If you’re awake to catch them, early mornings in Hargeisa feel solemn and ceremonial. Coaxed at dawn by muezzins calling out across the city, the sun rises to the east of the Naasa Hablood mountains that overlook the urban valley. Because we enjoy a view of the horizon unencumbered by buildings, sunrise feels especially ritualistic from our hilltop.
Normally I’m lucky if I awaken in time to see the last herd of camels pass by the window, accompanied by energetic pastoralists sporting long sticks and unmatched whistling skills, just in from the countryside and headed to the market in town. But for the last several days, we’ve been up before the first call to prayer. In the darkness before dawn we fumble for backpack, mobile, charger, cash, jacket, dog harness, coffee. As day breaks, we shuffle out the door and spill onto the dirt road, sleepy-eyed humans with a leaping, ecstatic dog at the other end of a royal blue leash.
At the chain-link fenced corner where residential neighborhood turns into airport compound, we part ways, my partner with a load of merchandise and the weight of determination, and me with mis-matched socks and an Energizer Bunny-cum-canine on my arm.
After more than a year of dreaming, thinking, planning, pushing and pulling, getting off track and finding the way back again, we’ve managed it at last, setting up shop in Hargeisa’s international airport. There were delays of the self-indulgent and self-doubting varieties: Is this the right path among all those others? Is it the most profitable? What about that other shiny-looking opportunity over there… Does anyone really buy t-shirts? (Turns out, to our great relief, yes they do).
There were also delays built into the context: the local printer runs out of important things like, you know, ink; it’s impossible to move furniture into the airport right now because of Hajj season or because first-time flyers tried to board today with buckets of khat so staff are busy sorting them out; the First Lady of Somaliland decided on an impromptu pilgrimage to Mecca on a private jet, so the airport is on lock-down, no one’s moving in or out.
The best-laid plans are often fraught with arrogance, and getting haughty with airport security doesn’t help your ultimate aim. So when we planned to move and set up everything–wall display, sample tables, cashier station, merchandise–in one fell swoop, of course it turned out to be a multi-day string of mad dashes at closing time, after the last flight departed, passengers were out, and security staff were miffed at the overtime. But finally, we were in–in!–and selling–selling!–and a week or so into reaping a few fruits of our labors, we’re full of hope, and caution, and hope still.
In Somaliland, conventionality is king, present-day kin to history, lineage, tradition. People plant themselves firmly in their comfort zones; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And since it’s always been a certain way, whether for centuries or days, it must not be broke. There is an abiding faith in inertia, an ever-present alertness to the delicate balance of social harmony, and if you’ve struck it (perfect or otherwise), wisdom says do not disturb – leave it be.
Innovation here is typically driven by a quest for better livelihood, and there exists a latent respect for the hustle. So to that end, a new business is accepted, as long as it remains within the bounds of social norms. (One t-shirt, of my creation, was almost immediately admonished for being politically off-putting and potentially offensive, innocent play on words though it was!). When you’re a newcomer, there are suspicious, sideways glances, cascades of questions, and the occasional, territorial wisecrack. But later on, with a bit of charm to warm conversation, that innate Somali hospitality surfaces in the shape of well wishes and handshakes, and 6:00 am cups of coffee and Somali tea, on the house, delivered from the shop across the way.
So we move forward, trying not to step on toes, keeping up with tradition and with the sunrise, counting dollars, shillings, pounds, euros and dirhams from passengers headed to Dubai or Addis Ababa or Djibouti or Mogadishu, and beyond. I’ve backed off the store these days so that my partner, Master Hustler and Social Butterfly, can mold it into something better than we’d imagined. (Not that I can keep a few well-considered opinions to myself, hehe).
Advice welcome from those who’ve started businesses or managed to keep them afloat, including in places other than where you originate! The hustle moves forward, and so do we.