WARNING: Somalia is not safe for independent travel or sightseeing due to armed conflict between Government forces and Islamist insurgents, kidnappings, warlording, and piracy. Those visiting for business, research or international aid purposes should consult with their organization and seek expert guidance before planning a trip. If you must go, see War zone safety.
Somalia is on the Horn of Africa, and is bordered by Ethiopia to the west, Djibouti to the north-west, and Kenya on its south-west. This is a country with a troubled past. Civil war, military coups, border disputes and warlordism are the general course of events here. Things started to improve after the Ethiopian Army withdrew in 2007 after defeating an Islamist government, but since then violence has flared up again with the re-emergence of Islamist and other clan and warlord-affiliated militias. Somalia is currently ruled by the a Coalition government, compromising the Internationally recognized Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the former Islamist government. However, the government is currently waging a military campaign with radical Islamic factions that refused to merge with the government and are backed by al-Qaeda.
The history of the Somali people dates back many centuries. The first time the word Somali was mentioned in a history book was 3500 years ago, when the queen of Egypt Hatshepsut sent a fleet of 5 large ships and a crew of 250 men to Somalia which the Egyptians called The Land of Punt. Punt means “the land of spices” from the aromatic plants that grow there. The Egyptians wanted to trade and they brought jewels and glass beads that they exchanged for gold, elephant tusks, myrrh, ostrich feathers, spices and different beads. Some of these items, especially the aromatic ones, were used by the Egyptians in their religious festivals and celebrations.
Between the 7th and 9th Cent. immigrant Muslim Arabs and Persians established trading posts along the Somali coast. In the 14th century Ibn Battuta, the great Berber traveller, visited Mogadishu and wrote about the people, their food and clothing and how they ruled themselves. In his book he mentioned that the people in the city were very fat and everybody ate as much as they could. The Mogadishans wore very nice white clothes and turbans and their sultan was very powerful.
Somalia was an unknown country for European explorers until the Portuguese explorers reached the coastal cities of Somalia on their way to India. They called it Terra Incognita, which means the unknown land. These new discoveries encouraged many other European navigators to sail on the Somali coasts.
British, Italian and French imperialism all played an active role in the region in the 19th century. In 1884 at the European powers' conference in Berlin, Somalia was divided into five parts to dilute the homogeneity imposed by its language, religion, and race.
The colonial powers divided Somalia into British Somaliland in the north, Italian Somalia in the south, the French Somali coast in Djibouti, Ogaden in the west and NFD. In the early 20th century a Somali resistance against these colonial powers started, led by Sayed Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, whom the British gave the nickname "Mad Mullah." He began his opposition after returning from Mecca and established his own army, which he called the Dervishes. He recruited from the local people and built his own headquarters in Taleex. In 1901 the fighting started between British and local Somali forces and it was the beginning of a long struggle that resulted in Somali independence.
After the independence, Somalia has been intertwined in much violence since 1991. In 1969, General Siad Barre siezed power over a coup d'etat, and the country was under a military government when the previous president was assassinated. The military government established large-scale public works programs and successfully implemented an urban and rural literacy campaign, which helped dramatically increase the literacy rate. In addition to a nationalization program of industry and land, the new regime's foreign policy placed an emphasis on Somalia's traditional and religious links with the Arab world, eventually joining the Arab League in 1974. All in all, Somalia's initial friendship with the Soviet Union and later partnership with the United States enabled it to build the largest army in Africa. This however ended in an utter collapse in the 1980's when the Somali people were disillusioned with the government and because the government was weakened further in the 1980s as the Cold War drew to a close and Somalia's strategic importance was diminished.
As a result, General Barre was ousted out of power and the civil war started in 1991 since the apparent independence of Somaliland, and where Barre's government massacres against the people of Somaliland. Since then, Life has grown tough for many Somalians, and have began to leave the country in large numbers to settle in safer parts of the world.
The prospects of change seem remote as of now, though a new government under the President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed has since making efforts in fighting instability and to end the war.
