Somaliland: A Land In Limbo

Photojournalist Narayan Mahon has been working on an ongoing project called Lands In Limbo to document the state of what he calls "unrecognized countries." According to Mahon, these de facto states have broken away from their parent countries, but are still waiting for international recognition as independent lands.

Over the years, his self-funded journeys have taken him to Abkhazia, Northern Cyprus, Transdniestra, Nagorno Karabakh and Somaliland.

  • Nimeo weaves a floor mat in her rural home with two of her six children.
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    Nimeo weaves a floor mat in her rural home with two of her six children.
    Photos by Narayan Mahon
  • Somaliland landscape.
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    Somaliland landscape.
    Photos by Narayan Mahon
  • A boy takes his family's camels out to graze in the Somaliland countryside.
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    A boy takes his family's camels out to graze in the Somaliland countryside.
    Photos by Narayan Mahon
  • A man smokes outside a voter registration center in Burao, Somaliland.
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    A man smokes outside a voter registration center in Burao, Somaliland.
    Photos by Narayan Mahon
  • Fishermen unload their boat in the port city of Berbera after several days at sea.
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    Fishermen unload their boat in the port city of Berbera after several days at sea.
    Photos by Narayan Mahon
  • Bales of khat are distributed to retailers in Hargeisa. Kaht is a narcotic leaf that is widely and legally used throughout Somaliland and the Horn of Africa.
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    Bales of khat are distributed to retailers in Hargeisa. Kaht is a narcotic leaf that is widely and legally used throughout Somaliland and the Horn of Africa.
    Photos by Narayan Mahon
  • A sufi prays in a shrine. Sufis in Somaliland often chew khat while praying. Sufism has deep roots in Somaliland and many in Somaliland feel the Islamic pressure building in Somalia as a threat to Somaliland's more moderate and tolerant view of Islam.
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    A sufi prays in a shrine. Sufis in Somaliland often chew khat while praying. Sufism has deep roots in Somaliland and many in Somaliland feel the Islamic pressure building in Somalia as a threat to Somaliland's more moderate and tolerant view of Islam.
    Photos by Narayan Mahon
  • A young Somali checks himself out and fixes his hair in the mirrors of a small barbershop in Hargeisa.
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    A young Somali checks himself out and fixes his hair in the mirrors of a small barbershop in Hargeisa.
    Photos by Narayan Mahon
  • Men sell and chew khat. A small bundle of khat costs from $5 to $15 and it is said that roughly $2 million worth (wholesale) of khat is imported into Hargeisa daily from Ethiopia.
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    Men sell and chew khat. A small bundle of khat costs from $5 to $15 and it is said that roughly $2 million worth (wholesale) of khat is imported into Hargeisa daily from Ethiopia.
    Photos by Narayan Mahon
  • A young woman stands silently on her bed in the Hargeisa mental hospital, the only such hospital in all of Somaliland. Maybe people are still affected by the breakway war with Somalia.
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    A young woman stands silently on her bed in the Hargeisa mental hospital, the only such hospital in all of Somaliland. Maybe people are still affected by the breakway war with Somalia.
    Photos by Narayan Mahon
  • Young men work out in a Hargeisa gym.
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    Young men work out in a Hargeisa gym.
    Photos by Narayan Mahon
  • Men and women walk through the bustling central market in Hargeisa, passing war-damaged buildings.
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    Men and women walk through the bustling central market in Hargeisa, passing war-damaged buildings.
    Photos by Narayan Mahon
  • Men play soccer in Hargeisa.
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    Men play soccer in Hargeisa.
    Photos by Narayan Mahon

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Mahon traveled to Somaliland in 2008 and 2009 to document its political, cultural and social landscape. His second trip was on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and he teamed up with a writer and fixer to navigate the country. Ironically, Mahon says, it was when he was traveling alone in 2008 that he was able to make the most meaningful images. He said he felt more free to move about the country, and had better, intimate access into people's lives.

"I wanted to show daily life as best I could as an outsider," he said. "I wanted to show the functionality of the place."

Mahon believes that Somaliland is succeeding as an independent state in ways that the other "lands in limbo" haven't. Although not formally recognized by the international community, Somaliland claims its own money and its own passports, and has developed its own system of rule independent of Somalia.

Men change money in central Hargeisa. Somaliland has its own currency — the Somaliland shilling. It takes stacks of shillings to equal one U.S. dollar, and piles of shillings are seen throughout the city, often transported by wheelbarrow. Theft in Somaliland is rare, and there are few reservations about having so much money out in the open. i i

hide captionMen change money in central Hargeisa. Somaliland has its own currency — the Somaliland shilling. It takes stacks of shillings to equal one U.S. dollar, and piles of shillings are seen throughout the city, often transported by wheelbarrow. Theft in Somaliland is rare, and there are few reservations about having so much money out in the open.

Narayan Mahon
Men change money in central Hargeisa. Somaliland has its own currency — the Somaliland shilling. It takes stacks of shillings to equal one U.S. dollar, and piles of shillings are seen throughout the city, often transported by wheelbarrow. Theft in Somaliland is rare, and there are few reservations about having so much money out in the open.

Men change money in central Hargeisa. Somaliland has its own currency — the Somaliland shilling. It takes stacks of shillings to equal one U.S. dollar, and piles of shillings are seen throughout the city, often transported by wheelbarrow. Theft in Somaliland is rare, and there are few reservations about having so much money out in the open.

Narayan Mahon

"It's so pragmatic, it's just about wanting to have their own country and their own form of government," Mahon says. "To me that feels genuine; it feels almost wholesome."

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