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» The President’s Gardener [posted on October 31, 2013]

When I first met Sheikh Ahmed Mursal Adam, the Head of Presidential Gardens in Villa Somalia was a spirited man in his late seventies. He told me with evident pride of his 200 children and grandchildren, the prodigious progeny of 37 wives. A year later there was an unmistakable spring in his step. The fruit of the sheikh’s loins had swelled to 215 and he had just married a bride of 27. “I’m an old man now so I need more care,” he said with a chuckle. “One wife is not enough.”

At the time I remember thinking this venerable old boy was a striking contrast to the bearded lunatics of Al Shabaab, the local Al Qaeda franchise. While he had busied himself creating life with a dedication to procreation that took some beating, these young men were bent only on destruction and killing.

I bumped into the old man again this week, together with a son and two grandsons. He had just turned 82. Something had changed. On the one hand, he had married again twice, bringing the tally of wives to 40 (the 27 year-old woman had given him a son before they parted company), and twice divorced. The sheikhly family now stood at 257, a tribute to his stamina and ability to find romance in hard times. A tribute, too, to his many wives – long-suffering and short-lived alike. We greeted each other like old friends and then I noticed his left arm hung strangely from his shoulder.

He rolled up his sleeve to reveal a misshapen arm that was bulging in all the wrong places. On 12 February 2011, he told me, a month after I had last seen him, he was in a car driving along Maka al Mukarama Street minding his own business when all of a sudden there was a terrific explosion on the road just in front of him. It was a mortar attack by the insurgents. The driver of the car swerved wildly in shock, veered across the road and smashed into a tree. Three of the five men in the car were killed. Sheikh Ahmed was one of two survivors. He broke both arms and one leg. Doctors were able to fix one leg and patched up his right arm, which remains a little crooked. But the complicated fracture of his left arm beneath the shoulder was too much for the limited local hospital in Mogadishu. The doctors shook their heads and said he’d have to go abroad for treatment. Nobody in Somalia could do anything for him.

“Al Shebab just want to destroy everything,” he said. “I like to care for a woman, they want to attack them. I still pray to Allah, please let Al Shebab be finished.”

Something else had changed. The last time I saw him, Sheikh Ahmed sported a richly hennaed beard. There was a certain swagger about him. If not quite a Mogadishu dandy and Indian Ocean boulevardier of the greatest distinction, he was a well put together fellow. Today it was white stubble, sad eyes and the swagger had become a limp. He looked a little rueful when I mentioned the beard. “I haven’t got time to look after myself like that anymore,” he said.

I congratulated him on his great brood and wondered whether he had done his bit now to increase the world’s population. Perhaps, after that epic sowing of his seed, after creating almost half a battalion of his own followers, he had fathered his last child. He wasn’t having any of it. He certainly wasn’t ruling anything out, he said. “If Allah gives me more children, I would like that,” he said. His son and grandsons hooted with laughter. “He’s started so many families,” one said.

They were proud of the old man, who had obviously set an example that they wanted to emulate – in part at least. One of them, who was still a young man, had already fathered four children and was quite clear he wanted more. A family large by British standards would appear small by Somali.

Large families are useful in a pastoralist society to look after the herds – Somalis routinely boast they have more camels than any other country in the world – as well as representing security for parents in their dotage. Childbearing typically starts early for Somali women as a result, each child being welcomed as a gift from Allah. Birth control and family planning are noticeable only by their absence, so much so that it is not uncommon to find desperately poor women in refugee camps in Mogadishu with more children than they can look after. Thanks to this cultural and religious hinterland Somali women have among the highest fertility rates in the world, with more than six children each on average. When you rack up an extraordinary 40 wives, as Villa Somalia’s head gardener had done, that’s a lot of children.

Over the course of a long life, Sheikh Ahmed has seen presidents come and go in Villa Somalia, whose improbably elegant gardens he has done so much to maintain. He started work there in 1954 – he speaks fluent Italian, the language of the old colonial masters, in addition to Somali and Arabic – and is now on his eighth president. A resilient man, like his fellow Somalis, he has weathered some of the world’s most tragic and turbulent times.

“Praise God, I have had a good life and I am happy – but without money. After I was injured, I was planning to go abroad for treatment, but I haven’t got the power to do so.” He paused and then looked straight into my eyes. “I need help,” he said.

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» Mogadishu – First Impressions [posted on September 10, 2013]

One step out of the plane and you’re blasted by hot air and blinded by a fulgor of sunlight. You lose your bearings completely. Then, after a moment or two, your body and eyes begin to adjust. The hairdryer furnace softens to a seductive breeze. The dazzling clatter of white light settles into a cloud-free canopy of brilliant blue. A few metres from the runway the Indian Ocean sparkles and beckons outrageously beyond the millions of acres of white sand that stretch into the longest coastline in Africa.