Somalia is principally desert. Major climatic factors are a year-round hot climate, seasonal monsoon winds, and irregular rainfall with recurring droughts. Mean daily maximum temperatures range from 30 °C to 32 °C (85–105 °F), except at higher elevations and along the east coast. Mean daily minimums usually vary from about 15 °C to 30 °C (60–85 °F). The southwest monsoon, a sea breeze, makes the period from about May to October the mildest season at Mogadishu. The December-February period of the northeast monsoon is also relatively mild, although prevailing climatic conditions in Mogadishu are rarely pleasant. The "tangambili" periods that intervene between the two monsoons (October–November and March–May) are hot and humid.
There are two options regarding plane travel to/from Somalia, though operations may be spotty or non-existent due to the recent bombings of the airport by Ethiopian forces.
The safest way to get in is with Daallo Airlines, which has connections to London and Paris. Since 2009 Daallo airlines stopped flights from London & Paris. Daallo airlines now flys from Dubai and you can catch your flight to Somalia and Djibouti.
Both Daallo Airlines and Jubba Airways use Aaden Cabdulle Cismaan International Airport which re-opened in August 2006. Prior to this, both airlines used an airport many miles from the Mogadishu due to security fears over the city's main airport.
Don't. Though this may be possible if you wish to cross into Somaliland, borders are generally sealed, and always dangerous.
Once again the borders are sealed.
There are ports in Boosaaso, Berbera, Kismaayo, and Mogadishu. The waters outside of Somalia, especially the Gulf of Aden, are unsafe due to pirates.
Somalia was without an effective government for 17 years; as one can imagine this has had a negative effect on the roads. There are two different modes of public transportation that you can use in Somalia: buses and taxis. The only rule of the road that seems to still be in force is that Somalians generally drive on the right or centre.
The Somali beach near Mogadishu is very beautiful. Families usually go on weekends. It is important to be aware that women must swim fully clothed, as Sharia law is strictly enforced, and does not permit women to show much of their bodies or to mingle with men. It is not clear as what the situation is like currently. In other circumstances, the beach would make for an ideal destination; however, the general threat of banditry, armed conflict and especially piracy along the coast make this, along with every other option in the country, risky.
Somali is the official language in Somalia. However, Arabic is spoken by many and represents a secondary language. As the Somalis are almost exclusively Sunni Muslims, Somali has borrowed much religious terminology from Arabic, although there are also Persian or Arabic loan words for everyday objects (e.g. Somali albab-ka (the door), from the Arabic الباب al baab). While the southern part of the country was a former protectorate and colony of Italy, it is unclear just how much Italian is still spoken. Many Somalis speak English to communicate with the people who generally handle all of the menial jobs in their country. If you can learn a few words of Somali, your hosts and any other locals that you may meet will be very impressed and appreciative.
The currency used in Somalia is the Somali Shilling (sos). Currently only the 1000 shilling note is used, and doesn't go far... a glass of (unpottable) water will cost 1000sos. The current exchange rate of 100 US dollars to Somali shilling is 3,300,000 as of May 2008. Much more useful is goods with which you could barter
The Bakaara Market (Somali: Suuqa Bakaaraha) is a Mogadishu open market and the largest in Somalia.
Bakaara Market in the heart of Mogadishu. The market was created in late 1972 during the reign of Siad Barre regime. Proprietors sold and still sell daily essentials (including staples such as maize, sorghum, beans, peanuts, sesame, wheat and rice), petrol and medicine. Despite a new Coalition government taking control, Somali markets continue to operate largely in the absence of regulations. A wide array of weaponry is also sold, with guns sometimes being the only thing for sale at some markets. Currently, 80% of Somali males own a weapon. Be very cautious, as customers will often test their new weapons by firing into the air.
There are many things to buy here but be wary of cheap pearls as they may not be real. There are many good tailors in Somalia and it is a good place to have clothes made to measure and copied.
Somali meals are meat driven, vegetarianism is relatively rare. Goat, beef, lamb and sometimes chicken is fried in ghee, or grilled or broiled. It is spiced with turmeric, coriander, cumin and curry and eaten with basmati rice for lunch, dinner and sometimes breakfast.
