Friday, July 30, 2010 1 comments

The Mogadishu you never hear about

By Guled Mohamed

People visiting the Somali capital Mogadishu for the first time are being fallaciously petrified that as soon as they step out of the plane at the city's international airport they should expect to be greeted by a mortar shell or sniper fire.

I sometimes also get similar sentiments thrown my way in spite of living and working in Mogadishu even under worse conditions than the present flare-ups. Every other time I am about to travel to Mogadishu my friends and family in Kenya give me that weird look as if to say: Do you really have to go there?

If you have never been to Mogadishu you will probably be thinking in the same lines, that the Somali capital has nothing to offer a part from the violence that we are constantly reminded of by the blinking breaking news on our television sets or in our local newspapers.

But, there is an image of Mogadishu that is rarely told by the media. You will hardly hear of any positive development except war and ruins which have unfortunately became synonymous with the city and the country of Somalia.

The following are just but a few of the positive things that you should expect if you ever visit this white-washed seaside city that is much-talked about albeit negatively.

The city of Mogadishu enjoys the services of some consulates or embassies belonging to several African and Arab countries which give visas to Somalis wishing to travel mainly for medical and educational reasons.

There is a thriving international airport called Aden Ade International airport renamed after Somalia's first president who recently died and who also went into history books as the first ever African president to peacefully relinquish power after loosing an election.

Built by the Italians in the late 50s, the 300o meter long facility is adjacent to the sky-blue Indian Ocean and just like any major airport has a waiting lounge, immigration services, air traffic controllers, fire fighters, baggage system even though it’s sometimes chaotic.

There is even a VIP lounge where if you happen to be a Very Important Person you should expect to be served with a hot cup of cappuccino, tea, a cold coca cola or bottled water both of which have been manufactured in Mogadishu.

Along the same coastline, you will find a 24 hour functioning seaport with the stunning view of the Somalia coastline where ships dock day and night bringing in almost everything from food, building material to vehicles while 90 percent of all humanitarian suppliers also come through the same port.

Back to our city guide, once you leave the airport, you will find the metropolis of Mogadishu waiting for you.

As you drive or walk out of the airport, you will see the imposing city of Mogadishu. You can afford to relax in the neighbourhoods around the airport because its controlled by the interim government, its relative peace has added some vibrancy and life compared to the northern districts controlled by extremist groups like the notorious Al-Shabab.

Generally, the further you go from the airport the less people you will see. This is simply because these areas enjoy relative peace and have social amenities like hospitals, schools that are operational compared to the opposition controlled areas further in the north where their strict application of Shariah law has forced many residents to flee.

As you leave the airport you will also see long telephone masts and huge dishes mounted on top of buildings belonging to the various multimillion dollar telecommunication companies that offer one of the cheapest tariffs in sub-Saharan Africa as they help connect the people and drive Somalia’s economy at very cheaper rates of less than half a US cent per minute for calls to anywhere in the world.

Local Mogadishu landline calls are free of charge! Yes its absolutely free, while local mobile to mobile calls are also as lows as 10 US cent compared to your phone network. The companies who have made it possible for the Somali people to enjoy such low cost calls are namely Hormud, Telkom, Nation link and Somafone.

You will also find running tap water and 24 hours electricity also provided by other similar private entrepreneurs at nominal prices. There is a Coca-Cola plant in Mogadishu as well as many other light industries that manufacture other household essentials.

These huge investments have all been overshadowed by the fighting in Somalia to paint a lawless country that has nothing to offer except war and destruction. As you might probably know by now, this is not the entire truth, as these privately run companies employ tens of thousands of people and continue to defy anarchy to help create jobs in Somalia as well as restore the country’s dented image that is badly needed if the country is to attract any any foreign investements.

“Mogadishu has been painted as the world’s most dangerous city. If this was the truth would we still be a live or would the huge investments prosper? The answer is No. We know there are some little security problems but that cannot stop us from living. We have to rebuild our country,” Businessman Mustafa Sheikh who operates a textile shop in Bakara market said.

The main seaport is one of the busiest ports in the region and a major lifeline to the big-time businessmen importing electronics, state of the art vehicles, designer clothes and perfumes from Europe, the Far East and the Middle East.

“Can you believe I saw a 2010 latest Toyota Land cruiser LX in Mogadishu? This latest model is hardly available in many African cities. The owner told me he bought it straight from Japan. Before coming to Somalia I was made to believe that I will be dead as soon as I step out of the plane. I just can’t believe it was all hype,” said a foreigner who works in Mogadishu and who did not wish to be named.

The plenty of sunshine and the picturesque image created by the beautiful sight of the sky-blue Indian Ocean joining the bright red sand dunes and the stretching white beaches surely qualify to be among the world’s best spectacular tourist attractions.

During one of my recent interviews with the African Union peacekeepers or AMISOM marine unit near the airport at a bay surrounded by huge coral reefs in the shores of the Indian Ocean, my guide Captain Chris Magezi, the Ugandan Peacekeepers Spokesman in Somalia could not hide his admiration of the serene view.

“This place is really beautiful. Even during the war it is still beautiful. If there was no war it would have been paradise,” Magezi said as we drove past a stunning view of the sea as huge tides pounded the rocky reefs to send a cloud of water droplets high in the sky.

In terms of higher education, the city has over 10 universities. The Mogadishu University was recently ranked ahead of other established institutions in Africa.

If you are fond of fruits like me, then the city to be is Mogadishu. Somalia is generally known for its sweet grape fruits, mangoes, papayas, sweet melon and other citrus fruits.

