By Hassan M. Abukar
During my Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul to Mogadishu, a jovial, smiling woman with beautiful henna wear dye on her hands sat on the opposite aisle. She said she was a resident in the UK and asked if I visited Mogadishu often. I said no, so she then described the city and told me what to expect. She lamented that Mogadishu was not the same city I had known as a child because the old residents were either dead or in the diaspora.
There are new people,” she said. “Very dark people.”
I smiled and jokingly said, “Darker than you and I?”
Somehow, she got the message that the two of us were in no position to discriminate against anyone on the basis of their skin color.
The streets of Mogadishu are a spectacle to behold: people, animals, and vehicles noisily converge in scenes of organized chaos compounded by security checkpoints placed awkwardly in the heart of the city.
Streets without laws
Can you envision a city of two million people with no discernible traffic laws?
Only in Mogadishu is that possible.
The city has no government entity that regulates traffic. Anyone can operate a vehicle (car, bus, motorcycle, or truck) without a driver’s license. There are no lanes marked on the streets and no traffic signs. The interaction between vehicles and pedestrians is chaotic, and accidents are common.
Because traffic is not regulated, there are no records for any prior traffic violations, and no administrative courts to hear traffic cases and mete out penalties or convictions. The old Mogadishu where I grew up had strict traffic regulations. I remember driver’s license tests were so rigorous that sometimes examiners resorted to tricks to test the knowledge of potential drivers.
One can understand that the country has only recently ended a civil war in which many existing institutions were destroyed. However, the enactment and enforcement of traffic laws is so important it should have been prioritized by the new government.
Getting from one place to another in the city can be challenging. The checkpoints are necessary to limit suicide car bombings by Al-Shabaab, but they rarely deter terrorist attacks. At best, these checkpoints serve as delay tactics and sometimes blunt the carnage caused by car bombs.
On the way from my hotel to a major government center — usually involving a seven minute drive — I was stopped several times at army checkpoints. The driver and I were asked the same question: “Who are we going to see inside the government compound?” It did not matter that I was riding in the bullet-proof car of a high ranking government official.
“Don’t they know you?” I asked the driver.
He said, “I don’t know,” while playfully scrunching his face. “They always have new soldiers.”
In one checkpoint, a soldier asked me bluntly if I had a gun.
“Of course, not,” I answered.
Not for once was I asked to get out of the car to be frisked and at no time was the car inspected — a confusing and unpredictable security arrangement.
A Bajaj is an inexpensive three-wheeled motorized vehicle small enough to navigate through Mogadishu’s narrow roads and alleys. It gets its name from the company, Bajaj Auto, which makes these three-wheelers. It is very common in Mogadishu and serves as a major means of transportation.
When I was growing up in Mogadishu, taxis were everywhere and there weren’t many of these small three-wheelers on the streets. In fact, the nickname “Bajaj” is a relatively new term for these vehicles.
A Bajaj may be the best means of transportation for many of the capital’s residents, but its dominant presence in the streets can be annoying and frustrating. These vehicles are driven fast and with almost reckless abandon, a fact that contributes significantly to the chaotic traffic conditions. Nevertheless, in view of the lack of traffic enforcement, the drivers of these “artful dodgers” cannot shoulder all the blame for the chaos they cause.
A young reporter from the Somali Cable Channel told me there are 21,113 Bajaj-style vehicles in Mogadishu alone, and each operator pays $8 per month in taxes. Some of the Bajaj owners said the reporter’s number was inaccurate at best and misleading. They said there were several thousand Bajaj bikes in Mogadishu. They added that the claim the drivers pay only $8 tax a month was a gross misrepresentation; it was more like one dollar a day, whether the vehicle was active or inactive.
I don’t know whether Mogadishu’s municipality has official statistics on the number of Bajaj in the city and how much tax revenue is collected from them every month.
When my friend asked a Bajaj operator why he avoided driving on major streets, the driver was quick to say, “Because I did not pay my taxes.” Mogadishu’s municipality does not send tax bills in the mail because there are no street addresses nor mail services. Therefore, tax collectors have to hunt down tax evaders on the streets. It is a cumbersome task and, at times, involves extortion. I heard a Bajaaj operator once complain about occasionally paying money to tax collectors without getting any receipts.
Riding in a Bajaj is the best way to explore the new Mogadishu because these vehicles can go to places where cars cannot. But be prepared; riding in a Bajaj is like being on a rollercoaster. The speeding vehicle is so shaky it seems it could overturn at any moment. Pleas to Bajaj drivers to slow down regularly fall on deaf ears. Time is of the essence for these operators, who follow one cardinal rule: pick up new clients, drop them off as quickly as possible, and then look for new customers.
One Bajaj driver aptly summarized the business:
“When the market is good, it is as good as gold.” Then he added, “We have an unusual talent for making money.”
In spite of the prevalence of the Bajaj and its low cost, it is a tinder box waiting for a match. In almost every suicide car bombing in Mogadishu there are Bajaj drivers and passengers who perish. In the bombing near the Wehliye Hotel in March 2018, one Bajaaj driver miraculously survived, while his passenger and vehicle did not.
Who let the animals out?
New Mogadishu is teeming with wandering animals, mostly goats, cows and, on rare occasions, camels. It is a new experience for a major cosmopolitan city such as Mogadishu.
I asked many people, “Who owns these wandering animals?” I was always met with amusing stares and riotous laughter.
Every wandering animal in Mogadishu has an owner. In fact, every goat or cow in the city is registered in a modern fashion.
There is no agency for animal control, but every animal has a cell phone number written on it.
“Waa taargo” an elderly man told me, laughing, which literally translates into “the plates” in English because the markings are similar to license plates.
If an animal strays, which is rare, people know the cell phone number to call, which is the best way to track down owners and identify the animals. Of course, the “cell phone license plate system” begs the question: If the cell phone number is disconnected, who does one call?
Outside Mogadishu Airport, I saw two young camels crossing the street. For a second, I thought they were flying out of the country. As I looked closely, I saw cell phone numbers on them.
At the KM-4 intersection, a cow blocked the traffic as a young soldier with a machine gun sat on the pavement chewing khat, which is a mild stimulant plant. Someone told me that the owner of this particular cow was a thug and no one dared touch the animal.
“It is not like India where cows are revered,” a pedestrian said, sarcastically. “Here, we are simply afraid of the owners of the cows.”
I learned that goat owners let their animals out in the morning so the animals can fend for themselves. Then, interestingly, they return home at dusk and are kept inside. No one dares to ask what these animals eat as they roam the grassless streets of Mogadishu hour after hour. I am at a loss to understand why people would keep livestock in the city and wonder if these goats produce milk for their owners.
In a trip to Mogadishu in 2012, Mary Harper, the BBC Africa reporter, remarked that Mogadishu’s goats were the only living creatures that looked “relaxed and well-fed,” in contrast to Mogadishu residents who seemed edgy and tense because of the frequent bombings in the capital.
However, Peter Bridges, the former American Ambassador to Somalia, was not enamored with these wandering animals when he was posted in Somalia in the mid-1980s. In his memoir, Safirka—An Envoy, he lamented, “No one had told me to expect all the animals wandering the streets—handsome goats, ugly fat-tailed sheep, small thin brown cows.”
It is remarkable to see a major African capital bustling with throngs of people, Bajaj, and wandering animals co-existing in a rather chaotic manner. Such is today’s Mogadishu.
Hassan M. Abukar
Hassan M. Abukar is a contributor to Wardheernews and the author of Mogadishu Memoir. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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