MOGADISHU, Somalia — As dawn breaks and calls to prayer fill the city, thousands of residents and traders head to the city’s markets, some carrying sacks filled to the brim with goods to sell, others holding large straw baskets to buy these up.
At Bakara, one of the city’s largest open-air markets, traders in slacks and sandals or colorful dresses and headscarves sell fruits and vegetables, clothing and cosmetics, camels’ legs and intestines, fuel and khat, a popular plant-based stimulant that is chewed across the region. By the time the market opens at 6 a.m., traders, mechanics, metalworkers, tailors, and hairdressers are already busy chatting with customers. Groups of young men sit together chewing khat and sipping sweet black Somali tea.
“I’m happy with my business because it gives me huge profits,” says Amina Abdi, a mother of six who owns a fruit stall. “I use the profits from my business to pay rent, feed, and educate my children.”
While this might sound normal and even obvious in many countries, here in brutalized Somalia, such sentiments were rarely heard for decades.
Somalia has long been one of the world’s most dangerous countries. A civil war broke out in 1991 when warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned on one another. After one of the warlords killed UN peacekeepers, United States special forces moved in to disrupt his operations, leading to the failed “Black Hawk Down” raid that killed 18 Americans and hundreds of Somalis.
In the decades that followed, large swaths of Somalia were controlled by an al-Qaida-linked militant group, al-Shabab, which is responsible for terrorist attacks that have killed thousands of people internally and in Kenya and Uganda. The militants destroyed the infrastructure of the capital, leaving government offices, schools, health care centers, markets, and banks in rubble. Thousands of children displaced by the chaos and carnage of the civil war were abandoned to the streets. Others were recruited to fight. A famine in 2011 killed an estimated 260,000 Somalis.
But these days things are — miraculously, some say — slowly but surely improving. The African Union force in Somalia and the Somali National Army have pushed al-Shabab militants toward the margins of the country. American drone strikes have also targeted the group. The militants still set off bombs in the capital, and Somalia still ranks as one of the world’s most terrorized countries, but the numbers of attacks and deaths have both declined steadily since 2013.
Many residents say the blanket of fear in Mogadishu and elsewhere has mostly lifted.
“We are always afraid of the attacks, but life must go on,” Abdi says. “We’ve wasted a lot of time fighting each other, and it’s time to rebuild our lives despite the security challenges.”
That spirit infuses several residents I spoke with when I visited this spring — people who are rebuilding their businesses and personal lives. Somalis living abroad who have been raised and educated in the West and annually sent millions of dollars to the country in remittances — contributing up to 40 percent of the economy — are now opting to return to rebuild their homeland.
That’s prompted a real estate boom. New construction is popping up everywhere in the capital. Shops and houses built soon after independence from Britain in 1960 have been razed and replaced by shopping malls built by local businessmen and returning members of the Somali diaspora, according to Said Mohamed, 58, an investor and consultant who fled Somalia for Minnesota in 1994 but recently returned to the capital.
“Mogadishu has really changed, despite the few security challenges here and there,” he says. “I am so happy, because I am finally back home. It’s now time to rebuild our country, and I encourage every Somali outside there to think about home.”
Somalia remains very poor, and the country is riddled with debt. About 70 percent of people in the country survive on less than $1.90 per day. Economic growth was creeping upward before several shocks in 2019 and 2020 — drought, floods, locust invasions, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Now the World Bank says a tenuous economic rebound is underway. Analysts project economic growth will recover to 2.9 percent this year and 3.2 percent in 2022. That’s below pre-COVID projections.
Nonetheless, a walk through the streets reveals a city rising slowly from the rubble. Banks and ATMs are on virtually every corner downtown now. Until recently, most residents lacked accounts.
Not too long ago, a majority of children were out of school. This spring I saw young students with book bags walking in groups on the streets of the capital. And more than 50 universities are open now, some with visiting professors from Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, and other countries.
On the weekends, Mogadishu’s beaches are buzzing with locals and foreigners. The government has moved to rebuild bombed-out hotels and repair roads, airports, and ports.
Some locals worry this is all a false peace — just a lull or, worse, an illusion. It’s true that militants are still a threat. Recent terror attacks include sieges at two hotels and an attack this month on a camp for new army recruits. The United States is considering sending special forces back to the country to assist in the fight against al-Shabab.
Yet people aren’t waiting for some far-off day when militants cease to be a threat to rebuild their city and get on with their lives. Even in the world’s desperate places, hope fuels change.
Tonny Onyulo is a journalist based in Nairobi. Follow him on Twitter @TonnyOnyulo.