Author: Hamza Mohamed

Return of the quirky Somali diasporans

For the best part of the last three years I’ve been visiting, working and living in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. During that time a lot has changed. Security has improved thanks to al-Shabab retreating from the city. Mogadishu feels like it is finally being resuscitated from the bloody two-decade long civil war-induced coma. Residents are flocking to the white sandy beaches on the edge of the city to pass time and enjoy things they couldn’t afford to because of the war.

Liido Beach, where the 'cool' diasporan men go to mingle with the ladies. (Pic: Hamza Mohamed)
Liido Beach, where the ‘cool’ diasporan men go to mingle with the ladies. (Pic: Hamza Mohamed)

There is also a new crowd calling this seaside city of one million people home. Somalis are returning from all corners of the globe – some moving back for good, others to seek business opportunities. As a result of this new addition to the city’s residents, rent is sky-high and competition between diasporans and locals for the few government jobs available is becoming cut throat.

Depending on the countries the diasporans are returning from, they bring with them distinct behaviours and ways alien to Mogadishu.

Somali-Brits – the serial title collectors
They make up the majority of diasporans, and they love titles more than anything. Ask for the business card of a Somali-Brit in Mogadishu –  before their name you’ll find at least three titles. Mohamed, a forklift driver from the rundown area of Harlesden in London, will be Pilot, Professor, Doctor, Diplomat Mohamed. Only Somali-Brits can fit so many titles on such small cards.

Titles are not the only thing they love, though. They are also seasoned penny pinchers. They dislike tipping more than they dislike Somalia’s notorious checkpoints, and spend many minutes negotiating the price of a US $5 meal. They are experts in Qudbosiro (secret marriages). The only time Somali-Brits are happy to part with cash is when they’re paying the dowry for a secret second wife. They have a habit of bribing the local Qaadis (men who conduct weddings) so that they don’t alert the first wife back in the UK.

The Americans – the Tea Party type
This bunch is loud, big and in clothes at least two sizes bigger than your usual Somali. From their dress sense it is difficult to tell whether they came from Dadaab or Denver. Some dress in FUBU and Karl Kani labels. Unlike the Brits they will tip – only $1 dollar – and then proudly tell the whole city about their ‘generous’ deed. Because they are used to American food portions, they endlessly complain about the ‘small’ portions in local restaurants.

The Tea Party types obsessively boast about the small achievements they accomplished in American cities that the average Somali person will find impossible to find on a map – like the time they graduated from a beginner’s English language course ten years ago.

They are experts in local clan politics thanks to the liberal number of years they spent out of work and in tea shops in Minneapolis. They are Somalia’ tea party – their views and loyalty to their clans trumps everything.

They usually visit Somalia in large numbers after they have received their tax returns – the only time they can afford economy class tickets from Minneapolis to Mogadishu.

Every second sentence usually starts with, “I’m American, and you know in America…”

Despite their views corresponding with the Republican Party, they claim to vote for the Democratic Party.

The Canadians – Team Yolo (You Only Live Once)
They are ciyaalka xafada (the cool kids on the block) and mooryans (gangsters) in the making. They are everyone’s friends. This group treats life as a party and Somalia as a dance floor. They usually arrive with few things – like a minor criminal record and a Mongolian scripture tattoo they got while under the influence on a night out in Toronto. It’s hard to find them talking about serious issues. Don’t mention school – they have usually dropped out of school and are sensitive discussing this subject. If you want them to unfriend you on Facebook, tag them in photos from your graduation ceremony.

They often blame the Canadian ‘system’ for their failure in school, and regularly point to Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs as examples of people who succeeded in life without completing school. Team Yolo’s favourite topic of conversation is binge-drinking in Nairobi. They’re the company to keep on a weekend when anything Halaal is not on the list.

The Scandinavians – Catwalk crew
Unlike their American counterparts, they don’t have weight issues and dress in body-hugging J Lindeberg T-shirts and slim-fit Jack & Jones jeans. They lack the social skills of the Canadians and have a dry sense of humour. They are the quietest of the diasporans because they speak a language no Somali in Somalia understands. Locals say the Somali-Scandinavians speak af shimbir (birds’ language).

