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.
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.
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.
Gazing 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…