A FLEETING CITY-HOP TO KAMPALA

It’s just a flying visit.  I arrived at Entebbe airport yesterday evening from Mogadishu via Nairobi.  I’ve turned my hand to a spot of recruiting for the vacancies that have come up over the last few weeks at AMISOM’s Information Support Team in Mogadishu.  Intent on spreading the net across the region a bit; I’ve done Skype interviews with candidates from Mogadishu, Nairobi and Kampala.  Now I’m on a manic city-hopping extravaganza to meet the front-runners in person.

We landed to glaring dry and hot sunshine – my kind of weather – and I shared my ride from the old capital Entebbe (and location of the country’s only airport) to today’s capital Kampala with a couple of gentlemen from Djibouti, also on their first visit to Uganda and firing questions at our driver about the sites, the politics and the history.  I had been told by one of my team in Mogadishu who lived here for a few years that it was a beautiful country.  What I saw as we drove through the countryside confirmed it.  The lush green rolling hills, the vast Lake Victoria with its beaches and resort hotels dotted around it, the banana plantations all made me wish I was here as a tourist rather than a would-be recruitment consultant.

The traffic and its behaviour reminded me of the roads around Sri Lanka where moped drivers take their lives into their hands (and yours) competing for tarmac with the seemingly never-ending supply of Toyota minibus taxis.  Weaving around the road and barrelling into oncoming traffic, on a couple of occasions, they forced our driver to swerve into the gravel, narrowly missing them and lulling me out of my sight-seeing reverie.  By the time we rolled into Kampala just under an hour later, the clouds had gathered and droplets were hitting the windscreen.  Seconds later, the road was a river of orange mud-laden water, with the regular speed bumps creating mini waterfalls at pedestrian crossings.  Clearly a regular occurrence during the rains season though as suits, dresses and school uniforms alike navigated deftly through torrents without so much as a brolly in hand.  It did serve to slow down the moped maniacs though, who were suddenly nowhere to be seen amongst the criss-crossing rush-hour traffic.  I realised as we went past a couple of service stations that these kamikazes on two wheels were not quite as hardy as their pedestrian counterparts.  I found them all cowering under the forecourt awnings waiting for a break in the clouds; swarms of bikers patiently chatting and eyeing up the more glossy, more powerful and desirable mount parked up alongside them.

For my twenty-four hour flying visit, I’m staying at the Grand Imperial Hotel.  One of the smarter hotels in town but of an older era than the luxurious modern chains; with wide ornate corridors, leather sofas and writing bureaux made of dark polished wood lining the lobby area.  I’m just sorry that with meetings and interviews, I’m spending far too much time in it working, than exploring well beyond its ornate pillars and welcoming staff.  Barely a taste of Uganda, but enough to say I’ll definitely be back.

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Meeting Mogadishu

Roaming the streets of Mogadishu for the first time, my eyes are on stalks, my ears pricked; trying to take everything in and start to discover the city that has until now been just another news report about an attack or a bomb.  What I find is a sprawling city, much bigger than I had imagined, bustling with people getting on with their lives.Image

Central Mogadishu

I’m travelling in a three-vehicle ‘Casper’ convoy of Ugandan soldiers from the African Union mission here in Somalia.  This particular patrol usually accompanies the Force Commander around but as he’s out of the country, we have the use of it for the day.

We’re off to Maslah.  It’s a drive North-East, about twenty kilometres from central Mogadishu up the coast, and where the Ugandan Battle Group have their Headquarters.  Once we’ve negotiated the crowded centre of town, I’m told by the patrol commander that we’ll have to go through the district of Sokoro, on the outskirts of the city.  Here houses become more sparse, the dirt road widens and we’re heading out towards less built-up bushland.  Sitting next to me, he tells me with a twinkle in his eye and a broad grin that this is the district where they always get hit.  “They like to attack us here, this is where Shabaab still think they have a bit of power, they try small arms fire and sometimes IEDs, so we are prepared”.  “But we’ll be fine” he says, and chuckles.  As it turns out, Al Shabaab must be out for lunch as the locals continue to carry their shopping and push their carts of straw up the road and there’s not so much as a dog barking.  My friend seems almost disappointed.

