‘Where is it you are going next week?’ a friend asked me.
‘Kismayo,’ I said.
‘You lucky guy!’
‘Why lucky? Kismayo is no Riviera.’
‘No, but you will be away from the mayhem here in Nairobi.’
That chat was a couple of weeks ago. True, we live alongside Kawangware, and what was happening there that weekend was horrific and deeply disturbing. But no-one, I believe, could think that Kenya could be plunged into the kind of abyss that Somalia is now slowly emerging from.
And Kismayo is no Mogadishu. One of my colleagues on the consultancy trip was visiting this port city for the first time. When we had passed smoothly through the airport arrival procedures, driven into and through the busy streets of the town, and settled in the Mecca Hotel, my friend said, ‘This is so different from any place I have been to in Somalia – I have been to almost every other city in the country, and this seems more relaxed than any of them’.
Mind you, the Mecca Hotel is well away from the bustle of the town. Its rooms are air-conditioned and the beds are wide and comfortable; there is a cooling breeze from the nearby sea; Ally, the manager, is an attentive, diligent and welcoming host. There is no other place like it in Kismayo. Staying there, you get the distortions that come with any kind of privilege.
If we had been bound by the regulations of our client, an international aid agency, we would not have been allowed to stay at the Mecca. We would have been confined to staying within the protected perimeter of the airport – and, on any drive into the town, we would not have had the chance to step out of the heavily guarded vehicle unless we were parked in a heavily guarded ministry compound.
As it was, we were able to walk across the street from the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources – and walk into Kismayo’s one fish market. That was because this time in Kismayo our assignment was to do with fish; it was to carry out a survey of the extent to which people eat fish, and then develop a strategy for persuading more people eat fish.
I am tempted to tell you about some of the people we met, some of the stories we heard, and some of the conclusions we are drawing – but most of that has to be first for the ears and eyes of our client. I feel sure, though, that you will appreciate that, as well supply issues (Kismayo’s fishing industry is surprisingly small for such a place) there were some fascinating cultural issues to be explored.
Born in England, as a child I was brought up being told that if I ate fish it would help develop my brain. But a child of a Somali pastoralist is not likely to be told anything like that. In fact, one of our respondents claimed a child of a pastoralist family could be told the opposite – that eating fish could make you foolish! Fishing is an occupation carried out by minority clans – and it seems some old prejudices persist.
One of the fascinating things about the assignment is that we are engaged in something that was done back in the days of Siad Barre. One of our respondents was Ali Abdulweli Khalif Hagar, the Inspector General of Jubaland TV. As a teenager and in the 1970s he worked for Radio Mogadishu and on the Siad Barre campaign. He sang some of the old jingles for us – ‘Catch fish! Grill fish! Eat fish!’
Clearly there is a need for another campaign. One of the startling facts is that for a country that has the longest coastline in Africa (second longest if you count the coastline of Madagascar) fish consumption at the household level is one of the lowest on the continent.
And certainly the fishing potential of Kismayo has yet to be properly exploited. The one fish market is very small. It is cramped; it is bloody; the air in there is feted. Its ambiance is not the sort that would encourage a child of a pastoralist – or the child of anyone – to eat fish.
After our visit to the market and down to the fish landing site on the beach – where we saw a huge hammerhead shark being dragged off a fishing boat – we asked the Director General of the Ministry of Fish if we had been crazy.
‘Not at all,’ he said. ‘Kismayo is a peaceful place.’
That was encouraging. But when we said something like that in a Whatsapp to a friend, he said, ‘Yes, but remember that the bad guys are only 30 kilometres away!’