Tag Archives: Somalia

Hair-raising stories from my travels around the globe


When I arrive in a new country, my most pressing need is to find safe and secure accommodation. As soon as that is out of the way and my bags are unpacked, there are three things I prioritise: 1) a massage parlour because of the stressful nature of my work, 2) a wine store for obvious reasons, and 3) a decent, recommended hairdressers.

Fagan Orla Naivasha KenyaFine wispy hair requires as much if not more maintenance as long flowing locks and can cause heartache for a traveller.  I can go four or possibly five weeks without a visit to the hairdressers and then it becomes more urgent than finding either accommodation, massage or wine.  At the beginning of week five after a haircut, my hair begins to curl out at the sides, giving Bozo the Clown a run for his money.  Once it descends over the upper earlobes, I get a Hilary Clinton aka ‘OMG somebody tell the woman she needs a haircut’ look, which just isn’t right.

I remember an Irish friend telling me years ago how she would travel through the horrendous Nairobi traffic from Karen where she lived, to the Hilton Hotel in the centre of the city, to get a haircut.  The nature and texture of African hair is poles apart from the often straighter, softer hair found elsewhere in the world.  Most African women use wigs and extensions, and can spend whole weekends having extensions woven through their hair.  Some of the most beautiful females I have seen are African women with shaven heads – it is rarely I’ve seen an African woman looking better with a wig or hair extensions.

nairobi and somalia mapIn 2012 I worked for the UN operation in Somalia, based in Nairobi. My Italian colleague Roberta arrived in the office one day with a stunning haircut, announcing that it was the work of the hairdressing salon on the third floor of the Sarit Centre, just around the corner from where I was living.  I headed off the following Saturday and scouting around the Sarit, found the salon on the third floor.  I should have suspected something was up when I realised I was the only white woman in the salon, but I kept going.  “Is there is a stylist free, who is used to cutting straight hair,” I enquired of the woman behind the reception desk.  She assured me that there was indeed a stylist experienced in cutting straight hair.

First aid for hairdressers

Ushered off to have my hair washed I was greeted by, I think a young woman, (it’s impossible to tell the age of Africans, they could be 15 or 50, their skin doesn’t wrinkle). I sat up in the swivel chair and she began cutting. Her cheeks were puffed out and she was biting her tongue in concentration.  It was too late to stop.  Searing pain set it when she kept pulling the hair out from my head as if she was in a tug-of-war and I stopped her to show her how to hold hair between her fingers and cut along the exposed hair jutting along the edge of her fingers. I was aware that if I did stop the process, not only would I be left with a botched haircut, but also my young stylist’s confidence would be greatly damaged and I really didn’t want to do that.

fagan sitting squares nairobi“Relax,” I kept telling her as I realised the poor woman was a bag of nerves.  Ten minutes into the haircut and there’s blood pouring everywhere.  The hairdresser was screaming. I was screaming.  Everything in the salon stopped.  All eyes were on the young stylist and me. My hands went up to my head searching for where I had been cut but it didn’t take long to realise that it was the hairdresser who had cut her hand.  My instructions obviously didn’t carry a safety warning.  The poor woman was so uptight about cutting a mzungu’s (white person) hair the scissors slipped and stabbed her.

fagan with monkey in nairobiThe first aid kit came out and after her wound was attended to by some of the other staff, she came back over to me.  I insisted she continue what she had started albeit with a very large bandage wrapped over the cut hand.  When she had finished and I was leaving the salon, I tipped her and hopefully left some of her confidence intact to be able to deal with the next mzungu who came through the door.  Despite my assurance at the cash desk that I would be back for another haircut, I had no intentions of returning.

On Monday when I got to the office, Roberta informed me I had visited the wrong hairdressers.

Finding Kelvin

The hunt went on to find a suitable hairdresser in Nairobi and at the spa between the Sarit Centre and Westgate Mall I found Kelvin, bless him.  There’s probably more work keeping short hair looking good, than styling long tresses.   I would visit the salon every four/five weeks and would come out with a top class haircut, feeling great.  Kelvin is a talented man who knows how to charge but he was worth every penny.  I was paying the equivalent of €30 – first world prices and aware that it was the mzungus and wealthy Kenyans could afford such extravagances.