Due to their poor grasp of the English language they often lose out to local university graduates for the few international NGO jobs in the market. Because they’re linguistically challenged, they are often found sitting alone in the corners of restaurants or in meetings, and making hand signals no one understands. The Scandinavians are obsessed with their looks and clothes. They can be heard complaining about how Mogadishu’s hard water is ruining their Afro or hair colour. Thanks to the long hours they spend in front of the mirror, they are easy on the eye and take likable selfies on Instagram.

The Karachi crew – the shipwrecks
This group is not considered fully diasporans nor fully local. They consist mainly of Somalis who attempted to get to Europe but weren’t lucky and ended up studying on the Indian subcontinent.

They are extremely good at lecturing others on things they know little of. They are experts on all matters mysterious, like where to find water if you end up on the moon – not that many Somalis will end up on the moon.

Local girls call them Kumel gar (the temporary ones) until the real diasporans turn up.

Their business cards usually say advisor, consultant, analyst or researcher for a diasporan taxi-driver-turned-minister or a foreign NGO.

To look cool and diasporan, they’re often found coughing on shisha or, if they’re in Nairobi, with an empty Tusker bottle – the local beer.

A Karachi crew member’s Facebook profile is filled with photos they took with other diasporans in Europe and America. They harass diasporans coming from the US for Starbucks coffee sachets.

They speak English with a heavy Indian accent but they believe they sound American. They have diplomatic passports issued under a president Somalis have long forgotten about.

A changing Somalia
These five groups aren’t the only ones who have moved back but they are the ones who stand out the most. The city is the liveliest it has been in more than 23 years. Locals have welcomed their long-lost countrymen with open arms, despite finding their new habits odd and funny at times.

With peace holding and at least five international flights landing in Mogadishu every day, it’s just a matter of time before the Somali-Aussies arrive from the end of the world. And with new shisha parlours popping up everywhere, I bet the Somalis in the Gulf are packing their bags too. The banana-flavoured shisha here is really good.

Hamza Mohamed is a journalist at Al Jazeera. Follow him on Twitter: @Hamza_Africa 

My close encounter with Somalia’s whip-wielding al-Shabab

It started as a request from my close friend, Awil Abukar, to accompany him as he took his frail mother to their ancestral hometown.

Awil, as he always does, assured me the trip would be smooth.

I should point out that in his world smooth means not getting killed – everything else is caadhi (fine).

Just after 1pm on August 22, our vehicle rattled into Goob Weyn, a sleepy town with more palm trees than people. This picturesque place is about a thirty-minute drive from Kismayo, Somalia’s third biggest city.

Unlike many towns in Somalia, locals here aren’t armed to the teeth. The few hundred of them tend to their farms or fish for half the day, then sleep the rest of the time. The town is peaceful, and is neither in the hands of the government nor al-Shabab.

But sleepy Goob Weyn and its residents were to get a rude awakening that evening when members of al-Shabab, the hardline al-Qaeda-linked rebel group fighting the Somali government, paid them a visit.

Al-Shabab enforces a strict version of Sharia law that prohibits things like music, cigarettes and alcohol in the areas it controls.

That evening, the town was lively. Men in sarongs sat in front of their red mud houses chewing khat – the green narcotic leaves commonly consumed by east Africans – to pass the hours. Garami (soft, melodic music) blasted from their small battery-powered radios.

Women wearing baati, the traditional Somali dress, with the odd baby strapped to their backs cooked dinner of rice and beans on open fires.

Awil, his son and I sat in front of his mum’s house drinking tea made with water from the muddy Jubba River. Local youths gathered around my iPhone to watch and listen to the western music loaded on it.

In short, the evening was a picture of tranquility and I was loving it.

Just before 8pm, a lorry with its headlights turned off rolled into town. It was strange – vehicles don’t come to Goob Weyn that often and definitely not at this time of the night. In fact, Awil’s car was the only vehicle in town until now.

The atmosphere quickly changed. The music stopped. People fell silent.

Then the creaky lorry door opened and a masked man jumped out.

Al-Shabab was here and many of us were in the middle of doing things al-Shabab does not approve of.

Fifteen other masked men jumped out of the lorry and started moving from house to house, asking all the men inside to come out.

I quickly dashed into Awil’s mum’s house and threw on a sarong over my knee-high shorts. A tall man in shorts is a sight al-Shabab sheikhs don’t approve of.

