A Peaceful Week in Kismayo

‘Some people would pay a lot of good money for this,’ my colleague, Ismahan, said. We were in Kismayo. It was an hour before sundown. And we were being driven by Ali along a bumpy track, winding our way around small walled houses, and heading down to the beach.

To our left, the strip of unpeopled sand led off to a hazy distance; to our right, there was a ramshackled fishing settlement perched on a small promontory. The white horses of the waves were charging onto the rocks. And not far from shore there was a small cluster of islands.

We walked along the water’s edge and towards the fishermen’s shelters. A few young men were busying themselves in their boats, clearing up after the day’s catch. When we reached the shelters, cluttered with all manner of fishing tackle, an mzee greeted us, his gnarled face wrinkled in his smile.

It was all so peaceful. Day-in day-out, year-in year-out, these fishermen would go about their work. Hard and hazardous work, yes, but they would be untroubled, I guess, by the political shifts decided in policy workshops in Mogadishu hotels – or gossiped about in the teashops of Kismayo.

Nor would they be focused on the TV these days, caught up in the house of cards saga of President Donald Trump. (It’s all so gripping that for my week in Kismayo I for once in a long time tuned in regularly to CNN rather than BBC!)

I understand that there is a place within Kismayo airport where you can pay good money for sleeping in a narrow bed in a container and having to take a walk to go to the loo – all at $350 dollars a night. But we had found Ali’s much more peaceful, and much less expensive, Mecca Hotel, which charges 100 dollars per night.

The Mecca is a hotel of Africa Eco Services (AES), which has excellent camps in many parts of Kenya. I met them first three years ago when I joined a group of eclipse chasers by Lake Turkana – all armed with powerful telescopes and cameras, only to miss the climax of the moon blotting out the sun because both were blotted out by storm clouds. I have also enjoyed their fly camp that they erect each year at the Rhino Charge venue.

It’s not just the saving of 250 dollars a night that I appreciated about the Mecca Hotel. It’s a newish four-storey building on the southern outskirts of Kismayo Town. The rooms are spacious. They have a proper bed, air conditioning, workspace, DSTV, and an efficient bathroom.

Other facilities in the Mecca include a restaurant, an outside cafeteria, one large and one small conference room, and a gym. Ali also has plans for a swimming pool. The surrounding area is dry and sandy. But within the hotel compound Ali is planting trees and shrubs.

It’s the service, though, that I most appreciated. Ali couldn’t do enough for us. He met us at the airport, where he mediated a tricky situation:

My colleague Hillary and I had responded to the advice given in a UN circular that it would no longer be possible to get a visa for Somalia on arrival. And so we applied and paid for it at the Somalia Embassy in Nairobi.

But when we got to Kismayo the Immigration officials told us that we had made a mistake and, after asking a string of questions about our reason for travelling, they were insisting that we should pay another 50 dollars each – despite showing the visas in our passports and our receipts. I assume that this incident is one small example of the problems that will need to be ironed out, related to the distribution of resources between the Federal Government and the newly created states of Somalia.

In many other ways, Ali showed his concern for our welfare. He made sure that there were also potatoes each day on the menu.

‘I know you are not fond of rice or spaghetti,’ he said.

‘How do you know that?’ I asked.

‘I’ve done a bit of research and I read your articles,’ he said with a chuckle.

Ali was particular, too – and proud – about the delicious sponge cakes the chef produces. And he makes sure there is fresh fruit available.

I forgot to mention two other amenities in the hotel: the blast-proof strong room in the main building, and a bunker outside. Yes, however peaceful was at the Mecca Hotel, I should remind you that Kismayo is still a dangerous place. Though the Kenya Defence Forces cleared the town of al-Shabab back in October 2012, the militants are still in the surrounding countryside. And the KDF are still much in evidence.

No, Kismayo is not yet a tourist destination. But if you have any kind of business there, I can recommend the friendly Mecca Hotel.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation