My first visit to Africa – part 2

The first three days in Somalia I spent with my mother’s relatives in Mogadishu. Revisiting my birthplace for the first time in 22 years proved to be a chaotic and fearful encounter with gunshots, isolation and unsettling poverty.

(From the right) My host Nadia and her cousin Leila greeted me at Mogadishu International Airport with only their eyes visible.

Establishing contact with relatives in Mogadishu
Immediately after I had secured my flight to Somalia, the next step was to establish contact with my relatives, who had agreed to meet me in Mogadishu International airport.

I called the telephone number, my mother had acquired on my behalf, and introduced myself in broken Somaali. I have a habit of speaking Danish at home even as I hear my mother tongue spoken to me on a daily basis, so as a result I feel uneasy when I try to speak it.

I had jotted down a few expressions in Somaali and beside me was my cousin Fadumina’s housemaid Faduma. The conversation went well, until the women on the other end posed a question that I had not prepared for. She asked: But how will we recognize you?

Faduma read the panic in my eyes, as I was searching for words that would describe my appearance. She grabbed the phone and replied firmly, that I would call them from the airport upon landing. This 18-year-old savvy girl regularly travels to Mogadishu to visit her mother, which she supports from Kenya.

Airport highjack
In Mogadishu Airport, which from my window seat in the airplane looked like a concrete floor framed by sand dunes and the deep blue sea, locating and recognizing my unknown relatives proved to be a more urgent matter than the opposite situation.

Luckily, I received immediate help from a women, who rushed to my side as soon as I stepped foot in the arrival hall. This hijack was not welcomed, because I suspected that the women might be after something, whether that was my money, passport or other belongings.

She explained that it was her job to accommodate new arrivals, after she handed me a yellow form. She started ordering me around. Do this and do that. I did not appreciate her rushing me, so I said that I was perfectly capable of handling matters on my own and in my own time. She retired, only to return when I placed myself in the immigration control line.

The case of the missing 50 dollar bill
At the counter, the clerk demanded 50 dollars for a visa. I handed him a 100 dollar bill, and he gave a 50 dollar bill in return. The 40-something-year-old woman in a black hijab, now behind me, pushed me toward another counter, where clerks checked passports.

Somewhere in between the passport control, the security check and the exit, I lost sight of that 50 dollar bill. I discovered this much later. Somehow, someone, whether it was the pushy woman, the security guards or the clerks, got hold of my money. Damn!

At the exit, the busybody helper proved herself useful. She picked out a mobile phone and offered to call my relatives. It turned out that those, who had come for me in place of my uncle Osman, were being refused entry to the airport, so I had to go and meet with them outside.

Greeted by heat, gunshots and four friendly eyes
The Somali air was warm and windy as we stepped out on sandy pathways. In wintry Kenya, I had put on several layers of clothing to keep myself warm. Now all these clothes clung onto my body, while the wind grabbed my thin shaash (headscarf), leaving my neck exposed.

As we approached a gated exit point, I heard a sharp sound that I would come to hear many times over during my stay. The firing of a AK47. Ka ka ka. I froze for a second, and a security guard took notice. He said laughingly: “Have you never heard gunshots before?”. I had not. The shots were fired in the air in an attempt to scare off the large group of children lurking around the airport, looking to pickpocket passengers.

In between the crowd waiting on the other side of the exit, were two women dressed in black from head to toe. The only visible part were their eyes. They greeted me with kisses on my cheeks, and seemed geniunely happy and relieved to see me.

I took out my purse, because I wanted to tip the woman helper. As I took out five dollars, each of my hosts started pinching my arm as a discrete way of showing their discontent with the size of tip, I was about to give. We settled on four dollars instead.

Fear and AK47s in abundance
The two women were cousins. Nadia was married to my uncle Osman, and she and her cousin Leila were neighbours. They were both about 25 years old and very talkative. We sat crammed in several minibusses on the way to their home in Shibis district near the old sea port. The drive took about 45 minutes and they spoke throughout.

Meanwhile, I sat silently in fear and excitement. We slowly bumped along the crowded and potholed dirt road. The “conductors” would scream and shout as they tried to squeeze more passengers into the bus. The sound of car horns were deafening. The streets were full of people, animals, cars and military tanks.

Everywhere I looked, I saw men carrying AK47s. Some were soldiers in army uniforms, others policemen. I feared that one of these guns would go off any minute, and I felt like an easy target as I was seated in the back of the bus with my back and head exposed.

