When we began: Fond memories of my countryBy ABDULKADIR KHALIF in Mogadishu | Sunday, July 1 2012 at 16:08
I read with keen interest a report on Nation Media’s Africa Review - Mogadishu on her mind: A conversation with Rasna Warah (June 2, 2012), by Abdinasir Amin. It was about an exhibition organised by Rasna Warah titled Mogadishu Then and Now. The description of the exhibition and the fact that today is Somalia’s Independence Day threw my memory four decades back.
In my hometown Beledweyne, some 335 km north of Mogadishu, July 1, 1969 was as glamorous as it had been in the previous eight years. It marked the 9th anniversary of the Independence and Unity Day of Somalia, dating back from 1960 (the glorious year of Africa).
Like any other towns in Somalia at the time, my hometown was decorated as per the laws of the day. Walls, especially of the houses facing the main roads, were painted white while Somalia’s distinctive blue flag with a lone white star in the middle was raised above every door and gate.
My father, the late Haji Khalif Sheikh Yusuf, was the then Mayor of the town. He was elected to the post in the last general election of a democratic, multiparty Somalia.
I still remember that eve of July 1. My dad was sitting next to my Italian Language and History teacher, the late Signor Francesco Zitto, during a ceremony held in the main town square. Mr Signor Zitto was one of the Italian lecturers who remained behind when his colleagues departed for Rome, following the independence of Somalia.
That July was particularly exciting for me. As soon as the fanfare was over, I had another exhilarating moment. My mother bought me a bag. It was a wooden box painted white with couple of blue strips across it.
“You are going with your father to Mogadishu,” she broke the news that I had been waiting. I knew that such news would come one day because I had completed my Intermediate school and our town had no secondary schools.
Many caring parents took their children to Mogadishu for further education. I could not be left behind because I had duly completed studies at the then prestigious Scuola Media Inferiore di Beledweyne.
Under the Italian educational system we had a 5-3-4 formula. My town, though a regional capital did not have high school facilities.
In those days, moving to Mogadishu was extremely exciting. Before my departure, relatives and friends visited me with congratulatory messages to kiss me goodbye.
And the day finally came. The bus I boarded with my father belonged to Mohamed Jama Bus Services. It was one of the early Isuzu trucks converted into 50-seat bus.
The road built by the fascist Italian government in the 1930s between Mogadishu and my hometown, and fully maintained by the Somalia government was so good that it took us only 8 hours to travel 335 km with stopovers at Bulo Burte, Burane and Jowhar towns for meals, beverages and calls of nature.
Coming from an inland settlement, the only mass of water I knew was those flowing through Wabi Shabelle, the longest water course in Somalia. It descended from the Ethiopian highlands and snaked through my town, passing under two bridges before pushing its waters forward, unabated.
My first experience in Mogadishu is still associated with water. Not those of Shabelle river, though, but the Indian Ocean.
From Sheikh Mohyddin Elly, arguably the tallest hillside in Mogadishu, the view of the Indian Ocean was breath-taking and even confusing for the new comers to the city. A man sitting in front of me in the bus challenged a lady passenger sitting next to him.
“Can you see the hundreds of sheep grazing on that Greenland?” asked the man whom I later came to know as Mr Hassan Arrey, the manager of Banadir Cinema, one of the best movie houses in Mogadishu at the time.
The rural woman quickly agreed. “Yes, those animals on such lush land must have good life,” she responded.
I silently agreed. My dad laughed.
As we moved through the city, I could see attractive buildings and trade taking place in the afternoon. Unlike my hometown, there were dozens of cars accelerating through every road and shops run by Somalis, Asians, Italians and even other nationalities like Eritreans.
The bus terminus at Eel Gaab in the city had garages and mechanical workshops operating side by side with cafes, stores and emporiums. Bravani artisanal was in full swing, churning out leather-made handcrafted footwear, belts, bags and other personal effects.
There, activity was just bee-like.
Mohamoud, a relative who had lived in the city for the previous two years was my guide. He was happy to show me the city and just being a couple of years older; we shared similar preferences and slangs.
Because Mohamoud and I came from the same town, he was keen to pinpoint the difference between Mogadishu and our hometown, Beledweyne.
Road names I heard through the media were physically in front of me, visible and tangible. Via Roma, Via Egitto, Corsa Somalia and Via Primo Luglio were among the major traffic ways that greeted me as well as delighted me. Not because they were important traffic avenues, but they showed the legacy of Italian city planners.
Foreign trade marks such as Agip, BP, Caltex, Texaco and other giants like Coca Cola were everywhere showing the available fuel brands and beverages in the city.
In the last year at intermediate school, Mr. Abdulaziz Bashayba, our geography and civics teacher, made sure that we understood democracy in Somalia and its mechanism. He firmly planted in our minds a definition in Italian language.
In Mogadishu, picture of contestants and political party slogans from the last general election (March 1969) were still on the walls.
