12.05.2016

Serving Lunch And Cheating Death In Mogadishu

The singular story of a Somali restaurateur who left the sweet life in the UK to return to his war-ravaged homeland

When the injured had been taken care of and the dead taken away, Ahmed Jama went to his kitchen. He tied the white apron around his waist and began cooking.

Soup with spinach, pumpkin, potatoes and herbs from his own vegetable garden. Deciding what spices to use, the muffled bubbling sound of the boiling water, the familiar motions with pots and pans — these things have often calmed him during a crisis. He feels safe here. Even on the day when the dusty smell of destruction was stronger than the smell of the food.

In September 2013, two terrorists targeted Jama’s restaurant. Fifteen people, including six staffers, died at The Village, one of the best restaurants in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu. The employees were wearing T-shirts with the restaurant logo on them — the image of a majestic baobab tree in the light of the setting sun.

Jama’s voice becomes softer on the phone as he relates the events of that tragic day. But just briefly. Soon he sounds like his determined old self again. “If I give up, they win,” he says. “Even if only one person shows he won’t be broken, soon a second one will follow, then others.” It wasn’t the first attack by al-Shabaab, the Somali Taliban, on his restaurant. There was one in September 2012 that killed 14, and a few months later a car bomb cost another life.

Six years ago in London, when Jama told his friends he was going back to Somalia, they thought he was crazy. His wife cried. After all, Jama, 47, had spent half his life fleeing the misery in his home country. He had earned his way driving trucks in other African countries, and finally traveled to England without a valid passport. Twenty years later, he had British citizenship, qualifications from a prestigious cooking school, a successful restaurant in London, and three kids.

Why, his wife asked him, would he want to exchange all that for life in war-torn, bombed-out Somalia? Islamic groups — and in recent years mainly al-Shabaab — have been fighting the central government since 1991 trying to establish a religious state. Jama says he reflected for a long time before answering his wife, then said: “When I die, I want to leave something behind. Something that people will remember when they think of me.”

Back then, in 2008, the al-Shabaab militia was at the height of its power. The terrorists controlled large areas in the south and center of Somalia, including about half of its capital city. Anyone who offended strict Muslim laws was either stoned or had a hand hacked off. Sports and listening to music were forbidden. The terrorists were raking in substantial funds from taxes, customs duties, piracy, and the ivory trade. Although the African Union sent in additional troops, few Somalis believed al-Shabaab could be vanquished, much less that peace was achievable. Most Somalis had never experienced peace.

When Jama returned to his country, the words of his friends — that he was completely crazy to be doing this — rang in his ears. But he also remembered how, in his London restaurant, rival clans sometimes gathered and friendships ensued that everybody said could never happen. There was no place like that in Mogadishu. Few people even dared go into the streets. Somali cuisine, influenced by hundreds of years of trade with India, Italy, Turkey and Arab countries, was quietly being forgotten. People in Somalia were just trying to survive, not enjoying life.

Jama describes himself as “this skinny, bald guy from Somalia.” But what stands out more is his courage. And his stubbornness. Many exiles who returned to Somalia when he did went into politics. In fact, the failed transition governments have mostly been made up of returned exiles. Jama, however, was one of the first entrepreneurs who believed in the possibility of peace — while recognizing that belief alone wouldn’t change anything.

Jama returned to his home country with $50,000 of savings on hand. His choice of place to start a restaurant was on a piece of land in “Kilometer Four,” as the African Union army in Somalia (Amisom) calls the stretch of land between the airport and the presidential palace. Because of its strategic importance, Makka-al-Mukarramah Street is one of the best-guarded in the city. But because the front was only a few kilometers away, politicians and diplomats who came here wore bullet-proof vests. The sound of guns shots provided permanent background noise.

Just days after acquiring his land, Jama located both building materials and workers. To the sight and sound of armed military vehicles driving by, they put up a small building and planted trees. Which meant there was finally an espresso bar in Mogadishu. Jama had flown in from Europe an espresso machine that weighed nearly 100 kilos. It used up great quantities of energy that cost a fortune in crisis areas — that is, if there was any electricity available at all. Finally, an engineer Jama knew replaced the electronics with a charcoal-run system.

People came to his bar, and Jama started cooking exclusively with fresh ingredients, a trademark that had helped make his London reputation. The Village restaurant is particularly well known for its squid salad and its Kingklip fish with green chili sauce. But what he’s doing isn’t just about food. “My dream was always that people have a restaurant where they could meet up, shake hands and talk around a table,” Jama says.

It’s noon in Mogadishu, and over the telephone line are audible voices and the clatter of dishes in the background. To Jama, this is a beautiful melody. His dream has been fulfilled even if it is accompanied by continual nightmares. In the last few years the Amisom army has been pushing back al-Shabaab, but the threats are still there.

Jama now has taken over three more restaurants and a hotel in Mogadishu, and he’s about to open a space some 600 kilometers to the north. He employs 130 people. It wasn’t long before his wife came around to his way of seeing things, and she now manages the restaurants.

After the September attack, though, the Jamas faced bankruptcy. They were saved by a donation of $14,456 (about 10,600 euros) collected and sent by Scandinavian cooks. This made rebuilding possible.

Jama remembers the note that came along with the monetary gift. One part in particular resonated with him: “Ahmed, since the sound of a falling tree is always louder than that of 1,000 thriving ones, may the fallen tree begin to grow again.”

 

Published on Worldcrunch.com in February 2014