Then I wrapped my iPhone in a waterproof plastic bag and dropped it in the cockroach- and faeces-filled hole in the ground that the family used as a toilet. Given the prized photos, videos, music and texts on my phone I had to hide it by all means. Retrieving and cleaning it would be a minor inconvenience compared to getting lashes from an al-Shabab fighter’s whip.

The women who were busy cooking got busy changing into al-Shabab-compliant clothes. Off went the baati and on came the jilbab – a long, loose garment that covers the whole body.

The men who were religiously chewing khat leaves frantically started brushing their teeth and washing their mouths. They threw the remaining leaves into the open cooking fires, resulting in thick smoke that made those standing nearby cough nonstop.

(Graphic: Kenny Leung)
(Graphic: Kenny Leung)

By then the al-Shabab fighters were busy herding the men of Goob Weyn towards a football field in the centre of the town. The women were instructed to remain in their homes.

As we walked to the field a young man made a dash for it, running down the small moonlit alleyways between the mud houses. He didn’t get far as fighters hiding behind houses, not far away, caught him. He was taken to the lorry and we could hear screams in the distance as he was lashed. I later found out the young man is the local khat dealer and was wanted by al-Shabab for bringing the stimulant drug into the town.

We sat in the centre of the football field under the full moon as more and more of the town’s male residents joined us. There were about 150 of us in total.

Then the shortest of the al-Shabab fighters stepped forward. He was slightly taller than his AK-47 rifle, his skin-and-bones frame was covered in an oversized camouflage uniform. He wore oversized sandals that looked too heavy for his tiny feet. With a stainless steel torch in his left hand, he started collecting everyone’s cellphones. Surprisingly he had a deep chesty voice for someone of such a small frame, which made the orders he was barking sound more serious and threatening.

He passed the phones to his colleagues who went through them one by one to check for music and adult content. Those who had music on their phones received stern warnings and their memory cards were destroyed. One young man had adult material on his phone. He was taken aside and lashed in front of everyone. The al-Shabab guys were very unimpressed when they found out he was married with two wives. You could feel the disappointment behind the masks as they shook their heads and talked between them. They didn’t only destroy the young man’s memory card but his phone too.

One of the fighters realised I had not handed hand my phone over. Shining his torch at me he asked Awil who was seated next to me: “Is this one Somali and where is his phone?”

Awil, ever diplomatic, replied: “He’s Somali, speak to him.”

He looked at me without saying a word, unconvinced, turned his masked face back to Awil and again asked: “Where is this one’s phone?”

“He’s not mute. He can speak. He’s fluent in Somali. He’s not an alien. I swear,” said Awil, sounding slightly impatient.

I sensed my chance and joined the conversation. “Sheikh, I’m a British tourist and your seniors know we are here. You can call your emir [leader] to check. There is no need to keep me and Awil here.”

After three years working in Somalia I’ve managed to interview al-Shabab commanders. Before we made the trip they had assured us we were free to pass through or stay in areas they controlled.

Satisfied, the young al-Shabab fighter moved on.

Like a dentist, the short al-Shabab fighter then started closely inspecting everyone’s teeth for telltale signs of khat. Al-Shabab forbids the chewing of the narcotic leaves. The man pulled me aside, then asked me to open my mouth. Realising that my 6-foot-3 frame was much taller than his, he ordered me to bend down so he could take a closer look. I obliged. He placed his torch so close to my mouth that it touched my bottom lip and I could feel the warmth of the light coming from it. He asked me to move my tongue up, down and side to side.

After staring into my mouth for what seemed like an eternity, he said: “You are missing a tooth.”

Feeling annoyed but staying calm, I replied: “Sheikh, that’s not haram [forbidden].”

Ten men were taken aside by the short al-Shabab fighter. They were the unlucky ones who couldn’t conceal the fact they were chewing khat earlier. The green leaf pigment was either found on their tongue or stuck to their teeth. They were given an Islamic lecture before they each received five lashes.

The short al-Shabab guy wasn’t finished. He frog-marched one of the guys to the local kiosk. Before they reached it, he told the guy to order cigarettes from the female shopkeeper. Thinking that the al-Shabab men had left, she produced one from her secret hiding place. A big mistake. Cigarettes worth more than $200 were confiscated and set alight in front of everyone.

