Nairobi's Little Mogadishu
By Yassin Juma, Wednesday, April 02, 2014
EASTLEIGH, Nairobi – The call to prayer emanating from the minarets of several local mosques competes with honking taxis and shouting street hawkers selling anything from Islamic DVDs to the latest Bollywood movies.
Welcome to Eastleigh, a residential neighborhood in capital Nairobi known as "Little Mogadishu" due to its large Somali population.
It is here that enterprising Somali refugees first set up shop after fleeing the fighting back home following the 1991 ouster of strongman Siad Barre.
Hundreds of people push and shove along the muddy sidewalks outside four-storied shopping malls bearing names like "Bangkok," "Dubai" and "Emirates."
At one end of the street is the Al-Kawthar Mall, Nairobi's largest gold market.
"Change dollar, change dollar, saraf, saraf," young men shout, trying to lure customers to their foreign-exchange bureau.
Not far away, around two hundred Somali women sit in an open hall displaying gold rings, necklaces, earrings and other jewelry.
Another section of the mall consists of about 40 Somali-owned shops that sell gold and silver, mostly imported from Dubai.
Good prices attract many customers to the area, especially newlyweds, retailers and people hoping to sell their jewelry.
A few meters away, visitors will find the New Garissa Lodge Mall, a two-story shopping mall that sells clothing and electronics.
Sixty-inch TV screens, mobile handsets and satellite decoders are displayed prominently on the ground floor of most shops.
On the first floor, conservative Islamic clothing – such as black abayas (long loose dresses) and niqabs (face veils) – is showcased alongside revealing G-strings and other lingerie items.
"You have everything for everybody in Eastleigh – and at unbeatable prices," Abukar Kanyare, a Somali trader who has worked in the area for ten years, told Anadolu Agency.
"That's what attracts thousands of people here every day," he added.
It's also one of the reasons why the neighborhood is quickly becoming not only Nairobi's financial capital, but also a regional hub.
Traders are coming from as far afield as South Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia to do business in Eastleigh.
According to Hussein Guled, vice-chairman of the Eastleigh Business Association, the thriving commercial district does up to $100 million in business each month.
But despite its significant contributions to the local economy, poor roads and sanitation continue to hinder Eastleigh's mercantile success, with shoppers and traders alike forced to navigate through potholes and mud.
A few minutes before 3pm, activities grind to a halt in most parts of residential Eastleigh.
Several speeding pickup trucks loaded with sacks honk continuously, their lights signaling the arrival of the green narcotic leaves that play such a major role in the Kenyan economy: Khat or Miraa, as it is locally known.
Millions of dollars are earned each year from this lucrative business, which is controlled by well-knit cartels of mostly Kenyan Somalis.
Khat chewing is Eastleigh's most popular pastime, both for the young and the elderly.
Somali music blasts from teashops in which customers chew Khat and discuss developments back home in Somalia, stopping only long enough to exhale clouds of thick shisha smoke.
Eastleigh's history goes back to Kenya's colonial era, when the district was built specifically to house Kenyans of South Asian descent.
Later, Kenyan Somalis began settling in the area, followed by Somali refugees fleeing the fighting in their native country.
In another part of Eastleigh, the aura is distinctly Ethiopian.
The language mostly spoken here is Amharic and Oromo – the local languages of Ethiopia.
The smell of strong Ethiopian coffee and spiced Ethiopian beef is thick in the air, while the music of Teddy Afro – Ethiopia's most popular crooner – can be heard.
Human trafficking is a main source of income on 10th Street, where would-be Ethiopian migrants – on their way to destinations as far afield as South Africa and Europe – make stopovers.
Sharing dingy hotel rooms in squalid conditions; some will be lucky enough to reach South Africa or Europe.
Others remain stuck in Nairobi after having been conned out of their money – or in a prison cell for entering Kenya illegally.
"One can pay up to $1000 to be smuggled to South Africa," local resident Duba Gurach told AA.
"It's a big business involving a cartel of Ethiopian human traffickers and corrupt Kenyan immigration officers."
But human trafficking isn't the only illegal activity associated with Nairobi's Eastleigh district.
Back when piracy off the Somali coast was at its peak, some drew links between the piracy phenomenon and new investments flowing into the thriving locality.
Kenyan investigators have voiced suspicions that Somalia's Al-Shabaab militant group has investments in Eastleigh.
This has led to frequent raids on local mosques and the arbitrary arrest of residents suspected of possible Al-Shabaab links.
"Our [commercial] success has attracted heightened business rivalry with other parts of Nairobi – this may be the reason why there is talk of illegal activities," Mukhtar Adan, an Eastleigh resident, told AA.
"There's no pirate money here. There are no Al-Shabab dollars here," he said.
"If Al-Shabaab had investments here, why would they bomb us time and again?"
Six people were killed and several others injured late Monday when Eastleigh was rocked by twin explosions.
According to witnesses, the explosions targeted two restaurants and a bus stop.
The bombings came only one day after a man was killed in the same neighborhood while assembling an improvised explosive device inside an apartment.
When night falls, many Eastleigh residents say they fear only one thing: corrupt Kenyan police officers.
"We no longer have peace, as the police who are supposed to protect us now hunt us," Ahmed Mahat, a Kenyan Somali, told AA.
"Whether you're a Kenyan Somali with valid documents or a Somali from Somalia, you're likely to be arrested anytime of the day or night," he said.
"We have become like ATM for the police," Mahat said.
This explains the relative lack of nocturnal activity in Eastleigh, where residents generally prefer to spend evenings indoors – except for a handful of scantily-clad "twilight girls" fishing for customers.
Copyright © 2014 Anadolu Agency