Sunday 26 August 2012

A quiet place in Mogadishu

This is a piece I wrote about the Catholic cathedral in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, for the BBC's From Our Own Correspondent programme which goes out on Radio Four and the World Service. It is also available here on the BBC website. I have added more pictures here so you can see what it is like. 

The atmosphere changed completely when we entered the cathedral. Things fell quiet. It felt almost peaceful.

The nervous, frantic movement of people, animals and vehicles on the streets outside did not follow us. The hysterical beeping of horns fell away, as did the sound of gunfire.
My five Somali bodyguards - wrapped in long, heavy necklaces of brass bullets - did not spring into position around me. They bent their heads towards the smashed floor of the cathedral and walked alongside me.
It was Ramadan in Mogadishu - the holy Muslim month - and we were inside the remains of what had once been one of the grandest Catholic cathedrals in the whole of Africa, built by Italian colonialists in the 1920s. Its last bishop, Salvatore Colombo, was murdered there in 1989 as he was giving mass.
I felt very tiny inside that building. Perhaps because the roof has been completely blown off, the walls of the cathedral seemed to stretch right up to the blue sky above.
Although we were in the carcass of a building, enough remained of the elegant stone arches and the shadows of crosses, for us to know that we were in a sacred place.

As we approached an outline on the floor where the altar used to be, taking care not to step in the human excrement dotted around us, the guards started asking me how the church worked. How Christians worshiped. How exactly did they pray?
The slightly raised area is where the altar used to be
As I explained how the priest administered bread and wine, we looked up. High above us, carved in the stone, was Jesus on the cross. Bullet holes scarred the carving, the colours faded and gone.

It was very different from the streets outside where people, optimistic about the new relative stability, are opening shops, their walls freshly painted with bright images of what is on sale inside.

My guards were especially upset by the statue of St Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals. His head had been blown off and the sheep around him were vague shapes of shattered stone.
Livestock is a mainstay of the Somali economy, and very dear to the hearts of Somalis. The guards were unhappy that representations of animals and their saint had been so horribly damaged.
St Francis of Assisi with his head blown off

The Virgin Mary

The Virgin Mary
In one corner was what looked like a pile of discarded cardboard and cloth. Slowly, I made out the figure of a man, so deeply asleep he seemed not to be breathing.

During the rest of my time in Mogadishu, the guards were always hurrying me along. As a foreigner and white woman I stuck out somewhat from the crowds, and they did not want any trouble. I was a potential target, so it was not wise to stay in one place for long.
But things were different in the cathedral. We took our time. All of us seemed hypnotised by the place and found it difficult to leave.
One guard crouched down, lost in thought. Another stood still, gazing upwards past those majestic stone walls to the sky above.

We thoroughly explored the cathedral, every corner, every side room. We glanced down into underground spaces filled with blue plastic bags, rubble and the odd bullet casing.

Suddenly, there was bit of noise and movement. A sound of giggling. Two boys - completely naked - rushed in and emptied plastic jerrycans of water onto their bodies. Scrubbing themselves as best as they could, without any soap.

They then darted into a dark corner, emerging soon afterwards dressed in clothes so old and ragged they appeared to be rotting on their bodies.
Slowly and silently, an old man appeared.
"I fled here with my relatives two years ago. I came from the port of Merca, which was taken by the Islamists, by Al-Shabaab. "I wouldn't have survived under their rule," he told me. "I have no food. I have no water. The only thing I have is time."

He gestured out through one of the arches. Outside, in the grounds of the cathedral were small, tattered igloo-shaped dwellings. Made from bent sticks, and a patchwork of plastic, cloth and cardboard, lashed together with rope, string and quite a lot of hope.

I saw such settlements, of people forced from their homes, on almost every spare patch of ground in Mogadishu. Many Somalis have lived like this for more than two decades.
The cathedral stood in the part of town where the physical devastation was perhaps the most shocking. It is now a graveyard for what had once been the city's most grand and beautiful buildings.
I wonder if, now that things are starting to be fixed up in Mogadishu, it might be an idea to leave that cathedral how it is. As a quiet place. Somewhere for reflection. A reminder of the destruction humans can wreak.