Fagan Forest walk KenyaAfter a number of months visiting Kelvin I was told that the price had increased. Not by a few miserly Kenyan Shillings but by a whopping 30 per cent.  The price of the haircut went from the extravagant €30 to an outrageous €40, breaking down to €10 a week for a haircut.  Even for a mzungu it was just too much to swallow.  It was also unusual for a mzungu to question the price of anything, but they hadn’t met me before.  I refused to pay the woman at the cash desk, calling out for Kelvin to explain the inordinate increase in price.  “The cost of the materials,” I was told.  I like to think I am fair and I don’t mind that I pay more in a developing country because of the colour of my skin, but a thimble-full of shampoo and conditioner? I didn’t think it warranted that much of a price increase.  We agreed that the frequency of my visits merited a lower pricing structure and I continued my monthly encounters with Kelvin until I left Nairobi.

Amin in Amman

It was a lot cheaper in the Middle East for a good haircut.  Amin, a young male hairdresser in Toni and Guy in Abdoun gives a great haircut and his price varied between €10 and €17.   I was genuinely pleased for him when he excitedly told me one day how he was be selected to do a course in Toni and Guy in London, and the idea of visiting the Oxford Street had him grinning from ear to ear.  Every time I returned I would ask did he complete his course, but the British Embassy in Jordan didn’t trust that he would return and denied him a visa, which was a great shame considering his obvious talent.

amman jordan mapAbdoun is the embassy area of Amman so many of the more wealthy Muslim women who lived in the area wouldn’t wear the hijab (the head scarf worn by Muslim women) or the niquabs (full facial and head covering).  In many Muslim countries women as seen as the property of a man and cannot go outside unless she is in the company of a male relative.  The wealthy women around Abdoun had no difficulty being in the company of males who were not related to them nor visiting the hair salon alone nor having a male outside the family tending their beauty needs.   Occasionally a fully clad nijab wearer would be ushered in to have her hair coiffured by a female stylist in a separate private room, away from the gaze of men.

I always thought it was such a waste to have your hair done then for it all to be covered up by either a hijab or niquabs, especially during the summer months when the temperature rises and just standing still makes me sweat.  I just can’t understand how women can look so cool under the polyester scarfs they use winter and summer.  A Palestinian friend came to visit once clad in her niquabs and she disappeared into the bathroom to return 10 minutes later fully made up with the most gorgeous head of hair.  She was able to remove the layers because she was in the company of women.


In December 2012 I returned Baggers (Baghdad) to work with the UN mission.  Such was my hurry leaving Ireland I didn’t have time to have my ‘shorter than short, I’m going abroad’ haircut and left Ireland on the cusp of requiring an encounter with a pair of scissors.

baghdad iraq mapUN staff has no choice in where they live in Baghdad.  There are two accommodation compounds, Tamimi and D2 – both located in the Green Zone, (now known as the International Zone (IZ)).  The IZ is relatively safe from the daily bombings in the Red Zone. The more privileged employees live in D2, a compound gifted by the American Government to the UN.  The bungalows are brick-built and have real windows – they also boast a bedroom and separate living area with cooking facilities.  The majority of the staff however, live in much poorer conditions in Camp Tamimi.

fagan sandbags bagdadTamimi is a village of container accommodation, with windows in the containers covered by sandbags allowing no natural light to enter.   It’s akin to living in a rabbit warren as the containers are then enveloped in a structure also filled with sandbags, to protect its residents from the rockets that once plague the compound on a regular basis. (Since the American withdrew from Iraq they are more likely to throw rockets at each other and leave the IZ alone).  Tamimi boasts of a dining facility called a defac (not quite sure why it’s not called a canteen), run by Bangladeshi migrant workers, serving food dripping in grease.  These two compounds are about five kilometres apart in the relatively ‘safer’ IZ. D2 not only is a nicer place to live, it also boasts a unisex hair salon.

