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Somalia in Kisenyi

Somalis leaving the Tawheed Mosque, Kisenyi after prayers

Monday, August 05, 2013

East or west, home is best, it is said. Yet sometimes, circumstances force us into places we never dreamt of and the only way to survive is to forge a home away from home. Somalis in the slums of Kisenyi are doing just that.

Kisenyi slum is synonymous with poor livelihoods and criminal activity. But few realise that there is something special here too: it is home to over 80% of the Somalis living in Uganda. The area in Kasaato zone, popularly referred to as Kisomaali, is not far from the New Taxi Park. Despite their love for Uganda, many Somalis in this area have little or no interest at all in learning Luganda or English.

Many of them only speak Arabic, Somali or Kiswahili. And even those who know a bit of English or Kiswahili, have a difficult accent.


According to Sunday Nkoyooyo, the area LC1 chairperson, who has lived in Kisenyi since 1976, Somalis have been there for almost half a century. “Even during Obote I, Somalis were the dominant people in this area,” Nkoyooyo says. Hussein Garwyeyne, the chairman of Somalis living here, says they might have chosen Kisenyi because of its proximity to the city centre and the cheap housing.

Their numbers were not as big until the war in Somalia intensified in the early 1990s after the overthrow of Siad Barre. Many Somalis who fled to Uganda pitched camp in Kisenyi, where other Somalis were already settled.

Records in Nkoyooyo’s office show that there are over 7,000 Somalis living in Kasaato Zone alone. Other places popular with Somalis are Kakajo, Mengo hill and Kiwa zones. Gine Mohammed, a Somali businesswoman dealing in lotions and women’s garments first came to Uganda in 1996 and stayed in Mbuya until 2004 when she moved to Kisenyi. “We were only two Somali families in Mbuya, but ever since I joined my brothers and sisters in Kisenyi, life has changed for the better,” says Mohammed.


Several Somalis work as cobblers, sell mairungi, manage airtime kiosks, butcheries, boutiques, small restaurants and supermarkets.

According to Harshib Tarquib, a cobbler in the area, many of them are employed by affluent Somali businessmen like Omar Mandela of City Tyres and City Oil chain of petrol stations and Hussein Shire of Gateway Bus Services. Those without gainful employment mostly depend on their relatives abroad, but even with that, Garwyeyne says, Somalis are helpful to each other.

“During times of trouble, like sickness, death, or even when one has nothing to eat, we join hands and bail them out,” says Garwyeyne. Somalis value their culture and traditions. Finding a Somali woman dressed in your usual skirt, pants, or a blouse is almost unheard of. Be it a young girl or a woman, the hijab is the dress code. But the men freely wear trousers and shirts.

They are against contraception, so the fertility rates among them is high. “We prefer nature to take its course,” argues Asinah Taqur, a Somali in her mid-40s. At 1:00pm, Tawheed Mosque is filled with Somalis, men in tunics and women in hijabs. In many of the restaurants, groups of three to four Somalis happily eat from the same plate, enjoying their favourite foods: injera, spaghetti and camel meat.


Sometimes, the harmony in the community is affected by people’s views towards them. “Locals call us all sorts of names, yet we try as much as possible to be good to them,” says Hamid al Hassan, a young trader. Abdilah Mohammed says they are often arrested over terrorism, and displays a Police clearance form of a young man just released from detention. Though they respect Uganda’s justice system, Somalis prefer
community courts to solve their cases.

“Whoever is found guilty is fined a number of camels or punished by strokes of the cane, among other forms of punishment, depending on the crime,” says Herbert Mutumba, the deputy officer in charge at Kasaato Police Post. Sgt. James Mugoya, the officer in charge of Kasaato Police Post, says: “We liaise with their leaders for feedback on how they manage cases.


Though they seem to be comfortable in Kisomaali, records in the chairman’s office show that monthly, over 20 Somalis migrate to the US as refugees, courtesy of the UNHCR. On the day we were there, a group of 12 Somalis had just been cleared by the chairman for their dream destination.

Most of them still long for the day Somalia will be totally secure so they can go back. “I miss my father, mother and relatives. The small profits I make here, I send home. I would love to join them one day,” says Minag Abdul Hassifah, in her mid-40s.


If Somalis were eligible to vote, Kisomaali would be one of President Museveni’s strongholds. “We are here thanks to him. The procedures for coming here are not as rigid as they are in Kenya. He has done a lot in fighting the al Shabaab and putting Somalia back to order, we are really grateful,” says Mohammad.


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