At nearly all events held by AMISOM (the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia) and international organisations operating in Mogadishu, there will be one or two English and Kiswahili-speaking interpreters.
A significant section of the Somali political elite are people who have returned from the diaspora and speak English and other foreign languages. But it is in business and petty trade that the use of Kiswahili is most notable.
This has a lot to do with the large presence of Amisom troops from Burundi and Uganda who have been in Mogadishu for over five years and conduct their day-to-day business with Somalis in Kiswahili, as well as the back-and-forth of Somali business people travelling between Nairobi’s “little Somalia” — the bustling business hub of Eastleigh in Nairobi — and Mogadishu and other Somali towns.
One African Union official told me that even Al Shabaab has helped spread Kiswahili and English by recruiting young Ugandans, Tanzanians, Kenyans, Nigerians, Americans, and Britons into its ranks. In one of the greatest ironies of the war, Al Shabaab, seen as Enemy Number One of East Africa, has done a lot to draw Somalia deeper into the Kiswahili and English-speaking culture of the East African Community.
Somalia, a country in which the elite spoke Italian and Arabic when they were not speaking Somali, today one hears them speak more Kiswahili and English.
There are over 400,000 Somali refugees in Kenya, most of them in the sprawling and squalid Dadaab camp that was initially built to house only 90,000. While the issue of Somali refugees is frequently a sore point with Kenyan officials and citizens, the flip side is that the camps have also been an unintentional imperialist tool for Kenya.
Refugees who return to Somalia take with them a smattering of Kiswahili. Likewise, a couple of smooth Somalis in Mogadishu whom I spoke to, had come back to Somalia but left their families behind in Kenya, with the children going to local schools where they are learning Kiswahili and English.
The factors driving this cultural shift in Somalia are starkly demonstrated in the Marine Shopping Market, on the edge of Amisom’s sprawling base alongside Mogadishu airport.
The idea of the market started over a year ago. In war-wracked Mogadishu, it was mostly the Somali women who were left to scrounge for food to feed their families. Several would come to hawk items outside the Amisom compound.
However, Al Shabaab’s dreaded snipers were always on the horizon, and they would often pick off the soldiers.
In order not to alienate the women, and to protect the soldiers, Amisom decided to set up a secure area on the edge of the camp where the soldiers could go shopping without the risk of being shot by snipers.
Amisom’s co-ordinator of civil-military affairs, the man who oversaw the project, Lt-Col Kamurari Katwekyeire, said with the wide range of goods — some of them imported from places like Dubai and China — currently being sold in the market, the women have moved from making $10 a day to between $300 and $600.
In addition, there has been a political payoff. Because of clan rivalry, for the first few days, women from rival clans didn’t get along or want to have their shops next to each. Today the clan barriers have broken down and, said Kamurari, the women are getting along.
Amisom’s 9,500 troops in Mogadishu are the one group that is sure it will be paid a handsome wage regularly every month. In addition, there are UN workers and AU contractors, all of whom live inside the secured compound. Most of them shop at the Marine Shopping Centre.
That is a large number — and they don’t speak Somali, and few have any Arabic knowledge. So for ease of business, according to Kamurasi, the Somali women traders have made themselves proficient in Kiswahili and English.
With more Amisom troops coming — English-speaking Sierra Leonean peacekeepers are due to arrive in Somalia soon, as well as a large group of Nigerian officers to train the police — Somalia could be bubbling with many more languages than it did just 10 years ago.
If the country can stabilise enough for the Somali refugees in Dadaab and the diaspora to return home, Somalia could finally be overrun by Kiswahili and English in a big wave.
This was never anyone’s plan. Accidental state re-formation at its best.
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