The Scissor Brothers

Two Iraqi men operate the salon at the weekends and the Fiji troops, who protect the two compounds, are entitled to free haircuts, while everybody else is changed the princely sum of $5.  I was about week eight post-haircut, with no sign of a reprieve from Baggers and no entitlement to any rest and recuperation because I worked as a consultant.  I was looking more like Hilary that I ever wanted.  I decided I needed a haircut but was reluctant to admit to any of my colleagues that I planned to visit the D2 salon.  It was considered okay for men to visit the salon, but not really for a woman.

IZ in baghdadFriday is the first day of the weekend in the Middle East and our working week was Sunday to Thursday.  On Friday mornings it was common for employees to circle the compound, either running or walking for exercise.  I was lucky enough to be staying in a friend’s accommodation in D2 while she was on out on leave, so slipping into the salon for a haircut was not so noticeable.

I ensured there was nobody else in the salon before entering and as I sat up in the chair I proceeded to give instructions in sign language.  The two gentlemen knew no English and my Arabic is limited to giving taxi drivers instructions, so I proceeded to indicate how short I wanted my hair cut.  The towel was put around my shoulders and the nylon shawl placed over the towel almost choked me when the stylist takes out a pair of kitchen scissors and begins to cut.  I really need to write a note to self and just tell hairdressers when I am not comfortable.  However, telling an Iraqi man with a pair of kitchen scissors in his hands that I wasn’t comfortable was probably not the best time to practice being assertive.   I am sure I was the first non-army woman to enter the door of the salon.

Mostly I’d like to think I’m philosophical about haircuts. Hair grows back and whatever mess has been made, corrects itself.  The Baggers cut though was a little different and retrospect is a fine teacher.

I would have been better off if I had requested the razor and gone for an army style short, back and sides.  The man with the blunt kitchen scissors started combing my hair with a filthy-looking comb before he began hacking at it.  I really don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t what I got.  I would have got a better haircut if I had given a seven year-old child a pair of scissors and let them at it.  I ended up with the hair on the crown of my head permanently sticking up and even when it was wet, it refused to sit down and behave itself!  It was the topic of conversation long after I left the mission in Iraq and served as a warning for women not only to hold off and wait until they got to Amman but looking like Hilary Clinton wasn’t so bad as it first seemed – at least she has brains!


Working in Kabul was a little different to Baggers – there was no IZ to ‘protect’ us and we travelled (albeit in armoured plated vehicles) through the city to meetings.  We could actually see people on the streets and how they lived, unlike the IZ where I never saw a child during all the time I was there.

kabul afghanistan mapThe ring of steel, supposed to stop the Taliban from entering Kaboom wasn’t quite as effective as President Karzai would have wished.  On 28 October 2009, the Baktar Guest House where several of my colleagues resided was attacked and the Taliban murdered five UN staff.  At the time, we lived in guesthouses around the city with some staff living in rented houses.  I opted to stay in the shabby but friendly UNICA compound, which boasted about 40 rooms spread over several buildings, each one was different and each had its own peculiarities.

UNICA first opened its doors as a UN guesthouse in 1958. The owners kept adding to it over the years and the compound even boasted a bar. During the time of the Tailban it was the only place in Kabul where a body could find alcohol and Hamid the bar man had worked there for more years than I think he even cared to remember.

While supermarket shopping was permitted, we were not allowed to visit any other establishment.  There were beauty parlours for women everywhere and they had heavy net curtains, preventing people (mainly men) seeing inside.  They reminded me of seedy sex shops around Europe.  Like Abound in Amman, it was the wealthier women who would frequent the beauty parlours and they would emerge without burqas but often with niquabs looking stunning with make up, lipstick and nails polished.

We had a hairdressers in UNICA and a young lad, dressed in the trendiest Western gear would appear each weekend and we would queue up for haircuts.  There were no heavy curtains on the windows and men and women sat together waiting on their turn.  Haircuts were good value at US$10.  It wasn’t the best haircut in the world, but you could at least appear in public and didn’t feel the need to wear your niquab around the office.

