Tag: Somalia

Showcasing a different Somalia

Birthed out of the frustration of the mostly negative and one-dimensional depictions of their country, and armed with the “responsibility of building a better Somalia”, the curators behind the blog Discover Somalia make use of imagery and other sourced information in an attempt to “change the negative perceptions and stereotypes” about their country.

Dynamic Africa spoke to them about this new project aimed at showcasing the diversity of life in Somalia.

Can you tell us a little bit about who the people behind the “Discover Somalia” initiative are?
Discover Somalia was created by a group made up of Somali diasporans, mostly college students in United States and the United Kingdom who are very much up to date on current affairs in Somalia and/or are involved with Somalia in their respective studies. After seeing how Somalia is portrayed in the mainstream media, we wanted to take ownership. We … as free Somalis at this historic moment in our country wanted to help define and shape the country we want. We never got to experience [what] a stable Somalia looks like, but we want to take responsibility of building a better Somalia that can live up to the promise of all its peoples.

Somali women walk past a billboard with the message ‘Cultivate to prosper’. (Pic: Stuart Price / Dynamic Africa)

What are the main objectives of your blog? What inspired you to create it?
Discover Somalia is an online photography blog that attempts to change the negative perceptions and stereotypes of Somalia. Somalia is not a place of war and famine and destruction and all these horrible things we so often hear in the mainstream media, but it’s a place where normal people do normal things all the time, just like we do. We wanted to start a project that could be more all encompassing, we wanted a collection of images that showcases Somalia’s progress and normalcy. We have many present and future objectives, but for now we want display  images progress and history of Somalia, so that people understand that there is [more] to Somalia.

Lido Beach was Mogadishu’s Miami Beach in the ’60s and ’70s, a vibrant, lively, and party-packed place where the city came on the weekends to kick back and go for a dip. In the decades since, it has become abandoned — one of the most dangerous areas in Mogadishu. Now, people are slowly returning, the restaurants are opening up, and it’s become a great spot for an espresso, some shisha, and a quick dip in the ocean. (Pic: Dynamic Africa / Jonathan Kalan - Matador Network)
Lido Beach was Mogadishu’s Miami Beach in the 60s and 70s; a vibrant, lively, and party-packed place where the city came on the weekends to kick back and go for a dip. In the decades since, it has become abandoned — one of the most dangerous areas in Mogadishu. Now, people are slowly returning, the restaurants are opening up, and it’s become a great spot for an espresso, some shisha, and a quick dip in the ocean. (Pic: Jonathan Kalan – Matador Network / Dynamic Africa)

What would most readers gain from your blog?
For decades, mainstream and Somali media have documented and continue to document a seemingly endless cycle of wars and famine in Somalia, exposing otherwise ignored tragedies to the global audience. But too often the subjects of these images seem to be reduced to symbols, and viewers do not encounter them as fully rounded human beings. And we rarely see photos of the Somalia’s progress or the cultural heritage and history of Somalia. A complicated country is often reduced to caricature. So when people come to our blog we want them to instantly see a different Somalia that they don’t witness elsewhere.

Boys repair fishermen's nets on the beachfront in Mogadishu. (Pic: Petterik Wiggers / Discover Somalia)
Boys repair fishermen’s nets on the beachfront in Mogadishu. (Pic: Petterik Wiggers / Discover Somalia)

Photography seems to play a huge role in your blog’s aesthetic, do you plan on including other forms of artistic/media narratives?
Everyone sees things differently. Put 100 photographers in a room and you’ll get 100 different photos. The way you see the world is unique, and photography lets you share that perspective with others. We saw too many people focusing on images of the deadly  explosions in Mogadishu, while turning  a blind eye to the entrepreneurs, footballers, beachgoers and the reconstruction of Mogadishu. We believe that even though Somalia is busily rising out of the ashes, to the majority of the world it will remain, for a long while, the land of starving children, AK47-wielding rebels and greedy big-stomach-small-brain politicians. It takes a long time to change a bad image … but we can do it, one photograph at a time.

Visit the blog at http://discoversomalia.tumblr.com/

Dynamic Africa is a multimedia curated blog focused on all facets of African cultures, African history, and the lives and experiences of Africans on the continent and in the diaspora – past and present. Visit the blog and connect with the curator, Funke Makinwa, 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.

(Pic: sxc.hu)
(Pic: sxc.hu)

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.

Once upon a time in Xamar Weyne

Last November, during my trip back home to Somalia, my uncle took my dad and me on a stroll around Xamar Weyne, one of the oldest districts in Mogadishu. The historic and beautiful neighbourhood was hit hard by the civil war in the 1990s, and many buildings and homes were destroyed. My father grew up here, made his memories here.

On our ‘tour’, we stopped in the middle of a street market. I tried to make a note of exact locations but after a while the streets and buildings all became the same to me. My uncle pointed out my great aunt’s house which overlooks the ocean. She married an Italian soldier during colonial times and moved to Italy where she still lives. Writing that sounds so simplistic and almost funny – “colonial times” is a period so foreign to me I can’t even conceptualise it.

My father was squinting peculiarly at a building. He told me it used to be a cinema. His cinema. The cinema he spent his Friday nights in, where he hung out with friends after a day playing soccer on the beach. I looked curiously at the building which now contained just an ordinary shop. We stood there staring for what seemed like a lifetime, until I noticed that our behaviour was attracting the attention of local folk.


These streets, with their derelict and destroyed buildings, held no meaning for me but captured so much for my father. I was amazed at the squatters who had turned these shells of houses into homes. I wondered if they belonged to them, or if the original owners were in Europe, America and Australia, safe and protected? If they returned, where would these locals go?

Imagine staying in a city through thick and thin, through pain and love, through hate and joy – and then to have those who left come back and take your home from you.

With each street turn we took, my father’s memory returned to him. A hotel there. A restaurant there. A bank there. A friend there. A girlfriend there. A relative there. A fight there. A hug there.


My imagination is good, but not that good. I could not bring his stories to life in my head, I could not turn them into a marvelous romantic saga of childhood and young adulthood. So I did the only thing I could do – I took photos.

I was also very eager to go to the beach.

“What beach?” my uncle asked.
“Lido beach.”
“On a Thursday?”
“Do people not go to the beach on Thursdays, does the beach disappear on Thursdays?” I pressed.

I knew what the problem was. My uncle suffers from laziness.  I do too. But I was adamant about this and began walking in the direction of the ocean.

I fell spectacularly when we arrived, my feet unable to find a proper hold as we climbed down the rocks. A random young man asked: “Well, what did you do that for?” Yes, because I like to fall deliberately. (When it comes to asking pointless questions, Somalis are king.)

I had no grand expectations about the ocean but it did not provide any disappointments either. The sand was white, whiter than I had expected. The water was a clear light blue. There was no light bulb moment for me. No sudden urge to cry. The universe was not explained to me as I stood. This was an ordinary beach with people doing ordinary things. It was busy and noisy. The beach stretched further than my eye could see. Boys played intense games of soccer while competing with each other to get their photos taken. Then they demanded I add them as Facebook friends and tag them in the pics.



After a dip in the water, we walked up to the beach restaurant for food. My uncle scolded me when the bill came. “We’re paying for the view! Enjoy the bloody view!” I told him.

The restaurant was quiet. The benefit of being an Australian is I get to enjoy opposite summers to the Northern Hemisphere, which means hardly any American/Canadian/European Somalis were around. On some days during my trip, it almost felt like I had the whole city to myself.

Even with the cracks and the bullet holes and the decay, there is no denying the beauty of the magnifient buildings and homes that once stood on those streets and overlooked the water. Magnificent Mogadishu stood for hundreds and hundreds of years. It faltered, but it did not collapse.


It is an insult to those Somalis who never left the city when the diasporans talk of Somalia as suddenly ‘rising’ –  it is the locals that kept the heartbeat and bloodline of Mogadishu going these past decades.

The stories I am interested in are those between 1992 and 2010. The current dialogue among Somalis who left the country is all about what can the diaspora do, what can the diaspora bring, and so forth. I find myself tuning out these conversations.

Really, what is more important is what we can learn about the city from those who stayed.