The airport terminal buzzes with a friendly confusion over visas, paperwork and luggage. Women float by in multi-coloured splendour. Laughter amid the streaming heat is everywhere. The atmosphere intoxicates. Ah, Mogadishu! It’s good to be back after a few days away. There’s no place like it.

So different from the first time. Three years ago, I was moderately alarmed on arrival. Make that frightened. Ok, if you insist, terrified. As the plane from Nairobi made its final swoop down the wild coastline and dropped its nose towards the airport, I feared the worst. The Al Qaeda-allied insurgents of Al Shebab were running amok across the city. Bombs, mortars, suicide attacks, IEDs, the usual medley of twenty-first century warzone attractions, were the order of the day. As I stepped out gingerly onto the tarmac, I half expected to be taken out by a sniper for reasons which are about to be explained. Instead, the heartiest of welcomes from Somali and Ugandan colleagues and that blissful weather that greets all travellers.

Looking back on that initial fright, I blame the overexcited security officer who had briefed me back in Nairobi. Every Somali I met in Mogadishu would be downright hostile, he told me, not without a certain satisfaction, the seaport would be raining rocket-propelled grenades and mortars and if I ever fancied a trip to the presidential compound of Villa Somalia – slow shake of the head – God help me. Snipers would pick me off if a mortar didn’t get me first. My enthusiasm for Mog – the inevitable nickname – was fading by the second and I hadn’t even visited the place yet (was it too late, on the eve of departure, to change my mind?) but he wasn’t finished.

The weather was excruciating, he continued, the malarial mosquitoes a hideous and insuperable health risk, and the healthcare facilities so bad they would kill you. As for the flight I was going in on – exaggerated intake of breath – it was relatively safe only because Al Shebab terrorists commuted in and out on this airline so might not blow it up for the time being.

Something deep within me rebelled against this relentless armchair doom-meister. “I’ve heard the swimming’s fantastic,” I said with as much defiance as I could muster. “Good luck,” he snorted. “If Al Shebab don’t get you, the sharks will.” Mogadishu, in other words, was Armageddon on steroids.

And yet it wasn’t, of course. It was nothing like it. These sorts of places are never as apocalyptic as experts from afar tend to tell us. Certainly not for most foreign visitors, at least. For ordinary Somalis in 2010, the city was undoubtedly an inferno of random killing and grotesque violence. For the brave African Union soldiers of Uganda and Burundi, it was an especially deadly place. Beyond the airport perimeter fighting raged all around us that summer and the steady rise in casualties on both sides was unremitting.

Sometimes the ground beneath my sand-filled tent shook as artillery fire rumbled through the night. The odd mortar came over the wire to keep us on our toes. And the occasional bullet, nicknamed “Yusuffffff!” for the fizzing noise it made, did indeed whizz past when I travelled across town to spend a night or two in Villa Somalia (Somalis do a good line in black humour. They have had plenty of reason to hone this talent over the years).

Yet as one of the many unsoldierly expatriates holed up in Mogadishu International Airport behind Hesco barriers and barbed wire, you were more likely to be upset by slow internet than a suicide bomber. Drama was when the cookhouse had run out of bacon. No baked beans for breakfast was a crisis. In other words, the stark warnings bore little or no relation to the western expatriate’s daily life, which itself was completely divorced from everyday Somali life.

How is it that initial perceptions – and fears – so rarely accord with reality for the traveller? Mogadishu immediately revealed itself as shockingly, vibrantly green, not the sun-cracked dustbowl I had been expecting. Stretches of it, however run-down or destroyed, are surprisingly beautiful. Reality in turn became an exercise in unreality, a walk-on part in a satirical novel populated by self-detonating maniacs, self-important hacks, self-aggrandising politicians, the occasional rebranded mercenary and a splendid Ugandan major who used to entertain friends in a shambolic tent laughingly known as the Spokesman’s Palace. It was only when you visited the African Union hospital, full of wounded soldiers and civilians, that you saw the stomach-blanking horrors of war.

Three years on, that war is over in Mogadishu. After more than two decades tearing each other apart, Somalis have by and large stopped fighting in the capital. An occasional bomb or suicide attack is the exception now, not the norm. Peace, to a great extent, prevails.

Every day I meet Somalis who have come home from the diaspora, previously scattered around the world from Manchester to Minnesota, Stockholm to Sydney. They are opening new hotels, restaurants, cafés and any other businesses that spring to mind in a city that until a few weeks ago didn’t even have a single petrol station. Others are looking for work. Some have thrown in their lot with the government, many of them working as unpaid volunteers to help rebuild the country.

