Tag: Somalia

How Britain’s khat ban devastated an entire Kenyan town

 Khat's psychoactive ingredients -- cathinone and cathine -- are similar to amphetamines but weaker, and can help chewers stay awake and talkative. (Pic: AFP)
Khat’s psychoactive ingredients – cathinone and cathine – are similar to amphetamines but weaker, and can help chewers stay awake and talkative. (Pic: AFP)

In a quiet and unassuming town tucked away in a hilly part of eastern Kenya, the British home secretary Theresa May’s name is spoken with barely concealed anger. Since her role in the ban of the town’s most valuable export, she’s become a universally vilified figure.

For more than two decades, Maua enjoyed booming business propelled by the growth and sale of khat, known locally as miraa, a popular herb whose leaves and stems are chewed for the mild high they offer.

But last year the UK, home to one of khat’s biggest markets, declared the stimulant a class C drug and banned all imports, prompting Maua’s rapid descent into economic purgatory.

Since the early 1990s, Britain has imported between 2,500 to 2,800 tonnes a year, according to the Home Affairs committee. Although in its initial findings the committee could not find a compelling health or social reason to ban khat, May’s argument – that continuing to allow trade in the UK would spawn off an illegal export corridor to other European countries where it is banned – won out in what became a controversial cultural debate.

Now, a year after the legislation was signed, residents in Maua have been hit hard by a shrinking local economy that has left many facing poverty.


Edward Muruu is one of the earliest pioneers of the khat export trade. A retired headmaster at a local primary school, he says he has experienced unprecedented losses since the ban came into effect.

“I used to ferry miraa (khat) from Maua to Nairobi four times a week using 27 Toyota Hilux trucks, where it was repackaged for export. I used to make around £2 100 a month. Now I am lucky if I bring in £250 per month,” he says.

With the European market gone, the only place left for Muruu to sell his stimulant is Somalia, where consumers now dictate how much they pay – and it’s not much.

“The other issue with the Somali market is that the only people who can transport miraa to Mogadishu are Kenyan Somalis, meaning that the rest of us drivers have been put out of work,” says a former worker of Muruu’s, who only identified himself as Kanda.

According to Kanda, if non-Somali drivers attempt the trip they are attacked along the journey. For a town of its size and location, Maua has a disproportionately large number of residents of Somali heritage, most of whom are involved in the khat trade as middlemen. They are also big consumers themselves.

‘Miraa was the heartbeat of this town’

The effects of the London ban have reached everybody in the khat micro-economy, from the big name traders like Muraa to the small fish who depend on the trade for their survival.

Although Muraa has made investments that have cushioned him against the blows of a deeply depleted income, those at the lower end of the food chain have not been so lucky.

Miriti Ngozi, chairman of the Miraa Traders Association, says that many farmers and traders are no longer able to pay school fees or even buy enough food for their families.

“You have to understand that in this region, subsistence farming has long been overshadowed by the more prestigious miraa farming. Now that people are no longer making money from miraa, they do not have money to buy food and many families are sleeping hungry,” he says.

Yet many remain reluctant to uproot their khat crops and plant maize instead, holding on to the hope that their fortunes might one day return.

Pius Mbiti, a trader in his early 30s, is a qualified vet but says that he makes most of his income from picking and selling the stimulant.

“On a good day I used to make up to £12 which, when supplemented with earnings from my vet practice, was enough to take care of my family. But since the ban I am lucky if I make even £2 pounds,” he says.

He cannot rely on animal medicine any more either because farmers no longer have the money to pay for his services.

This narrative is familiar across the town, with the common refrain being that shutting down miraa imports to London is killing businesses indirectly linked to the herb.

“The miraa trade was the heartbeat of this town; it drove everything else. With revenue from miraa so drastically low, people no longer have the money to buy things,” says Lawrence Kobia, who owns a bookshop. He says that his sales have plummeted by more than 40% since last year.


In its submissions to parliament, the Home Office committee warned that banning khat would result in the formation of a black market – as seen in the United States and other European countries including Norway and Holland.

Although initially khat sold for between £3 and £4 a kilogram in Britain, the committee reported that if it was banned the price could increase to £318, similar to its price in the US.

