Three Weeks, Three Countries and Two Questions

The other day, on my way back from Mogadishu, when the Immigration Officer at KIA’s Terminal 2 looked at my passport, she said, ‘Mzee, at your age you shouldn’t be going off to Somalia like this. If you were a Kenyan, you would be resting comfortably at home.’

If she had examined my passport more thoroughly, she would have seen that I had spent two of the previous three weeks in the UK. But it wouldn’t have shown, I had spent time in five different places in the south of England – Bristol, Bath, Lyme Regis, Southampton and London. I didn’t admit to the Immigration Officer that I was, indeed, looking forward to a weekend sitting comfortably at home!

Two days later, in Mogadishu I was staying at the Airport Hotel within the large protected area of the Mogadishu International Airport; best known, simply, as MIA – the area also housing the AMISOM troops, UN agencies, embassies, and a number of hotels and camps.

The Airport Hotel is fine. Its rooms give you more space than the converted containers of the camps such as Chelsea Village, SKA and RA – and at $130 half-board they are cheaper than those in the container villages. They are air-conditioned, and their TVs give you access to channels from all over the world.

The hotel has two conference rooms, and there are a couple of trellised spaces for smaller meetings. In about a month’s time, a new wing will be opened, with upgraded rooms and, I suppose, upgraded prices. One thing that will be difficult to upgrade, however, is the food. The menu is surprisingly extensive and eclectic. While I was there, I enjoyed a full English breakfast, a selection of Spanish tapas, and a spicy Indian curry.

I chatted with Julius Atieko, the Manager. He talked about the challenges of running such a place in Somalia – a very different place than the Ole Sereni Hotel overlooking the gamepark here in Nairobi, which is also managed by the Xanadu Collection Group.

But one of the main attractions of the Airport Hotel is its relaxed atmosphere. It has nothing like the vista of the Ole Sereni, of course, but once through the barricaded entry, leaving behind the dusty roads and factory-like buildings of the MIA, there is the green of the Astroturf lawn and planted shrubs. Yes, there is also a signpost pointing the way to a bunker – a reminder that at the beginning of this year a few mortars were lobbed into MIA by al-Shabab.

At Bristol Airport, waiting to board our plane back to Kenya a week ago, we got talking to a young Ugandan woman who had just spent a few weeks in the UK. When she heard that our home is in Nairobi she said, ‘I can’t understand you at all. England is so beautiful and peaceful. The streets in the towns are clean. On the roads, drivers follow the rules. The police don’t ask for bribes… Why on earth did you decide to live in Africa?’

True, there are many lovely and historic places in the UK – as we had just seen again in our travels across the counties of Devon, Dorset and Hampshire. And many things are well-ordered there. But to have challenged this young woman about her very rosy view, to have pointed out things about the UK that are not so beautiful and peaceful, and to try to tell her about our reasons for living in Africa – this would not have been possible before it was time to board the plane.

And so I just told her that many years ago when I was a young lecturer at Nottingham University and my Professor asked, ‘Would one of you young guys like to go to Kenya for a couple of years?’ I put my hand up. And I have never regretted that decision.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation