When people newly displaced by drought or conflict arrive in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu, they often begin by asking for assistance.
“They’ll move around all the neighbours and collect items,” explains local businesswoman Habibo Ali Haji. “They’ll knock on each door and ask ‘do you have anything?’ and use what they get to build a small shelter. In Somali culture, even if you have a small thing to eat and you find a person who is hungry you divide [the food] and give the other half to them. They are very welcome.”
But the charitable nature of Somali culture is being tested, as rising food prices and high unemployment challenge even those who were once well off.
Displaced Somalis, forced to leave their rural homes, have been arriving in a steady stream to coastal city Mogadishu for decades. There, they live in cramped settlements, often on private land where they are vulnerable to sudden evictions. Ongoing violence and the latest devastating drought, which has now seen five consecutive failed rainy seasons, means that number has continued to swell.
By 2019, there were already around half a million displaced Somalis living in Mogadishu, aid organisations say. According to the UN, 1.1 million people have been displaced by drought this year alone and nearly 600,000 by conflict and insecurity. More than 411,000 of them moved to Banadir, the region that Mogadishu is in.
While they are hoping for a better life, risks remain. Mogadishu, which is home to roughly 2.4 million people, has been repeatedly targeted by militants from the al Qaeda-linked group Al Shabaab, which controls swathes of territory in Somalia. In October, at least 121 people were killed in a double car bombing there, five years after another bombing nearby claimed the lives of more than 580 people. In late November, eight civilians were killed during an attack on the popular Villa Rays hotel.
Regular life continues. There are traffic jams with rows of red tuktuks, busy markets and packed mosques. Residents say Somalis are resilient. “If there is an explosion today, tomorrow they will rebuild,” says Dr Ahmed Abdi Aden, deputy commissioner of Somalia’s disaster management agency. The displaced, like everyone else apart from the extremely rich, are forced to move around to look for work, food, healthcare and other necessities.
Some end up at a health centre in Mogadishu’s Wadajir district, which sees about 130 patients a week: many of them are children suffering from malnutrition. The clinic is supported by Irish charity Concern Worldwide.
An attendee, Halima Mohamed Ali (36), came to Mogadishu three years ago, travelling from Qoriyoley District in Lower Shabelle, more than 100km away. There, her father owned a farm where her family cultivated maize, tomatoes and sorghum. Her life in Mogadishu is very different.
Ali says “a lot of complexities” forced her to leave home, “including on-and-off conflict”. She developed high blood pressure. “I couldn’t take it any more,” she says. She also wanted access to aid.
On the road to Mogadishu, Ali’s family was robbed. “We came here with nothing,” she recalls. Upon arrival, she was helped by relatives and the “general Somali community”, eventually finding accommodation after two months.
The eight-month-old baby girl in her arms is the youngest of her nine children: the only one who qualifies to receive nutritional care, after being assessed as having malnutrition, because the others are over the age of five.
Ali’s husband owns a wheelbarrow, which he uses to carry loads for various clients. His small income means the rising costs of food and fuel – exacerbated by the Ukraine war – have been “very hard” to bear, Ali says. “Only cooking oil and flour is possible to buy, but the rest can’t be bought. We need to eat rice but the price went high so it’s difficult to get. It’s not enough but we have no choice, we manage with whatever we get. There is no work. We receive support but in general there are needy people and the situation is getting worse day by day.”
Also in the clinic is Muslimo Hassan Abdullahi (20), who holds a crying 11-month-old boy – the youngest of her three children. Abdullahi came to Mogadishu six years ago, from Middle Shabelle. She has come to the clinic to collect a monthly food ration she qualifies for: 6kg of porridge.
“We can’t get any food, that’s why I came here. We have no money. We are depending on the World Food Programme. Porridge. It’s not enough,” she says.
Nearby is Raliyo Ahmed Mohamed (25), who has brought her 45-day-old son for a polio vaccination. Mohamed also comes from Lower Shabelle, and has been in Mogadishu less than three years.
“It’s okay here, I don’t move around a lot,” she says. “In general the prices have gone high, we’re not in control but we’re buying what we can. There are many people in need. Everyone you know who fled from his original place is needy with no sufficient income but we are surviving.” Displaced people try to wash clothes, go to markets to beg, or search for any odd jobs they can do, she explains.
All of the women emphasise that they would like more international humanitarian aid, and are grateful for any help they receive from charitable Somalis too. “People are different, some are very welcoming and supportive but some have nothing to support you with, they are just getting by themselves,” says Mohamed.
Assistance is never guaranteed when Mogadishu’s original residents are struggling as well.
Haji, the businesswoman, has a shop in the city where she sells clothes, meat and vegetables. The 34-year-old has been in business for eight years. Her husband used to work as a truck driver, but the ongoing conflict in rural areas controlled by Al Shabaab has made it too dangerous for him to keep going. The couple have six children.
“I sell vegetables and meat,” Haji says. “I used to go to the market to buy and then retail, but now when the drought happens the livestock in the market became very limited and the price went high. The variety of vegetables in the market was also reduced.”
Now, she says, she can afford to buy only a small amount of supplies. Her customers complain that her goods are too expensive and don’t purchase as much.
A kilogram of camel meat has risen from $3.50 (€3.30) to $5 or higher, she says, while goat meat has risen from $5 to $6. A 50kg bag of sugar rose from $30 to $45, and a container of cooking oil went from $16 to $50, before dropping to $30.
Haji used to travel to the countryside herself to buy animals at “the best price, but now we can’t go there because of insecurity”.
When she goes to the market she worries that young, unemployed people will rob her. “Robbery is existing everywhere,” she says.
Her net profit has gone down from highs of $6 a day to $3.50 at most, she says. Her children still attend school, but their meals are no longer “full food”, just “something… to maintain their energy”.
“We are feeling the burden… It’s a lot of struggle to pay their [school] fees,” she says.
Still, Haji has sympathy for Mogadishu’s new arrivals.
“I’m very aware of a lot of people who are displaced here. When you talk [to them] about their life it’s very low and they are needy,” she says.
“First of all we desire and request from Allah to support us in this period, particularly the farmers, that’s where we receive vegetables and food [from]. So I wish the drought will dissipate and if enough aid and assistance could be provided from the community it would also be some sort of support… But in general, if the rain comes the situation will hugely improve.”