To my surprise she wasn’t flogged like the men who were caught with the khat. She was just given a religious lecture and a final warning.

Before they let us all go back to our homes, the al-Shabab fighters gave us a long lecture about jihad and asked us if anyone wanted to join them and defend the country against the “infidels”.

All I wanted to do was run back and save my phone, which wasn’t insured.

Just past midnight, they finally let us go but they took about a dozen of people with them.

Back at Awil’s mum’s house, a few locals blamed our presence in the town and our car for attracting al-Shabab. We told them we would be happy to leave the next morning.

After a short sleep, we were ready to head back to Mogadishu. A couple of locals asked us for a lift but they first searched the car extensively for explosives before jumping in.

Back in Mogadishu and still feeling disrespected by the short al-Shabab soldier with the torch, I called one of the al-Shabab commanders to relay the events of the previous evening.

He laughed throughout the conversation. Then he quipped: “If you had called me right then, I would’ve told them to fire a few shots inches above your head to welcome you to the Muslim land.”

I should’ve listened to Awil and not called to complain to the commander. What happen was caadhi after all!

As for my iPhone, I managed to retrieve it but it has never fully recovered from that trip down the hole-in-the-ground.

Hamza Mohamed is a British-Somali journalist working for Al Jazeera English. Connect with him on Twitter.

Facebook courting, Mogadishu-style

A tall figure in a black hijab and face veil strides confidently towards 20-year-old Ahmed Noor’s computer terminal. Only her dark brown eyes and eyelashes, thick with mascara, are visible.

On reaching Noor, she lifts her hijab to reveal manicured nails and gold rings on her fingers. In her hand she’s holding a folded white piece of paper. With a wink she passes it to Noor and walks off into the busy street outside.

Noor unfolds the paper. There’s a Facebook profile link and an email address written on it. It’s now up to him to take the next step.

This is post civil-war courting, Mogadishu-style.

In the conservative Muslim society, social networking is a popular and easy way through which Somalis can interact with members of the opposite sex.

Slow internet speeds – fibre optic cables are yet to reach us – and expensive internet café rates of up to 60 US cents per hour do not deter Somalis from staying connected. Internet penetration in the country is only at about 2% but it’s growing, especially among the youth. Currently there are more than 130 000 Facebook users in Somalia and more than half of them are between the ages of 18 and 24.

Despite the hardline al-Shabab group no longer controlling the Somali capital and imposing its own version of Sharia law, many women still wear the face veil. The only place their faces are visible is on their Facebook profiles. Even then, they’re a step ahead in concealing their real identity thanks to photo-editing software.

“Many girls come to us to have their photos altered. We exchange, for example, the head of an actress with theirs so the picture has their face on an actress’s body,” says Sharif Hussein (24) who runs Satellite Photo Studio. It’s conveniently located next to an internet café.

“They usually tell me they want me to photoshop their pictures so they can send it to potential boyfriends or husbands on Facebook.”

Some university students and working professionals prefer studio shoots instead of what Hussein calls a ‘virtual body part swap’. They stop at the Mogadishu Beauty Salon a short drive away to have their hair and make-up done professionally before arriving at his studio.

Saida Ahmed, a colourful woman in both appearance and personality, runs the popular beauty salon. She’s wearing a bright orange dress, her hair is dyed orange with henna and her ear lobes stretch under the weight of gold earrings.

“Some girls come here black and want to look white, so I make sure they leave the salon white. I’m here to help other sisters succeed with their Facebook missions,” she tells me while applying cream on a client’s face.

(Graphic: Kenny Leung, M&G)
(Graphic: Kenny Leung, M&G)

But Somali guys aren’t impressed with the visual tricks girls are employing on Facebook. “They look like Iman [the Somali supermodel] on their Facebook profile and they sound like Farxiya Fiska a [popular female singer] on the phone, but in reality they are neither,” complains Noor.

Back at the internet café where I’m hanging out with him and his friends, all the females are wearing face veils. One of them, Amina (19), is chatting on Facebook and showing off her two Chinese-made smart phones to friends over a webcam.

I ask her about Somali women’s preference for digitally enhanced photos and she retorts that Somali men shouldn’t complain.

“Men in Mogadishu tell lies to your face, we at least tell it behind a screen. They have two, three, four wives and still tell you they are single,” she says, breaking into high-pitched laughter.

