By Maryam Sheikh Abdikadir
When I first received word on a few days assignment to undertake in Mogadishu, I tossed and turned over it wondering whether I should take such a risk. I had so many prejudices about the city, all courtesy of the media. Mogadishu was city of firearms, a place where violence was the norm peace the exception. I heard on numerous occasions that it was easier to kill a person than buy candy in Mogadishu. The legend goes that street criminals use human beings to test their firearms.
The disputed border issues with Kenya was a new thorn in every Somali’s flesh and that my Kenya passport would have been suicidal, so I thought. All the while, there was this adventurous side that really wanted to see Mogadishu. I had butterflies in my stomach but I wanted to really go and see. In the end, I decided to give my curiosity a go, consoling myself that if it was ordained I will die there, I will definitely be there. Seeing is believing so the adage goes and I am happy I did.
As the plane touched down, my heart leaped at the velvet blue blanket below. The ocean was spectacular, and I could see a modern city from the distance. My welcome was quite pleasant at the airport. I felt genuinely welcomed. I had `a challenge and there was this man who readily jumped in, went out of his way and helped me. That walaalnimo is what holds this country together I guess even after all these years of fighting. And who is fighting who you may ask? The same people, people who love each other and are very hospitable towards each other in their daily interactions.
I see lots of paradox in the Somali set up. It is like two simultaneous opposites all the time: love and hate, good and bad, sweet and sour, hot and cold going hand in hand. And I do not mean just in Mogadishu or Somalia. It is everywhere. It is a Somali thing. Many people wonder why we are so united yet so divided. This is a discussion for another day lest I digress.
I was driven straight into a high walled hotel with watch towers all around where the workshop was to take place. It kind of reawakened my fears but I quickly strangled it. I decided to venture out in the evening and see the city. All my fears gone, media-conceived notions melted away as I was driven through Makka Al Mukaram road. It dawned on me that Mogadishu could be the paradise on earth. Even after decades of war, the devastation was not explicitly evident.
Only on my way to the silky beach of Liido did I see ruins and evidence of the war and neglect. But that was erased immediately I set eyes on the beach. It was calming and cathartic; the number of people at the beach and the children playing football among other games signified tranquility. Sun set was beautiful and watching it on a boat ride through the sapphire blue ocean was breathtakingly enchanting.
I was transfixed by the genuine smiles and sincere welcome I met at every nook and cranny of beautiful Mogadishu. That after all these years of what could be described as mayhem and amidst the reported brother killing another, nothing could prepare me for the breathtaking beauty and warm welcome I witnessed. I was eager to venture out, meet and talk to people to see whether they shared my bewildered thoughts. I went out and enjoyed every bit of it.
While the residents who lived in the city throughout its transformation years both in the sad civil war and after could be said to have numbed their feelings, a visitor brainwashed by all the negative media reports visiting the city for the first time will be forgiven to think he or she is holidaying in the Maldives.
One remarkable style was the circular gardens outside in the hotel compounds, with soft lighting providing privacy. Revelers were hardly seen once seated in the gardens. The ambiance was magical! So satisfying and evokes a sense of fulfillment all through as one enjoyed the breeze. Mogadishu had a cool climate not the expected hot and humid coastal climate at this time of the year. A slice of heaven!
My mind was blown away by the fruits of Mogadishu. Their size, variety and taste just indescribable. There was fresh meat including the sea turtle. Fresh milk was in plenty signifying either the presence of animals within the confines of the city or their close proximity. That is why Mogadishu is magnificent. I always wondered why xamarawi, a name fondly referring to the residents of the city, love bananas to go with nearly every food type they ate. The answer lies in the amazingly sweet, long and big bananas they grow in Mogadishu.
Their love for lemon is also from the plenty they have available which was next to organic and fulfilling. Canuuni (durian), a fruit I long considered a favorite, partly because of what I think is its beautiful name, was plenty in the city; I drunk from its refreshing juice to my satisfaction. I had a taste of Mogadishu xalwaa, a traditional sugar delicacy.This is the Mogadishu I did not know. I am glad I got the opportunity to explore this city.
