Somaliland, country of myrrh and frankincense

The first impression one gets of Somaliland is one of heat and dry landscapes. Shrubs and trees grow amongst the rocky landscape, but not much else. But then comes a thunderstorm and the self-same landscape becomes a river, a surface of water that then once again dries up and becomes dusty and parched.

The people, however, are not like the landscape: the women wear colourful hijabs and burkas. Oftentimes shy, as few foreigners pass beyond Hargeisa, the capital, they are also friendly and curious. The streets are lively, as all commodities are sold at street stalls – in the capital abundantly, in the villages, less so – and tailors and mechanics offer their services alongside the fruit sellers, and cloth merchants.

Stay overnight in any of Somaliland’s towns and you will hear the call to prayer by the Imam – a call that cannot be missed as mosques are fitted with loudspeakers. It comes at four in the morning and again at five, as the people of Somaliland are called to do the Fajr, the pre-dawn prayer. Somaliland is an Islamic country, and Islam plays an important role in society and life there.

The people of Somaliland predominantly subsist on farming and the trade in camels and goats. Every day thousands of goats and camels are bought and sold in Hargeisa. The selling of the animals still follows the age old practice in which the seller and buyer surreptitiously give each other a handshake under the cover of their coats, and the amount of fingers and finger knuckles used will signify the amount. If the buyer withdraws his hand, the deal is not to his liking, but if he shakes on it, then the sale goes through.

Another important income for many families in the rural areas of Somaliland comes from the collecting of myrrh and frankincense – the resinous gum of Commiphora and Boswellia species. The trees grow in remote areas of Somaliland, Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and across the Gulf on the Arabian Peninsula.

“Some 500 tons of myrrh and frankincense are exported annually from Somaliland” says Guelle Osman Guelle of Neobotanika, the largest exporter of the gums from Somaliland. Due to increasing demand he is expanding his operation and is the first business to offer certified organic product. Also, a distillation unit for extracting the oil is under construction – this will lead to a significant local value addition.

The myrrh and frankincense trees usually belong to certain families or tribes, who then have the right to harvest the myrrh or frankincense from them every year; no one interlopes on the other’s trees.

Myrrh harvesting happens twice a year and is signalled by the trees leaves which turn brown and fall off. Then harvesters cut a circular hole in their trees with a specially shaped tool called the “mingaf” and leave it for 10-15 days, waiting for the resin to harden, which is then collected and dried again. This process is repeated several times in one season, the hole growing a bit bigger each time. In a good year a tree may yield 300 – 500g. Harvesting myrrh is no easy task; many hours go into this undertaking, the trees often growing in remote areas accessible only on foot.

The dried resin is delivered to a central warehouse where it is cleaned from bits of bark or stones by the local women. Frankincense is also graded into differently coloured pieces – the price being determined by the colour and purity. Once this has been done, it is packaged and exported from the seaport of Berbera. Myrrh, having been used since ancient times for embalming, has many benefits: it is burnt as incense in religious ceremonies, added to cosmetics as perfume and, increasingly so, it is employed more and more in medicine. It may also be chewed for oral hygiene.

Frankincense trees are abundant in the coastal areas in Somaliland and are only harvested in the summer months of June to August. The gum resin is prepared in much the same way as myrrh Frankincense is used for religious purposes.

Life in Somaliland is emerging from the dark past of the civil war. Despite the harshness of the natural environment and the shadows of the past, the people of Somaliland strive forward towards a better future – and this is most uplifting to witness.


Photos: Ulrich Feiter