Mogadishu gets its fruits and vegetable suppliers from a small but agriculturally rich town called Afgoye some 30 km west of the city along the shores of river Shabelle.

Since the Somali people are pastoralists there is also a constant supply of fresh goat, cow, sheep and camel meat and milk.

The huge sea provides the city with lots of fresh fish including the rare yellow fin tuna as well as other marine life depleted in most parts of the world but which are in plenty in the rich Somali waters that have attracted international illigal fish hunters to pray in the unpoliced waters.

“If I were in a position to live in Mogadishu I would never have thought twice. I have worked in so many capital cities in the world. But nothing is comparable to Mogadishu where life is so cheap, the people are so friendly and the food is just so sweat,” an Arab diplomat in Mogadishu once told me before his term ended.
Wednesday, July 21, 2010 0 comments

WITNESS-Getting married in Somalia's war zone

Guled Mohamed, a Kenyan of ethnic Somali origin, has covered Somalia for two years for Reuters. He moved to Mogadishu in mid-2006. In the following story, he describes the problems of arranging his wedding during the country's recent conflict.

By Guled Mohamed
MOGADISHU, Feb 4 2007 (Reuters) - The war in Somalia ruined my first attempt to marry Anisa on New Year's Eve.

I had planned to throw a splendid party in the central town of Baidoa, my young bride's hometown, then entertain friends in the capital Mogadishu, where I live.

But at the eleventh hour, I was forced to cancel the nuptials when Ethiopian and Somali government forces in Baidoa began their long-expected war with Islamists in Mogadishu.

"My son, I think we should postpone the marriage," my mother-in-law called from Baidoa to tell me.

I fell silent digesting the news, balancing the twin pulls of journalism and the heart.

"This war will continue. I don't think you and Anisa can travel to Baidoa in time before the wedding," she continued. "We should set another date after the war is over."

She was right. Fighting raged for days near Baidoa, then spread toward Mogadishu as the Islamists were beaten back.

The battles were the worst in Somalia for decades. Thousands of people were killed, many left for dead on the road between Mogadishu and Baidoa where my marriage party would have traveled.

At one point, with many foreseeing a bloodbath and street fighting in Mogadishu, I thought about leaving Somalia for my own safety. But Anisa has no passport, so I had to stay.

Then, two weeks after the open warfare began, the Islamist fighters, taken by surprise by Ethiopia's aerial firepower and sensing defeat, melted out of Mogadishu without a stand.

Better late than never, the wedding was back on.

I married Anisa on January 18 at her family home in Baidoa. Those in attendance included militiamen with rifles whom I had hired as bodyguards in the still tense atmosphere.

The religious ceremony where I had to shake a Sheikh's hand and mumble prayers after him to be lawfully wedded took place in the morning in a well-decorated room in my fiancee's house.

Once proclaimed man and wife, elders offered me a cold glass of camel milk. They said it would help relieve the stress of trying to pull off this wedding.

I drank the milk in two gulps.

Local women applauded and ululated.

The wedding reception was held in the evening at a restaurant in central Baidoa where guests were served drinks and cookies amid tables decorated with flowers.

Anisa wore a black dress with a feather collar that went well with her silver ear rings and necklace. I was in a black Armani suit and light blue Italian shirt.

The war seemed a distant rumble. Only the absence of my family and friends from Kenya who could not attend because of the insecurity was a reminder of Somalia's troubles.

Two days later, we drove back to Mogadishu for our honeymoon. But to be honest, since then I have rarely had a serene night with my wife.

Anarchy is slowly crippling Mogadishu again. Day and night, ambushes by Islamist remnants against the Ethiopian army and Somali government have become almost a ritual.

Mortars have hit police stations and even the presidential palace. Gunmen open fire in broad daylight. And dead bodies appear in the street with daylight.

Sometimes in the middle of the night, Anisa and I are woken by explosions, rocket fire and gunfights.

Understandably, she is complaining.

She cannot go out and visit relatives for fear of being caught up in the attacks, so she is forced to stay indoors.

But for me, duty calls.

I have cut short my honeymoon to cover the news, torn once again between my work and staying close to my sweetheart.

Danish warship steers food aid past pirates to Somalia

Guled MohamedON BOARD HDMS THETIS March 19, 2008 (Reuters) - Bristling with heavy machineguns and computerised grenade launchers, the HDMS Thetis with its crew of Danish marines is shepherding vital food aid through one of the world's most dangerous waterways.

In the Indian Ocean off the coast of Somalia, pirates have attacked several vessels in recent months carrying relief supplies to the anarchic Horn of Africa country, holding the ships and their crews for ransom.

The United Nations has appealed for rich nations to help it get humanitarian aid to impoverished Somalis, and the militaries of France and Denmark have answered the call.

"This is the noblest mission I've ever been involved with and I'm ready to die," said one Danish commando on board the MV Fade 1, a Panamanian-flagged cargo ship trailing the Thetis and carrying 5,300 tonnes of aid for the U.N. World Food Programme.

"This operation is better than those useless political battles," said the soldier, clad in camouflage and toting an M16 assault rifle, a 9mm pistol strapped to his right thigh.Piracy has been rife off Somalia since warlords there toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.

But the attacks have reached unprecedented levels due to instability onshore as the interim government battles Islamist insurgents.

In the latest incident, hijackers freed a Russian ship on Tuesday that they captured last month. The crew were unharmed.

A local Somali official said a $700,000 ransom had been paid, but the vessel's owners said it would be "irresponsible" for it to give any details of contacts with the hijackers.Doing so could encourage more attacks, it warned.

