Midgaans and Ethiopians Are Fighting for Last Place in Somaliland
Aug 26 2013
Above, the Jaylaani barbershop. Below to the left, a Gaboye in front of the shop.
The Jaylaani barbershop in the center of Hargeisa, Somaliland, does good business. It’s nothing special as far as barbershops go—actually it’s a little raggedy. The counters are littered with tufts of hair and discarded khat leaves, broken and mismatched trimmers and razors, and creams and ointments with crusty containers and labels in languages no one in the shop can read. But it’s an institution. It’s the kind of place where people come just to sit outside and chat. The Jaylaani barbershop has developed enough of a following that it’s one of the few businesses in Hargeisa that stays open in the afternoon, when everyone’s off chewing khat.
But the men who run Jaylaani, past the small talk and professionalism, are worried. They are members of an ambiguous ethnosocial class often referred to as “the minority clan,” because their actual name, Midgaan, which encompasses the Timal, Yibir, Gaboye, and other groups, doubles as an insult. While some Midgaan are trying to reclaim that name, they still see it as a connoting pseudo-slavery in Somali society, where they’ve traditionally been restricted to “unclean” work, like barbering, blacksmithing, infibulation, and leatherwork.
For all their murky and disturbing history, being relegated to menial jobs at least meant they had regular work. However, the majority clans of Somaliland have found a way to get into the barbering business over the past few years without dirtying their hands. They’ve done it by building barbershops, stocking them with new and functional equipment, and then hiring the cheap labor of illegal or ambiguous Ethiopian migrants to compete with or even undercut the traditional barbers on quality and price.
Members of the Ubah Social Welfare Organization, a minority-run minority rights advocacy group, estimate that more than 20 barbershops have closed in the face of such competition. And now one of these competitors has moved in down the street from Jaylaani, throwing the security of the community in doubt.
Most politicians in Somaliland say there’s little need to worry, as there are many opportunities for the Midgaan. They say that their lot is improving rapidly in terms of legal, cultural, and economic equality with the majority clan. Mohamed and Ahmed Ibrahim Hassan, two brothers who work at Jaylaani, say it’s true that some Midgaan have made it into government jobs or the security forces and their lives have improved materially over the past 20 years of Somaliland’s independence. But many of those improvements have come through concentrated efforts by USWO and aid organizations, who partner with international donors on simple projects like making sure there's more than one toilet per ten families in the Gaboye ghetto, or creating incentives and scholarships to keep Midgaan children from dropping out of school in the face of bigotry.
Above, an Ethiopian cafe. Below to the left, Yusuf Xabashi.
But even with such efforts, as of 2006, when the Voice of Somaliland Minority Women Organization conducted a survey of the Midgaan in Hargeisa, most of the Midgaan lived off less than $1 per day, at least half of the population was unemployed, and only 20 percent attended school. Even now, only between 30 and 40 Midgaan (out of perhaps 10,000 in Hargeisa alone, by Mohamed’s rough estimates) are attending or have graduated from universities. And, USWO insists, you’d be hard-pressed to find one Midgaan in a technical school, despite their history of work in technical/vocational trades. Given that vocational skills are more in demand here than university skills, USWO officials suspect they’re being systematically barred from potential new means of employment despite their current employment crisis.
Beyond the simple question of whether or not jobs exist, Mohamed and Ahmed can both recount numerous instances of persistent discrimination—persecution and beatings of Midgaan and non-Midgaan youths in relationships, systematic preference for non-Midgaan among equally qualified job candidates, and a lack of access to justice through the police, elders, or courts. Mohamed and Ahmed’s anecdotes of oppression are supported by the findings of numerous aid organizations. The legend in Mohamed and Ahmed’s clan is that their ancestors hunted with bows and poisoned arrows, so the meat they ate died without having been slaughtered in halal fashion, hence they were ritually unclean. And many majority clans still refuse to so much as eat from the same plate as a Midgaan, making the barriers to social, political, and economic justice hard to overcome.
