White Pearl

“I hate travelling and explorers” grouches Lévi-Strauss, famous traveller and explorer, at the start of Tristes Tropiques. I am beginning to agree with him.

Ethiopia fell through, involving a trip to Knightsbridge from Addis Ababa, which was a long way to go for a botched visa process. My patience failed; I wrote to my boss and said it wasn’t possible to work like this. He responded that the job comes with a level of uncertainty and I should question whether I could live with that. After a few days of ill-tempered exchange, he handed me over to the Somalia team and returned to ignoring me completely. I spent two weeks in UK, 10 days in Kenya, and then moved to Somalia.

Bouncing between countries with such frequency and so little planning was beginning to tell. I found myself forgetting the names and jobs of colleagues that I know fairly well, and getting a gluey, cold-like illness every time I took an aeroplane. Keeping in touch with friends began to slide, as I barely knew myself where I was and what I was doing. As I write, the plan for getting me a work permit in Somalia has already derailed and I have a meeting with a senior staff member next week to come up with a contingency plan. I am tired of being so poorly managed.

The upside of being an accessory to this mélange is getting to go to unusual places. I have spent the past three weeks in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital city, and a site of some mystique to me ever since my brother lent me a copy of Black Hawk Down as a teenager. Peering through the gaps in the fence on the roof I can see the checkpoint at Kilometre 4, the south-west corner of the blocks within which the US Rangers’ mission unravelled in 1993.


The DRC compound contains an office and a guesthouse within a few paces of each other. The compound’s four-metre-high walls are lined on the inside with metre-thick concrete blast absorbers, topped with razor wire, and manned in each corner by an armed guard. Inside, entrance doors are lined with reinforced steel. Moving from the dark of armoured corridors to the white light of the Indian Ocean coast is hard on the eyes, and a well-timed sweep of sunglasses from the top of my head to my eyes is an essential skill.

International staff are not allowed out. The only time you leave the compound is to go to the airport, either for a flight or a meeting – Mogadishu International Airport, MIA, is the heart of the Green Zone and the hub of all international activity in South Central Somalia. Unlike Hargeisa, here DRC has an armoured car, which is mostly used as shade for the office cats as it stays parked conveniently close to the kitchens. Unusually for an NGO vehicle, it isn’t marked. Anything referring to Denmark is a bad idea in Somalia: you may have forgotten the Danish cartoonist who drew the Prophet in 2005/2006, but Al Shabaab have not.


Being in such an enclosed space gives time a cyclical feel: the unchanging (unchangeable) daily routine (breakfast-office-lunch-office-dinner-evening-sleep), the guards running loops around the guesthouse, the office smoke detectors that let you know they’re on by emitting a staccato bip at fire-alarm volume every couple of minutes all creating a sense of circularity. I watch the fan go round on my bedroom ceiling and fancy myself as Captain Willard in Saigon, waiting to go into the jungle.

The guesthouse itself is very comfortable. At first the TV was fixed to one channel only, and we watched a great deal of coverage of the build-up to the Kenyan elections, but now it’s back to a full array of satellite options. Internet is slow but reliable, and water is usually available, if not always strong enough to have a proper shower or flush a toilet. It’s warm enough that the fact the showers are unheated is not an issue. Food is provided three times a day.

I spend my evenings and weekends reading, listening to music, and running on a senescent treadmill whose belt sticks and skids on the mill unless your weight falls in just the right place. I’ve started doing equipment-free workouts, and am vaguely perturbed by the idea that my housemates can hear me choosing to spend my free time being shouted at by enthusiastic YouTubers. One of my good friends has been here virtually the whole time I have, which makes a huge difference: being so enclosed with a random selection of colleagues can be wearing.

Not always, though – one more gregarious workmate organised a barbecue on the roof during his short stay, somehow arranging a delivery of meat, bread, cheese, and charcoal that he fired up as the sun set last week. We were not many and nor were we a natural group of friends, but doing something different, with good food and the sound of the AMISOM troops practising in the firing range nearby, was a highlight of my stay.


It should also be said that Mogadishu is beautiful. I can’t go out and see it, of course, but from the roof I can see green avenues lined with white architecture, inspired by the city’s Italian and Persian heritage, which also gives it its name: Mogadishu is believed to derive from the Persian Maq’adi Shah, the seat of the Shah. In more recent times, before the civil war that erupted in the 1990s, it was known as The White Pearl of the Indian Ocean. The weather is delightful, and the long white beach that lies behind the airport is reportedly sheltered by a reef. In another life, it would be a tourist’s dream. Like Kabul and Baghdad, though, the city has lost decades to avarice and destruction.

I can stay here another nine days, and then visa issues begin again. My plan to get work from other colleagues in the de facto absence of a boss worked for a few weeks, but is now getting a little stretched. Both of these things will resolve in some way, but I look forward to a job where I don’t have to constantly force through a plan to have work to do and a country to stay in. I also look forward to a hot shower and going for a walk. I quite like Mogadishu, though, and would not at all mind coming back.


What I’m listening to:

  • Thelonious Monk, Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington and Mulligan Meets Monk
  • Sonny Rollins, Sonny Rollins & The Modern Jazz Quartet
  • Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Ears
  • Sudan Archives, Sudan Archives EP
  • Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin II

What I’m reading:

  • Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost
  • Ronald F Thiemann, The Humble Sublime
  • Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques
  • William Gibson, Neuromancer
  • David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster
  • Stephen King, Carrie

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