The 3,500-tonne, 112-metre Thetis is on its second humanitarian mission in the region since February, escorting food aid from Mombasa in Kenya to the Somali capital Mogadishu.WFP hopes to feed close to 2 million Somalis by August.

Up to 1 million of Somalia's total population of 9 million are living as refugees after 17 years of conflict, and the United Nations has described the situation in Somalia as Africa's worst humanitarian crisis.

Sitting aboard the MV Fade 1, 56-year-old Syrian captain Mustafa Al-Jendi, is overjoyed with the Danish help."We are safe from pirate attacks," he told Reuters, smoking contentedly as he navigated the vessel weighed down with stocks of sorghum, peas, other vegetables and non-food items.

"Some areas between Mombasa and Mogadishu are not very safe. We are happy the troops are here to provide security."

After this mission, the Thetis will be sailing back to the northern hemisphere to resume its usual tasks of ice-breaking and monitoring fishing fleets.

A Danish sniper in his mid-20s keeping a watchful eye from the deck of the Fade 1 had a message for any pirates who tried to interfere with their important work.

"We will shoot at their engine to show them they are not wanted here," he said. "We're not interested in killing them."

FEATURE-Mogadishu port slowly changing lives in Somalia

By Guled Mohamed

Mogadishu, March 24, 2008 (Reuters) - African Union peacekeepers have turned Somalia's biggest port into a thriving business centre providing a vital lifeline to war-weary residents.

Speaking after a cargo ship chartered by the United Nations to deliver food aid docked in the Mogadishu harbour, the port's AU commander, Captain Cyprian Odong, said his soldiers had been able to turn it into one of the safest corners of a dangerous city.

"Ships are coming day and night," Odong told reporters, flanked by other officers from AMISOM, the AU mission in the Horn of Africa nation. "Security at the port has really improved since we took over in January. People move freely."

Nearby, soaked bare-chested porters swarmed over vessels to unload their cargos, mostly of food.

A rickety white boat with Somali marine officials onboard acted as traffic controller, directing ships to anchor.

Two AMISOM dinghies mounted with heavy machineguns and carrying troops clutching AK-47 rifles patrolled further out at sea, while heavily armed soldiers on the shore guarded the gates into the harbour.

"We get cargo from Dubai, some from Indian, Pakistan and now from Mombasa ... The ships are bringing in food," Odong said, his head pressed to a radio telephone with a long aerial."Our mission in Mogadishu is to support the peace operation ... It is very hard but we are trying."

About 2,600 AU peacekeepers from Uganda and Burundi have been unable to stem a persistent Islamist insurgency in Somalia's capital -- and like the AU mission in Sudan's Darfur region, they complain of being under-funded and under-staffed.

Built by the Italians before Somalia gained independence from Rome in 1961, the harbour is about 2,500 metres long with several piers where big ships anchor, and a sandy beach to the north that is often filled with swimming children.

Since closing to commercial vessels for nearly 15 years after former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown by warlords in 1991, the harbour briefly opened during a strict but relatively peaceful Islamist reign in June 2006.

It closed down again after they were ousted at the end of that year.Since then, continuing lawlessness in the white-washed city has deterred many would-be investors -- even though the run-down port and some determined businessmen have defied the anarchy.

In January 2007, several mortar shells fired by insurgents opposed to Somalia's interim government hit the harbour, killing at least 5 people and temporarily disrupting port operations.

Up to a million people out of Somalia's total population of nine million currently live as refugees after 17 years of war.The United Nations says nearly 20, 000 people flee Mogadishu every month to escape Iraq-style attacks including assassinations, grenade blasts and roadside bombings that have left parts of city completely deserted.

Mustafa Al-Jendi, the captain of the Fade 1 cargo ship delivering 5,300 tonnes of food aid for the United Nations' World Food Programme, recalls the old days under the Barre regime when the city was at peace.

"Mogadishu was beautiful then. We used to dock and go to enjoy the city life. Nowadays, there is fighting everyday. At night you hear loud explosions. But the port is safe," he told Reuters, smiling as he steered the vessel towards the port.

Clay Aiken appeals for world attention on Somalia

By Guled Mohamed

HARGEISA, June 25 2008 - (Reuters Life!) - US pop star Clay Aiken appealed on Wednesday for the world not to forget Somalia, where conflict and hunger have created one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.

Aiken said U.S. and international interest in Somalia had been minimal since failed military intervention in the early 1990s.

"There hasn't been much discussion of Somalia since the early 1990s in the U.S.," said Aiken, a U.N. goodwill ambassador, on a visit to Somalia.

"The American population kind of got a bad taste of Somalia in the early 90's and hasn't really had much interest in the country since."

Somalia has suffered relentless civil conflict since the 1991 toppling military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.

In the latest cycle of violence, an Islamist-led insurgency against the Somali government and its Ethiopian military advisers since the start of 2007 has killed thousands and made one million people homeless.

"It's the most dangerous place for a child to be," Aiken said. "In the lower part of the country, southern part, I feel it's a more desperate situation than any place we've ever been."

Aiken, 29, who was traveling on behalf of U.N. children's agency UNICEF, was in Somaliland, a relatively peaceful northern enclave of Somalia that has declared itself independent but not been recognized internationally.

While there have skirmishes with neighboring province Puntland, Somaliland has functioning political institutions.

"In Somaliland, you really do have a sense of people who really want to help themselves, who want to do better, who want to effect change for themselves, that is very hopeful," he said.

Somaliland authorities hope a high-profile visit like Aiken's may bolster their case for world acceptance of their separation from Somalia.

For 12-year-old, Ubah Mohamed, her wants were simpler.