Mogadishu airport was bustling with flights. The newly built glass structure stands blue across the runway which is close to the beautiful ocean. Somalia is linked to the international world thanks to the Turkish airlines. If it is true that business is about risk and the higher the risk, the higher the returns, then Turkish airlines must be reaping big even though I now know Mogadishu is not any riskier or more violent than Nairobi or New York. Turkish flights fly daily and reportedly fully booked months in advance. Where others feared the imaginary risks, Turkish airline ventured and reaped huge. They must be smiling their way to the bank.
The exotic place-names
My ears were accustomed to the immortal names of kilomita afar and Via Roma, among other names heard from radio programmes and former Mugadisho residents who fled the city during the sad and long civil war. From their fond memories, evident in their stories, these places sounded exotic and remained my long held desire to one day pay a visit.
On my first day, I was taken for a tour and passed through these streets. My guide informs me that beautiful boulevards were the hallmarks of Via Roma. Big broad trees were standing tall along the street as if attesting to the guide’s claims. I passed and glanced at a heavily guarded Villa Somalia, the state house, the closest I was reminded of the past miasma of violence.
I walked past the Somali National Theater, which re-opened 3 years ago after 20 odd years of civil unrest. As I admired its architecture, I was reminded of the good and the great who may have passed through its door. The great thinkers, singers and poets.
The President himself, a great fan of culture and poetry. The great men and women including the great poets Mohamed Ibrahim Hadraawi, Mohamed Abdullahi Singub, currently the head of the Abwaans, the great singers Khadra Dahir Cige fondly known as KD, the late Saado Ali Warsame, Maryam Mursal, Salah Qasim Naaji, the late king of sounds Mohamed Saleban Tubec, the legendary singers Ahmed Ali Cigal, Hassan Adan Samatar, Sahra Ahmed not forgetting the famous playwright and now the director of the Theatre, Abdi Yusuf Hasan (Abdi Dhuux) and the legendary singer Abdi Taxaliil Warsame, sadly now paralysed and blind just to name a few. I was taken back to a golden era when giants ruled the airwaves. A reminder of a golden era gone by and the hopes of a better one beginning.
I saw the remains of once an iconic landmark in Mogadishu, the Hotel Uruba. Once a beautiful structure now a shadow of its former self. It must have been the talk of the 1970s, I thought, as I imagined its grace and radiance during its reign. I was shown some of the oldest Masjids, some more than 500 years old still retaining their beauty and use. The architectural design of the houses is a spectacle to behold. It exhibits what this city was, a modern coastal city.
The face of the city is rapidly changing with lots of tall towers and glass buildings. Businesses are not only sprouting up by the day, the buzz is deafening and the business atmosphere amazed me. Banks and forex bureaus are thriving. I was honoured and hosted by the Managing Director of Premier Bank, Mahad Maalim Mohamed. Premier Bank is a modern financial institution at the heart of the city. They have the first ATMs operational in Mogadishu, even at strategic locations like the airport dispensing foreign currency to visitors.
The next day on a visit to SIMAD University which was out of town, I was met by the charming Mr Abdikarim Mohaidin Ahmed, the institution’s Director of Public Relations. SIMAD was magnificent! The beautification and the greenery are out of this world. I would never have believed such a place existed in Mogadishu before my historic trip. It has many faculties, including medicine, and taking me through the anatomy lab, I was reminded of my biology classes. I was warmly welcomed as Abdikarim introduced me around and it was a privilege to chat with the students.
I saw optimism in their young faces. I conveyed a message; they are the flowers just about to blossom and must choose peace from violence to save their paradise. Hope to go back for a more structured visit to explore the city’s beauty.
Somalis have to just want peace to save this paradise. I had an almost-in-tears conversation with some friends. I just could not understand why peace was so elusive in Somalia and why they were spoiling their paradise. That night in bed I imagined mobilizing 100 ladies from Kenya to camp and assemble at Mogadishu’s central square and cry for the preservation of this paradise. In the morning I woke up to the sad news of the fighting in Dujis back home where clashes were reported on some border dispute.
I sighed and paid a silent sorry apology “Sorry Mogadishu. I am unfortunately in the same boat as your inhabitants. Hating the same people I love. Killing those I would save. The new curse of being a Somali! I say new because we were ones great.
Maryam is a development expert and a Nepjournal Columnist. Follow her on twitter @maryamdeeqa, firstname.lastname@example.org