Mogadishu, Somalia. Photo: Hiiraan Online (Dec 2012)
by Rasna Warah
Monday, May 06, 2013
A few months after my first visit to Mogadishu in 2011, I met the Somali writer, Nuruddin Farah, who predicted that I would try and return there because “once you have tasted the water of Mogadishu, you always go back”.
An opportunity to do so presented itself last week when the mayor of Mogadishu, Mr Mohamoud Nur, invited me to his city to launch the book, Mogadishu Then and Now, which I co-authored with Ismail Osman and Mohamud Dirios, Somalis based in the US, who have been yearning to go back home since they fled the country at the start of the civil war in the 1990s. (Osman finally returned to his beloved city early this year.)
It was a dream come true for all of us. Mogadishuans have not witnessed a book launch, and certainly not a book about their own city, in decades.
Most of its current youthful residents have no recollection of the city when it was a beautiful cosmopolitan metropolis.
Mogadishu Then and Now aims to restore the lost glory of the capital city in the Somali people’s collective memory. I think the book and the accompanying photo exhibition succeeded in doing that.
I was moved to tears when a young woman came up to me and thanked me for showcasing her city before it became “the world capital of things-gone-completely-to-hell”, as one academic put it.
The mayor said I was the first foreigner in two decades to showcase the good, rather than the ugly, side of Mogadishu to the world.
It occurred to me then that I had inadvertently become a goodwill ambassador for both Kenya and Somalia, just like the many Kenyan hotel staff who now work in Mogadishu’s growing hospitality industry.
Residents of Mogadishu have gotten used to the Ugandan and Burundian African Union forces that can be seen in various parts of the city, but their encounters with Kenyans have not always been pleasant.
As refugees in Kenya, they are often discriminated against and physically abused. Suspicions abound on both sides. Somalis don’t trust Kenyans and Kenyans are generally distrustful of Somalis. (Hopefully, the situation will improve now that the Foreign Affairs ministries of both countries are headed by ethnic Somali women.)
Kenya’s foray into Jubbaland in southern Somalia has not eased suspicions either. On the contrary, it has confirmed what many Somalis believe — that Kenya has a hidden agenda and that its intentions are to exploit the natural resources and agricultural potential of Somalia’s breadbasket.
How the port of Kismayu is managed by the Kenya Defence Forces (now re-hatted as Amisom) remains a mystery to most Somalis, and is a cause for concern to the new government of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. Many Somalis believe that the Kenyan forces have outlived their welcome and should go back home.
Things may change in the near future as more Kenyans interact with ordinary Somalis in Mogadishu and other cities.
A Kenyan waiter I met in Mogadishu (a Giriama from Kenya’s coastal region) is among the most loved people at the hotel where he works. My own experience with Somalis has taught me that they will trust you when you accept them on their terms, not on terms set by outsiders.
The fundamental flaw in foreigners’ relations with Somalis is that the former treat the latter as if they had no history or culture prior to the civil war, and that even if they did, that history does not matter.
Mogadishu is a much changed city. New buildings are coming up and damaged ones are being rebuilt and rehabilitated. Cafés and restaurants have sprung up all over the place and the sound of gunshots has almost disappeared.
There are fewer men carrying guns, and women and girls are now donning colourful Somali attire, rather than the drab black hijab preferred by Al-Shabaab.
Boys are playing football on the streets and on the beach, something unheard of just a few months ago.
If Mogadishu continues on this trajectory, it will soon be competing with Nairobi, Mombasa, Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar, Kampala and other cities in the region as an important commercial centre and tourist attraction.