Her friend Shamsa calls me over to her terminal and shows me her Facebook friends list. Most of the men on it look more like Arnold Schwarzenegger than typical Somalis.

“Guys do the same thing that we do! And worse,” Shamsa points out, clicking through the men’s photos. “They all look like wrestlers. You will not find a skinny Somali man on Facebook. They don’t look like Mo Farah.”

Hussein concurs with Shamsa and admits to helping many men doctor their photos. “Plenty of them come to my studio too. They usually ask me to swap their torsos with those of bodybuilders.”

With these tricks up their sleeves, courting on Facebook can be entertaining and exciting but religious leaders in Mogadishu aren’t happy about it. Sheikh Abdi Haji, a religious studies lecturer at Mogadishu University and imam of Zobe Mosque is vocal in his opposition to youngsters searching for life partners on the social network.

“There is a guy who wanted to marry a lady he met on Facebook. He paid the dowry only to find out on the wedding night she is a cripple. She didn’t tell him before they got married, nor did the pictures on her Facebook show she is a cripple.” Youth should stay away from Facebook, Sheikh Abdi says, because it’s full of “hypocrites”.

Noor, Amina and Shamsa wouldn’t reveal whether flirting on Facebook has paid off for them. They, like other young Somalis, are ever wary of the “religious police” and prefer to keep their relationships quiet to avoid trouble. There’s no way they’ll give up Facebook, though.

Noor takes out the piece of paper that the mysterious young woman had handed to him earlier. He’s going to take the next step. And, he tells me quietly, he’s come up with a solution to avoid being duped by Somali ‘supermodels’.

“I don’t go for girls with very pretty profile photos. They’re photoshopped. If she’s average-looking with spots on her face, I talk to her.”

Hamza Mohamed is an independent Britishi-Somali journalist. Connect with him on Twitter

Somalia: Pray before, during and after your flight

Taking a domestic flight in Somalia is an experience that can best be described as travelling to the brink of death and coming back. The airplanes on the domestic routes are commonly called express flying coffins and those who survive a flight on them are fittingly referred to as coffin dodgers.

Due to the appalling state of the country’s roads and poor road safety more and more Somalis are choosing to fly instead of drive.

On a recent hot humid Thursday afternoon more than 150 of us gathered in the lounge of Mogadishu International Airport to take a flight to Kismayu, Somalia’s third biggest city.

The passengers crowded around the few windows in the lounge, their eyes locked onto a sky-blue plane at the far end of the runway. Dark smoke, the kind that billows from burning tyres at protests, was coming out of the plane’s exhaust. We just knew that plane was going to be our ride for the 45-minute flight.


When the gates at the departure lounge opened, everyone rushed towards the plane. I, along with some other quick-footed passengers, chose to run.

As with many domestic flights in Somalia, there are more passengers than available seats. If you don’t literally grab a seat on the plane, you’ll stand for the whole journey despite having paid for a seat.

I was lucky to be one of the first to get on the plane. Seats filled up fast and 25 unlucky passengers were left standing in the aisle.

Competition for seats on a flight can be humbly described as fierce. If you leave yours to go the bathroom, another passenger will grab it before you’ve even negotiated your way through the packed aisle, and you’ll find yourself among those standing when you get back. On a Somali flight, when nature calls you don’t answer!

Most of the seats on this plane were faulty. They had no seat belts and reclined 180 degrees if you touched them. Each passenger had to hold the seat in front of them with both hands. If we didn’t, the seat and the passenger in it would be in our laps during take-off.

Once everyone was on board, a loud male voice pierced through the cacophony of noise. The voice asked all the passengers to be quiet for prayers before take-off.

Then, in an impeccable Somali voice, the teenage-looking steward in a half-buttoned baggy pink shirt said “welcome on board” and proceeded to recite a prayer at the top of his voice (the plane had no PA system and the steward had no megaphone). It was the kind of prayer Somalis normally recite at the graves of their long-gone great grandparents.

For a few seconds everyone was totally silent. Even the crying babies were quiet. I guess reality hit: we were on a plane not fit to fly.

But instead of comforting and reassuring us, the prayer caused silent panic. A lady sitting a few rows in front of me was overcome by fear and the thick smell of sweat in the air. She threw up on the feet of a standing passenger.

