Working magic in Somaliland

by Mary Harper

Nothing beats witnessing change as it is happening on the ground. Journalist Mary Harper has reported on Africa for the BBC for three decades, the good, the bad and everything in between. Here, she describes what she saw when Pharo Foundation took her on a tour of some of its projects in Somaliland.

Imagine driving along a rough road through a parched landscape in a region enduring its worst drought in four decades. Millions of heads of livestock have died and famine-like conditions declared.

Suddenly, you come across a miracle.

Camels queue in neat lines waiting their turn to drink out of huge troughs built at just the right height for them to lower their long necks down to the water and take long sips. Sheep and goats gather around other watering points set at a lower level to allow them too to drink comfortably. 

In another area, donkeys wait patiently as yellow plastic jerrycans are strapped to their backs containing cleaner water, safe for human consumption. 

As a journalist who has reported for decades on frantic aid distribution during droughts, wars and other calamities across Africa, this struck me as something entirely different. It was calm, respectful and vital for the preservation of life.

I was led up a slope. When I reached the top, I thought I was seeing a mirage. Below was a vast, turquoise lake, stretching as far as the eye could see - a huge reserve of harvested rainwater.

This was the source of the plentiful water allowing humans and animals to survive, even during a period of devastating drought. 

In addition to such crucial lifesaving work, there were other small but significant surprises. The man who tended the dam pointed out fresh green plants making their way through the sand. Tiny fruits clung to the stems; these would grow into huge, sweet watermelons. 

Another person clambered to the top of a water tower, explaining in great detail how he ensured the water provided for human consumption was always clean and safe. 

The Wadomakahil dam in Somaliland’s Maroodi-Jeex region not only keeps people and animals alive; it provides jobs.

This is the work of Pharo Foundation, which in its own modest, quiet way is transforming lives.

The next stop was a kindergarten built in the grounds of a school in a deprived area of the capital Hargeisa. Its brightly painted walls and carefully shaded playground brightened up the place, as did the young children in their clean, freshly pressed uniforms. 

One of Pharo Foundation’s main passions is education and how crucial it is to fostering self-sufficiency in Africa. School attendance is shockingly low in Somaliland, with primary schools having a net enrolment rate of under 30% in 2022. 

Pharo Foundation believes that encouraging early years’ schooling will help change the culture for parents and children alike, many of whom simply don’t see the point in formal education. If children start going to school early, and parents see the benefit, they are likely to prioritise education and see it as crucial to the whole family’s future. This is why Pharo Foundation has created 18 early childhood education (ECE) centres in Hargeisa and Berbera, which are attached to public schools and it has co-created the national early childhood education centre curriculum with the government.

Staff noticed some of the children in the ECE centres were malnourished and coming to school hungry. It started feeding them and is now conducting a study on how nutrition affects early years’ learning. The data will eventually be shared with universities to enable further academic research.

In Somaliland, Pharo Foundation is supporting other forms of education too with flourishing fee-paying schools that offer scholarships. It also has schools in Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda, including a free girls-only boarding school in Benishangul Gumuz, a hard-to-reach, rural part of Ethiopia.

Pharo runs a vocational training centre where some of Somaliland’s estimated 75% unemployed youth learn trades leading to direct employment including painting, plumbing and electrical work. Students sit in classrooms learning theory while others engage in practical learning, painting the outside of the building, shaping metal pipes and wiring sockets.

Some of the graduates work for Pharo Ventures established in Somaliland in 2021 and engaged in the construction of residential and commercial projects, schools and dams as well as providing ready mixed concrete. 

While some may ask why Pharo is involved in business as well as philanthropy, the argument is that the two are intertwined, both aimed at creating genuine sustainable growth rather than following the short-term, funding-dependent model of so many aid projects in Africa.