Culture shock awaits Somali returnees
Two years ago, fashion designer Ayan Hussein left the high-end stores of Britain’s capital for a stab at promoting fashion that was in line with Muslim tradition in her Somali homeland.
But she and her family, along with thousands of other Somalis who have returned in the hope of drumming up business or out of nostalgia, often find themselves facing culture shock.
“It is not the same as in London... not the slightest,” says Hussein’s 18-year-old son Guled, who does not speak a word of Somali.
“There is dust everywhere. You can’t skate here,” he says in impeccable English.
'Give back to my country'
It is Somaliland, an autonomous territory of around four million people in the north of Somalia along the Gulf of Aden, which has played host to many returnees in recent years.
The region, which declared self-rule in 1991, has provided a haven of relative peace and stability in a land otherwise known for decades of brutal war.
Ayan Hussein was only a young woman when she left Mogadishu in 1997. Now in her late thirties, she decided to return to the land of her birth in 2010 to look after her ailing mother as well as to venture into business.
But in making the switch from Britain’s high-end fashion industry to a boutique in Hargeisa, the worldly and sophisticated Londoner had to make some sacrifices.
Her clothes stock is now limited only to long flowing robes as per Muslim custom, albeit in loud colors.
“We have to convince our clients that they are not obligated to be in all black,” she explains to AFP recently, her hair neatly tucked under a flaming red head scarf.
Directly opposite the clothes shop, on the noisy and dusty main street, another new business venture is trying to establish itself.
Hussein has just opened a coffee shop that has become the rendezvous point for Hargeisa’s affluent class, who come complete with sunglasses and smartphones to sip on their cappuccinos while exchanging gossip in English.
And indeed the differences between those who stayed in Somalia and the returnees go beyond the language used.
“It is like we have two different societies here,” explains one returnee from Britain, who came back to work at a recently opened soft drinks plant.
“Because we are Somali, they expect us to be like them,” adds another young woman on condition of anonymity. “This poses some difficulties.”
Twenty doctors and health workers have taken from six months to one year off work in Finland, their country of exile, to work in Hargeisa’s public hospital and provide training to local staff.
“This was an opportunity for me to give back to my country and also show my gratitude to Finland,” says Ahmed Abukar, a nurse.
But the first month of interaction between the local staff and the returnees was sometimes tense.
“At the beginning there was a bit of an issue because we needed to get to know each other,” says Abukar.
“Of course there is always a bit of a clash, the locals fear they (diaspora members) are taking over... they feel threatened,” says Ayan Rabi, who is in charge of the program, backed by the International Organization for Migration.
“But they are all Somalis and after a while, all this goes away,” Rabi adds.
The trip home has also offered some interesting lessons for the returnees too.
“Appreciating the simple life is one of the things you learn here,” Abukar says.
For the new general manager of Somaliland's state television Ali Hassan Khader, coming back home has allowed him to better understand the importance of the clan dynamics that form the base of traditional Somali society.
“In one way it is an insurance policy in a country where there is none,” he says. “If I injure somebody, if I have a car accident, I know the clan will step in.”
However, even with a boom in returnee numbers, Somaliland’s much coveted status of being an island of peace in a tumultuous country is slowly being challenged by an emerging Mogadishu, the capital in southern Somalia.
Once a byword for anarchy, the war-ravaged seaside capital has enjoyed a degree of relative stability since al-Qaeda-linked Shabaab insurgents fled from fixed positions there in August 2011.
Ibrahim Chama, 32, left his job as a government employee in the Welsh capital Cardiff to set up and manage a grocery store in Hargeisa.
“We are trying to settle down before it becomes too crowded and businesses stop doing well,” says Chama, who left in 1988.
“Now Somalia is getting better, maybe we might try to set up something in Mogadishu as well,” he adds.