Thursday, 6th April 2023
What might have been a fairly restful overnight flight from Heathrow to Addis Ababa proved to be more like sleep deprivation torture thanks to the screaming toddler a couple of rows behind me. So by the time I arrived at Egal International Airport in Hargeisa, Somaliland I was somewhat the worse for wear. Border control was smoothly and swiftly passed through though, as my hosts the Pharo Foundation had sent me through the VIP section. Given that there were only 20 or so passengers on the plane, I'm not sure that it would have taken long anyway. After handing over $60 I was the proud owner of an entry permit to a country that doesn't officially exist according to the rest of the world.
Egal International Airport
After a quick chat with Ayan at the Pharo offices, it was agreed that I would go straight to the secondary school at Sheikh - a journey of three and a half hours via the Red Sea coast at Berbera. The last 10km of the journey consists of a spectacular twisting road rising 700 metres up the Golis range. I'd like to say I enjoyed the drive, but looking back it seems a blur of sheep, goats, camels and police checkpoints.
I arrived at Sheikh and met Mohamed (the principal) and Khader (the vice principal) of the school. The accommodation for my stay was the school guesthouse - far more luxurious than I was expecting, and in grounds much more lush and green than I was expecting (and with a resident herd of the endangered Speke's Gazelle).
After unpacking and a well-needed rest, it was time for afur (iftar in Arabic - the breaking of the fast) when the muezzin anounced that he had seen the sun set. Afur consisted of a huge plate of dates, some delicious goat stew, rice, bananas and fruit juice, so I was a little surprised when my hosts announced that they were off to pray and that dinner would be served shortly afterwards! Needless to say, this was another feast - a theme of my entire trip. Despite it being Ramadan, as a non-believer I was not expected to fast and was fed like a king.
Friday, 7th April 2023
Friday is the muslim day of rest, and coupled with it being Ramadan, this meant that my Friday was a leisurely affair. No students in classes for me to meet, so it was an opportunity to explore the school site and see some of the town of Sheikh. The school site is beautiful and I spent some very pleasant hours exploring, speaking to staff and students and indulging in some light birdwatching (results below).
My modest bird list for the trip was:
A pair of Somali Starlings
After a midday rest (these were a feature of my stay at the school, and a chance to relax, digest my surroundings and catch up on some reading) I was taken by Mohamed and Khader to visit the town of Sheikh - a mile or so from the school compound and a fairly sleepy place on a Friday during Ramadan! A few shops and stalls were open, and I was able to get something of a feel for the place, but I'd have definitely liked to have seen it at a busier time. I bullied Khadar into climbing up a hill at the edge of town in order to get some decent views, and this was well worth it. The Golis range would offer excellent hiking, but tourism is still in its infancy here, so there are nor organised trips or trails.
Sheikh. 18th May 1991 is the date that Somaliland declared independence from Somalia.
Saturday, 8th April 2023
On Saturday it was time to get properly to work. I met with Abokor, the head of maths, and had a really useful discussion about resources, textbooks and teaching styles. It turns out that there's more in common than I might have imagined, and also that this trip was an opportunity for learning and development in both directions. I observed Abokor teach a lesson to a group of Form 3 pupils preparing for their upcoming IGCSE exams. The topic was circle theorems, and walking round the room I was really impressed with pupils' maths skills and their desire to do well.
Interacting with the pupils at the school was the real highlight of my trip. They're an extremely motivated bunch, and were keen both to chat generally and to chat about maths. (I had to confess my lack of knowledge when one earnest boy asked me how he should go about securing a 9 at IGCSE English - given I only scraped a C myself back in the day, I didn't think I was well qualified to answer that. Still, I bluffed a bit and told him to do plenty of reading and to listen to the BBC World Service...)