"I understand he is famous. I hope he will give us food and build a school for us," she said, near to a refugee camp.

Somali wedding planners rejoice in new freedom

By Guled Mohamed
MOGADISHU, July 28, 2007 (Reuters) - Women decked out in brightly coloured gowns, gold jewellery and elaborate hairstyles dance with men to the slow tunes of Somali love songs.

A pianist, guitarist and female singer entertain the crowd packed into a small, stuffy hall for a wedding reception.

Such a scene would have been unthinkable in Mogadishu just months ago when a hardline Muslim movement ruled the seaside capital and much of southern Somalia, imposing sharia law and shutting down many forms of entertainment seen as un-Islamic.

But business is back after the interim government, with Ethiopian military help, in January ejected the Islamists and their strict form of Islam.

Revelling in their new freedom, excited guests cheer and shower the singer with scarves and a confetti of Somali money.

"I'm very happy," wedding planner Muna Omar said as the reception at a former military compound starts to wind down.

"During the Islamic reign we would never dare organise such a party," she said. "They considered it unlawful."

When the Somali Islamic Courts Council was in charge last year, they banned wedding parties, shut video halls screening foreign films and World Cup football matches, outlawed a hugely popular narcotic, khat, and harassed men's barbers.

They also ordered women to wear the hijab, an outfit covering the body and head.

At first, many residents praised them for bringing relative stability to much of a country that had become a byword for anarchy since dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted in 1991.

But they were abhorred by others for imposing restrictions on a Muslim society that is traditionally moderate and they drew unfavourable comparisons to the Taliban movement in Afghanistan.

One guest taking a break from dancing recalls how he was at a secret party in Mogadishu last year that the Islamists heard of and decided to break up.

"We invited a few guests and the music was on low volume. I don't know who tipped off Islamist troops, but they stormed in and disrupted the party," he said. "They flogged and chased away guests. I was so shocked."

Then he returns to the heaving dance floor, a group of young men looking on with grins, clapping his every twist and turn.

Mogadishu remains one of the world's most dangerous cities, and remnants of the Islamist movement are blamed for almost daily insurgent strikes targeting interim government troops, Ethiopian patrols and African Union peacekeepers from Uganda.

A major peace conference under way in the north of the city has been attacked with volleys of mortar shells -- which missed and crashed down onto residential streets nearby.

But many were relieved to see the back of the Islamists, especially the Somalis whose livelihoods they choked off.
Deqo Afrah, another Mogadishu-based party planner, says business is booming again. She charges about $200 for most weddings, which includes applying the henna, the red dye used to decorate the bride's skin.

"I organise at least two or three weddings per week," she said. "I am very busy, unlike during the Islamic Courts' rule. People can now party freely. It is good for business."

Standing nearby wearing heavy make-up and a flowing semi-transparent gown, her fellow planner Omar heartily agrees.

"Nobody had the guts to dress like this," she said with a laugh. "We were unhappy and bored. I hope the Islamic Courts do not hear me and come for my head!"

FEATURE-Returning to Somaliland to shape the future

By Hussein Ali Nur and Guled Mohamed

HARGEISA, Aug 8, 2008 (Reuters) - Almis Yahye Ibrahim remembers when he and his friends hit on the idea of building a university in one of the world's most neglected corners, the breakaway republic of Somaliland.

It was the winter of 1997, and they were hanging out in Helsinki's cafes, keeping the Finnish winter at bay. That's when they dreamt up the International Horn University.

Four years ago, armed with diplomas and savings and driven by a desire to make a difference, the three men and another friend who had been in Malaysia returned home to build their dream.

The towering university now stands in Somaliland's hilly capital Hargeisa.

"We had better lives and jobs in Europe," said soft-spoken Ibrahim, the university's president."It was not an easy decision to leave all that and return to a totally destroyed country wrecked by civil war."

Investments by returning refugees provide a lifeline to millions in Somaliland, which does not receive any direct foreign aid as it is not recognised internationally.

This trend of Africans returning home to do business is taking tentative hold in several sub-Saharan countries.

As nations shake off war, adopt better governance and cash in on a commodities boom, former refugees and other members of the African diaspora are coming back, drawn by patriotism and investment opportunities in a region which the International Monetary Fund expects to grow by 6.5 percent this year.

In Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria, Ethiopia and elsewhere, these returning nationals are using skills acquired abroad and local knowledge to do business.

"The returnees have transformed Somaliland," said Abdullahi Ali, who drives a taxi for a returning refugee in Hargeisa.

A former British protectorate, Somaliland broke away from Somalia in 1991 when former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted, plunging the Horn of Africa country into anarchy.

Thousands of people left the north during Barre's reign. He bombed Hargeisa to crush anti-government forces in 1988, killing thousands of people.

Some refugees began to return in the mid-1990s. Officials say the returnees now number in the thousands, with Somalis from other regions also attracted here by the relative stability.

Ibrahim left in the 1980s and first went to Egypt before ending up in Finland. Of his friends, another also fled Somaliland while the two others are from Somalia.

Slightly larger than England and Wales, Somaliland has enjoyed relative peace and prosperity and has held democratic elections, with a presidential vote scheduled for next year.

Analysts say it is not recognised globally because of concerns that rewriting colonial borders would open a Pandora's box of other secession claims.

The enclave's annual budget stands at approximately $35 to $40 million. Analysts say around 80 percent comes from customs duties and earnings from the port of Berbera, on the Gulf of Aden. The diaspora contributes around $450 million annually in remittances.