They could dissimulate easily, as there’s no physical type associated with a Midgaan. But Mohamed and Ahmed say the question "What is your clan?" is common, and they don’t want to hide from who they are. They’re proud of their identity and their history and they’d rather not increase stigma and discrimination by hiding behind a false identity, admitting implicitly that the Midgaan are a base people.
They could flee the nation, as in the past Midgaans found success and less discrimination in nations like Libya. But instability in the region, and the growing threats of human trafficking (including a severe regional fear of organ harvesting) prevents them from leaving. There is a US program, recognizing the poor situation of minorities, to give them preferred immigration status and bring over large groups, but all the Midgaan I’ve encountered have stories of individuals who, in need of immediate cash, sell their registries to majority Somalis.
So for now, aside from a few success stories and the vague potential of a better life somehow in the future (despite massive national unemployment and persistent low- to high-level discrimination), these threatened jobs are all the Midgaan have. The problem is that these are also the only jobs the Ethiopian migrants have.
Accounts of the number of Ethiopians in Somaliland and their status vary wildly, as some come for a short time and return, some are just stuck in the nation temporarily, and many are uncounted totally or trying to blend in. The first wave was in the early 90s, just after the de facto independent state was proclaimed. They were treated well by those Somalilanders who’d fled to Ethiopia for refuge during Somalia’s Civil War.
One of the early Ethiopian refugees, Yusuf Xabashi, who adopted a Somali name, recalls how the Ethiopians flooding Somaliland changed over time. In the 2000s, when migration was in the tens of thousands, fewer and fewer Ethiopians were political refugees and more and more were Oromo migrants coming over to beg seasonally. They would pass through to Somali ports to go to Yemen and the Gulf for work, run out of money, and get stuck. Or they would just be traveling to Hargeisa to seek a job. This shift caused attitudes towards the Ethiopians to change.
An increasing number of improvements in Somaliland’s security and infrastructure have made it an enticing migration route. Information and remittance networks have provided the money for Ethiopians to travel, but regional instabilities in destination countries like Libya, Yemen, and Syria have bottlenecked the migrants into Somaliland and Puntland’s urban centers, For those who get stuck en route, the pressure mounts to offer labor on the cheap and work the most miserable jobs—ditch digging, toilet cleaning, etc.
While theoretically the Ethiopian migrants are decent for large-scale economics and politics, buying goods and providing cheap services, their association with street begging and their employment amid massive Somalilander unemployment has led to widespread xenophobia and discrimination: they are seen as potential vessels of terrorism, tuberculosis, and HIV. The many Muslim Oromo are accused of being fakers. And “Christian” and “Xabashi” (Ethiopian) have become derogatory terms of marginalization. NGO workers in the country caution against taking the claims of discrimination at face value, as claims of physical attacks and systematic denial of services are often exaggerated to push the hands of aid providers. But even if exaggerated, it’s undeniable that the Ethiopian migrants are in some level of marginalization. So, out of necessity and lack of options, they take the jobs given, and those include barbering.
The truly troubling thing about the Midgaan-Ethiopian competition for barbering and other “unclean” jobs is that, if these minority groups joined forces, they’d constitute a fair power block of well over 100,000 people in a nation of just 3.5 million. But the groups can’t even unite within themselves. Last year, recount Mohamed and Ahmed, the Midgaan tried to secure a seat on the local council of Hargeisa, but each of the four minority clans put up their own candidates, refused to consolidate behind one, and were firmly trounced. And within the Ethiopian communities, many seasonal migrants from the Ogaden refuse to identify as Ethiopian, choosing to pass as Somalis, while the older immigrants tend to discount and distance themselves from the recent economic migrants who give them and more recent political refugees and asylum seekers a “bad name.”
Mohamed and Ahmed stress that even if they could overcome their internal fractures, they all live so hand-to-mouth (both they and the Ethiopians have no access to remittances to sustain them when out of work like majority Somalilanders do) and in such geographically dispersed and demographically negligible communities that there’s little chance of organizing coordinated action. So for now everyone’s stuck in a wary standoff, with the Midgaan and Ethiopians eyeing each other from down the street. And in this fractious struggle, which creates a perverse market competition, the majority consumers win. No one’s sure, though, what will happen to the losers. They just don’t want to be the ones who lose.
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