Vegetables appear to largely be side dishes, and often are woven into a meat dish, such as combining potatoes, carrots and peas with meat and making a stew. Green peppers, spinach and garlic were also noted as the types of vegetables most commonly eaten. Bananas, dates, apples, oranges, pears and grapes are among some of the more popular fruits (a raw, sliced banana is often eaten with rice). But in Somalia, Somalis had a much larger selection of fruits - like mango and guava - from which they would make fresh juice. Somali stores, therefore, carry among the widest selection of fruit juices, both Kern1s juices as well as imports from India and Canada. And there is also a selection of instant juice: frozen or available as a powder.
The overriding characteristic of the Somali diet is that it consists of halal foods (Arabic for "allowable" as opposed to haram: "prohibited"). Somalis are Muslims and under Islamic Law (or Shar'1ah), pork and alcohol are not allowed.
Other common foods include a type of homemade bread called injera (like a large, spongy pancake) and sambusas (like the Indian samosas), which are deep-fried triangular-shaped pastries filled with meat or vegetables.
The Cuisine of Somalia varies from region to region and consists of an exotic mixture of native Somali,Yemeni, Persian, Turkish, Indian and Italian influences. It is the product of Somalia's rich tradition of trade and commerce. Despite the variety, there remains one thing that unites the various regional cuisines: all food is served halal.
Somalis adore spiced tea. A minority of Somalis drink a tea similar to Turkish tea which they brought from Middle eastern countries to their homeland. However, the majority drink a traditional and cultural tea known as Shah Hawaash because it is made of cardamom (in Somali, Xawaash or Hayle} and cinnamon bark (in Somali, Qoronfil).
Islam forbids alcohol and Somalia follows this rather strictly. If you do find some, don't show it or drink it in public, as there's a strong chance that you could offend, cause a scene and may even be punished by authorities.
As for the coffee (kahwa) itself, try mirra, made in the Somali style. Sometimes spiced with cardamom, it's strong and tastes great, particularly drunk with fresh dates. Tea (chai) usually comes with dollops of sugar and perhaps a few mint leaves (na'ana).
Bosaso and Hargeisa have some Western-level hotels.
The Somaliland capital Hargeisa is the safest city in Somalia. It is quite westernised and welcomes foreigners more than any other place in Somalia. If you are planning to go to Somalia then I strongly recommend that you go to Hargeisa in stead of any other city. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the easiest method for staying safe in Somalia is not to go in the first place. Kidnappings, armed clashes, piracy, and warlording are all common in this country. The latest event occured in August 2010 in which at least 33 were killed in a hotel suicide attack in Mogadishu.
Currently, a Coalition government rules Somalia, created following a merger by the Western-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG), and the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). This government is currently fighting a military campaign against radical al-Qaeda backed insurgents based in the South, and in some areas of Mogadishu, with the support of an African Union peacekeeping force. Be wary of areas where you see armed men, or from where you hear gunfire or explosions. Somali insurgents also launch mortar attacks onto civilian population centers and government compounds. Somali government forces have also launched artillery attacks against insurgents positioned in urban areas, which have resulted in civilian casualties. Keep in mind that shells could start raining down at any moment, especially if there are any signs of fighting nearby, and that you will have seconds to start running or take cover if you hear the telltale sound of an incoming shell. For more information, see War zone safety.
Also, be wary of violent crime. Although the Somali government has established a police force, it is still developing, and crime rates are still high. Be aware that there are many warlords and criminals in Somalia who will try to kidnap a foreigner and hold him or her for ransom.
Driving is on the right. While Somali drivers have something of a reputation for bad driving, the reality is slightly more nuanced. Risks are taken, particularly in Mogadishu, which would not normally be taken in other places, but the locals expect this to happen and compensate accordingly.
While arranging your trip, it is advisable to request that you be accompanied by hired Somali armed escorts, or bring along bodyguards.
Water is contaminated as a rule of thumb, stick to sealed, preferably non-Somalian bottled fluids.