In a move to lure refugees home, the administration has introduced tax waivers on new investments to fuel more growth.Half of Somaliland's cabinet and lawmakers are former refugees, who came back mainly from Europe and America.

Former refugees have also become small factory owners or created businesses, for example in telecommunications.

Ibrahim, the university president, has even bigger dreams: he wants to fashion future leaders.

"We don't have leaders in our country but we have managers. Our aim is to produce visionary leaders in future who can bring back hope and amalgamate our people. There is a huge appetite for such leadership and we hope to be the source," he said.

Ibrahim and his friends used their savings to start building the university. After they opened, they won grants from Islamic banks and institutions, mainly from Gulf states.

He estimated they had so far spent nearly $500,000. The grants help fund the day-to-day running of the university, including paying staff salaries.

Ugandan, Kenyan and Asian lecturers provide tutorials in the the university, which offers master degrees and PhD courses, in conjunction with Malaysia Open University. A

round 500 students pay an average of $450 per semester.

Despite its poverty, Somaliland and the region offer investment opportunities for those brave enough to return.

According to a European Union study seen by Reuters, the area has substantial untapped resources of oil, coal and metals such as gold, platinum, copper, nickel and zinc.

Oil majors such as ConocoPhillips, BP Plc, Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron staked out claims in the 1980s in Somalia but suspended operations when the country imploded in the 1990s.

Somaliland's 850 km (528 miles) of coastline also offer potential for a fisheries industry.

The mayor of Hargeisa, Mahamud Jiir, a former refugee who lived in Britain, says fresh investment has fuelled a construction boom in Hargeisa, a city still speckled with ruins from the 1988 bombing attack.

"Diasporas are the heart of our economy," said Jiir, an engineer who also owns a construction company which builds up to 50 new buildings in Hargeisa every month.

"We now waive tax on factory parts and other goods to encourage more diaspora investment. The economy is built on them. They are our lifeline," he said, referring both to those who return and those who send money back.

Hassan Mahamud Hassan, 32, returned from neighbouring Djibouti in January last year. He invested $500,000 to build the Imperial hotel in Hargeisa. The hotel now employs 40 people and caters mainly to returning refugees and aid workers.

"The country depends on us. Our staff are better paid than government workers. There is a need to educate new returnees on the best investment opportunities available," Hassan said outside his hotel, as a group of men drank Italian cappuccinos at a next-door coffee shop.
(Writing by Guled Mohamed; Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile

FEATURE-Maasai warrior hairdressers break taboos

By Guled Mohamed
Monday, Sept 8, 2008
Mombasa, Kenya (Reuters) - Maasai warrior Lempuris Lalasho went to Kenya's tourist haven Mombasa to find a white woman to marry, but he ended up working as a hairdresser, a profession that is taboo in his culture.

His story opens a window on the strains faced by this ancient tribe as it adjusts to modern life in east Africa's largest economy, whose Indian Ocean beaches lure thousands of tourists, including women seeking sex.

Maasai warriors, or moran, are a familiar sight on Kenya's beaches and in its renowned safari parks -- dressed in distinctive red robes and wearing beaded jewellery, they often act as guides or work in security.

But sometimes, the eager young men who flock to the coast hoping to make their fortunes -- some with dreams of marrying a white tourist -- have to go against their traditions.
Lalasho's status as a moran means he is charged with protecting and providing for his people, and it makes his transgression all the more serious.

Maasai warriors are not allowed to touch a woman's head: it is regarded as demeaning in the patriarchal culture. Moran who become hairdressers risk a curse from the elders, or could even be expelled from the community.

"If my father finds out what I am doing he will be very mad at me or even chase me from home," said Lalasho, who comes from Loitoktok, near Mount Kilimanjaro on the border with Tanzania.
"But I have to eat, that's why I broke my taboo since city life is very expensive," he said.

An estimated 500,000 to one million Maasai live in scattered and remote villages across northern Tanzania and southern Kenya, eking out a semi-nomadic existence with herds of precious cows.

As drought and hunger bite harder in their rural homes due to climate change and increased competition for resources, hundreds of Maasai men are heading to towns and cities.

In tourist resorts like Mombasa, these men end up as hotel workers, night guards, herbalists and hairdressers.

Lalasho, who is illiterate and does not know his age, was inspired by the good fortune of a friend, Leishorwa Mesieki.

"My friend Leishorwa is now rich. He married a mzungu (white) woman who took him to ... is it New Zealand or Switzerland? I don't know. He came back to build a big house and bought so many cows. I envy him," he added, shaking his head.

Lalasho did not have such luck and he was forced to use his skills at spinning hair, which he learnt during his initiation into moranhood in a thicket near Mount Kilimanjaro.

Morans learn to weave hair into thin, rasta-like dreadlocks during the initiation, which takes place when boys are aged between 17 and 20. The warriors' hair is often dyed red as well, and the red style is popular among women in cities.

For Maasai elder Michael Ole Tiampati, the fate of men like Lalasho threatens the wider Maasai culture.

"It's an abomination and demeaning for a moran or Maasai man to touch a woman's head," said Tiampati, media officer for the Maa Civil Society Forum, which protects Maasai traditions.

"They have gone against the cultural fibre ... They have to pay a price to be accepted back into the society," he said.

Kenya's Maasai are based in the picturesque Great Rift Valley region, home to the famous Maasai Mara game park. But the tribe who gave the park its name earn little from tourism, which is among Kenya's top three foreign currency earners.

This lack of revenue pushes young Maasai into other activities, but their increasing renown in tourist resorts is also bringing competition.

