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.
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.
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…