Urban Somali refugees call Nairobi's 'little Mogadishu' home
By Tia Goldenberg Dec 15, 2006, 4:24 GMT
Nairobi - Anyone would be forgiven for mistaking the veiled women and girls strolling down alleys, the men chewing the popular khat stimulant and the camel's milk in Nairobi's Eastleigh suburb for thinking they were in Mogadishu.
Since the early 1990s, this quarter has become home to thousands of Somalis fleeing the terror and destruction that accompanied years of anarchy and warlord rule in their homeland.
It's become a microcosm, a little Mogadishu, where these urban refugees can continue living as they would at home in Somalia, a country where conflict rages and tensions continue to mount.
'It's just like Mogadishu,' said Yassin Juma, a Kenyan journalist who covers Somalia and the Somali community in Kenya, 'except without guns.'
On a typical afternoon, the mosques have been emptied and this tight-knit community pours out onto the street to do some shopping.
When the shipments of khat arrive every Friday, both men and women scramble to pick up the bunches and spend hours chewing. The Somali language has replaced Kiswahili as evidenced by store signs and general chatter.
Rather than settling in overflowing refugee camps along the Somali-Kenyan border and getting by on aid agency hand-outs, the Somali residents of Eastleigh chose to live independently.
Muhamed Hussein Samow, 20, is one of thousands who now lead a life similar to his former one in Somalia, but where the prospects of work for urban refugees are negligible.
With an a burgeoning unemployment rate, Kenya has strict refugee laws that do not allow them to work legally. Many are forced to find casual jobs in the informal sector.
Samow has no illusions about his dire situation in Nairobi.
'I can't work, so obviously I can't be a normal Kenyan. But what's important for me right now is peace and security, and I have that here in Eastleigh,' a smiling Samow told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.
Samow fled fighting in Mogadishu as a 13-year-old without his parents. He braved rough terrain and highway bandits and arrived in Nairobi with a troupe of other refugees of his own age.
He attended school, set up by the community in Eastleigh and speaks fluent English.
Samow and about 20 other young Somali refugees living in Nairobi formed a Somali rap group several years after they arrived. They endured so much hardship at home that now they want to promote peace through their music, which is sent to Mogadishu through a friend, they say.
The band, Waayaha Cusub or New Generation, is proof that although these refugees have settled in Kenya, they still have close links with their homeland.
Waayaha Cusub sings about what they call 'Ethiopian colonization,' even as Somalia's neighbour continues to play a provocative role in the conflict.
'Some of our group members' grandparents were killed by Ethiopian forces,' said Shiine Abdullahi Ali, the band's founding member. 'We want them to be remembered.'
And the ongoing power struggle between Somalia's transitional government and the Islamists, who dramatically rose to power this, year is reflected in the community in Eastleigh.
Political demonstrations on the streets turn violent sometimes as rival supporters clash.
Samow said his band cannot avoid politics: their music has generated controversy among Islamist-supporters both in Eastleigh and Mogadishu, who seek to impose a strict form of Islamic Sharia law on a greater Somalia.
'They want to ban this kind of Western-influenced music in Somalia, so we don't support the Islamists,' Samow said, sitting in a small video rental store where the band meets. But he insists he doesn't support the transitional government either.
And while nostalgia for home is omnipresent, some of these refugees have no intention of returning.
For Naima Abdulqadir Abdow, a 28-year-old who fled a barrage of bombs on her home in the port of Kismayu in 1996 and came to Eastleigh after a long and arduous journey, the trauma of war has tainted her memories of home.
'I don't even want to remember Kismayu. Even with the difficulties, things are better here,' she said, as her black veil slips off her head to reveal a lock of brown curls.
Despite the lack of work, Eastleigh is home to these refugees. And as instability continues to shake Somalia, Somali culture will continue to grow here, across the border.© 2006 dpa - Deutsche Presse-Agentur