Why Somalis feel at home in Kisenyi slum

Friday November 14 2014

City Star Supermarket owner Ali Mohamed Egaal

City Star Supermarket owner Ali Mohamed Egaal Jilib. PHOTO | ELIZABETH McSHEFFREY 

By ELIZABETH MCSHEFFREY

It is not yet noon and already, customers are pouring into City Star Supermarket. The general store is located on Kisenyi Road — a prime destination for Somali residents seeking specialty goods imported from home.

Its shelves are neatly stocked from the floor to the ceiling, and staff members scramble to keep them that way. Shop owner Ali Mohamed Egaal Jilib can barely keep up with demand, which has nearly doubled in less than five years.

“Business is very good,” he says, perched between boxes of spaghetti and bags of rice. “Our shop is where local people come. We know what Somalis want – what kind of food, what kind of shampoo; what kind of perfume.”

City Star Supermarket lies in the heart of Kisenyi, a central Kampala slum affectionately known as “Little Mogadishu.” An estimated 85 per cent of its population is Somali; immigrants, refugees or Ugandan-born.

Jilib himself is a Somali national who came to Uganda in 2005. He opened the mart six years ago after struggling to make ends meet with a roadside soda and ice cream stand.

“I didn’t have enough money to invest in this business,” he explains. “But I got support from some wholesalers, and other people who from Somalia and Kenya regularly bring goods to Kampala.”

After striking a deal with a local landlord, he procured a space on Kisenyi Road and started building his brand new business. He expanded in 2011 to meet the demand from more than 100 customers per day, and now has four branches with 15 full-time employees.

It is a notable success story, yet not entirely unique. Kisenyi, though still a slum, is home to a rising middle and upper class of Somalis who keep the heart of the local economy beating.

Many came as penniless refugees, yet today they are hotel managers, restaurant owners, investors and more. The remarkable part is that they stay on in Kisenyi on, despite having the income to move just about anywhere they choose.

“I don’t want to leave,” says Mohamed Musa, who came to Kampala from Mogadishu nearly 25 years ago. Upon his arrival, he settled in Kisenyi along with thousands of other refugees fleeing civil conflict in Somalia.

Today, he is co-owner of Panoda Petroleum Company, a successful multimillion-shilling enterprise on Hoima Road. But despite the wealth accumulated from his business outside of Kisenyi, Musa still wants to live in the slum.

“When I came they are the people who welcomed me,” he explains. “It’s not good to leave now and go somewhere else; I have to share my stake with them here.”

According to the Somali Community Association of Uganda, roughly 65 per cent of Kisenyi residents belong to low-income families earning less than $100 per month.

These individuals rely on the generosity of the slum’s middle and upper classes, which represent up to 35 per cent of the total population, says association co-ordinator M. Kalif Omar.

Based on the cost of rent in Kisenyi, he estimates the middle class earns a minimum of $300 per month, while wealthy Somalis may earn more than $1,000.

“Each year they give to charity; zakat,” he explains. “They contribute different things.” Zakat is one of the five pillars of Islam and requires all followers who can afford it to ease the economic hardship of others.

In Kisenyi, many make regular donations in the form of meals, tuition and other basic costs of living, while those with more spending power invest in community projects including the infrastructure, clean-up and security of the slum at large.

“We get water through our own systems, not the government’s,” says Omar. “The poor won’t die of hunger here because, the community shares.”

If the middle class were to leave, he adds, many low-income families would be forced into refugee camps such as those in Nakivale in southern Uganda, or Dadaab and Kakuma in northern Kenya. “The livelihood of this slum is dependent on those with money, 100 per cent,” he explains.

But that doesn’t mean all middle-class Somalis stay in Kisenyi — a 2014 briefing by the Rift Valley Institute documented their migration route to Uganda and successful settlement throughout the country.

According to the report, a scattering of the diaspora lives in wealthier neighbourhoods like Kabalagala, Kasanga and Mengo Rubego, where schools such as Kampala International University, Cavendish and St. Lawrence are located.

Still, it argues, Kisenyi has remained the centre of the Somali community in Kampala, as is evidenced by the increase in shops and businesses with Somali connections.

“Somalis like to stay together,” Omar explains. “This maybe the smallest community of Somalis in the whole world, but we are strong as a community.”

Little Mogadishu is home to as many as 18,000 Somalis, roughly 95 per cent of whom are refugees. But the wealthy don’t just stay there out of a sense of obligation – they stay there because it makes them happy.

“My family chooses to stay in Kisenyi because of the community connection,” says 20-year-old Fartun Jama. “They feel at home. There is no segregation or anything of the sort here.”

Jama works part-time in a local pharmacy; her father owns a forex bureau and her mother runs a mobile phone repair business.

Together, they could afford to live anywhere in Kampala, but they cannot imagine a life outside of their beloved Little Mogadishu.

“Somali people just feel safe around their community,” she explains. “My parents also want to stay in Kisenyi because it’s easier to stay in touch with community issues.”

The diaspora has a headquarters inside the slum where a council of elders and community leaders discuss matters of culture and policy. They also settle local disputes and fundraise for those in need of financial assistance.

Leaving Kisenyi would distance residents not only from the informational and cultural hub of the community, but also many of the businesses and services that offer them a little taste of home.

After all, where else in Kampala can you fins camel milk, Somali clothing, the Twahid Mosque and a council of elders all within a 10-minute walk?

“If I stay far from our community, I fear I would be bored,” says Omar. He has long considered himself part of Kisenyi’s middle class. “It is the best place I can live in Uganda.”

The middle class won’t leave the slum, he says, above all else because it is peaceful.

“Nice food, nice water and nice Internet — it’s enough for us,” he explains. “When we have peace, we can change the place we stay and where we stay, we can change.”

It turns out that the sacrifices of slum life — population density, lack of sanitation and other services and inconsistent power, just to name a few — are a small price to pay for feeling at home away from your home.