When Roads & Kingdoms asks for a slogan for his city, Mogadishu’s mayor says it’s “no longer the most dangerous city in the world”. He is determined to prove it.
Roads & Kingdoms contributors Nastasya Tay and Daniel Howden went for a late-night drive with the Minister of Intelligence, the Mogadishu Police Chief, and a few well-armed friends. In all, it’s a four-vehicle convoy, with twenty policemen, a truck-mounted anti-aircraft battery, and two foreign correspondents who are about to go… eat ice cream.
Roads & Kingdoms mapped out the journey as a Google map with text and images at each waystation. You can read the text below, or view the map here, where you can click on each point for text and images.
The chatter is light; the weaponry heavy. The engine revs reluctantly as the convoy takes off at furious speed, its throatiness ridiculed by the tinny sound of Somali pop played through translator Abdi’s mobile phone.
It’s snug in the backseat, tucked in between Ahmed and Gele, their faded camouflage slightly grubby from the exertions of the day, their worn rifle butts pressed against sweaty arms. Their amusement is palpable at the seemingly novel danger of the entire exercise - matched only by Abdi’s wide-eyed glee at the prospect of seeing the periphery of his hometown in the safe company of a four-vehicle convoy, twenty policemen, and a truck-mounted anti-aircraft battery.
The roundabout at Kilometre 4 is bereft of traffic. Neon lights on the neighbouring stores flicker. A donkey chews at a tuft of something dark, unconcerned.
Garishly lit palm trees at the hotel down the road evoke thoughts of American motels. We drive in the opposite direction. Under a calico banner strung across the intersection wishing all a Happy Eid, down the rutted bitchumen road, the sporadic streetlights paid for with Norwegian money, fluorescent tubes eerie in the dark red dust of a warm night.
Maka Al-Mukarama’s main drag climbs slowly towards the silent hulk of a disused parliament, sitting sentry over the makeshift aqal shacks of a small sea of displaced. Huddles of women under jilbabs, heels tucked under low stools, squat in the greyscale landscape outside Villa Somalia, trading their wares - khat in translucent plastic bags.
A row of young boys, slumped beneath a sky-blue stone memorial, asleep. A motorbike slips past, flashing turquoise fairy lights twisted through the handlebars.
My teeth are clenched around the corner of my headscarf, a grip on false modesty, as I lean precariously out of the Landcruiser sunroof. I briefly wonder if Somali snipers have laser sights on their rifles, if the reward for our madness will come with warning.
The moonless night is textured, a weave of clouds and clear sky. The faint chill of the sea breeze faithfully savoury. A sharp swing around a corner. A whiff of salty Somali coffee and dry ginger powder.
Clouds of sand rise around our tyres as they skid sideways around potholes on the road by Lido beach.
On the once-grand avenue that runs the line along the coast, little remains of the Italian-owned art deco villas but the occasional wall or gate. Many of the colonial era mansions have been chiselled to their superstructure by small arms fire.
In the darkness, these shells cough smoke and figures gather round glowing camp fires. The silhouettes of tents can be seen in what might once have been careful tended gardens, whose only living remains are a few lonely bougainvillea.
Gele’s lit cigarette end flickers with each inhalation, in sharp contrast with the muted dust beyond the window. His ash.
The same scene is repeated at almost every junction in the dark city.
The convoy comes to a halt and one or other of the armed men in a department store of different uniforms traipses up to the lead vehicle.
A short exchange follows during which the policeman realises that most of his bosses including the capital's chief of police are sitting inside. In each case there's a sudden straightening of the back and one of a range of crooked salutes follows.
There’s a constant rustling from the front seat.
I eventually lean forward to see where the noise is coming from. As I do so, the driver turns around. His teeth are flecked with tell-tale green.
On his lap is a plastic bag full of khat, the mild narcotic leaf that peppers so many Somali afternoons and evenings. Khat chewing sessions frequently stretch across blocks of hours. As the driving and chewing continues his hand dips into the bag with a metronomic rhythm punctuated by spitting out of the open window.
Watching his cheeks bulge I'm reminded that many Somalis tease each other when they're chewing that they look like grazing cows.
The dancing fairylights tacked around the sign for Abdi Rahman’s electronic store run in endless twinkling loops. They feel like they should be accompanied with Christmas music.
On a seat-worn bench outside, men in pastel ikat sarongs hug one knee. Sweet milky tea served in clear glass mugs.
The warm scent of woodfire with the acrid catch of burning rubbish, interspersed with spices, caramel, exhaust.
The owners of the New Bilaal Restaurant in Hodan district like so many of the burgeoning business are keen that you know that their place is “NEW”. The word is in capitals across the pink walls of the street corner eatery, lit by a naked bulb. Crowding round the name are hand-painted gigantic vegetables and the rest of the gang from the menu, including a sweet-looking goat. The only item that needs a written explanation is a “Fishburger” in an exquisitely drawn yellow bun.
Darkness. A neat square of light, carved out of a shipping container. Stacks of soap powder, salt, tinned pilchards. Darkness. The glint of a green pitch on a glowing television. A flash of Arsenal red. Darkness. An earnest street sweeper backlit in his doorway. Darkness.
Omar’s bucktoothed smile is shy, but proud.
The Sixa ice-cream parlour on 21 October Avenue is wallpapered with neatly stacked soda cans and bottled fruit juice in colour-coded perfection, garnished with supermarket tinsel.
Omar’s Neapolitan ice cream is served in a paper cup, with printed depictions of juicy grapes, oranges and strawberries and a beige plastic spoon. The scoops heaped, one upon the other, the pale brown chocolate smooshed next to a strawberry reminiscent of boiled sweets.
Each mouthful sharply icy on the tongue, gently jarring on my front teeth, more milky frost than dairy. The colours meld unapologetically in the slight humidity. No matter. Chocolate, strawberry and vanilla - all verging on the almost-but-not-quite-too-sweet - are indistinguishable in their cardamom warmth.
Engrossed young men crowded around a flickering television, “Playstation” picked out above the open door in a lopsided scrawl.
Enormous speakers perched on a doorframe, pumping bass into the street. Vibrations rattle through the convoy. Cheers as we pass. Abdi smiles.