If I expected subdued or morose when I arrived in Mogadishu, or imagined that for Somalis life was a tough war-ravaged event to survive through gritted teeth, it was yet another preconceived idea that was very quickly dispelled.
Whereas in many other Muslim countries, I’ve seen women cloaked in black and resolutely avoiding any eye contact with anyone, here the swathes of fabric covering their modesty could not be more vivid. Fuscias, lemon yellows, bright greens flash past confidently as I make my way down shopping streets. And far from averting their eyes, I’m greeted with beaming smiles and waves.
Primary school children bob down the street in apple green shirts with their beige shorts, competing for attention with those from the secondary classes, in their canary yellow smocks and headscarves. Buildings join the rainbow with walls of one house clashing furiously with its neighbour. Trucks carrying charcoal and straw are not immune; with their slats painted every shade of pink and purple.
Illiteracy gives shop-keepers a worthy reason to get the paint brushes out. They’ve devised an ingenious and artistic way to advertise their wares to passers-by unable to read. Plastered across the walls either side of their entrances are large elaborate cartoon-like drawings of the items that can be found on the shelves inside. So the streets become one long picture book; burgers depicting snack bars, an open mouth with tongue sticking out directing you to the dentist, hand-drawn computers – a technical shop and a haphazard selection of squiggly-shaped women’s footwear – a fashionable shoe shop.
The aim of the bright billowing gowns may be to conceal. Their effect is an African celebration. The aim of the childlike drawings along every wall may be to entice and inform. Their effect is to draw the eye away from the pockmarks in the cement and bring vibrant hues to the dusty streets and remnants of buildings torn apart by years of bloody war. They shout out in big bold print, that cracks no matter how traumatic, can be painted over. And as long as they can draw it, they’ll be selling it on the streets of 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.
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”.
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.