Their predictions turned out to be true: there has been a proliferation of the stimulant in London since the ban. While the border police have no statistics on seizures, the London Metropolitan police says it has handled a number of khat-related offences.

A spokesperson said that in the first six months after the ban came into effect, a total of 68 warnings and 14 penalty notices were issued. In addition, 36 people were arrested for possession of the herb, four of whom were later charged.

In the meantime, the Kenyan government is trying hard to get the ban lifted, with President Uhuru Kenyatta even promising the farmers in Maua as recently as February that he will petition to have the market reopened for them.

The farmers, however, see this as a cheap political move to whip up support, complaining that no tangible rewards have come from promises made by politicians regarding the matter in the past.

But the squabbling over high-level politics in Kenya and the workings of the parliament in Britain are meaningless to the miraa farmer in Maua, whose only worry is where the next meal will come from.

Somalis in London: What we can learn from them after 100 years

(Pic: Reuters)
(Pic: Reuters)

There has been a Somali presence in London for over a hundred years. The first Somalis to arrive in Britain were economic migrants. Merchant seamen settled in cities including Cardiff, Liverpool and London. There are records of British Somalis in London dating back to 1914 when they were recruited to fight in the First World War and then subsequently settled there. In the 1990s civil war in Somali forced another wave of migration to Britain. Today, Somalis are one of the most misunderstood groups in the United Kingdom, despite their numbers.

Yet they have become integral to the capital’s poetry, literature, culture, and art. Warsan Shire, a British Somali talent born in Kenya, was named London’s first Young Poet Laureate in October 2013. The title includes a residency at the Houses of Parliament.

Just as Somali culture and identity grows and flourishes in new places, likewise, the British Somali population in London has developed with unique characteristics and complexities.

The Somalis in London report, part of a wider research project, Somalis in European Cities, aims to understand the views of British Somalis on issues vital to public life. These include identity, education, and political participation among others. The research has revealed a range of opinions on these matters and demonstrated the vibrancy and resilience of Somalis in London. Throughout the research we encountered many inspirational British Somalis, working hard for their community – and beyond – in voluntary organizations, supplementary education, and sport and youth activities.

Two factors were particularly striking. One was a tenacious devotion to community, marked by ongoing civic involvement in a time of economic austerity and cuts to spending on services. The second factor was the number of women involved in community initiatives. Our research goes some way to debunking the myth that Somali women are passive and silent. Women often step up, encouraging their children in school, and are visible in their communities and beyond. To quote one member who contributed to our research:

[People] get really confused sometimes because when they see Somali women covering, they associate us with the Asian culture, and then they see Somali women are very loud and boisterous. Then they are like, “Oh, okay, I was wrong about that.” I think [people] are very confused by the Somali community in general, ’cos sometimes they think you’re forced into marriage, and they ask, “Do you get arranged marriages?” and I’m like, “What are you talking about? We don’t do that!

These misperceptions are partly due to Somalis’ historical invisibility in ethnic monitoring processes throughout the UK. British Somalis often fall between the gaps of African and Muslim categories. Although country of birth data provides some insight into the size of the British Somali community, exact figures are difficult to ascertain due to the fact that there was no specific categorization of “British Somali” as an ethnic group in the 2011 Census.

Most attempts to classify Somalis muddle their nationality/ethnicity and religion/culture. Labeling a Somali “Black African” will obscure differences between Somalis and neighboring African countries in terms of culture, language, diet, dress, and religious practices. Being labeled as Muslim in contrast, ignores how British Somalis do not share language, diet, or dress with Asian and Arab Muslims who pray alongside them. This broad approach to monitoring categories has often resulted in the British Somali community’s experiences being overlooked, and we hope that the findings of this report go some way to highlighting the importance of capturing such data.

Some organizations are devising ways to learn about Somali life and build relationships with British Somali communities. Tower Hamlets Homes (THH), set up the Somali Tenants Engagement Project in April 2011. This initiative – for which THH should be commended – identified British Somali residents and gathered information on their needs and circumstances. THH was able to capture the unique experiences of their Somali residents.