UNICA eventually closed down shortly after I left Afghanistan.  The elderly owner lived in the States and her children had no interest in managing the property.  It sold for over US$5 million and the last I heard, they had built an office block on its grounds.  It was the end of an era for many foreigners who travelled through and found sanctuary and solace inside its walls.

Until next time.

Yours Fagan.

fagan profile pic in blue






Reporting for Trocaire in Haiti – Mud huts and washrooms

In 2006 while travelling for Trócaire I made a trip to Haiti to report on the work of Trócaire’s partners, mainly working with women’s groups.  The difficulty with documenting some of the horror stories of the women’s experiences is that it has to be sanitized enough so it doesn’t cause offence to a first world audience.  Documenting stories of rape and violence was no easy task as I set about trying to word it so it was palatable enough for people who know nothing about the developing world or issues of violence against women, to be able to read over their muesli in the morning.

Screwing it up

haiti map1Haiti is just out on its own.  Not exactly your regular tourist destination and it was never on my must see before I die places to visit.  It’s Africa in the Caribbean – the oldest self ruled black country, gaining autonomy in 1804 – they had 200 plus years to screw it up and they did a good job.  It shares the island with the Dominican Republic and when you fly over you can see how there is practically no forest left in Haiti while in neighbouring Dominican Republic is lush and green, as it should be.

At the time I travelled it was estimated that 8 out of every 10 women in Haiti suffer domestic violence and the law only changed in 2005 to make rape within marriage illegal.  I know they had a series of despot leaders from Papa Doc, to Baby Doc to Jean-Baptise Astride but that would be only the last 50/60 years.  It should be a tropical paradise but instead it’s so dangerous that as a visitor you can’t leave your hotel unaccompanied.  It makes Somalia look tame.

haiti_gourdes_1000They even have their own virtual currency here.  I was in the supermarket buying water and couldn’t figure out the change.  They had charged dollars but the change in the currency ‘Gourdes’ didn’t add up.  Apparently 20 years ago when the US dollar was worth 5 Gourdes, 5 Gouds was referred to as a dollar.  Although 39.75 Gourdes is worth 1 US dollar – 5 Gourdes is called 1 $. Confused?  Good – because I have never been more confused in my life.  It was just as well there was somebody accompanying me the whole time because I felt like some little old lady who couldn’t figure out the ‘new’ money.

Port_au_prince-haitiI was mainly staying around Port-au-Prince, the capital.  As usual, Trócaire had one of their local partner organisations take care of me while I was in the country.  Unlike the other countries I visited Trócaire’s local partners were anxious to show me their work so I could say nice things about them when I reported back.  This time it was a little different, the man who was charged with my itinerary unceremoniously dumped me back at the hotel at 4 p.m. every day and picked me up the next morning at 8 a.m.  Let’s say he didn’t go out of his way to make Haiti any more appealing. 


When I arrived, he tried putting me in a convent-type accommodation.  In the heat of the day, we must have climbed 50 or 60 steps, with me struggling with my luggage, camera bags and lap top and he frolicked up the steps, arms swinging.  I registered at reception and when I was shown to the room with no air conditioning, no ensuite, no internet and no fan, I said “no way” and checked out.  It didn’t get a whole lot better when he brought me to another accommodation. The US $65 a night seemed a little steep at the time but at least there was guaranteed air-condition, even if they charged an extra $8 per day for electricity on the bill!!.


haiti women 4 shotHaiti is a very violent society with impunity for many men who commit violent acts and rape on women. I was brought around to meet women in a shelter, who were the victims of violence.  Often their stories were so horrific I would sit and cry with them as they would recount to me their experiences.  One woman was brave enough to report the rape of her daughter, but when she did so, the perpetrators returned the following evening, murdered her daughter and raped her.  Somebody had taken a photo of her dead daughter and she sobbed , she turned to me and asked “Who will take my photo?” It was a horrific story and just one of many I documented on the visit to Haiti.

