We’re going nowhere: Somalis

2010-01-28 14:07

THREE Somali men stand around a computer screen in a crammed

internet shop in the Cape Town suburb of Belville, tapping their feet to a music


The screen shows a packed stadium with a crowd of people waving

their hands and dancing in a frenzy as the Somali artist, K’naan, sings a catchy

chorus about growing stronger and finding freedom.

The name of the song is “Waving Flag” and it’s a tune that South

Africans are sure to get to know well in the coming months.

The song has been named the official anthem of the 2010 Soccer

World Cup.

For the men watching it, however, the song has a special


K’naan was 11-years-old when gunmen opened fire on him and three of

his friends while they were playing on a street in the Somali capital,

Mogadishu. He survived the attack, but all his friends were killed.

The chorus goes: “When I get older . . . I will be stronger . . .

They’ll call me freedom . . . Just like a waving flag . . . ”

It’s about K’naan’s experience after the attack.

One of the men watching the video is Mohammed Osman, a coordinator

of the Somali Association of South Africa, which has its offices annexed to the

computer store.

Osman says many Somalis have had similar experiences to K’naan,

which is why they can relate to the lyrics.

“It is impossible for most people to live a normal life in

Somalia,” he says. “When I was growing up, the country was being run by

warlords. Gangs with guns controlled the streets.”

“That is why the lyrics of a song like this has special meaning for


Osman decided to leave Somalia in 2003, while he was living with

his mother and father in the town of Kismayu.

“I was studying to finish high school,” he says. “I wanted to make

something of my life.

“I had relatives living in a beautiful, peaceful city called Cape


“I decided to go there.”

In 2003 Osman, who was then 22, said goodbye to his family and took

a bus to Kenya.

“We were 100 kilometres from the border when the bus stopped and

the driver told us we had to walk the rest of the way,” he recalls.

“The passengers got out and we spent the next days walking across

the border by foot.”

In Kenya, Osman took a bus to Nairobi and from there travelled to

Tanzania where he took a boat down the coast to Mozambique.

“We were at sea, somewhere off the coast of Mozambique and

Tanzania. It was very dark. The captain told us to jump and swim for the shore.

So we jumped into the sea. The water was up to my eyes. It was


Osman made it to the shore and joined a group of around 30 Somalis

who trekked into Mozambique.

They had barely crossed the border when they were arrested by

Mozambican soldiers and thrown into prison.

“No-one spoke any Somali or any English,” he says. “The Mozambicans

spoke Portuguese. I tried to ask if I could buy water, but no-one could

understand me.”

Osman and the Somalis were held for 35 days without trial. They

were fed one meal a day.

After 30 days, the group decided to go on a hunger strike to demand

a trial. The hunger strike lasted five days before the Mozambicans released them

and deported them to Tanzania. The Tanzanians then deported the group to


Osman stayed in Kenya for two months before he started his journey

again. This time he made it all the way to Cape Town.

“It was (a) difficult journey,” he says. “But the Somali women have

a much worse time. They are raped and attacked the whole way to South Africa. It

is terrible what they have to endure.

Osman worked in a small grocery store in the township of

Masiphumelele, near Cape Town, but it was wasn’t long before the problems


Businessmen in the Cape townships were accusing Somalis of

undercutting and stealing business. Gangs formed and attacked and destroyed the

stores of traders like Osman.

One of the men in the Internet Shop, Ali Sandhere Mohamed, 20, used

to run a small grocery store in the township of Philippi.

“One day a man walked in and asked for cigarettes,” he says. “I

took the money and bent down to get change. When I looked, the man had a pistol.

He put it into my mouth and pulled the trigger.”

The bullet went through Mohamed’s chin and into his collar bone

area where it hit a tendon. His right arm has been paralysed since the


Mohamed, whose brother lives in Bloemfontein, was attacked twice

more after that. He lifts his trousers and shows a jagged scar running down his


“That came from a knife,” he says.

“I want to go home to my parents in Mogadishu. South Africa has not

been good to me. I was never attacked in Mogadishu. But here I have been

attacked three times.”

Osman insists that all business owners have a right to charge

whatever price they like.

“It is a constitutional right,” he says. “If we want to charge a

lower price, then we should be allowed to do that.”

Osman moved to Belville near the Somali mosque on Durban Road,

known widely by Somalis as Mogadishu Avenue.

“I wanted to stay away from the townships,” he says.

It was there that he joined the Somali Association of South Africa,

an organisation that aims to represent and protect Somalis living in South


The Somali Association, for which Osman works, tries with the help

of organisations like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the

University of Cape Town’s Law Clinic to provide assistance to Somalis living in

South Africa.

“When people need a lawyer we help them to get one,” Osman


The Somali Association has also been facilitating negotiations with

the business owners in Khayelitsha.

The Khayelitsha Somali Retailers was set up after the xenophobic

attacks in 2008.

The efforts have paid off.

“In most instances, Somalis are now working side by side with local

business owners,” Osman says.

“Relations are better than any time before. The people drink

cooldrinks together.”

Late last year, the Cape Town Somali community was hit with more


The United States embassy received a “credible” intelligence that

Somalis living in the township of Khayelitsha and with links to an al Qaeda

terror cell in Somalia were preparing to attack its buildings in South


South African security forces carried out raids on Somali business

owners, but no evidence of a threat was found.

Osman says intelligence agencies were given a false tip-off by a

Pretoria-based academic.

“It was not true at all,” he says. “This man who gave them this tip

must have been paid by someone.

“We are determined to cooperate with the South African government

and police intelligence. If such threats come from Somalis we will be the first

to report it.

“Somalis ran away from violence. We don’t want that here.”

Osman says although they are often victimised by South Africans,

Somalis still think of themselves as proud South Africans.

“We are proud to be part of this country,” he says.

“We are the Somali community of South Africa, like you have the

Indian Community of South Africa.”

He points to Somali men on Durban Road wearing Springbok rugby

jerseys and Bafana Bafana soccer shirts.

“We can’t wait for the World Cup,” he says.

“Somalis have never been able to see great soccer, live.

This is our chance.”

“And we have K’naan who is performing the official song.”

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