Restoring the splendour of Mogadishu in our collective memory
A photography exhibition comparing the cosmopolitan city of Mogadishu before and after the civil war opens in Nairobi next week. One of the photographers, Kenyan journalist Rasna Warah explains how a chance conversation sparked this opportunity to restore our collective appreciation of this once-vibrant metropolis.
When people think of Somalia, three images come to mind: terrorism, piracy and famine. They do not think of beautiful architecture, sandy beaches or cosmopolitanism. Yet, until the start of the civil war in 1991, these were the words associated with Somalia's capital city, Mogadishu.
It is extremely difficult, as I found out, to convince people that this historic city was once a modern metropolis with wide boulevards, restaurants, cinemas, museums, libraries and theatres. From the air, Somalia's capital city appears like a tropical paradise embraced by a turquoise-coloured sea and reddish sand beaches. On the ground, though, the vision of paradise soon evaporates. When I visited the city in November 2011, I saw shells of once-magnificent buildings that used to house government offices, hotels, churches and mosques. Bullet-ridden movie theatres served as bunkers and hotel lobbies had turned into camps for internally displaced people.
But even amid the rubble I could see traces of grandeur. Fallen cathedrals and ancient mosques stood stubbornly in the most desolate and devastated parts of the city. I saw young boys playing football in crumbling stadiums and women selling groceries in shops that had no doors. Older parts of the city were falling apart, but the people living there were connected to the outside world via satellite dishes. This immovable resilience is reflected in the residents' entrepreneurial spirit. Mobile phone companies are thriving in the city and Mogadishu University churns out graduates every year.
It is extremely difficult, as I found out, to convince people that this historic city was once a modern metropolis with wide boulevards, restaurants, cinemas, museums, libraries and theatres.
Mogadishu Then and Now is a unique first-of-its-kind exhibition that was born out of a casual phone conversation between me and the former curator of the Mogadishu Museum, Mohamud Diriye, who was introduced to me by Ismail Osman, a telecommunications engineer and journalist based in the United States. I had just returned from Mogadishu and Osman and Diriye, like most Somalis in the diaspora, were eager to hear news about the city. I told them of the devastation I had witnessed: the former parliament building was now a heap of rubble, the famous Juba hotel had become a campsite for internally displaced people, shops that once sold fine clothes and jewellery had been invaded by cows and goats, and the beaches were empty.
Diriye, who fled the city at the start of the civil war, told me he not only remembered what pre-war Mogadishu looked like, but had hundreds of images of the city before it imploded. We decided that we would showcase old Mogadishu and contrast it with the way the city looks now. The idea was to restore the splendour of Mogadishu in the Somali people's collective memory so that when the devastated city is ready to be rebuilt, this memory will serve as a guide and inspiration. We hoped that through this exhibition people would learn about the city's rich cultural heritage and history.
Mogadishu has a long history that dates back to the tenth century when Arab and Persian traders began settling there. The city has at different stages of its history been a sultanate, a city-state, an important sea trade hub, the capital of a colonial administration and of an independent nation, and, in its more recent incarnation, a battlefield. The Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah once described Mogadishu as 'a metropolis with a multiple source of memories, some of which are alien to Africa, other native and of an enduring kind.' (Sic)
Wars destroy cities and Mogadishu is no exception. It is estimated that in the first few years after the start of the civil war in the early 1990s, more than half of the historic part of the city had been levelled. The situation deteriorated with subsequent military operations by locals and foreigners that gutted most parts of the city.
However, renewed interest in Somalia within the international community has offered some glimmers of hope. Turkey is rebuilding many of the buildings and infrastructure of Mogadishu and African Union forces are securing many parts of the city from Al Shabaab, a terrorist organisation with links to Al Qaeda, which has allowed people to enjoy some level of normalcy. They are venturing out again and on weekends, even enjoying the beaches, like they did in the old days. However, the peace is still fragile; suicide bombings are common and heavily-armed security forces can be seen all over the city.
But it need not be this way. Mogadishu can once again become what it was — one of the prettiest and most cosmopolitan cities in Africa. The Mogadishu Then and Now exhibition is a pictorial tribute to Africa's most wounded city, and is dedicated to the children and youth of Mogadishu who have never known lasting peace.