Tuesday 7 August 2012

Inside Bakara Market

During a recent trip to Mogadishu, I was lucky enough to visit Bakara market, the main commercial area of the city. 'Market' is a misleading term for Bakara; it is more a 'commercial district' covering a large area, comprising many streets, alleys, open areas and buildings. It was until last year a stronghold of the Islamist group, Al Shabaab, and one of its main sources of revenue. 

We started off at one of Bakara's most glamorous buildings, the headquarters of the Hormuud telecommunications giant. At this stage, I felt as if I was in any East/ Horn of African city such as Nairobi or Addis Ababa. People streamed in and out of the building, simply going about their business, as traffic jams built up outside.

Hormuud building

Me outside Hormuud
We then went past African Express Airways, the airline I took to fly into Mogadishu (it is very difficult to get a seat because so many people are flooding back to the city, either on holiday or to stay permanently).

We set off on foot into the market. Trucks, buses, cars and donkeys loaded with goods and people streamed into Bakara.

Somali lorry drivers are famous all over Africa. They dominate transport networks in many parts of East Africa, the Horn of Africa and beyond. I have recently been told they are active in Africa's newest country, South Sudan, and in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Unloading rice 

I am not sure how the driver could see beyond all the rosettes on his front window

Although it is just a year since Al Shabaab left Bakara, there has been a lot of rebuilding and repainting. Pastel shades of blue, yellow and pink seemed to be the colours of choice.

We walked down Pharmacy Street, which seemed to go on forever. Shop after shop, kiosk after kiosk, stall after stall, offered an amazing array of medicines for sale. 

I think this is a sign for Viagra, the drug that enhances sexual performance in men

After our long walk down Pharmacy Street, we entered what I felt was the heart of the market, where the streets and open spaces were crammed with different items for sale. The market is informally divided up into specialist areas. We started off in what I called Suitcase Street.

We then moved on to 'Shoe Street':

Then 'Material Street'. I noticed a lot of the bright, patterned gauzy material used to make the traditional Somali women's dress which was forbidden by the Islamist militia Al Shabaab, which insisted on thick, dark cloth completely covering the head and body. Most women I saw in Mogadishu were wearing darker, duller colours, but many had their faces were exposed.

Next was the fruit and vegetable market. Most of it is grown locally, in the Afgoye area not far from Mogadishu. Trade here was brisk as people bought supplies for iftar, the evening meal eaten to break the Ramadan fast. I asked why I didn't see much of the narcotic leaf qat for sale (this was banned by Al Shabaab), and was told it would be back on the streets in greater supply after Ramadan. 

We then reached the meat market where giant slabs of red meat swung in the sunlight. The second photo shows long strips of meat called oodkac or or kalaankal or muqmad. The meat is dried, then chopped into small pieces and fried in ghee. It is served on special occasions such as weddings. In the third photo, a man is sharpening his knives in preparation for slicing off a hunk of meat for a customer:

As we moved into a dusty, more open part of the market, we walked past a lorry piled high with jerry cans. I was told there are no petrol stations in Mogadishu, so people use these to fill their vehicles.

I fell in love with these tin money boxes painted with pictures of US dollars. Merchants store cash in them under their kiosks and in their shops. I wanted to buy one (I was told they cost $25) but it was too big to take home.

We moved on to the grain market. I noticed some of the bags said 'World Food Programme - Not For Sale'. The traders ignored this instruction:

One variety of grain attracted a lot of insects. I am not sure whether they were flies, bees, wasps or something else:

The next part of the market seemed very poor. Traders were selling old plastic bottles and tins.

The next part of the market sold charcoal. Al Shabaab makes a lot of money exporting charcoal from the southern port of Kismayo to the Gulf. The US president, Barack Obama, has recently banned the import to the US of Somali charcoal. The air in this part of the market was black with charcoal dust, so I emerged very sooty.

Here was the industrial part of Bakara. Blacksmiths made blue metal carts for donkeys to pull:

There was a bicycle repair area:

A place to make safes:

The ground in the area selling and fixing tyres was covered in pieces of old tyre that had somehow melted into the soil:

We left the dusty part of Bakara, emerging onto another busy street selling fresh bread and watermelons for the iftar feast:

The doors and shutters of all the restaurants were firmly closed as it was Ramadan.

Walking through this part of Bakara reminded me of trying to squeeze through the crowds of Oxford Street in London. It was packed with shoppers.