28 May 2006

Returning to Kismaayo, Somalia

My leaving Kismaayo
It has been nearly 14 years since I was last in Kismaayo, my hometown in Somalia. It was dawn when we fled. We fled first thing in the morning as militia groups rolled in to try and take control of the city. There was uncertainty up to the last minute about where we were to go. Our original plan was to go to Mombassa, but as the situation intensified, we had to leave suddenly and headed for a town in southern Somalia. From there we made our plans to leave the country.

About Kismaayo and Somalia in general
Since leaving Kismaayo there has been turmoil. Different militia groups have fought to rule over it. Some of the stories I have heard about what’s been happening there, as in the rest of Somalia, do not bare thinking about. Kismaayo itself is a beautiful place. It’s famous for its greenery and beautiful beaches with their adjoining islands, ideal for fishing. It shares the same wildlife as bordering Kenya, indeed if it weren’t for the troubles, it would be an ideal tourist destination.

Returning To Kismaayo
Despite the trouble, in the past few years I have felt the urge to visit my father whom I have not seen since leaving Somalia (13 years ago). Going back was not an easy decision to make, and not one that was taken lightly. I was advised by friends and family not to go, and all for good reasons. But despite this reasonable advice, I followed my heart and went to see my father who had since returned to Kismaayo. The decision was made easier not only by the fact that I needed to take a break from the daily routine of London, but the political climate in London was changing-rapidly. Following the bombings in the heart of London, Islam phobia was rife, and it was the Muslim women on the streets who would bare the brunt of the backlash. Now seemed a good time to go.

The Journey There
I flew from London on July 31. The route was less than straightforward. There have been no regular passenger flights from Nairobi to Kismaayo so my only hope was to see if I could get on a cargo flight. After trying for 8 days I finally found someone who would take me. It was a plane taking qat (a shrub grown in east Africa which acts as a stimulant when chewed) into Kismaayo. The plane journey was only two hours long. It was a bumpy ride but we touched down safely at eight o’clock that morning.

Life In Kismaayo
I was not really sure what to expect when I got to Somalia. What is one to expect returning to a country that has been in civil war for over a decade? Whatever picture I had in my mind, it bore little relationship to what I actually found.

The first thing that struck me was how daily life had changed. Women had more of an active role and had more of a visible presence than I remember. Women were trading, and gathering in groups for whatever reason. Society seemed to be functioning. There was great effort from the people to try and make things work. Despite the absence of a stable government for the past fifteen years, most of the basic infrastructures were in place. People were going about their daily routines as best as they could, and despite their lack of means and poverty-that upset me deeply, their will determination to survive was incredible. I saw a young woman who had to have a caesarean without anaesthetic. Parents struggle to pay for school fees, not only their children, but often the children of others, a relative perhaps who can’t afford to look after them themselves. There was a great sense of community there. People depend on each other and every one tries to help wherever they can. The progress is being made by the ordinary people striving to have a normal life.

Media/Other Side
It is frustrating because the media coverage of Somalia, as with much of the third world, are usually bite size snippets of distressing scenes of war and hunger-hell on Earth, the last place you would ever want to go. What we will never see on TV is how people actually cope on a day-to-day level. The resilience, determination and spirit of the people, how they survive and against all odds actually manage to have a degree of happiness, something which people struggle with even here in the affluent west.

Hope and Satisfaction
It is difficult to say what truly makes someone happy, but as Omar Binu Khidab (the second Khalif of Islam) once said, "I could not find better wealth than contentment in little" If ever there was evidence of this, I saw it in Somalia.

I asked a 17-year-old boy if he would like to emigrate to the West to look for a better life. He replied ‘I believe, my country is the best country in the world, but the problem is absence of a government, and it’s difficult to make progress without a government.’ He continued to recite the following verses from the Quran "that Allah may reward them according to the best of their deeds, and add even more for them out of His Grace: for Allah doth provide for those whom He will, without measure." 24:38.

The civil war in Somalia has been followed by famine. Despite this people don’t complain or say ‘oh God give us a break!’ or question the existence of God, rather they believe that when Allah sends tribulation, it is a test of their patience. Islam teaches us that when a tragedy comes, we must be patient. They believe that it is their responsibility to make things better. Indeed the Qur’an says: …Verily Allah does not change the condition of the people until they change what is in them selves…(13:11).There is a belief that things will get better, things have to improve, and indeed they have. There has been progress. Not just in Kismaayo, but other parts of Somalia.

Personal Experience
I spent a lot of time speaking to people, mostly women, about their thoughts, experiences, and beliefs and so on. Most people showed some kind of Islamic practise to a greater or a lesser degree. There was an atmosphere in Somalia that almost forces one to reflect and look inwards. For me, it was a time for reflection, a time to nourish the soul. Waking up to the call to prayer in the morning, followed by Sufi dhikr songs and nasheeds. The night was truly awesome.

It was a time to reflect and recharge the mind and heart. Praying out in the open under the stars has left me with wonderful feelings. Looking up at the open sky, it was stunningly beautiful. It was a great way of appreciating Allah’s wonders. Being in Africa again, brought home to me what really matters and has taught me to value life, religion, and that an open mind is necessary for both if we are to learn, benefit grow as individuals, and as a society.

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