By Patrick Mbataru
Pick-ups carrying young men with Kalashnikovs zooms by on the dilapidated road. Each pick-up has about five to seven mean-looking young men, with their feet dangling from the sides of the truck. One stands behind a mounted machine gun. PHOTO | DAUD OSMAN
The small crowd of passengers waiting to board the plane at Terminal Two at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport 2 is animated, but I am apprehensive. A buibui-clad woman is talking animatedly to another in Somali when suddenly, the crowd burst into laughter. I lean over to a fellow next to me and ask, “Anasema nini?”
“She is cracking jokes … about men,” he answers.
As the plane taxis out of the apron at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, the butterflies increase in my stomach. I am not a particularly religious person, but I find myself murmuring some old Catholic prayers from my days an altar boy. You see, I am headed for Mogadishu for a two-week assignment.
When I told a relative of mine that I would be going to Mogadishu, she looked at me, hands raised half way as if to say, “Man, now I know for sure that you are nuts!”
Yet people who had visited the city in the recent past had assured me that the place was okay, and that all I needed to do was take basic precautions like avoiding crowded places. And if I could also ignore frequent gun shots, so much the better.
“You will love it. Trust me, you will most certainly be looking to returning there… I would rather be there than in Dandora during the day or night…,” a colleague had assured me enthusiastically. “They don’t bomb everywhere or just anyone on the streets.”
He had been there many times, but I was not convinced.
Anyway, we are soon airborne and overflying the wasteland that is north-eastern Kenya.
I dismiss my fears by comforting myself that we are about 150 in the plane, all headed to different parts the war-weary country.
It is quiet in the cabin. The fellow seated next to me is lost in thought, his forehead creased. He seems to be nursing a bad hangover.
“Ever been to Mogadishu before?” I hazard a question.
First, he throws me a silly-man-mind-your-own-business-look at me. Then, after an unexpectedly long time he straightens up and says, “I work there…that’s where money is.”
“Really!” I exclaim.
In response he gives me a quick lecture on the economic situation in Somalia.
“Life is inexpensive. The country is slowly returning to normalcy. And there is business.”
“What about the insecurity?”
“If you are in the wrong place at the wrong time, then too bad. The thing is, you must know which places to avoid,” he says, shrugging and going back to his thoughts.
I look down to the wilderness of north-eastern Kenya. It is just shrubs, acacia, and sand. Very little human settlement. The brown, scorched earth below is simply not inspiring.
Time passes quickly. Kenya’s barren north imperceptibly fuses with Jubaland barely 30 minutes after take-off. We have entered Somali air space. The plane cruises towards Mogaadiso, as Somalis call their capital.
Soon, a river appears below the openings between the woolly clouds. From the little geography I know, I can tell that it is the Jubba River. It meanders like a huge snake and before I know, another huge river appears. This must be the Shabelle River. Lush vegetation lines both sides of the river. Down there, I have read, are some of the most fertile soils in Africa.
“We will be landing at Adan Abduale Airport, shortly,” the pilot announces before long.
We are approaching the airport from the Indian Ocean, flying so low that I can — or imagine I do — see fish in the water.
WELCOME TO SOMALIA
At the airport, the heat hits me in the face like a hot frying pan.
Safaricom fervently “welcomes” us to Somalia. I am tempted to text back and remind one Bob Collymore that he should first fix the connectivity problems on some parts of Thika Road… and if he could stop following me wherever I go!
We board a modern airport shuttle bus that stops 50 metres away. We alight and are ushered into a modern checkout hall. Someone calls out my name, or something close to it. I answer, after which I am quickly taken through the immigration desk and check out.
And that is where the drama begins.
At the baggage collection hall behind the immigration section is a group of young and not-so-young porters dressed in a light blue uniform. Passengers do not have to carry their luggage here, even for a few metres; it is a free service. That is why I am surprised because that there is scuffle as the young men scramble for my bags. They give me back my luggage about 20 metres away and return to the hall without a word. I am expecting an outstretched hand demanding pay.
The space just outside the airport is reminiscent of a seedier part of Nairobi. Children loiter around begging.
A crowd of women, men and children follows a man who has just arrived. I comment that that they must be happy to have one of their own back from abroad.
“They are beggars…they want money from him,” my minder tells me.
Pick-ups carrying young men with Kalashnikovs zooms by on the dilapidated road. Each pick-up has about five to seven mean-looking young men, with their feet dangling from the sides of the truck. One stands behind a mounted machine gun.
As I enter the vehicle to take me to my destination, a young man, (a policeman or a soldier, it is hard to tell) is crossing the road. A big SUV is approaching and as he tries to dash out of harm’s way, he drops his smartphone.
The SUV’s left wheels flatten it. The young man gestures in anguish as he watches helplessly. The nonchalant driver increases speed. The young man quickly collects the remains of his phone and follows the offending SUV up the road, his huge gun dangling on his back.
We leave the scene and head for my rendezvous. It is 1.40 pm. We use a newly built dual carriageway, built with assistance from Turkey, complete with solar street lights.
