Daniel Howden: Dancing to a different tune

Africa Notebook
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Hargeisa's wedding hall doesn't deal in subtlety. A concrete box with a sagging ceiling, it's decorated in flourishes of cream and pink reminiscent of icing. The heart-shaped silver thrones for the bride and groom seem to have been plucked from the top of a towering wedding cake.

The purpose of the building is to deliver glamour, at all costs, into the otherwise entirely unglamorous capital of Somaliland. Anyone waiting for the dour form of Islam being fought for further south in rump Somalia, where singing or dancing have been banned in some places, would be in for a shock.

The warm-up act for the wedding singer is a homegrown rapper dressed in smart casual and a camouflage hat. The real glamour arrives with the female guests, who sweep in in billowing, brilliant dresses and determinedly thick make-up. The men arrive separately, after the mildly narcotic khat has been chewed. The surprise is that there are no more than a handful of older people.

Blissfully, there are no speeches. A brief song and dance is followed by a feast. Then a dapper young man named Mohammed, in a sharp white suit, explains that the wedding celebrations are spread over five days. Tonight is the young people's night.

A student in Luton, who has come back to Hargeisa for the first time in 15 years, is only marginally less culturally confused than I am.

With that the real dancing begins and any notion of gender separation disappears. Mohammed appears with a female friend to dance with the foreign guest. Eager not to offend, I offer a cautious hand from a respectful distance. With an understanding smile she shimmies intimately close then at the last second dips a shoulder and gracefully spins away.

I have no idea of the rules of the Somali ballroom so smile weakly and offer the same hand. All the while thinking that acute cultural sensitivity doesn't make you a good dance partner.

A legacy of refuge

Africa is littered with the relics of misplaced colonial grandeur. Few of them have fallen on harder times than Somaliland's State House. Celebrated as Hargeisa's most beautiful building, it was originally constructed to accommodate the Queen should she have wanted to visit what was then British Somaliland. She didn't. Its grandest visitor was Prince Henry, then Duke of Gloucester, who was housed in the greatest luxury the British protectorate could afford.

The house and grounds are now put to much more immediate and less luxurious use. They shelter hundreds of Somali refugees displaced during the civil war that saw Somaliland break away from greater Somalia after 1991. The improvised refugee camp is the closest Britain has come to leaving a useful legacy here.