Men from tribes like the Kikuyu or Samburu are disguising themselves as Maasai on the beaches of Mombasa and elsewhere.

"Foreign tourists love Maasai for their sincerity. We are good-hearted people who do not feel jealous," Lalasho said.

Tiampati is more explicit.

"(Maasai) warriors are perceived to be erotic, that is why women pensioners from Europe come to look for them. The warriors take a lot of herbs -- some known to have Viagra-like contents like the bark of black acacia tree -- to re-invigorate their loins."

The copy-cat trend has angered some Maasai.

"It's the beginning of an end of Maasai culture," said tour guide Isac Oramat in Nairobi.

"Soon our tradition will just exist in books ... I warn tourists to be aware of these fake Maasais."

But for the morans in Mombasa, survival for now takes precedence over preserving their traditional ways.

"I have not gone to school. This is the only thing I can do," said hairdresser Ole Sambweti Ndoika, 35.

"The women here love our style. We get good money ... I hope to save enough to marry my second wife ... by end of the year," said the father-of-four from Narok in the Rift Valley.

Longishu Nyangusi, 25, also works as a hairdresser and like Lalasho came to Mombasa to find a white tourist wife. He says his lack of English has held him back.

"I could have hooked a white woman by now. I regret refusing to go to school. I was fooled by our fat cows and thought life is just fine," he said near his open-air salon-cum-shop.
(Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile)

Somaliland hopes election will lead to democracy

By Hussein Ali Nur and Guled Mohamed
HARGEISA, Somalia (Reuters) - The breakaway state of Somaliland hopes next year's presidential elections will lead to international recognition of the northern Somali enclave as an independent country, officials said on Sunday.

The polls are seen by many as an acid test for the former British protectorate which broke away from Somalia in 1991 when the ouster of former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre plunged the Horn of Africa country into anarchy.

Somaliland has enjoyed relative peace and prosperity and has held previous democratic elections, but analysts say it is not recognized globally because of concerns that rewriting colonial borders would open a Pandora's Box of other secession claims.

"The election is a test for Somaliland's recognition bid," electoral commission chairman Mohamed Ismail Mohamed said. "So many countries are waiting to see how we will conduct our election. It will be transparent, free and fair."

According to a European Union study seen by Reuters, the region has substantial untapped resources of oil, coal and metals such as gold, platinum, copper, nickel and zinc.
Somaliland's 850 km (528 miles) of coastline on the Gulf of Aden also offer potential for a fisheries industry.

Presidential elections were postponed in 2007 and again this year due to what officials called technical problems, including inadequate voter registration and planning time.

The polls are due to be held before April 6, 2009, following a civil registration process.
Somaliland's system of government consists of a house of representatives elected directly by the people and an upper chamber, or Guurti, consisting of traditional elders representing the different clans and sub-clans.

"We will do everything to make sure the elections are held. We have a unique infant democracy combining a traditional chamber and a parliamentary system. We can not afford to fail," Foreign Affairs Minister Abdullahi Mohamed Duale told Reuters. (Writing by Guled Mohamed; Editing by Caroline Drees)

INTERVIEW-Somali pilot returns to the city he refused to bomb

By Hussein Ali Nur and Guled Mohamed
Hargeisa, Friday June 27, 2008 5:29am EDT(Reuters Life!) - On July 13, 1988, Somali fighter pilot Abdi Mohamed Hassan was ordered to bomb Hargeisa city as part of operations by dictator Mohamed Siad Barre to crush anti-government forces.

Hassan defied his superiors, and instead dropped his load on bare mountains close to the hilly city in north Somalia that is now capital of the breakaway region of Somaliland.

Then he crash-landed on a beach in neighbouring Djibouti after running out of fuel, handed himself in to local authorities, and eventually won asylum in Luxembourg despite Somalia's bid to extradite him.

Twenty years on, Hassan -- now a businessman in Luxembourg -- is back in Hargeisa for the first time, invited by the government as a guest of honour during this week's celebrations of Somaliland's independence from Britain on June 26, 1960.

"The instruction was to bomb Hargeisa city using Russian made Fab 500kg bombs," the 56 year-old father-of-four told Reuters in the city, where ruins still bear witness to the massive bombardment of 20 years ago.

"But I had already made up my mind never to drop the bombs. As a soldier, I swore to protect my people. There was no way I could hurt my own countrymen."

Now Hassan is thinking of moving back to his homeland -- either Hargeisa or Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, where he was born.

In Hargeisa, a camouflaged metal replica of Mig fighters like the one Hassan flew stands in Independence Square as a memorial to the bloodshed and terror unleashed by Barre, who was toppled in 1991.

Somaliland, a former British protectorate, won independence in 1960 just four days before Italy relinquished the south. The two territories joined together to form modern Somalia.

Inter-clan hatred ensured the union was a difficult one, and those four days in 1960 now form the legal case for Somaliland's 1991 declaration of independence.

Although it lacks international recognition, the northern enclave has held democratic elections and is relatively peaceful compared to the rest of Somalia, especially in the south.

The bespectacled and bearded Hassan is disgusted by daily violence in Mogadishu and elsewhere in the south, where Islamist insurgents are battling the Somali government and its Ethiopian military allies.

"Innocent civilians die every day in the south. I wish to urge the combatants to spare our country and people. I long for the day when peace will prevail in my beloved country," he said.

In Somaliland, Hassan is lauded for his decision 20 years ago. Peace activists gave him a certificate of appreciation.