“That is Sahafi Hotel, one of the best in town. Unfortunately, we can’t book you there because of insecurity,” my minder tells me. I try to figure out the paradox.
CHILDREN OF THE BULLET
I hear gun shots regularly. Near and far. At first, I am jumpy.
“No worry… No worry…testing gun,” a man called Ali tells me.
I soon learn that “testing gun” means opening up traffic by firing into the air. The traffic miraculously clears! Would that work in Nairobi?
And guess who clogs the roads here?
Matatus and tuk tuks, of course.
Then I am given lessons on what gunshots mean in Mogadishu.
“We are children of the bullet,” Ali tells me.
“If you hear tu, tu, tu…tu… no problem. Gun testing… but if you hear du, duu du… that is big. That is worry. Take cover..!” he advises me.
He says that many people here can, upon hearing gun shots, recognise the type of gun used and whether someone has been hit!
Sunset seems to come early. It is dusk by 5.30pm. Save for the “gun testing”, the evenings are normal. People move about. There is even a nightlife. Every day at about 9 pm, a group of youngsters turn one side of the dual carriageway into a football pitch. They play up to 11pm. They quickly dismount the “goal posts” when they see a vehicle approaching.
I am taken to the beach (armed guard in tow) one Friday. Thursday and Friday are the free days were. There is an air of a subdued carnival on the beach. Tens of rollicking young men, women and children are splashing in the water.
As we walk on the beach, I am taken aback when a young fellow shouts at me in Nairobi’s street slang, “Ni aji bwana?”
“Poa .…” I respond.
I soon discover that in this land, a stranger stands out like a sore thumb. It is the shape of my nose, my hair and clothes that sell me out, I am told.
Somalis are a homogenous people, with a strong sense of identity. Culturally, they identify with the Middle East. All Hamitic people (like Ethiopians, Eritreans, Tutsi and Fulani) harbour such ideas. And they often show it down towards “flat nosed” woolly-haired nywele ngumu Bantus like me.
It is hard not to compare Kenya with Somalia. Amazingly, even after more than 20 years without a central government, some things continued running just fine, in some cases, even better, some say, than in “peaceful” Kenya. It is said that mobile connectivity in the Horn of Africa country is up to 80 per cent and more reliable than in many other African countries. Their IDs and driving licences are digital.
Political economists have attributed this to the strong Somali-Islamic culture. Everything — social, economic, political — is framed along cultural values, which stress on strong social capital built on trust. Hundreds of years before our Mpesa, the Hawala system of sending money was already in place in the Middle East, towards which Somalia gravitates.
“But at the end of the day, there are some things that only a good government can provide such as roads and schools,” says Ali, a retired lawyer.
Sample this to understand the impact of culture on a people’s life: I am talking to a group on different types of financial instruments, whey I inadvertently ruin the discussion by mentioning “payment of interest”. One man waves his hand dismissively at me and shouts, “Peso Haram…haram…!” I point out that Islamic banking is the method in use locally and calm returns.
Fancy this: for the two weeks, there is …wait for this… not a single blackout. Many services are privatised. And it is like the country is in a hurry to catch up. Along one street, I count about 15 universities, some with signboards advertising anything from medicine to “Low” and “Viterinary” courses.
I had been informed in advance that prices of consumer goods are crazily low in Mogadishu, thanks to the government’s inability to collect taxes. There is virtually no duty on things like cars.
So my mouth waters when I am told that of a 2013 Fielder saloon costs about Sh400,000. With the new taxes, it would costs about Sh 1.4 million in Nairobi, thank you very much, KRA!
“Are you Kakiuyu… Kekyiayu?” Ali wants to know, like a typical Kenyan would.
Meanwhile, I am getting ideas on how much I can make. I’m reminded though, that the Kenya-Somalia boarder is sealed by Kenya Defence Forces personnel so I will still have to make an appointment with Mr Njiraini.
“We bring the vehicle up to Mandera…no problem. Problem is on your side. Take care of your side…”
“How much would I pay to drive it to Mandera?’ I enquire out of curiosity.
I treat the idea as good entertainment.
It seems everyone here has views about Kenya. They range from admiration and awe to hidden contempt, depending on who you ask. Young people who cannot make it to Europe want to come to Nairobi. It is the nearest standard to their aspirations.
“It is easy to deal with Kenyans, says a secondary school teacher of the Kenya Defence Forces.
Ethiopians seem to be high on their list of most hated people! It is a centuries-old grudge. Any mention of Ethiopia emits sharp reactions. It inadvertently comes out that the fear of harsh retaliation by Ethiopians is why there are few terror attacks there.
“They are brutal, inhuman unlike Kenyans” the teacher says.
Generally, it is clear that the Somali people are a stoic, very welcoming and generous people who can’t wait to see their country return to normalcy.
On the whole, my stay has been pleasant.
Then on November 1, a day after I leave Mogadishu, the Sahafi Hotel, a few metres from where I was staying, gets bombed. Twelve people are killed, including an MP and a photojournalist.
“I am grad you left…it was bad but ok now,” my host tweets me.