Samira Farah is a freelance writer and events organiser based in Sydney, Australia. Visit her blog at brazzavillecreative.com

Delivering herbal highs: Khat in Kenya

Speed kills, but when it doesn’t, it thrills. I experienced this truth firsthand on a trip from Nyambene hills in Eastern Kenya to the capital Nairobi on board a khat-filled van. This was a ride like no other.

Khat, commonly known as miraa in Kenya, is a leafy shrub known for its stimulating effect. It delivers a mild amphetamine-like high for as long as you chew it – and the fresher the twigs, the more potent the high. Forty eight hours after being harvested, the twigs are of little use.

The shrub mainly grows in the Kenyan highlands, so it has to travel across the world to reach consumers in the Arab world, Europe, Australia and other parts of Africa. This is not an easy fete. Speed is a must; efficiency non-negotiable. Six hours after being picked, it has to be on its way to the United Kingdom or Dubai.

This is where the Toyota Hilux vans and skilled drivers come in. They travel at life-threatening speeds along the highway that leads to Nairobi from Nyambene, Maua and Meru – the main miraa-growing areas. The drivers seem to know all the potholes on the entire 400km stretch of road. They evade them with precision, negotiate dangerous bends in the hilly countryside at 160km/h, all while chatting, chewing miraa, puffing on cigarettes and drinking Coca Cola. It is man and machine against one of the most dangerous roads in Kenya.

Khat leaves from the Mount Kenya region. (Pic: Flickr/International Centre for Tropical Agriculture)
Khat leaves from the Mount Kenya region. (Pic: Flickr/International Centre for Tropical Agriculture)

My friend Mutuota, a miraa trader in Maua, agreed to let me go along for a ride in one of his vans last month. I was introduced to the driver Mbaabu and his assistant Mutuma. A team of young men packed the khat into the van and made sure the load was stable. Then we were off.

We stopped at a petrol station first. Mbaabu asked the attendant to fill up the tank, check the tyre pressure and all the wheels, including the spare. The drivers make sure their vehicles are in tip-top shape – they have modified shock absorbers and good suspension to make the vans less prone to overturning at high speeds, and the brakes are serviced at least twice a week.

Then we hit the road to Nairobi. Meru roads are notorious for traffic accidents and road blocks. Luckily for Mbaabu who was doing about 180 km/hr the entire trip, the traffic cops just waved us along and let us pass freely through road blocks – they are familiar with the Hiluxes.

I asked Mutuma about the importance of speed throughout the operation. “Today we’re only doing local orders, but usually we have clients waiting for this product in London and Dubai. It has to get to Nairobi first, then be cleared through customs and reach them before the stim (potency) goes down. So we have just a few hours.”

Besides overseas destinations, the product is heavily traded in Ethiopia and Somalia. In Kenya, cities like Mombasa, Kisumu, Eldoret and Busia have a huge demand for miraa.  It is a multi-million-dollar industry in Kenya, with hundreds of thousands of farmers and dealers relying on it for income.

A khat stall in Somalia. (Flickr/G.A. Hussein)
A khat stall in Somalia. (Flickr/G.A. Hussein)

The miraa farmers are a happy lot, despite losing some profits to a chain of middlemen and brokers. A kilo in Nairobi fetches around R22, sometimes higher. Every miraa farmer’s livelihood depends on the timely delivery of his crop to Nairobi. Educating his children, building a new house or even tending new crops all depend on how quickly miraa is delivered to the market, Mbaabu tells me.

Two and a half hours later, the sight of the Nairobi skyline was a huge relief to me. I was a little dizzy and nauseous from the ride, but Mbaabu and Matuma were all business. We stopped in Eastleigh, a neighbourhood that’s mainly habited by Somalis, who are considered to be the highest consumers of miraa in the world. They offloaded the order and then it was time to say our goodbyes. I was heading home, they were going back to Maua. Tomorrow they will make the same trip to the capital to deliver miraa for a client in London with their usual speed, efficiency – and fearlessness.

Kimani Chege is a freelance journalist and communications consultant based in Nairobi. He has a special interest in agriculture, health and technology and how they contribute to development or the lack of it. Connect with him on Twitter.