"I am glad I did not drop those bombs here...I got a hero's welcome. I miss home and will one day return to settle in Hargeisa or Mogadishu," he said, showing the certificate. (Writing by Guled Mohamed; Edit by Matthew Jones)
Monday, July 19, 2010 0 comments

Somali artists use words to fight extremism

By Guled Mohamed

Nairobi, Feb 23 2010 - The unceasing violence in Somalia and the relatively new culture of suicide bombings by extremist elements has forced a rare psychological war-of-words against them via music and poetry targeting the same youths they seek to recruit.

The renowned youthful Wayaaha cusub musical band and a Somali poet-cum-singer known as Abdirashid "Ina Cowsgurow" or the son of the grass-reaper are in the forefront of this important battle against the spread of extremism in Somalia and beyond through rich poetic songs that warn youths against joining such groups.

Extremist groups like Al-Shabab, who are busy waging an unholy war against the internationally recognized Somali government recruit youngsters as foot soldiers and also brainwash many others to carry out suicide bombings that mainly kill innocent civilians.

A classic example is the 3rd December suicide attack which killed dozens of would-be-medical graduates, the first to successfuly graduate in Mogadishu since 1991, that also killed several professors as well as four government Ministers. The suicide bomber disguised himself as a woman only to leave a trail of blood at the graduation ceremony of Banadir university medical graduates at the Shamow hotel in Mogadishu.

"Such gruesome attacks have become a norm in Mogadishu. Young militants are often used as collateral damage. This is what we seek to change. We will use wisdom and words to bring about change and not mortars and bombs like them," said Shine, Wayaaha cusub's leader and singer, referring to the Shamow hotel suicide bombing.

Shine has been a victim of Al-Shabab's brutality himself having narrowly escaped death in Nairobi after gunmen believed to have been sent by the group tried to assasinate him few years ago.

Using rich rhythmic songs, the youthful band and poet/singer Abdirashid "Ina Cowsgurow" pass simple messages to the youth: Beware of Al-Shabab and other militant groups who are out to exploit you.

Both groups are slowly wining the hearts and minds of the youth in this important battle of wits.

The Waayacusub band is comprised of a dozen teenagers from Somalia, including two former child soldiers turned musicians. It enjoys a massive following back home in Somalia -- where they recently went to perform -- as well as in Kenya and the Diaspora.

The band has become a household name and has attracted joint collaborations with a Kenyan hip-hop group called "Ukoo Fulani" in Swahili meaning "A certain clan" to release a new song dubbed: NO TO AL-SHABAB, which includes lyrics in Swahili, English and Somali.

Shine explains why the song comes in three languages.

"We chose to collaborate with Ukoo Fulani due to their massive following. The song comes in three languages so that youths in Somalia, Kenya and the region as well as the diaspora can listen to it since Al-Shabab recruits youths from all over the world,"

Born and educated in Kenya's Somali inhabited Northeastern region, the 29 year-old Abdirashid Omar, a budding poet and singer uses his knowledge of religion and customs / traditions to compose poems and songs with a tinge of hip-hop style-dancing and street fashion to appeal to the youth.

He has authored over a dozen poems since leaving his Islamic religion teaching career in 2002.

In his newly released album dubbed DELMATO, a song called FATWA or verdict in English, launched at a packed hall in central Nairobi on 15th May 2010, Abdirashid sought to tell the story of inhuman suffering of the Somalis in the hands of Shabab and warns the youth against associating with the "blood-letting militant group,"

Seen wearing a black and white turban associated with Shabab in the just-released DVD, Abdirashid artistically paints the gruesome picture of the 3rd December suicide attack in his arty "saar" poetic-folk song composed mainly with a solo beat of a drum and the a soft soprano voice of a beautiful female backup vocalist.

"Poetry has a special place among Somalis. It's the only medium through which sanity can be brought back among our people. We will never tire of educating our people and especially the youth against extremism. Somalia is greater than us all and we have to use our historic poetic culture to preach peace," Abdirashid said.

In the fatwa poem, Abdirashid explains the attack in black and white:

In Somali:"Fajacii Xamar ka dhacay,Fir yar jamacad bogto,Funuuntii caafimaadKu faasto qalinjabsheenFagaarihi loo qabtay iyoHalkii fayl iyo warqadoLarabay inii loogu furoAyuu maan law firjaanFaatag iyo qarax furoDad badan feeraha ku jaray.Firjan SoomaliyayFajacii Xamar ka dhacayMaxaa fool xumo ka wayn?"

In its conceptual English translation, the poetic song goes likes this:

"The calamity that befell Mogadishu in which educated youths at the tender age of their life, who were expecting to be congratulated for graduating but instead the heartless/misfits/crazy gangs marred the occasion with a suicide bombing that left many in tears and missing limbs. Ooh wrecked Somalis, what other incidence is uglier than the calamity that befell Mogadishu,"

AMISOM education initiative takes off in Somalia

By Guled Mohamed

Student enrollment is rapidly outpacing expectations at an AMISOM pilot school project meant to encourage parents of Jazeera village in southern Mogadishu to bring their children for free primary education. Initially just nine students signed up for the program. Within 30 days the school roster had 97 names, and now 210 students are enrolled.

The parents have not been left behind either. Many adults have registered themselves to take advantage of the free public education, which has been absent in Somalia for the last 20 years since the ouster of former president Mohamed Siad Barre.

The latest AMISOM programme marks a step by the peacekeeping mission to battle illiteracy in Somalia. Statistics on Somalia’s literacy rate are scant, but one estimate by UNICEF says just 24 percent of females between the age of 15 and 24 can read in the country.

Education became a luxury after Barre was deposed, leaving many poor Somalis like the people of Jazeera and their children uneducated.

Now the education-hungry villagers and their children are posing challenges to AMISOM, which is struggling to provide them with books, desks and other educational materials.

Despite the lack of supplies, students are eager to attend class. Hani Ahmed, a 9-year-old girl, is elated by the opportunity to attend the start-up school, which has yet to be named.

“We did not have a school around before this was opened,” she said. “This school was started by elders and AMISOM. I learn English and the Quran at the moment. The school is free. We don’t pay anything. I want to study hard in order to get a job when I finish school.”

Located in the expansive Wadajir district of southern Mogadishu, the population of Jazeera has sharply risen over the years as many civilians flee violence in other parts of the chaotic capital. Security in the area is better than other parts of Mogadishu in large part due to the presence of the Jazeera training camp, where AMISOM peacekeepers train Somali government forces.

Due to lack of resources the students of Jazeera school have been forced to study in a refurbished former sweets factory. During the morning children attend classes on the Quran, English, mathematics and geography, while parents and other adult learners attend similar classes in the afternoon.

Funds are in short supply too. “We urge well-wishers to support us,” said Abdullahi Ibrahim, one of volunteer teachers. “Our country has been ravaged by illiteracy, but if many students get an education it would have a positively impact. Extremism will be checked and our children will not be easily lured into fighting or even brainwashed.”

Maj. Nelson Ahebwa, an AMISOM peacekeeper with the Civil Military Unit, or CIMIC, is one of the pioneers of the project. CIMIC launched the initiative, and Ahebwa is happy to see their work paying off as increasingly more Somalis enroll their children and themselves in classes.

“This is my happiest day in life,” said Ahebwa, who has already begun groundwork for similar such school in other areas of Mogadishu. “When I first met the elders last month, many were skeptical, although they seemed really interested. The number of students has shot from nine to nearly a 100 within month. We will lobby for support from donors and agencies like UNICEF to assist the students and the school.”

Guns fall silent as football fever grips Mogadishu.

By Guled Mohamed
Special Correspondent
The East African

21 June 2010.

The normally silent mess where senior officers take their meals bursts into life amid wild celebrations with each goal scored by an African team. The AMISOM officers’ usual calm demeanour is overtaken by emotions, their football fanaticism revealing itself with every moment of the beautiful game.

The African Union Mission to Somali officers’ usual calm demeanour is overtaken by emotions, their football fanaticism revealing itself with every moment of the beautiful game.

The World Cup – the first ever to be played on African soil- has become a much-needed leisure pastime, for the peacekeepers who are helping to restore normalcy in a country devasted by a 20-year old civil war.

After a day’s hard work in the humid Mogadishu conditions, they now spend their evenings enjoying a football game in the cool Indian Ocean sea breeze.

And they are not a lone in celebrating the game. The football bug has touched virtually everyone in Somalia – including the young soccer-mad Somali boys and mothers.

The Somalis’s love of the game has been further encouraged by their world famous pop star son K’naan whose song, waving the flag, is Coca Cola’s official World Cup song. The Canadian based singer is of Somali origin.

The effects of the soccer frenzy are far reaching and mind-blowing as well.

In Mogadishu, there’s a perception that guns are quieter now

Many people believe the gunmen who have made Mogadishu so inhospitable are also watching the beautiful game, hence the relative calm with fewer violent incidents, by Mogadishu standards.

This is despite the fact that the two main insurgent groups in Somalia have declared a total ban on viewing the World Cup in areas under their control. The Al-Shabab militias and their copycat Hizbul Islam group say the tournament is encouraging immorality and nudity.

The truth, however, may be that the tournament is diverting the focus of their child soldiers!

But the desire of many residents in Mogadishu and elsewhere to catch a glimpse of the football bonanza has not been dampened by the ban imposed by Al-Shabab, the unprecedented killing of two teenagers and the arrest of 30 others watching the game by Hizbul Islam in Mogadishu’s Wardhigley district, as well as the arrest of 14 others in Afgoye, some 30 kilometres west of Mogadishu.

In spite of Hizbul Islam and AlShabab, screenings of live games have secretly sprung up.

The Somali TV station, Shabelle, was last week forced to relocate overnight from the sprawling Bakara market controlled by AlShabab, to a building near the main airport in the government controlled southern Mogadishu in order to re-broadcast the World Cup games and gain a foothold in the seaside Somali capital.

Somali boys are often seen moving from house to house looking for a place to catch the games, when they miss sitting space at the overpacked screenings.

Without a doubt, the World Cup fever has caught up with the resilient Somali population who have endured a conflict that has killed tens of thousands and uprooted millions more since the 1991 ousting of former president Mohamed Siad Barre.

Nearly 1,000 T-shirts, 300 caps and 200 balls reading: "Africa 2010: My Country is Somalia" in the Somali language, and spoting the Somali flag, have been distributed in TFG-controlled areas of Mogadishu, and have been received enthusiastically by young people.

Many of the teenagers were born during the civil war and have no idea of peace or government, and are becoming easy prey for AlShabab and other militants who try to recruit them as soldiers.

Women have also been caught up in the football fever. Indian soap operas and Bollywood movies, traditionally their favourite viewing, have been relegated to second choice.

“My wife has just called to demand a cable TV subscription. She no longer wants to watch her favourite soap operas. Before the World Cup she had no interest in football but now says all her friends now watching the World Cup matches. This is ridiculous,” said a radio reporter who did not want to be named.

Indeed, judging from the football euphoria that has engulfed Somalia, Hizbul Islam and AlShabaab will not be able to stop the soccer-mad people of Somalia from watching all 64 games of the 2010 FIFA World Cup.