I did have one trip down the country to a community only about 160 kilometres distance – it took 4.5 hours to travel the 160 kilometres and the 10 kilometres through a few mountains in a 4-wheel drive took up one whole hour.  It was a bit of a trek, bouncing around in a car for the whole journey.  Most of the roads were covered in pot holes and it felt as if the whole journey was off-road driving.

Mud huts and washrooms

orange mud hutFor some reason I thought I would be staying in a bed and breakfast type accommodation.  The penny should have dropped when we called to pick up supplies in a local shop.  We arrived and I was shown to my accommodation, which was the house of a local woman who had travelled to Port-au-Prince for a few nights.  The accommodation was a mud hut, complete with a thatched roof and spotlessly clean.  She had obviously gone out of her way to prepare for the visitor she wasn’t going to meet. I was however, a little perturbed not being able to find the bathroom facilities; either shower or toilet.

I travelled with two men from a non-government organisation Trócaire was supporting , we arrived in the late afternoon, so not a lot of opportunity to talk to the community who were busy preparing for supper.  While the food we brought was being prepared by some local women, my two carers announced it was time to wash before supper.  I quietly mentioned that I had no towel so one of the men kindly provided me with his towel.  I was accompanied down to the river as we passed men swimming in one area, we moved upstream to a more secluded part.

There was a young girl sitting on a rock in the middle of the river, with nothing on except a pair of panties, washing. She was like some exoctic sprite and looked at me smiling.  There was another large rock beside her and one of the women pointed, indicating that the second rock had my name on it.  I was expected to whip off my clothes down to my panties, wade out to the middle of the river and provide the evening’s entertainment with a gang of kids all standing with their mouths hitting the ground.  I waved at some of the women who actually waved back at me. I felt as if every women and child in the village had come to watch. 

I moved closer to the water, trying to avoid the stones under my feet as they laughed at my feeble efforts to wade barefoot into the river.  As expectations were mounting and women and children were vying for space to get a better look, I was determined not to become the topic of conversation for the next month in the village.  I stood at the edge, wrapped in a towel and threw water over the visible bits. I simply refused to exhibit my blue-white body to a whole village.

Darkness fell very early in the evening and with no electricity, there was nothing to do except go to the house.  I felt as if the whole village was sitting outside watching, so when it began to rain heavily, I was relieved.  My bladder was bursting and I needed to pee really badly.  I stepped outside the house in the pouring rain and relieved myself.  A couple of hours later, a knock came to the door and a young girl handed me a plastic basin.  I scratched my head unsure whether it was for washing or using as a potty in the middle of the night. I used it as a potty.

The son of the school teacher in the village was about 5-years old and took such a shine to me.  He was the cutest little thing and every time I looked around he was sitting beside me, batting his eyelashes at me.  At one stage he sat beside me and tried to put his arms around me as if I was his girlfriend.  I could have taken him home and indeed one of the men asked would I not take him home.  He (the child)  sat and explained in Creole all about the orange trees and how the women collected the avocados and about his dad and the school.  He told me all about the woman whose house I was staying and followed me everywhere for the time I was in the village. I would loved to have been able to communicate with him and he was trying so hard.  

Every time I looked out of the house, he was either coming down the pathway or sitting on the rocks outside, waiting patiently.  When it came time for my departure, he was so upset and no amount of cajoling could get a smile from him.  He stood at the gate in floods of tears as I left.

I was glad to have visited the village and experience rural Haiti, where life seemed a little less violent and the community seemed more in hamony with nature and life.

Until next time.




Anarchy, Boobs, Camels and Goats

Diary September 2012

DSCF1432Somalia is a funny kind of a place.  Not a funny ha ha place, but a complex and intriguing part of the world that continues to function despite a 20 year civil war.  I first visited back in 2006 in the Gedo region with Trócaire and spent a week documenting the work of the one-doctor hospital they supported.

While the anarchy and lack of any infrastructure was blatant, it was fascinating at the same time to see how people coped with no government or governance.   The Gedo region borders the Ethiopian border to the West and the Kenyan border to the South.  Mogadishu is situated along the coast to the East of the country.