A few minutes later, two old, pot-bellied, sun-burnt, sweat-covered, cigarette-smoking, booze-smelling, Eastern European male pilots wearing only shorts climbed up the creaky metal ladder attached to the emergency exit. It had been left open to let air into the plane since the air conditioning had long since seized to function.

Passengers who’ve been on this plane before – and survived – had come prepared with prayer beads and cardboard pieces to use as makeshift fans.

Because of the intense heat and lack of air, babies started crying and parents shouted at the young steward to do something. Since the standing passengers were blocking the main exit, he rushed out of the plane through the emergency exit and returned with empty boxes. He ripped them into small pieces and started distributing them to passengers who did not bring their own cardboard. The situation calmed down a bit then and soon we were in the air.

I was travelling with my colleague Awil and his three-year-old son Lil Abdi. Despite paying for three seats we had two. Children under the age of 14 aren’t allowed to have their own seats even though they are charged for one. They have to sit on one of their parents’ laps. If they’re travelling alone, they have to ride on the laps of strangers.

Lil Abdi was spoilt for choice compared to the other kids on the flight. He had the pick of two laps to sit on for the journey. But he preferred to sit on mine because I was seated next to a window, which had a small crack that let in cold air. The little things like a window crack are attractive bonuses when you’re on a Somali flight.

I should mention that there were no cabins to store our possessions in. Everyone held their bags on their laps. If there’s a child on your lap – which will most likely be the case if you’re flying during the high season – then you leave your bag in the aisle. If there are passengers standing in the aisle, you have no other option but to hold your luggage over your head until you land.

Somalis are usually not scared of death. In fact, death is treated like an intimate neighbour. Sitting on the seat in front of me was an old man who had returned from Milan. He had his grandchild on his lap. He wasn’t worried about dying, just about where his bones would end up if something fatal happened mid-air.

“Do you think our bones will land on the ground or disappear in the air?” he asked the passengers around him. No one responded.

A few minutes later he looked out the window, pointed to the green vegetation on the ground, and said: “Even if my whole clan went out there looking to collect our bones they will not find them.”

By this time, forty-five minutes had already passed so I asked the steward if we should prepare for landing. Looking visibly irritated he said: “It will take us a further twenty minutes because the plane is overloaded and has to fly at slower than normal speed.”

On hearing this, some passengers voiced their displeasure and asked that the plane fly faster. Frustrated with our constant complaints, the steward reminded us all that a few weeks ago another plane that was flying at high speed was targeted by the Islamist rebel group al-Shabaab as it prepared to land because they suspected the flight to be carrying government officials. Our hearts sunk and fresh panic set in again.

Suddenly passengers were scanning the skies for incoming rockets. It was bad enough being on this plane without the fear of being struck down by al-Shabaab.

Fahad, a passenger standing next to our row of seats, tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I was married. “No,” I said. He wasn’t married either, he told me. “I’m not scared of death but I want to marry and have at least one son before I die. I want to leave something behind on this world.”

I told Fahad the plane could have other plans for us and that al-Shabaab sheikhs may not want to wait for him to marry and have a son.

Perhaps he was looking for reassurance but I just wanted to finish listening to the Dhaanto track on my iPod and then pray for a few minutes in case things went pear-shaped.

With every word I uttered Fahad got more tense. Sensing this, Awil jumped in to comfort him: “If the sheikhs kill us up here we’ll be closer to heaven than if they killed us on the ground.”

I guess the sheikhs were busy with other business that day because we landed all right.

As soon as the plane touched down in Kismayu every passenger was on their feet, rushing for the exit. Some prayed enthusiastically on the dusty airport tarmac, thanking God for allowing them to survive the flight.

As we exited, I told Awil I’d be writing about this experience.

“If you do, we could get banned from future flights,” he said.

“That might just extend our life expectancy,” I replied.

Hamza Mohamed is an independent British-Somali journalist. Connect with him on Twitter.

Somalia’s eligible bachelors – and how to spot them

“London or Minneapolis?” a soft female voice asks. It comes from a few tables behind me at Village Restaurant – a popular hangout for Somali diasporans in Mogadishu – as I finish a call to my friend.