"Dr Islamel Jumale Ossoble for parliamentary seat" was the slogan next one of the candidates. But, Ossoble, a prominent lawyer, had not only won one of the two constituencies in Mogadishu to become a legislator, but was also picked as the minister for information of the newly formed government.
Other winners were either in the Assemblea Nazionale (parliament) or in the Municipal Council. By all means, elections, candidates and positions to be filled were symbols of democracy and statehood, despite the nation being only 9 years old.
Silently, I was grateful to Teacher Abdulaziz for having contributed to my understanding of why state and government were needed and the rights and duties of the citizens. I could feel the civics lessons I learnt as I read Corriera della Somalia, the then main daily paper in Mogadishu.
Despite being a means of information published by a state organ, the contents showed ministers being scrutinised by the 123 members of the parliament, particularly during the question time of the then prime minister,. Mohamed Ibrahim Egal.
No doubt in my mind that Mr Egal was a crafty politician, knowledgeable person and extremely civilised.
Presidential bulletin known as Bolletino Officiale was released periodically to publicise the laws stipulated, officials appointed and other documents signed by the then president of Somalia Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke.
Shabelle, a landmark hotel in the city centre was my favourite spot to find young ambulant vendors, selling papers including La Tribuna, a monthly magazine in Italian language with lots of political and social affairs insights.
Moving around the ancient neighbourhoods of Hamarweyne and Shangani offered unbelievable experience. Like any newcomer, I noted centuries old buildings, ancient mosques like Abdulaziz and Arba’Rukni, etc. Arguably one of the biggest Roman Catholic cathedrals in the Eastern Africa region was in the middle of the city, its twin towers visible from many parts of the city.
In those days, the Municipal hall was housed in one of the best architectural pieces with two giant anchors on both sides of the main entrance. At nights, spotlights from the would illuminate the black painted anchors with creamy wall in the background. It was just breath-taking.
Next to the municipal hall was a building known as Sayyid Bargash with twin eighteen’s century cannons fitted in front of it. Down the road, Secondo Lido, a popular beach accommodated both swimmers as well as football players.
My favourite, however, was Lido Beach, a long coastline covered by creamy sand at the eastern edge of the city. Bars, restaurants and other trade outlets filled everywhere.
Shops with all kinds of souvenirs and handcrafts, especially crafted by local artisanal craftsmen, filled shelves as well as rugs placed on pedestrian walks.
The legendary Lido Club provided crunchy nightlife in competition with Tre Fontana, La Terazza, Jazeera, Bar Quarto or Km 4 and other entertainment centres. They attracted both local and expatriate nightlife seekers including seamen.
I was too young to be a frequent mover between the entertainment centres. They were mainly for adults. But driven by curiosity, I urged a relative to take me to Bar Quarto, just about a kilometre and half off the airport. I was surprised by the number of American Peace Corps volunteers there, trying to manage some Somali language phrases.
In those days, despite shortage of actual classrooms, Somali children had several school choices. Italians had a system ranging da elementare a liceo (from primary to high school) while Egyptians were running schools taught in Arabic.
The ministry of education of the Somali government was managing the largest number of schools in Somalia in both Italian and English medium curriculum. I was among those learning through Italian language means, hitherto known as Tipo Italiano (the Italian way).
Those in English courses were taught by Peace Corps Volunteers from the US.
The city had other offerings. In just three months in Mogadishu I saw as many leaders. PM Mohamed Ibrahim Egal was opening a school when I laid my eyes on him while I had a glimpse of President Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke at Mogadishu International Airport. The head of state was coming back from a summit of the leaders of Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) in Rabat, Morocco.
The most interesting was a close interaction with a seasoned politician. I was sitting at the veranda of Jazeera club, one afternoon. A man parked a vehicle at a roadside, got off and sat with a couple of men who were sitting less than 2 metres from the table I shared with my companion, Mohamoud.
“Do you know the man joining the other two men over there?” Mohamoud, a friend, asked me.
I firmly stared at the man in question. He was none other than Mr Abdirizak Haji Hussein, the then opposition leader in the parliament who later became prime minister between 1964 and 1967. Life was getting sweeter in Mogadishu untill a dramatic turn of events.
On October 21, 1969, army officers ordered their tanks to take over positions in the capital city in the early hours.
PM Egal, his ministers and all influential leaders including Mr. Hussein, the sole opposition figure and leader in the parliament, were all jailed.
The week before, President Sharmarke was assassinated by a soldier in a mission never fully explained, especially who the true orchestrators were.
The constitution was abolished within five days of the takeover and the new junta leaders begun a long journey of ruling the country by decree from Aviazione barracks, the headquarters of the so-called Supreme Revolutionary Council, in Mogadishu.
After 21 years of dictatorial rule by a military stratocracy and another 21 years of civil war and political confusion, Somalia and the inhabitants of Mogadishu in particular are in full search of a stability and democracy, what we lost in 1969, over four decades ago.
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