DSCF1228Once a modern thriving city now it’s just one big settlement, with temporary shelters pitched everywhere for those who are displaced by the war and hunger.  Once grand buildings including the Catholic Church, are riddled with bullet marks and many former government buildings are also occupied by displaced Somalis.

Not a lot changed in Somalia in the intervening years, except many more women and children have suffered and certainly plenty of them died unnecessarily.

Once abandoned by the international community, the increasing incidents of piracy and the prospect that there is oil in Somalia, sees the international community trying once again to put some form of structure into the country.

The Transitional Federal Government (TFG) was put in to power by the international community and comprises of mainly corrupt elders (all men) who vie for power and control.   You also have Somaliland and Puntland in the northern part of Somalia that have declared themselves as a republic, have their own currency but are recognized nowhere else in the world.

DSCF1235Within Somaliland and Puntland, there are sections who want to secede to form yet either smaller states, so conflict flares up and people (mainly the women and children) take off seeking refuge.  That is compounded by the odd drought and a bit of famine thrown in.   The ubiquitous AK47 dictates much of what happens in Somalia, and not likely to see much improvement in the near future.

A good portion of Somalia is a desert, sparsely covered in thorn trees which catch the plastic bags and it looks as if plastic-bag trees grow in Somalia.  Sometimes when travelling through the countryside and approaching a settlement, it is akin to what you would imagine the aftermath of a devastating world war where the inhabitants of the planet, except for a few, have been wiped out.

DSCF1208I don’t think I have ever visited a country with such a sanitation problem, but if you don’t have a functioning government, you don’t have an infrastructure to deal with these problems.  We drive through the rubbish dump to get from Ethiopia to Somalia.  I travelled through a few weeks ago not long after somebody had put a match to the plastic bags, bottles and general garbage.  We drove on the sand track through the smoking plastic, where hundreds of buzzards about 4 feet in height and much bigger than the goats, all trampled around foraging for food.  Unfortunately buzzards, goats and children are all vying for the same food. It was a biblical scene.

Further South across the border, in Dadaab in northern Kenya, there are a half million Somalis who fled famine and conflict and settled in huge refugee camps.  The Kenyans don’t particularly want them there but the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees means that they can’t force the Somalis to return home.  Some have been there for over 20 years.  The Somalis are now heading for the Ethiopian border and there are 160,000 refugees registered in five camps in Dolo Ado, Ethiopia.

DSCF1416Both Ethiopia and Kenya have sent troops into Somalia to try and stop Al Shabaab, the local terrorist organization, from gaining ground.  Alongside other African troops and the TFG forces, they are gaining a modicum of control and for the first time in years Mogadishu has a sort of functioning government.

My contract with the coordinating body of the UN is coming to a close.

Based in Nairobi, I was brought in to write reports and analysis of the situation in Somalia, and I ended up also trying to train people on how to write reports, gathering stories and taking photos.  It would have helped a lot if they had reasonable English, but these are the little trials and tribulations that are sent to try a body.   Some bright spark thought I didn’t have enough of a challenge and that I could be useful in Somalia coordinating the humanitarian efforts there, so I ended up back in Gedo attempting to foster some cross border cooperation to try and stem the flow of refugees into Ethiopia.

DSCF1223The Somalis are not particularly welcome in Ethiopia either and the Ethiopians don’t make it easy on them.  They put them in camps where their movement is restricted, where they have no access to any casual labour or a functioning telephone network.  Somalis love to talk and the loss of a mobile network is real hardship for them.  The Ethiopians have been paranoid about security for some time and it’s so bad that my Irish mobile doesn’t roam there.

I was travelling through the airport in Addis Ababa on my way to the border, the morning they announced the prime minister’s Meles demise.  Trying to get a cup of coffee was almost impossible as all the waitresses in the coffee shop were weeping into the coffee cups because their leader had died. He may have facilitated greater access to food for the masses, but during his 20 year reign the population almost doubled, leaving twice as many people living in poverty and misery.

DSCF1415Despite all the plaudits from people like David Cameron about Meles insightful vision for Africa, there was no democracy in Ethiopia and most members of the opposition and many journalists who criticized Meles now languish in jail along with people who were caught using Skype.

