Monday, October 06, 2008

Somalia: Excerpts from Richard Dowden's Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles

There is a large Somalian community in Rochester, Minnesota. Next to the town mosque – which bustles on Fridays after prayer – is a Somalian restaurant. The menu is limited – spaghetti, chicken, some salad and rice – but the place is always lively. Plenty of people talking, some arguing passionately; many wizened elders with stylish canes and a natural authority. I used to strike up conversations. Words flowed easily, and Bollywood was often a topic: the Somalis I knew were aware of and loved Indian movies.

I knew little about Somalia and its recent political history. That gap is still there, but as I now read Richard Dowden’s Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, the political outline is becoming clear: one man rule from 1969-1991; then civil war; a failed American rescue attempt; and then no government; and more recently, Ethiopia meddling in its affairs. Dowden also gives us an intimate feel of the landscape of this arid country and its people. We learn about clan allegiances and the Somali’s passion for poetry and camels.

The excerpts I’ll present here, though, are images of a modernizing Somalia, of how in the absence of a government, a free market thrived in the 90s and filled the void.
“In 1999 I went back to Somalia to see what had happened. Considering there was no state and civil war sputtered on, life was not as bad as I had expected. In some ways it was a lot better. Those few aid agencies that stayed on were no longer run by expatriate overlords but staffed by Somalis. Not many foreign aid workers wanted to be there. Somalis had also managed to get the economy going – without a single cent from the World Bank or IMF. The new economy was largely built around a worldwide telephone banking system – a truly free market system and , at the time, by far the world’s cheapest and most efficient. Several Somalis who had worked in telecoms in America bought dishes and telephone equipment and set up phone booths in small towns. From here, for a dollar a minute, people could call cousins and aunts and uncles all over the world.”
And how the cell phone is the perfect device for the wandering Somali herder wanting to learn market prices:
“Somali herders move around in a yearly pattern. In the dry season, towards the end of the year, they go down to the coast as they have done for centuries to sell some of their animals to traders who take them across the Red Sea to the markets of Saudi Arabia. I have watched them at the port of Berbera, herds of camels and sheep driven to holding areas where herders have to buy fodder for them and pay for water at the trough markets. These herdsmen are at a big disadvantage while they wait to sell their animals. But the mobile phone has rescued them. They can call up traders in Jeddah directly to find out the market price of animals there. They now know when to come down out of the mountains and sell. A week later I watch a herdsman on the outskirts of Berbera driving his herd towards the port with herding stick in one hand and in the other a mobile phone – perfect technology for the nomad.”
But however good the telecom industry may have been in Somalia, it has't provided a solution to its political problems. Clan differences, and meddling by neighboring countries has led to constant strife. The path to stability is still uncertain, as this Economist article points out.

An aside: The parting image in the above excerpt - a wandering nomad with herding stick in one hand and mobile phone in the other - reminded me of recent Western media depictions of India, where a bearded, saffron-robed and levitating rishi is shown with a cell phone: epitomizing, I suppose, the seamless blending of modernity and tradition.

In India too, the cell phone has become an emblem of development, but this often ignores other realities, as Samanth Subramaniam argues here.

Shashi Tharoor, the Indian author and former candidate for the post of United Nations Secretary-General, has given his most recent collection of clichés a hybrid cliché of a title: The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cell Phone. The elephant and the tiger are the most stereotyped symbols of India, flogged by writers for centuries before Tharoor ever took up the whip. But the cell phone is a freshly minted cliché, still winking brightly in the spotlight under which India has begun to find itself. Like its zoological predecessors, the cell phone is a lazy, shorthand way to talk about modern India for non-Indian audiences.

In a way, this seems to be the cell phone's own fault, for the athletic rapidity with which it has bounded across Indian class barriers, geographies, and urban-rural divides, becoming an easy stand-in for India's economic development. Really, though, it is a better symbol of the chronic bad journalism about India, by writers who reach for generalizations, who shrink from the complexity of the country, who refuse to venture beyond city limits, or who reinforce tired perceptions.

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