“I don’t really care what I’ll do,” a new friend said the other day. “The point is, after all the years living away, I’m finally home. I’m free. That’s all that matters for now.”

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» A Man and His Stomach [posted on ]

“They’ve done what?”

My colleague P looked aghast. Instantly haggard. Crushed. Ruined. He’d aged years in seconds. His eyes were wide as saucers.

“They’ve said they’re not going to supply us with any food anymore,” I replied. “We’ve got to make our own arrangements.”

There followed a string of expletives which suggested that P had not altogether lost his marbles. But he was still fixing me with a wild-eyed stare that was not encouraging.

The conversation took place after the best part of two months subsisting on goat, camel and rice. I had managed to get a daily piece of fish, always a godsend. P, working in a different office, hadn’t. Fruit had long since become a rarity, vegetables had vanished. Bread was an elusive, unspoken-of luxury.

In a flash I thought of the small band of British Army officers marooned in remote desert outposts across Somalia during the Second World War. Surrounded by endlessly feuding tribes bent on bloodshed, deprived of all but the most basic supplies, isolated for months at a time in thousands of miles of ferocious wilderness, hollowed out by solitude, harassed by malarial fevers, broken by introspection and desiccated by the African sun, a number of them had eventually succumbed to mental disintegration, raised a pistol to their temple and blown their head off.

I didn’t think P was going to do that. For a start he didn’t have a pistol.

Warriors tells the little known story of these hardy officers and the hardier Somali nomads among whom they soldiered. Written by Gerald Hanley, a tough Irishman who was one of the most resilient of their number, it chronicles their astonishingly testing tours and the harsh lives of the wandering Somali warriors. Hanley also offers an alternately humorous and disturbing examination of the psychological effects of prolonged cultural dislocation, isolation and wilderness.

Food supplies, or rather the lack of them, are often uppermost in his thoughts. Somalia shrinks into a “blazing yellow coast on which one… thirsted and yearned, and dreamed of onions and salad and bread and beer, and even of drinkable, living water.” A relentless diet of army rations, biscuits and bully beef, camel and goat when those have run out, do little to sustain morale or mental equilibrium. “We used to talk about lettuce and beetroot and fresh eggs in increasingly burning and passionate words,” he writes. “Nobody could remain sane in that arid world.” Distant Mogadishu, “headquarters of the vast insane asylum we had been lost in”, becomes an almost mythical oasis for R&R: women, bars, cold beer, fresh food, clean sheets.

I looked at P again. He was a broken man. Speechless. Immobile.

“It’s going to be all right. I’ll call Ahmed,” I said. This was Mogadishu’s best-known restaurateur, a charismatic Somali-Brit who had opened a number of restaurants and hotels and had weathered a number of recent terrorist attacks by Al Shebab suicide bombers.

Some of this was my fault. Lost in my own tortured reveries about food, during the past few days I had emailed P a series of photographs as a joke: petits fours from the restaurant at Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, memories of a foray in Bordeaux last summer. Then there was a Full English Breakfast or two, a Caesar Salad, lamb chops, seared tuna and a particularly succulent venison casserole. It probably wasn’t a good idea, but it felt harmless at the time.

Years earlier, during an expedition in Libya with a friend, when our daily diet had diminished to tuna fish pasta and dates, conversations had often turned to imaginary feasts. Sometimes this sustained morale for a few minutes, at others it plunged us into silent moroseness.

In The Lost Oases, the high-spirited Ahmed Hassanein Bey, one of my favourite desert explorers, wrote hilariously of these epicurean cravings while travelling by camel across the Saharan wastes in 1923.

“As I stride along I imagine myself in Shepherd’s Grill Room in Cairo and I order Crevettes a l’Américaine with that subtle variation of Riz a l’orientale which is a speciality of the house. Or I am at Prunier’s in Paris ordering Marennes Vertes d’Ostende, followed by a steak and soufflé. Perhaps it is the Cova at Milan and a succulent dish of Risotto alla Milanese; maybe Strawberries Melba at the Ritz in London.”

These fond dreams were cruelly interrupted by the arrival of a tribesman bringing him a handful of wizened dates. Like Hanley, Hassanein Bey, an Egyptian scholar, spy, writer and Olympic fencer, was not a man to be unduly perturbed by hardship. He fitted out one of his camels with a tent to rest under out of the pitiless sun. It was quickly nicknamed “the Club”. Among his retainers “The Bey is lunching at the Club today” became a morale-boosting refrain.

“Don’t worry. We’ll sort something out,” I continued. “Ahmed can start bringing us some fresh food. It’ll be fine.”