Finally, we reached my uncle Osman’s neighbourhood. I was struck by how destroyed the war had left Mogadishu. Ruined buildings, unpaved, rocky roads, waste dumped everywhere. The streets were populated with men in shirts and trousers, women in colourful hijabs and black niqabs, skinny livestock and shoeless children.

Room with windowGazing out of a bullet-holed window
Osman lives with his wife, their four small children and his ageing mother Aisha. Aisha is the second wife to my grandmother’s brother-in-law. The family lives in a house full of bullet holes, which is owned by Osman’s brother-in-law. Osman is jobless, and so the family depends on the money that their relatives in Europe and the U.S. send via Dahabshiil (a money transfer company).

The family placed me in a spacious room complete with new funiture and each day, I was served delicious and enourmous meals – despite their poverty. They warned me about venturing out on my own. They feared, that I would be recognized as a foreigner and taken hostage by either the government or Al-shabaab.

The first two days in Somalia were spent gazing out of the bullet-holed window in my room. I would press my face up against the net and listen to the whistling threes. I enjoyed the fresh cool air and spent hours staring at bypassers, while jotting down my experience of being in Somalia.

On the third day, my father’s relatives, my aunt and her young son came to visit me. We had never met before. Luckily, they vowed to show me their part of town, the Waberi district, near the airport. I was thrilled.

To be continued…

My first visit to Africa in two decades – part 1

During the past 22 years that I have lived in Denmark, the opportunity to visit Somalia, my native country, was hindered by my ignorance and fear. 2012 is the year I took the plunge.

Kenya en route to Somalia
I had been conjuring up courage to visit Somalia, my place of birth, for a whole year, before I pressed “buy” on my computer screen one late sunday evening, while browsing the internet for cheap flight tickets to Nairobi, Kenya. The first stop en route to Mogadishu, Somalia.

I intentionally packed my trip with various activities, because I regarded it as a “once-in-a-life-time” experience, but even more so because I wanted to free my mind from fear and doubt. If I kept myself busy, I would have less time to worry, my logic went.

For decades, Somalia’s war, conflicts and disasters had made headlines. The capital, Mogadishu was considered one of the most dangerous places on earth. But in the last year other stories about recovery, rebirth and renewed hope surfaced. I was curious about these changes and wanted to experience them first-hand.

First impressions of Africa
The first week was dedicated to Global Voices Online‘s Summit in Nairobi, Kenya. The second week with my Somali-Kenyan relatives, while arranging travel plans for Somalia. By the third, I would be in Mogadishu. Inshallah.

Upon arrival at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, I was conveniently picked up by a driver in a black SUV and installed at a hotel in Westlands, a residential area for expatriates. It was a soft landing in Africa, where I enjoyed hot showers, free meals, stimulating conversations and lively gatherings with bloggers and activists from 30 countries around the world.

Cosmas Nganga and I at the 2012 Global Voices Citizen Media Summit in Nairobi, Kenya


The level of security in Nairobi struck me as extraordinary, as I underwent meticulous screening by security guards before entering hotels, malls and even restaurants. Locals would tell me, that the capital, and the whole nation for that matter, is at high alert because of the terror threat posed by al-Shabaab. A few days into my trip, attacks on churches in Garissa served as a chilling reminder of that threat.

Living amongst Somali-Kenyans in Nairobi
After the summit, my vibrant cousin Fadumina invited me to stay with her family of six at a private estate in Nairobi. I had not met her before, but supposedly she had held me in her arms, when I was just a baby back in Somalia.

Family therapist Fadumina and her husband who works for the Kenyan government, their four sons and step-daughter went out of their way to make me feel at home. The youngest son gave up his bed and room for me. Every couple of hours, a meal on a tray would be brought to my room, or a friendly face would knock on my door and ask me, how I was doing. I doing was great, but I was somewhat perplexed about their neighbourhood.

Cousin Fadumina and her son Abduhakim

This Somali-Kenyan family lived in a gated community inhabited by Somali upper middleclass families. A mosque would sound calls for prayers five times a day, and the children rarely went outside the estate. “We have everything, we need right here”, the 16-year-old son stated.

I do not usually wear the Muslim veil, but I learned that if I did not want to be mistaken for an Ethiopian and politely greeted with “Karibu” instead of the usual “Asaalamu Alaykum”, I had to cover up.

The kindness of strangers
During my stay in Nairobi, my favourite hang out was Java Coffee House due to the excellent WI-FI connection, but I also found it to be a good place to meet people and prepare my trip to Somalia as I encountered many well-connected Somali and Kenyan businessmen there.

