, just a big room with no carousels to deliver checked luggage. Three men, two with police uniforms, were alert at the area confirming whether we made our payments. Just as I was about to collect my bags, one of them ordered me to go to a small room nearby and meet another officer there.

There was a queue infront of the small room which I joined. When my turn came to go inside, I found the man sitting with no computer on his table. He asked where I came from as he grabbed my passport. “From Mogadishu,” I replied. His face instantly frowned when he heard my response. He asked me if I had any other identifications as he grabbed my computer bag. He opened it and started checking inside it. When he could not find any of the things he was looking for, he insisted that I must have other documents or identifications despite having explained to him about what I do for a living, the purpose of my trip, and most importantly my destination.

I was in a state of utter shock and disbelief when the officer ordered me to log in to my laptop. When I asked him what he wanted from my laptop, his answer was short and precise. “Do as I said,” he replied. I obliged. He looked at the screen and give it back to me. I wondered why he asked me to do that if he did not know how to use a laptop. Did he just want to see my reaction? After spending ten minutes in that room answering all kinds of questions, he asked me to leave. I heaved a sigh of relief, went straight to the baggage claim area, picked up my bags, and immediately exited the airport without looking around. 

Chatting with a young taxi driver

Outside the airport, I could still see on the people’s faces the excitement, and happiness left by the recently conducted local, and parliamentary elections. This increased my inquisitiveness to know people’s opinions. Not wasting any time, I asked the young taxi driver whether he voted or not as we chauffeured around to reach my destination. “Yes, I voted,” he answered jubilantly. I asked him if he could tell me who he voted for and the reason. He mentioned their names, their qualities including the good political speeches of anti tribalism, corruption, and their vision and promise to improve conditions during campaign rallies.

I wondered if that young man, a new high school graduate, represented the political ideology of those who voted like him and whether he represented the young generation. Our conversation deepened as we navigated through the streets of Hargeisa looking for a way out of the traffic jam during this time of the rush hour. Surprisingly, the young man, guessing that I came back from abroad, shared with me his plan of traveling to Northern Cyprus, and then to Europe. I found that a bit startling, so I asked him why? He then unstoppably named a list of complaints about the daunting economic and social challenges youth in Somaliland are facing, challenges that are shared by many youths in Somali-inhabited lands.

Mohamed Salah Ahmed
Email: [email protected]

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