I recently got an opportunity to attend a conference in Mogadishu, the capital of Somali. Visits to Somalia provide the ultimate adrenaline thrill, it is also one of the most under-reported countries, owing to the insecurity.
Eleven Somali journalists have been killed in the past two years only, largely in south-central Somalia, which includes Mogadishu and the port city of Kismayu.
My flight was departing on Sunday at 9am from the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport unlike previous trips which were via the Wilson Airport.
We got delayed for half an hour and with no explanations being offered, some angry passengers would occasionally shout at the cabin crew. It felt like being in a public service vehicle.
An hour and a half later, we landed in Mogadishu. The runway at Aden Adde Airport is just next to the Indian Ocean, and as the aircraft starts the descend, you get beautiful vistas of the Indian Ocean on one side and the city on the other.
Our arrival was, however, not without drama. As my colleagues got to the immigration counter, they were asked for entry permits on top of the $60 visa fee.
We didn’t have the former because we never needed the document before. Apparently the regulations have changed and now every foreigner must apply for an entry permit at the Somali embassy in their home country.
The immigration officer would hear none of our pleas despite presenting our letters on invitation to the event, and our hotel vouching for us as booked guests.
We were cleared two hours later, and a bribe of $50 paid to the airport officials to release our luggage — which had already been marked for return to Nairobi.
Our accommodation, Airport Hotel, is hardly seven months old, and is in the precincts of the airport, in the area known as the Green Zone. Unlike downtown Mogadishu, the Green Zone is relatively safe and is undergoing a construction boom.
The roads are tarmacked but narrow and although they drive on the right side of the road, both left hand and right hand drive cars are allowed.
Kenya and China are building new embassies in the Green Zone where the British and US governments already have theirs. Several United Nations agencies are also based here. These developments point to a brighter future.
The calm inside the Green Zone is, however fragile, because there is always underlying tension. Once in a while at night, one can hear gunshots some kilometres away. Every few metres there is a security check point, manned by both the police and military personnel.
The hotel manager is Kenyan, the head of security is Ugandan, the waiters and the chefs are Kenyan and only the receptionists and guards are Somali. The rooms are standard, with warm showers and air conditioned.
The internet at the hotel and conference hall was pretty fast. A number of people would be surprised to learn that Somalia has built a world-class mobile phone network and fibre-optic broadband link to Djibouti.
Going by the business activities, the economy is vibrant but all transactions are in dollars. You get to understand why when you see the local currency being hauled around in brick-sized bundles.
Although the selection of food on the menu was limited, on the first day I had Thai chicken curry, my colleague had roast red snapper and another had pan fried kingfish with potato wedges. Beer is a rare commodity and costs $4 when available.
Being on the eastern seaboard, the sun rises at around 5am and dusk creeps in as early as 5.30pm. We took an evening walk along the beach and enjoyed the city view against the sunset.
The beach was rocky and clearly harboured secrets of city life going by the number of discarded syringes strewn all over. But we could not establish whether they were washed ashore or thrown there to be washed into the sea.
Despite all the progress, we got a reality check on the day of departure. The security check at the departure lounge was stringent.
Previously, all flights from Somalia to Kenya would land in Wajir County first for a security check. But now with direct flights to Nairobi, there are thorough security check at both Mogadishu and Nairobi airports.
At Aden Adde Airport, we had five security checks and two of them involved sniffer dogs. Everyone with a laptop was requested to power it on.
On arrival in Nairobi, we had another security check, and all passengers’ identity confirmed from a hard copy manifest.
I enjoyed my short stay in Mogadishu, soaked in the warm weather bracing myself for a wet and chilly Nairobi.