One Somali-Kenyan businessman, educated in Norway, was kind enough to call up his friend at a travel agency and arrange a meeting for me at their office the following day. The office was located in Jamia Mosque, so once again I put on a veil over my head and added an abaya, a long black robe that covered my body. The Somali travel agent offered me return flight tickets at a price of 370$ and even sought to deliver them to my front door. I did not have time to shop around, so I gratefully accepted the offer.

In Denmark, my mother made great efforts to establish contact with the few relatives we have left in Mogadishu, since the thought of my travelling to Somali by myself worried her terribly. She arranged it so that my uncle Osman, which I have never met, would meet me at Mogadishu International Airport and take me to his family’s home in the Shibis district of Mogadishu – near the old seaport. I felt so relieved.

This was just for me
Thursday 12 July 2012 by midday, I would be on Somali soil once again. I have few, but vivid childhood memories of sandy beaches and palm trees. Of the heavy rains, where my siblings and I would fight over a spot under the roof-tiles, where the rain would drop on us and give a refreshing shower.

I hoped to see the house I was brought up in with my two older siblings, in Madinah, near the gold market. Also, I wished to see my grandmother’s (on my mother’s side) house, where my loose tooth came off with the help of a string and the slamming of a door, as well as my grandfather’s (on my father’s side) apartment near the airport, where we sat up on the airy rooftop. Here my grandfather would slip us a few shillings, which we instantly used to buy sweets.

As I am standing at the airport gate, waiting for the East African Safari Air Express flight to Mogadishu, these thoughts collide in my mind. I am hopeful and fearful at the same time. During boarding, the stewardess kindly asks, if I mind giving up my window seat to an elder lady in a wheelchair. I really did not want to miss out on any first glimpses of Somalia, so I politely declined. This was not the time for compromise. This was just for me.

To be continued…

Visiting Mathare, Nairobi Slum

On the 1st of July 2012, Global Voices teamed up with Map Kibera, a citizen media project which maps some of Africa’s largest slums in Nairobi, Kenya. This story is about Mathare, one of Nairobi’s shanty towns, which used to be a rock mine.

24-year-old Ronald “Roy” Odhiambo introduces himself as a mapper as he walks through piles of rubbish and human waste, past flimsy, make-shift shelters made of plywood and corrugated metal that comprise his neighbourhood; Mathare.

Like many of Mathare’s slum dwellers, Roy displays remarkable resilience. His father abandoned him, when he was just a small child. He lives in a tiny shack from which he risks eviction at any point. But he says, he would not want to see these squalid and crowded settlements demolished. Instead he calls for the government’s recognition and assistance.

The city lacks decent and affordable housing. Squatters or slum lords put up shacks on land that no one else wants to develop, like the abandoned quarry which Mathare is constructed on. Mathare was a blank spot on the map until December 2010, when Roy and a group of young people created the first digital map of their own community.

Mathare is a self-contained city with little official recognition

Mathare is bustling with butcher shops, shoe stores, pharmacies and restaurants, yet it operates with little official recognition or assistance. The roads are riddled with potholes and there is a lack of basic government services such as:

  • Waste management
  • Water supply network
  • Electricity

Roy is not a legal occupant of his home, although he pays rent – money that most likely end up in the pockets of corrupt politicians, who enjoy a good profit from a minimal investment.

There is a key difference between slums in Kenya and slums in Europe. In Denmark, people use the word “slum” to refer to deteriorating inner city tenements or abandoned rural district villages. But in Kenya and in other developing countries, “slums” are more often crowded, illegal settlements.

Children are everywhere in Mathare

Most slum dwellers are young like Roy. They are being socialized in this very hostile environment and some of them become very angry, so slums are also breeding grounds for anti-social behavior.

Roy keeps himself busy with projects like “Map Mathare” that aim to improve life in the community by providing credible and useful information. An example is the mapping and blogging about the need for sanitation systems. Roy documents how human waste spills into the water people drink and contaminates the food they eat.

Mathare is surrounded by rich people
Nairobi’s rich people hire slum dwellers as maids, security guards and drivers.
Not far away, workers pound, file and solder metal into furniture. Elsewhere, young men with cracked, dirt-caked hands sort garbage for recycling.

Slums in Nairobi are booming for reasons that many countries share, like poverty and war, which push people from the countryside into the cities. If nations don’t ensure affordable urban housing and deal with urban poverty, social unrest will increase worldwide.