The Ethiopians have invested heavily in trying to stop Al Shabaab making progress, they are afraid that the war will cross the border into Ethiopia and  so sent in the troops, along with the Kenyans and other African countries.  When I travel in through Ethiopia, I travel from Addis to Dolo Ado, where I then make the crossing to the sister town of Doolow, Somalia at an unrecognized border crossing.

I rarely travel directly from Nairobi to Doolow, which is a much easier trip and doesn’t involve getting up out of my warm bed at 1 a.m. for the airport to eventually arrive in Doolow at 10 a.m. ready for a days’ work.

DSCF1018I moan about these things and the container where I sleep which measures 3 metres x 2 metres, with a small single bed and a tiny wardrobe.  The loo is about 300 metres away and there were one or two occasions when I could have qualified for the London Olympics with a middle of the night sprint.

Then I meet people like Mary T who works for the Irish NGO Goal and stays in something akin to a hut and thinks she’s lucky, because she has a room on her own.   Then I realize that my container is the Hilton Hotel of Dolo Ado and I am indeed the lucky one.

I arrived in Doolow Somalia on my birthday this year as part of a larger mission to visit Belet Xaawo (pronounced Haawa) and Luuq, areas recently taken over by the Ethiopian forces.  We had the company of the UN Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS) who was organizing the road trip.  Our armed escorts were members of the Somali TFG forces, who apparently organize a lot of the kidnappings in Somalia.

Somali AirlinesJust as well I wasn’t aware of that small fact when we travelled.  There is a gravel road between Doolow and Luuq, put down by the Italians a number of years ago, but driving on the sand is a lot easier on jarring bones, so we opted to travel across the desert.  Although we had ordered and paid for cars with air-conditioning, there was none, and the windows were opened wide as we chocked on the dust kicked up by each car in front.

Not the most pleasant journey I have experienced.  Half way there, the convoy came to an abrupt stop as the escorts jumped off their pick-up truck and began running through the bush.  Apparently they had spotted three deserters, still armed with their AK47s heading out into the bush.

Our DSS guy had to tell them that standard operating procedures would dictate they inform their base, who would then go chase the deserters, rather than leaving us literally like sitting ducks in the middle of the desert.

We travelled during Ramadan, where drinking and eating is forbidden during daylight hours.  When we arrived in Luuq we had the usual meeting the authorities before heading to a settlement to see what conditions were like.  The escorts had a different idea though, when they brought us to the air strip and proceeded to play chicken, speeding up and down at hair-raising speed, with dust flying everywhere. The poor DSS guy was back out lecturing the lads on standard operating procedures before we regrouped and headed off to visit the displaced.

Driving towards the settlement, a few women walking along noticed the convoy.  With that some of them lifted their long skirts and took off at the speed of light towards the settlement.  I have to say I was scratching my head wondering what they were up to.  In the middle of Ramadan people tend to conserve energy during daylight hours and it was indeed an unusual sight to see skirts lifted and women, of all things, running.

It transpired they were heading towards the settlement, which was set up for the benefit of the visitors and totally fake.  They were burning green wood for cooking at 10 in the morning… not something normally done during the fasting month.  You’d need to be up early for the Somalis all the same.

During Ramadan there wasn’t even a cup of coffee to be had on the Somali side, so we crossed to have Ethiopian buna (coffee) on the far side of the bridge.  As we approached the check point, the DSS colleague opened his arms to be searched by the soldier on the bridge.

When I approached the soldier reached out with his two hands aiming for my boobs.  The other soldiers stood with their jaws dropped, until I waved my finger in the offending soldier’s face, explaining that I’m from the North side of Dublin and if attempted to as much as touch me, he’d be very, very sorry.  Funny thing was that while he did not speak English he understood completely what I was saying to him.

My most recent visit in to Gedo was to conduct an assessment of the two settlements in Doolow town. One of my colleagues visited some settlements in Mogadishu and some of the displaced people were holding up signs saying ‘no more assessments’, in English of course.  In the Doolow settlements, there hasn’t been a comprehensive assessment so I spent weeks organizing it.

