Kenya/Somalia: Somalia community doing booming business in country

Nairobi (Kenya) - It is described as a country within a country with its own economy. Economic pundits reckon the business going on in this crowded and almost nondescript suburb within Nairobi's Eastland area runs into billions of Kenya Shillings.

It is no place other than the Kenyan capital's Eastleigh estate – an area associated with the Somali and Ethiopian communities in Kenya. A walk along the streets of Eastleigh gives you an unmistakable impression of a busy place bursting with humanity and businesses of all kinds. Buying a gun in Eastleigh is as easy as buying a loaf of bread. All you have to prove is that you are not an under-cover cop.

Anyone would be forgiven for thinking they are right inside Somalia as they walk within Eastleigh area of Nairobi. The population is almost entirely Somali, save for a few indigenous people mingling in between. The businesses which range from small stalls, shopping malls to night lodges are largely if not all owned by the Somali community. Over the years, as the Somali community running away from vicious warlords in their country came to settle in this place, Eastleigh came to be referred to as "Mogadishu." All the businesses operating in this area have Somali names: Tawakal, Mogadishu, Qaran, Halal and similar names.

The businesses in Eastleigh range from selling designer clothing to jewelry and even guns. Commodities imported from Mogadishu and Dubai litter the shopping malls. The communication facilities here are high-tech with communication gadgets that make even the Kenyan police communication center a child's play.

As you walk around, you notice the youth hurdled in groups chewing khat – a popular narcotic chewed by many Somali men and locally known as miraa. Elders on the other hand sit together sipping away their time with sweetened tea and glued to Somali news channels and radio stations. Cyber cafes are full as people try to chat with their relatives abroad, probably encouraging Diaspora Somalis to wire much needed money.
"Much as I would like to go back home, but we also like Kenya because Kenyans are very friendly people. But I would like to go back to Somalia some day when there is peace," says Osman Ali, a shoe trader in Eastleigh who came to Kenya eight years ago.

Ali is however cagy and reluctant to let me know whether he has all the legal documents to live and work in Kenya. A brief chat with young Somalis reveals their dislike for the Ethiopian-backed transitional government of President Abdulahi Yusuf. "He is not our president. He is a president for the West and the United States of America," a young man who tells me he is 23 says of the government. He is reluctant to give me his name, but tells me he is called Said.

As I approach another group of young men, one of them comes forward to talk to me. I stretch my arms to greet him. "Do you want to exchange dollar?" he asks me in broken English. We chat for five minutes about his money exchange business and I realize it is a money minter. In Eastleigh, you have to be careful. You could be walking away with fake Kenya Shillings if you are unlucky.

"Lakini Waria usilete polisi," he says in Swahili. " Friend do not come back with the police." I assure him that he can trust me. Waria is the way the Somalis refer to each other and the Kenyan way of referring to them too. The interaction between the Somali community in Kenya and their Kenyan hosts is as interesting as the people themselves. It is a mix of trust and suspicion. Trust depending on how long you have known each other and suspicion borne out of the constant harassment this community experiences from the Kenyan police force whose name and corruption has become synonymous.

But all said and done, that the Somalis' run away business success that has baffled even the locals is a clear testimony that the Somali community here in Kenya is enjoying every little bit of their stay in this foreign land.


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