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Somalia: Life returns in aftermath of al-Shabab

Mail & Guardian Online
Friday, August 24, 2012

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Painted signs, even of a policeman on a busy road, attest to growing trade and returning exiles in Somalia.

There is a sun-weathered, pensive woman in a faded burgundy jilbab who sits on the corner of the busy Kilometre 4 roundabout.

She is there every day from 9am, perched behind her worn wheelbarrow, selling watermelons, dates and dusty bunches of grapes.

Her name is Batulla Abdullahi and she sees everything that comes and goes. In the past year, she has seen fear fade from faces, the roads repaired, garish new paint slicked on buildings and election posters plastered on bullet-riddled walls. To her, it looks like the Mogadishu of the 1980s: "Al-Shabaab have left and people are coming here to do business."

In recent months she has been joined by a traffic policeman, a sight unseen in the potholed streets of Somalia's capital for more than two decades, whose job it is to explain to drivers with newly developed road rage in which direction they are supposed to go.

At the other end of the capital's main thoroughfare, Maka-Al-Mukarama, the short-staffed police service, which has not delivered a pay cheque in eight months, has run out of men. It has made do with a painting of a policeman instead.

A wide calico banner strung across the top of the intersection many regard as the heart of the city wishes residents "Eid Mubarak" from the friendly staff at Shik Shik Arts, who run their countrywide operation out of a tiny blue hole-in-the-wall office on the edge of K4. The signwriter's  art is a necessary adornment in a country in which the collapse of the education system left many unable to read and in need of pictorial help.

Business is booming for the 22-year-old owner, Abdi Fatah.


All through the city, candy-coloured shopfronts feature an endless array of products advertised in hand-painted intricacy. A carburettor, engine parts and tins of oil anoint the front of Olad's spare-parts store; reams of patterned cloth and a sewing machine grace the walls of the tailor next door. Shik Shik offers a full design service, painting whatever you like, from camels to satellite dishes. The 20 employees used to decorate three to four shops a week; now they are juggling up to 20 and having to turn away business.

"We used to have to run from the bullets of al-Shabaab," Fatah said, angry that the war destroyed his masterpieces. Now he prefers painting traditional pastoral scenes, which are popular among Mogadishu residents. "They like relaxing," he said. "There's no need to paint the city – they can see the destruction with their own eyes." Now the artists' biggest challenge comes from the shiny printing presses of nearby SignJet, where business has quadrupled in the past year.

Money, love and hope are being pumped into the destruction left by a prolonged civil war, breathing life back into the mortar-shelled buildings of the seaside capital.

Dahabshiil, a much-vaunted money transfer service used in Somalia, said it was recording significant inflows into Mogadishu. As security in the city has improved and the diaspora has begun to return, transfers are up by more than 20%.

Behind the chocolate-brown shutters and newly whitewashed walls of the First Somali Bank, staff speak in low voices behind gleaming aluminium tills that are completely deserted. It has been a slow start for central and southern Somalia's first private bank, but more than 100 customers have opened accounts since May. Many of them did so with stacks of Somalia's resilient shilling. Having survived hyperinflation when warlords printed money in the 1990s, the Somali shilling has held its own against the arrival of the United States  dollar in large numbers. Still transported in shopping bags by Somalis, for the past year it has provided one of the few solid indicators of economic growth, moving from 32 000 shillings to the dollar last September to 22000 this month.


One investment is already breaking even, although it opened only in April, taking a safe bet on the Somali love of good food. It lies 35 minutes south of the city along a dirt road down the coast, past roaming camels and rows of white tents where people have remained since last year's famine, past working cement factories and an antique salt pan. Then the road swerves out towards the sea, where the sprawl of red earth gives way to the endless dunes of Jazeera Beach's white sand – untouched by al-Shabaab – and the site of what is arguably Mogadishu's best restaurant. Business people sip on spicy cardamom tea and feast on freshly grilled coral trout bought from the fishermen's boats on the beach. The owner, Ahmed Jama, who also runs four other establishments in the city itself, is a returnee from London who felt he had to come back. "If we want to do something to change things, then we just do it," he said.

His chain of restaurants is called Village to appeal to the diaspora who he wants "to feel like they're part of Somalia's village too".

Many others have come home. In Mogadishu's Hamar Weyne market district, there are no empty shops. In his pistachio-hued office, next to coverless tomes of Italian civil law, public notary Ali Abkey Maye tells of an exponential increase in people buying land and vehicles. He said property prices had risen tenfold in the past year. Where the rent of a shop would have cost $20 a year ago, it now starts at $200.

Scaffolding is everywhere. Colourful placards on derelict petrol stations promise a shiny future. The city's mayor, Mohamed Nur, is adamant that his is no longer "the most dangerous city in the world".

Cardamom flavour
A tour of Mogadishu by night with a heavily armed security detail from Somalia's head of intelligence and the city's police chief seeks to make the same point. There are late-night barbers, speakers blaring, restaurants and tailors working into the wee hours. An ice-cream parlour near the Bakara market offers an array of colours, all of them with the same cardamom flavour.

In the daylight, the city's devastation is all too apparent. The roofless cathedral shelters a cobbler's ­family, who scrape a living from repairs and handouts. They have seen a brick factory open up next door and Turkish aid workers troop through their camp, but nothing much has changed. Conditions for the urban poor are so dire that aid agencies cannot tell who is a refugee and who is just destitute.

Some of these people have been called on to carry placards and many have views about who should govern the shattered country, but none of them have a vote. Somalia's emerging government is the product of selection, not election, and the horsetrading that accompanies it may continue for weeks.

For now, Mogadishu residents wait and hope, surviving in a city that offers a constant reminder of the extent to which things can go wrong.

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