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Friday at the beach in Mogadishu: Optimism shines through despite Somalia's woes

Saturday January 21, 2023

By Jason Beaubien

A mother and her son play in the sea at Liido Beach in Mogadishu, Somalia. Despite decades of conflict and ongoing security threats, some Somalis are carving out a middle-class lifestyle in the Somali capital. Luke Dray for NPR

Friday is beach day in Mogadishu.

Early in the day before Friday prayers and before the sun gets too hot, people flock to Liido Beach on the eastern side of the city.

"This is a very important place," says 22-year-old Mulki Anwar. "Because all these people they came here to have fun, to enjoy, you know."

Mulki's just come out of the water. She's still wearing a bathing cap that covers her hair and a florescent orange life preserver. The university student says Liido Beach is one of the few public spaces in Mogadishu that's relatively safe and it's free to everyone.

Families sit under cloth awnings on the beach and drink tea. Young men play soccer barefoot on the sand. Teenagers record Tik-Tok videos of each other on their phones. People wade out into the sandy shallow waters of the Indian Ocean.
Somalia is a Muslim country. So Friday is the start of the weekend.

Shafie Sharif Mohammed brought his kids to the beach so they could swim.

Shafie who is a managing director of the Somali Researchers Association says Fridays at Liido Beach are a respite from the hectic workweek.

A group of young men kick around a soccer ball on the sand at Liido Beach in Mogadishu, Somalia. Residents of the Somali capital flock to the beach on Fridays, the first day of the weekend. Luke Dray for NPR

Families gather on Liido Beach in Mogadishu particularly on Fridays to relax. One resident says Liido Beach is one of the only public places in the city that's open to everyone and relatively safe. Luke Dray for NPR

"On the weekdays, we have very full days," he says of his family. "Our children go to school. So they are very busy during the week. And now they have exams." Liido Beach in the heart of Mogadishu is a place where they can all get some fresh air, he says. "We come here and as you see people are playing around. People are happy," he says, surveying the bustling crowd around him.

But a respite at the beach can't get around a basic fact: Life in Somalia is still hard, Shafie says.

Somalia is one of the poorest countries in the world. It's facing a historic drought and a devastating food crisis. "The U.N. predicts that nearly 2 million Somalis could be going hungry or worse in the coming months."

Mogadishu has been torn apart by fighting since the civil war broke out in 1991. Many buildings in this city of 2½ million people still bear the scars of bombings and shootouts. The roads haven't been paved in decades. Al-Shabaab continues to carry out attacks and set off explosives in the city. Yet many residents now refuse to let the fear of another explosion define their city or derail their lives.

And the security situation, says Safie, has improved dramatically in recent years.

"Five years or ten years ago," he says, "someone who is a foreigner, like you in the media, could not be able to come here and talk in a peaceful manner."

A schoolgirl walks along a street in Mogadishu. Luke Dray for NPR

It's still unusual to have a reporter from America standing on the beach in Mogadishu with a big fuzzy microphone interviewing people. That just didn't happen even a few years ago.

"So things are getting better," Shafie says. "And a lot of Somali diaspora are coming back home."

Millions of Somalis fled the country over the last three decades. Many ended up in refugee camps in Kenya. Others migrated to the United States, Canada and Europe.

According to World Bank estimates 17 million Somalis live inside the country while another 2 million live abroad.

Many of the returning diaspora are setting up businesses. They're coming back, Shafie says, with new ideas, new ways of doing things.

A barista at Beydan Coffee, part of a chain of fancy coffee shops in Mogadishu set up by a couple who'd emigrated to Canada years ago and then returned to Somalia. Luke Dray for NPR

"And, yeah, I'm optimistic about the future of Somalia," he says.

And he's not the only one at Mogadishu's Liido Beach to express optimism about a country that's often written off as a failed state.

Sitting on the beach in front of the Elite Hotel which was partially destroyed by a car bomb two years ago, Asha Mahmoud Warsame says Mogadishu now is "relatively peaceful".

"We are here. Mogadishu is calm," she says. Regarding the violence from the al-Shabaab militants, Asha says Somalia is pushing back against them. "It's peaceful in the city," she says. This despite multiple bombs going off in Mogadishu earlier in the week.

In October when an al-Shabaab attack on the Ministry of Education killed more than 130 people, a high school graduation ceremony continued just a few blocks away even as ambulances rushed to the blast site.

Mogadishu's elites and international aid workers — and Western journalists — get around the city in armored cars flanked by guards wielding AK-47s.

A private security team escorts an unmarked U.N. vehicle through the streets of Mogadishu. Aid workers, private business people, government officials and Western journalists regularly use bulletproof cars flanked by armed security details to move through the capital. Luke Dray for NPR

Asha says she comes early to Liido Beach every Friday at 5 a.m. as part of a volunteer cleanup crew. They clear trash from the sand.

She says she's more worried about inflation than terrorist attacks.

During the week she runs a water trucking company. She says the prices of food, fuel and yes, water are going up.

Earlier this year, "A cubic meter of water cost $1," Asha says. A cubic meter of water is just over 250 gallons. "But now it's gone up to 1 point 5 U.S. dollars." This is a big jump for residents who rely on having all of their water trucked to their homes.

Somalia officially has its own currency, the Somali Shilling. But the government has been so dysfunctional that none have been officially printed in Mogadishu since civil war broke out in 1991. The U.S. dollar has become the default currency.

Burhan Warsame Abdi served as the chief of staff to the Somali Prime Minister in 2012. He says it's not just the Somali shilling but entire governmental institutions that need to be rebuilt.

Burhan Warsame Abdi inside the courtyard of the heavily fortified Peace Hotel in the Somali capital. "Look around in Mogadishu and you will be surprised," he says of the recent progress in a place often written off as a failed state. Luke Dray for NPR

"It's a huge challenge," he says. "It it's basically remaking an entire country."

Burhan now works as a consultant in Mogadishu including on governance issues.

"Security is the biggest issue that's holding Somalia back. But now al-Shabab is on the run.

As security improves, Burhan says, Somalis are creating new businesses in Mogadishu.

The city has supercheap cell phone service and a fiber optic internet network. A couple who emigrated to Canada years ago have come back and set up a chain of fancy coffee shops. Burhan says the entrepreneurial spirit of Somalis is incredibly powerful and is remaking parts of the capital.

"The private sector has been driving whatever stability you see," he says. "Look around in Mogadishu and you will be surprised. In the past six or seven years, million dollar apartments and houses are being built in the country, and it's the private sector that is driving that growth in the country."

A woman shops for shoes at a clothing store in the Mogadishu Mall. Luke Dray for NPR

Despite the challenges facing Somalia, he says, he's more optimistic now about the future of his country than he's ever been.

Back at Liido Beach, Abdul Salam declares that life in Mogadishu is going "very well now!" He's sitting with his family in beach chairs under an orange awning. Even America has had troubles in the past, he notes. And now Somalia's troubles, he predicts, are just about over.

On Friday mornings in Mogadishu a few hundred yards down the shoreline from Liido Beach, Somali fisherman bring in their catch of fresh tuna. Luke Dray for NPR

"We have peace, we have education, we have everything," Abdul says with enthusiasm. Asked about what he does for living Abdul says he's in publishing and he also runs a public relations company. And from his beach chair in the sand, he's selling a vision of a new Somalia that he claims is just over the horizon.

"Every sector of Somalia now is coming into growth," he exclaims. And soon Somalia "will become very, very, very, very, very, very good!"

Tour boats for hire await customers at Liido Beach in Mogadishu. Luke Dray for NPR


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