Although sunset isn't until after 6pm - and so they haven't drunk any water for around 11 hours - the boys gather each afternoon at around 4:30pm for a no-holds-barred game of football. Well-hydrated as I was, I couldn't imagine running around in that heat even with the spectacular back-drop of the hills in the distance
I took an early evening stroll with Abdirahman, the biology teacher at the school. He's a fascinating chap, and very keen to chat about teaching and professional development. One of the main barriers to attending overseas conferences is that Somaliland passports aren't recognised anywhere beyond Ethiopia. Abdirahman told me that most upwardly-mobile Somalilanders try to obtain Ethiopian passports at some point.
One of the highlights of our walk was seeing - in the space of half a mile or so - three enormous tortoises minding their own business by the side of the road!
Sunday, 9th April 2023
It was my chance to do some teaching on Sunday. I saw the parallel Form 3 set for their revision lesson on circle theorems and a Form 4 AS level class doing some work on focus/directrix definitions and parametric equations of the parabola. Both classes were great fun, and I particularly enjoyed playing around with Desmos for the coordinate geometry with the AS class. They follow the Edexcel specification, but do three modules of pure maths (units P1, P2 and FP1 of the Edexcel International A Level if you're interested), so get to cover some material that would be in the further maths spec in the UK. I ran an AS exam revision session at lunchtime, going through a past paper, with pupils working on roots of polynomials, complex numbers and proof by induction. I was able to take something of a back seat and allow the pupils to demonstrate what they knew.
After afur it was time for a revision session with the Form 3 class. Because it was after dark I was able to bring along the Cadbury's Celebrations that I'd picked up in London before departing. These were excellent fuel for the tough IGCSE questions that the pupils had selected to go through!
A thought that struck me again and again during my time was the difference in experience for boys and girls at the school. Amira, one of the Form 4 pupils, was a hugely impressive student - she had aced her IGCSEs last year, and was the most competent mathematician in the class, but the classroom setting is dominated by the boys and her voice seems under-heard (and her input would benefit all). Amira has offers to attend university in the US, but visa issues mean this won't be at all straightforward. The revision sessions I put on - both at lunch and after dinner - were only attended by boys, and there are (as yet) not female teachers at the school. Both Mohamed (the principal) and Khader (the vice principal) agree that this is something that needs to be addressed, so with a bit of luck this will change in future.
Monday, 10th April 2023
After an early breakfast it was time to say goodbye to Sheikh Secondary School and head back to Hargeisa. The trip back included a stop off at Laas Geel, an ancient rock art site. The surrounding area is stunningly beautiful and the paintings themselves (dating back 5000 years or so) are incredible. This was a real highlight of my trip, and I could have spent hours at the site soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying the tranquility.
Then it was on to Hargeisa, a bustling town by Somaliland standards. After visiting Muna at the Pharo office - who had coordinated my visit expertly - I spent some time at the hotel and, after dark, took to the streets to explore. It feels an incredibly safe place, and the post-fast atmosphere is one of celebration and happiness (for the men often fuelled by the chewing of khat, which is delivered daily by trucks from Ethiopia with much fanfare). I indulged in an excellent meal out (spurning the local Pizza Express for a more traditional restaurant) followed by an ice cream.
Tuesday, 11th April 2023
More exploring of Hargeisa on Tuesday morning, including visits to Pharo Primary School, two kindergartens (also run by Pharo) and their vocational training centre. The primary school is an oasis within its dusty neighbourhood, and the resources at the school are incredible: the pupils attending are extremely lucky indeed. I was given a tour by the formidably impressive head teacher - she spoke passionately about her school and the pupils, who were equally keen to chat with me. The kindergarten pupils were equally charming, and with them I experienced for the first time being applauded on entering a room! Unfortunately the training centre's students had already finished for the day by the time we arrived, but I was able to chat with the director, who talked me through their courses in plumbing, decorating and solar panel installation.
After lunch there was a chance for a little more sightseeing in Hargeisa before heading to the airport. The memorial to the war of independence with Somalia consists of a MiG-17 fighter jet that crash-landed in the city during the bombardment of Hargeisa.
One of the many brightly decorated khat stalls that dot the city