We are welcomed like old friends at the camp at Maslah and taken on a brief tour of the basic but well-protected HQ, before meeting the newly arrived commander, Colonel Kimbowa.  Over sweet juicy orange segments and digestive biscuits – huge treats that we do not get on our camp – he describes his area of operations and jokes that he feels quite at home as the countryside is very similar to that in his native Uganda.  He’s optimistic about the improvement in security and while admitting there are challenges ahead, is confident that the war in Mogadishu at least has been won.  He’s looking forward to his year-long tour here and believes he and his men can bring invaluable experience to help, since their own country was itself “at war for so long and had its own similar problems”.

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Maslah

It’s a symbolic place for the African Union troops to have control over; Maslah used to be one of Al Shabaab’s main bases on the outskirts of Mogadishu.  They planned and launched their operations from this high ground surrounded by bush.  I’m shown a row of eucalyptus trees and told this is where enemies and defaulters were hanged as examples to the rest of the community.  Urban myth or fact; the soldiers are proud of their achievements in Mogadishu and from my first impression rightly so.  From the street corner gunfights and bloody battles a couple of years ago, this city has come a long way.  The only obstacles to our patrol were vendors taking their produce to market, long lines of trucks queuing to deliver goods to the port, and an unruly herd of goats taking their young minder for a walk.

Arrival in Mogadishu: an unlikely seaside ‘resort’

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I’ve arrived at my seaside location.  There are glorious long empty beaches, blue seas, waves that shimmer in the scorching sunshine.

Influenced by news reports and pictures of suicide bombers, as a first-time visitor it’s not the vista I expected to greet me on arrival in Mogadishu.  But it is the one that hits you – and very nearly literally.  With the runway practically extending into the Indian Ocean, it’s only as you’re about to reach under your seat for your life vest and feel the thump of the wheels on the ground that you realise you are actually over land.  But only just.  No doubt a fun landing to execute for the pilots of African Express Airways, as their unsuspecting passengers peer out of the windows at the expanse of blue coming up to meet them.

I was greeted at the airport by a smiling Ismail who immediately took me under his wing to negotiate the bustling organised chaos that were the visa and passport counters.  In the small arrivals hall – nothing more than a large dark concrete building with a couple of booths – families arrive to greet passengers, a yellow arrival form is thrust into your hand, self-appointed porters offer to go and find your hold luggage for you and arguments break out about queue-jumping.  Just as I made it to the front of the snake of frazzled passengers, an American news crew swanned past to the booth accompanied by big burly body guards, leaving Ismail feeling somewhat put out.  Although not as much as the elderly Kenyan lady behind me who remonstrated about preferential treatment with anyone who would listen.

The smiling immigration official welcomed me to Somalia and Ismail, my bag and I headed out to a battered minibus for the trip to my new home.  No sooner had we stepped out from under the concrete awning than we were drenched from head to toe by a almighty storm.  The kind of African tropical downpour that is so sudden and ferocious it’s like someone tipping a bucket of water over your head.  The advantage though – unlike our constant cold and grey drizzle in the UK – is that it lasts minutes, stops as suddenly as it began and the sizzling sun has dried you back to a warm crisp within seconds.

Our driver took us off along a bumpy dirt track flanked by tall and overgrown bush, avoiding large trucks and AMISOM (the UN mission in Somalia) vehicles careering ominously towards us from the opposite direction as they swerved around the large potholes.

On arrival at my new home, more smiles – this time from the Ugandan army soldiers providing security for the area.  Having crawled out of bed in Nairobi what seemed like days ago at 4 o’clock in the morning, I was slightly alarmed to find that it wasn’t even noon and nowhere near time for a longed-for sleep.  Bags dumped, it was straight into a day of introductions, walkabouts, explanations and meetings.  The hours passed in a bit of a daze with my brain gradually reaching capacity so that by dusk, it was all I could do to remember where my accommodation, food and the loos were.  I may not have had much of a clue where I was or what I was doing by this stage, but the entire Somali mosquito population had no such difficulty.  They had my location tracked and logged as the new local juicy eaterie.

I breathed a contented sigh of relief when I finally made it under the covers at the end of the night.  No generator, buzzing flies or whining mosquitos were going to keep me awake as I allowed the overload of senses and information to settle gently overnight before starting afresh in the morning.  And get down to the serious business of counting my mozzie bites.

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