The profile of residents in Uganda’s oldest slum, Kisenyi, is changing from mud and wattle houses accomodating spindly limbed children to tall, wiry, black, brown, and light-skinned Somalis. While in the company of the new dwellers, be very afraid of talking about either: clan wars or a failed state.
This is because you risk a volley of verbal artillery and physical blows.
“We are calm people, not violent as the Western media portrays us,” laments the vice chairman Uganda Somali Community Association (USCA) Kalif Mohamed in Kisenyi. “It is unfortunate we were born on the wrong side of the century when times are tough. Naturally we miss our traditional pastoral lifestyle – herding of animals, the white sand at Indian Ocean beaches and family back home.”
Kalif recounts how choosing to stay or visit Kisenyi is not economic, but socially binding. Many of the Somali migrants have traumatising memories and experiences. Amputation after stepping on a landmine, losing loved ones to suicide bombers, and living from hand to mouth are not new. They socialise in a bid to delete or get to grips with reality. “Hardened by the tough life, most Somalis now take alms from kind hearts with a pinch of salt,” Kalif explains. “If one wants to help a Somali, they ought to show their concern: socially, physically and emotionally. Consequently, do not be surprised if an offer is rejected for fear of us (the recipients) becoming a laughing stock.”
Down in Kisenyi, the youth are seen playing pool. They move about dressed in jeans, slacks, sneakers, and baggy T- shirts. The women and elderly are more conservative in dress code and religion.
Dressed like ninjas, with a slit left for the blinking eyes to see,the women shuffle about, navigating through the hive of activity. They walk in pairs or threes. Their careless whispers are audible as they talk about family, food, and dreams.
With a population of more than 20,000 spread across the country, the majority are concentrated in Kisenyi, a slum within walking distance from Kampala city. Previously an eyesore, the T junction on Erisa Nkoyoyo Road is now bustling with business. Buyers and sellers exchange money, receive messages, and make phone calls.
“Maalin wana han,” (good day) and Nabad Myah (good day) are salutations that are common in Kisenyi.
“In Kisenyi we do not walk to the bush to pick firewood or collect water anymore. Maybe that is why diseases like high blood pressure and diabetes are on the increase among us,” Zeinabu Hadija’s conversation continued. “I miss Somalia where we used to do lots of work, dance to Zuhir Hersi’s music, and in the process burn calories. But here we spend so much time sitting and are growing as fat as small elephants. We need to mind the kind of food we eat.”
“The price of camel meat has gone up to sh16,000 for a kilogramme,” Zeinabu muttered. “A camel is a symbol of Islamic faith. But our court of arms is a leopard and a star which represents different parts of our homeland.”
The partner shook her head in agreement adding that living in Uganda has changed their lifestyles. The clan systems – the Samael, Yabir, Digi, Rahanwayu and Saab are not very pronounced in Kisenyi.
“Back home, it is only men from the same clan that shake hands, peck cheeks, and hug,” Salima Amina revealed. “I miss the goat, camel, and cow milk we get fresh from the animal in rural Somalia.”
Pregnant with great business expectations for medicinal values of camel meat, the butcher Abdulahi Kadir beamed with smiles. “In the past, our clients would eat a single carcass for two days. This has shot up to two per day,” revealed Kadir. “Nobody frowns at someone buying it. Instead, the hosts now consume it.” He reveals that they import a consignment of 100 camels at ago from the Horn Of Africa and sell two per day. The meat without bones and fats is charged a higher price.
Other stalls have cosmetics, groceries, beauty salons, and Tawhid/Mire medical service providers.
One finds two Somali men arguing about “God is great” and the other hits his chest to emphasise he is “God is greater.” The argument ensues for hours and it attracts onlookers who fish out the Quran and read quotations from the holy book.
Mogadishu style roofed tuk tuk (tricycles) embellished with the phrases: Masha Allah, Salam Alleykum, Allah Karim and Kikula chako kiko ngouni mwako grind to a halt or scoot away.
Besides cuisines like spaghetti, cereals and spices the Somali community are changing the profile of residents and dwellers in what was previously a criminal’s den. Henna tattooed limbs, if seen, and saris are stocked in most of the shops standing where mud and wattle structures used to struggle to stay on their feet.
“We are happy living in Uganda as a second-generation,” the acting chairman of the Somali Community Association in Uganda Kalif Mohamed says. “We have members indulging in all sorts of trade. They range from hawkers, property developers, petty traders, and importers.”
Kalif’s community has been hit hard by the lock down, which has crippled many businesses as goods that were expected to and from Uganda are stuck since the business stopped moving across borders.
At a casual glance, it is evident the women and elderly men are more culturally conservative than youthful boys. While the latter spot tunics and saris, their counterparts saunter about wearing jeans, sneakers, and T- shirts.