Wednesday, April 08, 2009

KENYA SOMALIS: Community Emerging from Ruins

For a long time, Kenyans have regarded their counterparts in the North Eastern Province as backward and consigned them to obscurity. And after forty years of fighting social prejudice, discrimination and marginalisation, the community seems to have emerged on the national arena. But are they welcome on the stage? In recent weeks, the media have carried what in my opinion, are Somali-bashing reports.

The stories cast the community as foreigners who have raided the country with ill-gotten wealth. Key attention seems to be on the economic front, with questions on the source of their wealth. Indeed, some reports suggested the money could have come from piracy and money laundering. Nothing could be further from the truth. For many though, the sudden burst of Somalis on the national scene in every facet of life has bewildered them. They were used to pictures of famine-ravaged Somali families living in a bandit prone region.

In fact many Kenyans saw Somalis as a people to be pitied. The truth is coming out now that Kenyan Somalis, numbering around two million, occupy the second largest province and live in many of the large cities. Since the momentous entry of General Mohamoud Mohamed in 1982, as Chief of General Staff after stifling a coup, Somalis have served in almost every key position in the country except the presidency. Today, in addition to two Cabinet ministers and four permanent secretaries, there are Somalis holding key public posts in all the three arms of Government. In State corporations, there are many serving as chair or board members. But nothing has captured the attention of Kenyans more than Somalis’ sudden and powerful presence in the economic arena. Their economic muscle is being felt particularly in the textile, food, electronic, petroleum and property sectors, mainly in Nairobi and Mombasa.

Garissa lodge What started as ‘Garissa Lodge’ dukawallas in early 1990s have turned into an avalanche of international merchants importing goods from China, India, Malaysia and even Europe. They are helped not only by their enterprising nature but also their cohesive, social attributes. Some have already moved their bases to Dubai, China, etc to look for products. Shopping malls have sprung up in Nyeri, Nakuru, Eldoret, Mombasa and Kisumu among other key towns managed by Somalis. The collapse of Somalia Government also led to several business people relocating to Kenya in early 1990s.

Many Kenyan Somalis in the Diaspora regularly send money here for investment in various sectors, particularly the real estate. The Central Bank of Kenya estimates monthly remittances by Kenyans average $50 million. The arrival of Islamic banks(Gulf African and First Community Bank) last year, has provided further opportunities for the community to expand their business. Their sheer hard work can be exemplified in Eastleigh, which operates 18 hours. All major banks now have branches there operating till after 6pm everyday.

Some media houses profile all Somalis as ‘Somali nationals’ or ‘foreigners’. May be they are not aware the second largest province is inhabited by Kenyan Somalis. Or that Eastleigh has been a Somali dominated centre since early 1900s. But even if Somalis are foreigners, the Government has rolled out the red carpet for foreign investors, provided they are not engaged in illegal businesses. It would be disheartening if, despite all the efforts of this community to free themselves from the hardships, they are subjected to scorn and xenophobia. As Kenyans, we should embrace a culture of tolerance and competitiveness in enterprise. Every Kenyan is free to settle and do business anywhere in the country. We should be proud of each other.

The writer is a former MP