Where the Hell is Puntland?by Tebogo Malope / 24.06.2011
One morning, I answered the phone call that would spiral into me meeting a wannabe African Dictator, a true rock star, armed with an AK47-screensaver on his iPhone, mild schizophrenia and passionate hatred for the Western world.
In a deep voice over the crackling line, he said, “My name is Kaizer, calling from Canada, and I’m looking for a young cinematographer who can run fast. Your name came highly recommended!”
“Sounds like its gonna be a very physical shoot?”
“I’m shooting a Documentary in Somalia about a Pirate,” Kaizer said. “When they start shooting, I need you to be able to run fast!”
“When do we start?”
We met in Nairobi, our base, and I liked Kaizer right away. A Bob Marley look-alike with thick, long dreadlocks. We clicked, I guess, because of a shared passion for filmmaking and the naïve belief it can change the world. Tattoos ran up his arm. Tattoos of Jesus on the cross. Eish! Hadn’t I read something about Muslim extremists killing Christians where we were going.
We landed safely in a desert region called Galkayo, Puntland. A dusty gravel landing pad like the dusty streets of Soweto where I was born. We were led to a dilapidated Mosque which turned out to be the airport terminal. The astonished locals looked at Kaizer like we Soweto kids of the early 90’s used to look at the first wave of white tourists.
In the terminal, dramatic shafts of sunlight fall through the shattered windows and women in Ninja outfits wait in line a few meters away from the men. You can hear Arabic prayers from somewhere. I felt an urge to shout “Allah u Akbar!”
There were no standard heavy safety precautions, no annoying metal detectors or sniffer dogs. In fact I didn’t see a single dog on the entire trip. Where are all the Somali dogs? The terminals cleared out and we were the only ones left and we didn’t know why? Nobody spoke English and none of us spoke Somaal. We were lost in translation in the East of Africa.
Finally an armoured convoy arrived. There were 10 soldiers in non-matching camouflage. They drove us through the streets of Galkayo which struck me as a town with multiple-personalities. Pools of water still sat in the middle of the street from the heavy rains – but wasn’t this supposed to be a desert?
The smell of poverty struck a nerve in me. I know that smell well. People look friendly but many have a Kalashnikov slung over their shoulders. It feels like a ghost town but the aesthetics are aggressive – screaming in your face. Seen once, you never forget. A modern day, occupied ghost town.
We stop to wait for a hunchback armed with an AK47 to open a giant gate for us. His machine gun looked taller than him. Only the many Mosques lend a sense of uniformity to the town. Buildings have no signs. It took us all day to realise we were actually in a prison! We noticed men stretching their arms through prison bars, and we came to the realisation that we, ourselves, were prisoners.
“Where are you from?”
A guy in a pink shirt asks, then again, and again. It becomes clear that’s the extent of his English vocabulary. Still, it felt like an interrogation. We exercised our right to remain silent.
Without explanation, we are taken away by an even bigger entourage of soldiers, with an even greater array of camouflage. The hunchback re-opens the gates. We love this dude! He even made us laugh. It had been about 3 hours since we landed and we had no idea what was happening. The only English we’ve heard so far is “Where are you from?”
“Where are you taking us?”
Kaizer asks the driver who gives no response. I’m secretly taking pictures with my phone. It’s kind of exciting – I’ve never had to shoot with the potential of being shot. We approach a wall of soldiers. Even more camouflage. They point us towards a glamorous mansion. If 50cent was a Somali rapper with an African Dictator alter ego, and lived in the 80’s, this is where he’d live.
Suddenly a soldier points at my camera bag with his machine gun and tells me to open it. This is getting way too hostile.
“Aya! Aya! Aya!” the same soldier shouts, pointing towards the front door of the glorious house, a metaphor stuck in time of the glory that was Somalia.
Inside we are welcomed by a tall, well-dressed man who seems friendly enough. Then again they all do if you discount the machine guns. His iPhone rang and that’s when I noticed his AK47-screensaver. Eish! We shook hands and made introductions and he turned out to be the Governor of Puntland!
He mentioned his elevated status repeatedly in the first few minutes of our conversation and every time he said “Governor” a proud glow would suffuse his face. The Governor of Puntland.
“Welcome to my mansion” he said. “As soon as I heard they took you to prison, I instructed them to bring you here. Out of respect, you know?”
“What do you mean prison?” Kaizer asked.
“You are under arrest. Didn’t they tell you? You’re illegal. You entered the country without visas.”
“But we got visas!”
“You got Somali visas and we don’t recognize them in Puntland. You need a Puntland visa in Puntland!”
I thought Puntland was part of Somalia?
“Where are you from?”
“I’m from South Africa,” I say.
“Ah! Nelson Mandela!”
He turns to Kaizer.
“I’m from Canada.”
The Governor stares at him.
“Dreadlocks are unacceptable here in Puntland!”
That explained all the attention Kaizer had been getting.
“Are you disrespecting our culture?”
We shook our heads.
“Well you have committed a crime and must pay!”
I was hoping they wouldn’t strip search us – all we needed was for them to discover Kaizers’ Christian tattoos. It was one thing to be an illegal immigrant with a camera, but something completely different being confused for a dreadlocked heavy metal Christian missionary with a camera.
The dreaded realisation came to both of us at the same time. We were screwed!
*Tune in at the same time next week for Part 2.
*All images © Tebogo Malope.