This is a Muslim country. As such, be sensitive about where you point your camera. There are many great photo opportunities around every corner (the question is usually what to leave out of each image), but when photographing people, always ask first. Don't ever, ever try to take pictures of women, even if you're a woman yourself. This is considered a great offense and can even result in more than a few harsh words. Also don't try to take pictures of anything that looks as if it could be of any strategic importance (i.e., has at least one soldier, policeman or, more likely, armed militiaman guarding it).
Respect the Islamic beliefs of Somali people: Women shouldn't wear tube tops or skimpy outfits. It is absolutely acceptable for any nationality to wear the traditional Somali clothes.
Do not eat in public during the holy month of Ramadan -- you may be fined or even go to jail. The Al-Shabab Islamist militia can be found in many inhabited areas. They absolutely do not take kindly to any kind of violation of Sharia law and as they are not affiliated with any kind of government, they do not have to abide by any kind of laws per se, they will feel free to punish any abberant behavior any way they please, often by floggings, amputations, or even executions. Government authorities also punish violations of Sharia law, but these are generally less harsh than those imposed by insurgents.
Alcohol is prohibited in Somalia and possessing alcohol will get you into a lot of trouble -- and never drink and drive.
If you're dining with a Somali, don't expose the bottoms of your feet to him/her. Don't eat with your left hand either, since the left hand is seen as the 'dirty hand'. Similarly, don't attempt to shake hands or hand a package with your left hand.
If your Somali friend insists on buying you something - a meal or a gift - let him! Somalis are extremely hospitable, and typically there are no strings attached. It is generally a custom to argue for the bill.
Never discuss religion from an atheistic or similar point of view. Even highly-educated Somalis who studied abroad won't appreciate it and doors will close for you. Also be aware that the Islamic "call to prayer" happens five times daily and can be heard loudly almost anywhere you go. Just understand that most Somali people are used to it and enjoy it as part of the cultural experience. If you aren't Muslim, it is not expected for you to participate, but you should always sit quietly and respectfully until the prayers end.
Staring is quite common in Somalia; children, men and women are likely to stare at you simply for being a foreigner, especially if you travel off-season and in out-of-the-way places. This is not meant as an insult; it rather shows an interest, and a friendly smile will leave the kids giggling and showing off, and the adults happily trying out their few English phrases.
Men wear western pants or a flowing plaid ma'awis (kilt) western shirts, and shawls. On their heads they may wrap a colorful turban or wear a koofiyad (embroidered cap).
Due to its Islamic heritage, many Somalis wear long dresses known in the Arab and Islamic worlds as khameez/thobe. In recent years, many men in Somalia choose to wear suits and ties to look more modern. This western dress code is dominant amongst members of the Somali upper class and the government.
Homosexuality is punishable by death. It is common for Somali men to walk hand in hand as a sign of friendship, but it would be unwise for Western men to attempt the same. Sharing a hotel room as a way of cutting costs is normal, but don't even think about asking for one bed for two.
Women usually wear one of the following dress: Direh, a long, billowing dress worn over petticoats; coantino, a four-yard cloth tied over shoulder and draped around the waist. They also wear an abaya, a long and loose black robe.
The public telecommunications system was almost completely destroyed or dismantled by the civil war factions. Local cellular telephone systems have been established in Mogadishu and in several other population centers. International connections are available from Mogadishu by satellite. International outgoing connections also work from the cellular infrastructure. There is dialup internet access in Mogadishu, although visiting one of the internet cafes. Somalia has the cheapest cellular calling rates on the continent, with some companies charging less than a cent per minute. Competing phone companies have agreed on interconnection standards, which were brokered by the United Nations funded Somali Telecom Association.
Wireless service and Internet cafés are available, but do remember that the .so domain is not operating in Somalia.
There are no embassies in Mogadishu nor Hargeisa; therefore, in most cases, there will be no governmental representative who will be able to assist if trouble arises. The closest consular services for most countries are in neighboring Djibouti, Ethiopia or Nairobi, Kenya.