Soon, all of London will get a chance to learn more about British Somalis. Kayd Arts’ annual Somali Week Festival occurs throughout the city from October 17 to 26. This festival showcases traditional and contemporary Somali art and culture, with events including poetry, literature, panel discussions, documentary film screenings, and music and theatre. It hosts artists, academics, and activists from London, the rest of the UK, and abroad. This year’s theme is “Imagination.” Examples of British Somalis’ contributions to London will also be showcased.

Sending money to Somalia: The remittance economy

(Pic: Flickr)
(Pic: Flickr)

Some of my oldest memories as a child are of sunny weekend mornings eating canjeero, staring wide-eyed at my parents as they yelled into the receiver. That’s how you knew they were talking to relatives back home. The amplitudes of their voices would let us know right away they were on a long distance call. My brothers and I would always laugh at the faces they made when the connection was particularly bad. They winced and yelled and repeated the same sentences over and over and we, being nothing but the goofy children we were, found their facial expressions, their repetitions hilarious.

They would ask so-and-so if they had received their money, would inform their siblings or cousins how much would go to whom. Some was intended for so-and-so’s schooling, this part would go to grandmother, and this fraction to another aunt or uncle. Education was paid for, healthcare, rent, you name it. I still watch them go through the same routine.

I remember walking to Western Union with my father as a child; the Ghanaian clerk still works there. It is not a Western Union anymore, the banners changed more than once the past few years but if one thing stays the same, it was going to that office and getting that money transferred. The companies changed but the people stay; bills still need to get paid.

I remember telling my father he had to introduce me to the relatives I had yet to meet, by phone now and in person eventually. I remember looking up at him and saying, in that serious manner children adopt when they believe what they are saying is of utmost importance: “If you die, I will have to send them that money, but how would I know who to send it to?”

I hardly remember his exact words, but I recall his loud laugh, his hand on my head and him telling me that there are no ‘ifs’ but ‘whens’; that I would meet everyone eventually; and that I needed to worry about that French homework in front of me, not the bills of my incalculable number of relatives.

Every now and then there’s a new name. some are feeling the effects of the drought; a relative living in an affected area is calling right this moment.

It is a 20 minute drive to the place. For years now my parents have been dealing with the same Somali woman and the money transfer company she works for. Money exchanges hands, a text message is sent, a phone call is made. A day or two later a call to relatives; a confirmation.

This reality is not ours alone. I am 20 now and realising how, for the past two decades, Somalia has heavily relied on remittances in order to sustain herself. That with conflict and political instability, money transfers from the diaspora directly to the intended recipients has become more reliable than incomes garnered from economic institutions on ground; and remittance money has not only become the main source of individual/household sustenance, but also contributes to investment.

A post on the World Bank blog asked if Somalia could survive without its remittance. For most people, when they think of the country, the images that come to mind are of pirates or face-covered al-Shabab fighters brandishing automatic weapons and a black flag, or of malnourished victims of drought and poverty.

That however, is not a full picture. Other than livestock, Somalia’s (albeit largely informal) economy is based on remittances and telecommunications. Until very recently Somalia lacked a central bank and even now it isn’t as strong an institution as it should be. What kept the country together after the outbreak of the civil war, in terms of effective monetary management, are those many remittance transferring companies, which have been and still are the main financial industry relied upon.

The country is slowly rebuilding. infrastructures are popping up; in some areas expats are moving back; the government has regained control of regions which had been for a long time under the grip of extremist fighters. And this doesn’t mean that remittance money has been dwindling; rather it has been and still is financing the latest developments the private sector has been undertaking.

According to Ifad (the UN’s International Funds for Agricultural Development), remittances flowing into the African continent reach close to $40 US billion. When it comes to the Somali diaspora, about $1.6-billion is sent yearly to the country, and contributes to various vital fields, from education to healthcare to basic necessities such as food and shelter.

However, it all isn’t picture perfect. Recently, as more light was shed on the exorbitant fees imposed on remittance money sent to Africa, “leading money transfer companies” have come under scrutiny.  Many are realising, and talking about, the fact that “the African Diaspora is being charged twice the global average” to send money home. The Somali central bank is now in its fifth year of existence after its destruction and optimists might say that once it gets on its feet, it could in the future set policies and regulations which would eventually lead to the establishment of reliable banks.