“Eastleigh,” I respond, trying not to disclose my London background. Eastleigh is a district in Nairobi, inhabited mainly by Somalis.

Clutching a shisha pipe in her right hand that is patterned with henna flowers, she blows thick white smoke that fills up the dimly lit corner of the restaurant. “You may dress like a local but you don’t sound like the Eastleigh type. You definitely don’t look like one.”

Moving her chair to to my table, she introduces herself as Hamdi from Hamarweyne, a district in Mogadishu. In the dim lights her gold necklace and rings are hard to miss, and one can smell the incense smoke she perfumed her long, black, orange-highlighted hair with from a mile away.

Her two female friends soon join us. They’ve come here in the hope of mingling with their preferred type of men – diasporan guys.

With fragile peace holding up in Mogadishu, Somalis who have been living abroad are flocking back home for a visit. Most of them are single men – eligible bachelors. They are to Somali women what English Premier League footballers are to London women: the cream of the crop.

Most local women think Somalis living abroad, especially in the West, have lots of money. It’s easy for diasporan men to seduce them with cash, the perceived chance of a better life abroad or love. There are unproven theories that diasporan men are more romantic than local men; that only a diasporan man will drive for miles to the one flower shop in town to buy his lady flowers; that, unlike local men, diasporan men listen to their ladies while romantically gazing into their eyes.

I ask Hamdi how she knows I’m not a local. She smiles. “I can even tell what you do for a living.”

She and her friends reckon there are three types of diasporan men in Mogadishu. Like spots on the skin of a leopard each group has unique features, they say. They dress and carry themselves differently.

1. The government workers
This group is mainly made up of former taxi drivers from London, Minneapolis, Toronto and Sydney who have returned home to work in government.

They wear oversized two-piece suits and walk around with briefcases whose contents are a mystery. To finish off the look, they sport dark glasses (plastic). This group, the girls say, don’t have the most amount of money. They’re very visible at the beginning of the month just after they’ve received their meagre pay cheques. Their strong point is that they have access to power, which means they can potentially help you land a job if you play your cards right. This group attracts unemployed female university graduates looking for work in government offices, Hamdi’s friend Fartun reveals.

2. The business types/MBA
More often than not, these men are dressed in expensive sarongs and polyester shirts. They’re older than the government workers and tip the obese end of the scale, but they have deep pockets.

What they lack in looks and charm, they compensate for in gifts. They usually have at least one wife outside Somalia and half a dozen children. These men are commonly referred to as MBA – Married But Available. They attract women who dream of shopping trips to Dubai and are okay with being the second, third or fourth wife.

3. The cool guys
According to the ladies, this group has the most fun but the lightest pockets. They’re the new cool kids on the block, sent back to Somalia by their families because they’ve become too westernised in their adopted home countries. They depend on donations from relatives in the West and have the worst reputation among the locals.

Young and fashionable, they sport the latest hairstyles like mohawks and some have tattoos hidden under their long sleeve shirts. If they don’t conceal them, they risk facing the wrath of conservative Muslim locals.

You can find the cool guys chilling on Liido Beach or Hamarweyne, the most liberal district of Mogadishu. They know how to throw underground parties on a budget among the bullet-battered buildings of the city, and supply all kinds of illegal recreational stuff. To be seen with them is to play with fire but the girls who want to be “Hollywood cool” feel at home in their company.

Liido Beach, where the 'cool' diasporan men go to mingle with the ladies. (Pic: Hamza Mohamed)
Liido Beach, where the ‘cool’ diasporan men go to mingle with the ladies. (Pic: Hamza Mohamed)

Fartun prefers the business types because they can afford the things she likes in life, like dining at the few nice restaurants in town. A decent meal for two at one of these spots can start at US $25. In Somali culture men always pay for the meal, which means high-end restaurants are out of budget for many of the local men.

With the summer holidays coming up, an influx of diasporan men are expected in Mogadishu in the next few months. Hamdi and her friends say they’re happy about this – the more fish in the sea, the better the chance of a good catch.

Before leaving the restaurant, I again ask Hamdi what she thinks I do and what group of eligible bachelors she’s put me in. After inspecting me from head to toe, she says: “Judging by the sandals and the T-shirt you wearing, you look like they’ve deported you from London.”

Hamza Mohamed is an independent British-Somali journalist. Connect with him on Twitter