Mogadishu. Muqdisho. Xamar. The whitewashed city on the Indian Ocean, wave after wave cresting over the sand. Palms and crenellated arches catching breeze. Site of the first TEDx in Somalia. Home to banks and telecom companies and nearly 3 million people, hustling and moving and making what future they can for themselves and their children.
Yet, we think Black Hawk Down. We think of militants and civil war and strife and famine. Dysfunctional government and al-Shabaab. Terrorism. Fear. Violence. And now we may momentarily think of an explosion on a busy street, a hole in the heart of the city.
When a car bomb kills over 200 people in Mogadishu, are we more prone to believe somehow the streets of Somalia are a natural breeding ground for terror? Less so than the avenues of Paris, the alleys of London, or the dust-baked roads of Oklahoma?
We are all influenced by a certain affinity for places and cultures. Some is the familiar, those countries and peoples who we think we know,as opposed to the other, the exotic. Or the draw towards those places we love and experienced in our lives (I write this about Somalia, but not on Syria, to which I have little connection). News desks must make choices for their readers, and nationally how many stories must come from Somalia to justify a reporter? And what will those stories be? That which connects the nation to Somalia, or that which reinforces the other–famine, civil war, the Shabaab riding in Toyota Hi-Luxes with mounted guns?
I’m not seeking to shame us into some effervescent social media solidarity with Somalia. Nor am I seeking to blame the media or Americans’ largely sheltered view of the world. Men, women, and children were brutally murdered in a disgusting act and our response is not the determinate of how this atrocity should be viewed. I grieve with Mogadishu, but I seek to change the narrative.
In 2010, I worked with a local Somali NGO in Puntland, the semi-autonomous region in the north of the country. I have never been to Mogadishu, despite repeated attempts, so these impressions may fall apart down south…This is what I saw:
The slow slog of building inclusive and democratic institutions, the setbacks and the progress.
A culture of coffee and discussion over big ideas and small changes.
Men sitting upon stacks of Somali shillings in the hawala street, where remittances from those abroad poured back into Somalia.
The clearest cell reception in Africa while out checking on camels in the deep Somali bush.
Libraries. Universities. A hunger for knowledge both technical and esoteric.
Somalis putting in the time and energy to build their nation, suffering international fools when needed, but doing something bigger without waiting for some foreigner to offer his or her opinion or approval.
Strong Somali women leading organizations, taking classes, and engaging as youth leaders.
And yes, the other Somalia lurked in across the wide sky like a stalking leopard. AK-47s too present. Government action against the Shabaab clustered in caves near Bossasso. Erik Prince and his special form of destabilization squatting spiderly down in the no-man’s land between Puntland and Mudug. Pirates nested in Eyl. Checkpoint after checkpoint.
Institutions can either curb our darkest impulses or enshrine them. Slavery was an institution. The secret police prowling the citizenry under autocrats across the globe are another. The complex and brutal US prison system stokes Americans’ fervent need for punishment at the sake of justice. Yet Somalia was stripped of the most basic institutions by centuries of colonialism and decades of civil war, left with a clan system and religion, and even these were corrupted by those seeking power. This is a nation still building itself, a people seeking greater goals but confronting the immediate difficulties of living in fragility.
#IAmMogadishu, but I want us to think of more than simply this moment. We don’t think of Paris or London as memorial to atrocity. We can and should write ourselves better narratives than “this is something that happens over there.” This is what we owe to Somalia. To imagine and work toward a better Somalia and a better world, because this is what the majority of Somalis are doing everyday. Join them.