The smaller settlement had decreased by 20 per cent, which is a rather large figure.  As there wasn’t a 20 per cent increase in the numbers crossing over to Ethiopia, it is assumed that the residents of the smaller camp were in fact residents of Doolow who moved in to these awful settlements, hoping to get the handouts.  In fairness the residents of the bigger settlement are in dire need and of decent shelter and food.

I stayed on the Ethiopian side and went to cross the bridge on the first day, to be told that foreigners were not permitted to cross over as it is an unrecognized crossing.  After a visit to the Ethiopian development body, I received permission to cross and proceeded down to the bridge only to be stopped on the Ethiopian side.

A deeper paranoia has set in since the death of Meles and all sorts of excuses from ‘you need to leave your laptops with us’ to ‘we think you may be spies’ were offered as reason for us not to cross.  I smiled and waited as dozens of phones calls were made, mainly on my phone, to get permission for the crossing.

My colleague wanted to go back, but I was a bit more persistent about getting across to complete the assessment. The UN compound on the other side has only recently opened.  They employ security guards and I was reliably informed that one of the cleaning ladies was trained to search the women coming in to the compound.

We approached the gate and the guard on the gate, an auld lad with a henna-dyed beard, wearing a sarong, pushed a male colleague out of the way and lunged at my boobs to begin a body search.  Unlike the soldier at the bridge, this pervert succeeded.  The wagging finger came out again and like the soldier on the bridge he fully understood that I was not a happy bunny and his behavior was unacceptable.

I had to wait for the local security officer to eventually show to report the incident.   News travels fast in Somalia, in fact news travels very fast and the whole town seemed to be aware of the boob incident. The following day I was busy at a meeting when word came that the elders would like to meet up.  I naively thought it was about the hassle of the border crossing, but no, it was about the incident.

They arrived mid-morning, the deputy district commissioner and two of the elders – all men of course, no women elders.  They told me that a meeting of the local authorities had been called the evening before to discuss the incident and not only was the guard’s behavior un-Islamic, it was also not within the Somali culture and they had great respect for women.

It’s not often I get an opportunity to lecture some Muslim men on feminism and the benefits of equality for women, so I laid it on about how they had to accept that women outside their culture were in positions of leadership etc.  etc.  They requested that I wouldn’t report the incident to the powers in the UN, so another opportunity for me to lay it on by pointing out that I needed this to go through DSS, otherwise women wouldn’t feel safe working in such an environment and it may even prevent women from working in Somalia.  Oh, I enjoyed it all.

DSCF1428When I eventually drew breath and they had an opportunity to interrupt, they told me that the meeting had decided that I needed to be compensated in the Somali way and they had voted to compensate me with a camel…… yes, a camel.

Then they informed me that the camel was valuable and worth $300. I was impressed, thanked them for the camel, pointed out the difficulties in exporting the camel to Ireland and said I’d like to covert the camel to goats and donate them to the poorest women in the bigger settlement.  Four goats, that’s what they told me the one camel was worth.

I travelled back across the border that evening and was told that a camel with three legs would be worth at least $1,500 and up to $2,000 or more on the Ethiopia side.  The fecking elders were trying to short-change me.  Talk about giving it with one hand and taking it back with the other!

I had to send word back to the elders to say that indeed I will be picking up my camel and if I have to march it down to the settlement, to hand it over to the women myself, then that’s what I will do.  I return on Thursday for a one-day trip and will pick up my camel and hand it over.  Let’s see how much the thing is really worth.

This has been a really interesting assignment, being able to get out and see what’s happening on ground puts real meaning on the work.  Other than Erbil in Iraq, I never got outside the Green Zone in Baghdad to see any of the 1.5 million displaced people around Iraq.  At least I got to Mogadishu, Garrowe and Gedo to see first-hand the condition the people are living in and it certainly gives a greater empathy and sense of urgency.

I’m not sure where the next assignment will be, but life full of surprises and hopefully I’ll be back working again after my much awaited holiday in the US of A in the month of October.

Until the next time….