There was a loud knock at the door. In came the ever cheerful Hersi, a slim young man carrying a pot. I looked at it with a demoniacal glare. What would it contain this evening? Surely some fresh fish at last? With trepidation and a heavy heart I opened it. A few scraps of fatty goat meat clung dispiritedly to a giant chunk of bone forlornly mounted on a mound of rice.

I smiled weakly at P.

“Dinner’s here,” I said. “It looks delicious.”

Warriors: Life and Death among the Somalis by Gerald Hanley is published by Eland Books

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» A Feminist Flashmob in Mogadishu [posted on September 5, 2013]

“Did you hear? There’s a feminist flashmob going on in town.”
Not the sort of words you would necessarily expect to hear in the Somali capital.
“Say that again.”
“Somali women are demonstrating against rape and sexual violence.”
“It’s Valentines Day.”
“When did you last see a feminist rally in Mogadishu?”
“Let’s go.”

When you hear the words feminist flashmob, you drop whatever you’re doing and get on with it. You do in Mogadishu anyway. Sexual violence against women is a hot topic here. The most recent report on Somalia by the UN’s Secretary-General, published earlier this month, makes uncomfortable reading in places. It notes that more than 800 rape cases were reported in and around Mogadishu between September and November last year, the majority being internally displaced women and girls. The report doesn’t go into female genital mutilation, but that is an issue here, too.

I join several women with friends in high places and bump across town in a convoy, soldiers sitting in the back of a pick-up in front of us shooing other drivers away with rather more politesse than I have seen from American security companies operating on the streets of Baghdad. Then, clenched fists, hurling water bottles into car windscreens and pointing rifles at drivers’ heads were the favoured techniques. That didn’t go down well with Iraqis and it wouldn’t work with Somalis, either.

We arrive at a guarded compound, jump out of the cars and are instantly swallowed up by a cocoon of armed men who make a striking khaki contrast to the elegant women wafting by in multi-coloured splendour. There is a phalanx of women young and old wearing all-covering dresses in the Somali sky-blue flag with white star. Then there’s a largely male folklore troupe in white T-shirts with the legend “One Billion Rising – Strike! Dance! Rise! and then the glorious, improbable word ‘Somalia’.

Traditional dancing begins with men waving wooden spears and decorative diraa shields with coloured tassles. Men and women dance freely together, a freedom deeply rooted in Somali culture, something that was never understood by the Al Qaeda-allied insurgents of Al Shebab, who terrorised this city until 2011 and outlawed anything that even hinted at fun on pain of death.

Singers sway beneath a savage sun, belting out numbers that have the women in raptures. A drummer picks out a rhythm that combines with the streaming heat and hammers straight through my head. There are speeches from a human rights lawyer, the prime minister’s wife, who is also an MP and women’s rights activist and then Mogadishu’s answer to Boris Johnson, the Mayor of Mogadishu, a charismatic, rabble-rousing Cheshire cat with grey goatee beard and shades. His announcement that Michelle Obama and Hilary Clinton would be welcome guests in Mogadishu because they are supporters of today’s global campaign draws huge cheers, applause and high-spirited ululations. In one of the most touching moments of the morning, a group of teenagers – faces almost entirely hidden, for this could get them into trouble, or far worse – dance to a thumping Beyoncé tune, in a charming, slightly awkward hip-wiggling routine that has the mayor smiling more broadly than ever.

Our hostess for the morning is Deka Abdulkadir Ahmed, a handsome, feisty looking woman wrapped up in a red patterned hijab. The feistiness may be explained by Ms Ahmed’s special distinction in Mogadishu. She is the sole female District Commissioner in the city. The other 15 are all men. To say that takes some guts would be a wild understatement.

“Women are the same all over the world,” she says. “But what makes us special is that we have been through 23 years of war. I may be a District Commissioner, but I am also a woman and I feel the pain and suffering of Somali women. Hosting this campaign is a great honour for us as Somali women. It was a matter of life and death. We had to do it.”

Watching these women doing something as simple as coming together freely and defiantly, singing and dancing, rallying and protesting, is a moving experience, particularly when you consider that until very recently this sort of behaviour risked a public flogging or a bullet in the head. That nightmare already seems like a different era, but the heavy security presence testifies to the danger these women are still running just to come here. The sports compound is bristling with Kalashnikov-toting, red-bereted security forces who would be more than a match, one suspects, for Al Shebab if a rogue self-detonating maniac were foolish enough to try something.

Deka doesn’t mince her words when asked what her message is to Somali men. “I would like to tell them, that’s enough war, now we need peace. Every man has a female in his family – his mother, his wife, his daughter. I say to the men, protect your women. That’s your job.”

A young woman who is translating for me smiles at these last words.

“She’s a feminist, you see. We are very proud of her.”

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