Sumaya Ugas is an undergraduate student at McGill University. She studies International Development and Political Sciences. A lover of words, she is constantly carrying a novel (or three) and writing. This post was first published on Rise Africa, a blog written by a group of individuals who seek to create an atmosphere that encourages conversation between Africans on the continent and in the diaspora. Connect with them on Twitter@riseafrica

The Mogadishu you don’t read about

It is 9 o’clock in the evening in Mogadishu. I am sitting in a teashop on Liberia Street in the Waberi district where I live. This street is popular among locals with tea shops, kiosks, fruit vendors and hawkers. Dozens of children from the neighbourhood are playing football in the street, cheering and urging each other on as they avoid the speeding cars.

This is not what you expect to see in Mogadishu, the place dubbed “the most dangerous city in the world” by western media and many journalists who have never actually set foot in Somalia.

While the kids play in the street, young adults walk in groups to the city centre to play soccer. They go to a place locally know as Sallax, a centre that hires out fields for various sports, including football and basketball . There are not enough football fields in the city and with everyone at work during the day, Sallax is very popular at night. Games usually last two hours. From my flat, I can often hear the youngsters chatting away past midnight on their way back home.

The Sallax sports and fitness centre. (Pic: Moulid Hujale)
The Sallax sports and fitness centre. (Pic: Moulid Hujale)

In the mornings in Waberi, the sound of the cock crowing coincides with the azaan (call to prayer) from the mosque, and soon thereafter the hooting of the city shuttle fills the air.

Children in colourful uniforms hurry to catch the minibuses to their respective schools; adults head off to work in public buses or their own cars.

I sometimes take the bus to my work place and always appreciate the lively conversations among the passengers as they debate the latest news or socio-economic issue. During weekends, the beach is teeming  with locals young and old. ‘Local tourists’ from  different parts of Somalia and diasporans also frequent the beach. They enjoy the comfort of the hotels facing the shore and make the most of swimming contests, soccer on the sand, high jumps and acrobats.

Somalis enjoy a swim in Lido Beach, Mogadishu. (Pic: AFP / AU-UN IST)
Somalis enjoy a swim in Lido Beach, Mogadishu. (Pic: AFP / AU-UN IST)

Daljirka Dahson is another popular tourist site which Mogadishu residents visit on  their days off. The monument is dedicated to soldiers who fought and sacrificed their lives for the country. Traditional dancers entertain the crowds and countless photos of the  national flags surrounding the site are captured.

The Daljirka Dahson monument in Mogadishu. (Pic: Moulid Hujale)
The Daljirka Dahson monument. (Pic: Deeq M Afrika)

With every day that passes, I realise how much of Mogadishu’s greatness I have yet to explore. I would never have known this side to the city if I hadn’t decided to move back and see the reality for myself. It was not my choice to leave Somalia but it was my duty and responsibility to come back after having lived in Kenya for most of my life.

The Somali people are associated with hunger, famine, lawlessness, piracy and conflict. These are the stories that dominate the headlines from the horn of Africa  – and which overshadow the tale of resilience, recovery and reconstruction. Despite the increasing number of websites, radios and satellite television channels, success stories from Somalia are rare. It is only the overwhelmingly negative ones that get circulated.

Rasna Warah, a Kenyan writer  and photojournalist, challenges Somalis to tell their own stories. In an interview with Africa Review  in mid-2012 about her book Mogadishu Then and Now, she said, referring to the Somalis:

“You should be able to tell your own story; if you don’t, people will tell it for you and they will distort the facts to suit their interests. For Somalis, Mogadishu is or was the most beautiful city in the world; they will say the food is fabulous, they will talk about the theatre, and the stadium where they used to play football – and those are the narratives we are not hearing. If you don’t change that narrative, people will continue talking on your behalf.”

It is high time we take up the task of telling our own story.

Moulid Hujale is a journalist now working as a consultant for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM). Follow him on Twitter: @moulidhujale 

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