A sigh down the telephone line. “Somalia is not so much a failed state, as a state that never became a state,” a very wise and English-tinted voice tells me.
I’m speaking to Professor I.M. Lewis on the phone about the country where I’m due to spend the next month and am momentarily overcome by just how complicated things have become.
I’ve been travelling and writing in Afghanistan on and off for the past five years, and only now do I feel that I’m beginning to scratch the surface of how things work there. Somalia looks set to take me at least as long, if not a lot longer.
The plan is to fly to Kenya before flying in to Mogadishu to do some research and freelance journalism work there.
Waiting around in London for enough money to make the trip possible, I ploughed through different accounts detailing an incredibly messy history.
There was Scott Peterson writing about covering Somalia in the 1990s (Me Against My Brother), Michael Maren on how aid, development and food relief was very much a player in the catastrophe of the 1990s (The Road to Hell)… Gerald Hanley (in Warriors) told a very romanticised tale of Somalia post-second world war. Sven Lindqvist tried to come to terms with the European colonial experience in Africa in ‘Exterminate All The Brutes’. A short part of Kapuscinski’s The Soccer War tells of his time in the Ogaden in the autumn of 1976 – he gets bitten by a scorpion and, because he is so far away from anyone and anything, must try to recover lying down on a plank suspended over the ground where more scorpions prowl.
Pirio has written a book about Islamism in the ‘Horn of Africa’ (The African Jihad) but I’m saving that to read in the days I’ll spend in Kenya. Have been loving Aidan Hartley’s The Zanzibar Chest, even if it does seem a bit long. Then of course there’s Caroline Elkins’ relatively recent Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, which I hope will provide some kind of context for the colonial history there.
Otherwise, Somalia’s been in the news recently. Last weekend heavy fighting/shelling in Mogadishu killed upwards of 80 people, and a quick glance at the wires tells of further fighting and deaths around the country. Members of the Islamist group al-Shabab reportedly took Berdale town (near to Baidoa) on Monday and “immediately imposed Shari’a”.
The Senlis Council – who conduct their research fully armed – are holding a press conference in London tomorrow morning to launch their comparative study of the Afghan and Somali insurgencies. I’ll be there to see what they have to say (on my way to the airport), even if I will have to be convinced of the uses of comparing the two…
I’ll be posting next from Nairobi later in the week hopefully. Till then…