For journalists, a fascination with Somalia exists from a mixture of historical interest and uncomfortable politics. But for those seeking to travel for the sake of saying you have, tread carefully ensuring you have adequate contacts and a base you can trust.
Humanitarian issues plaguing the east African state make this a nation in need of people with sincere and genuine intentions to help raise awareness of the situation. Bloggers and travel enthusiasts seeking to visit Somalia at the expense of the authority’s resources should not travel. The Somali foreign office has even warned against travelling to their own country.
Somalia is a dusty country, difficult for those suffering from asthma, dust allergies and hygiene triggered phobias. Be sure to carry antihistamines and if necessary a dust mask. Colleagues assisting our project were visibly affected by Somalia’s environment and these conditions can disturb concentration even in small amounts.
Malaria is widespread so be sure to take pharmacy prescribed tablets before, during and 3 days after travel has completed. It is better to be safe than sorry – those I know who declined preventative measures developed the infection. There is no cure, only prevention of the disease, and it can reoccur long after treatment.
Water is incredibly important as temperatures fluctuate between 35-40c though it feels hotter. Crouching to standing positions can cause dizziness and sweating can continue long after exposure to air conditioning. Be aware that everyone is different so recall your times in intense heat and multiply that by 10.
Safety and security:
There can be no dancing around the subject, Somalia is a dangerous country surprising even to those who have been working in the country as correspondents, aid workers for long periods.
Soldiers are everywhere. Just when you think you have found privacy – be sure are only a few seconds away. This is for the public’s safety and they will need to know what you are doing as foreigners in their country.
Do not discuss travel plans with anyone, inform contacts that need to know (editors, team etc). Kidnappings have been an issue, most are planned in advance so the less anyone knows the better.
Exhibitions of anti-aircraft weaponry instantly arouse the senses into understanding the situation without context of Somalia’s history. What you need to know is that Somalia is building a government through a relatively stable period having held two elections, the first in 2012 since 1986.
Stability comes at a price in the form of roadblocks every 100 yards, manned gun turrets on every corner and a saturated African Union presence. You should carry a press card preferably IFJ (International Federation of Journalists), keep your passport safe and ensure you have a letter detailing your role in Somalia (ensure this is written in Arabic, Somali and English).
Instability within the country can make for unpredictable conditions, militia such as Al-Shabab frequent rural and urbanized areas. Whilst in the capital of Mogadishu, a bomb exploded 1 minute from our hotel. Although foreigner accommodation is heavily fortified it comes at an expense of approximately $100-$200 per night. Anything less than that is questionable and full of risk. If you can hire a security guard, do not! Most recommendations are of men who own a gun – that’s all. A fully-fledged outlet will set you back thousands.
The Turkish and Chinese authorities have heavily invested in Somalia, especially Turkey who won contracts to operate airports and are the only major airline flying to Mogadishu. The Chinese have assisted with anti-malarial programmes and have eased debt owed by Somalia.
Basic travel insurance covers few actions including flight delays, medical expenses and lost luggage. Reaching full coverage is handled by insurance companies specialised in conflict and disaster hit nations equipped to deal with kidnappings, war injuries, life insurance and extraction. The costs for this lay anywhere between £50-£100/£200 per week upwards though worth every penny protecting you for almost anything.
Food on offer will be of a repetitive nature – camel meat and spaghetti, which is a national dish. Hot drinks are served with camel milk, a local delicacy which is sweet but heavy on the stomach.
As you can imagine, water is scarce. The only source of water I had access to was from my hotel. I lost just under two stone from the intense heat so be sure to regularly top up on water.
Purchase a fitted water proof cover to protect camera bags from Somalia’s iron rich sand. Upon landing in the UK my camera needed to be cleaned inside and out due to the glue like red soil. The bag also fell victim, which needed hoovering and hours worth of shaking. Ensure camera sensors are cleaned ASAP.
If you are flying internally, know that security is rigorous. Police/army will open bags and have no hesitation handling equipment with a stern hand. Before entering Mogadishu airport you will be required to leave baggage outside to be assessed by sniffer dogs.
This is performed behind a screen, which, once removed will be approached by a sea of people surging towards their belongings. To prevent stamping on precious cargo place bags as far away from waiting passengers.
Expect the unexpected. On our last day at the airport, we were asked to leave our bags/equipment in the car for inspection. Naturally as a photographer you will panic, cry inside knowing your bag might be thrown about – deal with it.
On our first day in Somalia, a bomb threat was called into security services causing roads to be shut down. Instead of driving we carried our bags through the streets of Mogadishu. On another occasion we were asked to exit the car at the final checkpoint and carry them through an unpaved dust scape (imagine 45kg) to security. Plans can change at any moment.
Somalis are generally friendly and talkative. Women take a central role in society, are first to talk with you and are considered heads of the family. In public you will see Niqab clad Somalis yelling on market stalls, haggling with locals.
Men are of similar nature though you will need to approach them to encourage conversation. Like any country, male or female you will need to bond with Somalis, so put aside a few scout days to build relationships. Like any assignment trust is the matrix of success.
Work in dollars as it is internationally recognised and the Somali shilling, although the national currency is not an option for the world you are immersing yourself in.
Overall Somalia is a country full of surprises though difficult to travel internally. Navigating independently is a risk as you will need to communicate with people you have not met whose intentions you do not know. Drivers and translators will cost in excess of $100-$250 per day, throw in your pretty security guard, hotel and you are stacking up a bill of potentially $450 per day. That’s $3,150 over a 7 day week.
Seriously consider what you can do for the Somali people before traveling. The resources provided to you cannot be afforded by the government. Thoroughly research your destination, streamline activities and stick to your proposed feature.
Although there are regions safe enough to travel to, they can also suffer from unpredictable circumstances. There are many colleagues of mine who have travelled to countries of questionable security claiming they are perfectly safe to visit, only to learn the area they were staying in had been hit by attacks a few days after they arrived home. This complacency should not cross your mind.
If you do decide to travel to Somalia my advice would be to network with the Somali community in your country first to gauge an idea of the culture, its sensitivities and possible contacts. Read as much as you can and engage with your Somali embassy to build links and exchange information.