What’s it like to be Somali in Kenya
Abdi Latif Ega | April 9th, 2014


Twitter is abuzz and Somalis are trending in Kenya, not for reasons of their own, but rather impositions beyond their capacity. There is quite a lot of outrage from all corners that Kenyans venture, from the passionately human to the average reactionary comments in “ full support” (“remove them”) of the state.  The police chief has dubbed this “operation sanitize” and the media as usual in Kenya has a penchant for rather crude and unconscionable fascist statements towards Somali, Somalia and everything Somali, Kenyan ethnicity notwithstanding. Chime in the police who have dubbed Somalis ATM machines.

The Kenyan Defense Force is in Somalia exerting its right to military voyeurism; the current vogue in Africa as usual at the behest of America’s Africa Command. Ask anyone in Eastleigh, the densely Somali populated area, if they can remember any year before or after the collapse of Somalia where there has not been a Musako (mass arrest). They will most likely say it has just been intensified from 1991 onwards.

Naturally, Eastleigh a historic Somali residential area (circa early 20th century), became host to their kith and kin from across the border. Their citizenship then and now has always been treacherous. However, the rather astonishing enterprise of these “refugees” has transformed this quiet residential area into a strategic business hub for the entire East Africa and beyond. Real estate prices rival the choice downtown areas of the city. Looking at the massive buildings, hotels and malls in contrast to the moonlike crater impassable roads gives one the quick impression that the private sector has outstripped the stagnant public one. Somali enterprise post-collapse is also ascribed to a rather rabid islamophobic interpretation by the media bordering on the fantastic, rather than lauding original African do-for-self initiatives.

At the 1945 Pan African Congress in Manchester, the father of current Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta, Jomo Kenyatta, sat during the proceedings representing the Kikuyu Central Association and not what became Kenya later. By 1963 he had become the first president of Kenya, foremost within his rhetorical arsenal was the eradication of the colonial pass (Kipande). Ironically today the pass, now called national ID is alive and well. It is the cherished ATM card too access money from the Somali and others, by the police.

Within this new African nation state was the Northern Frontier District, bundling over the ethically Somali region and people into this new entity, what became one of the largest regions of Kenya. This region is predominantly ethnically Somali. The region has been the primary exercise ground for internal repression by every means. The Wagala massacre being of note, it remains dismally barren in many things  normalized in the rest of Kenya, including violent repression from their own military of Kenya. The state of emergency, although lifted in paper in 1992, continues to govern relations to this day. Years later, after Somalia’s 1991 collapse, Dadaab, the now well known refugee camp, is located here. This camp, secluded from the rest of Kenyan areas, were born a generation who never knew Somalia, nor were they educated in anything other than the normal Kenyan school curriculum (which does not go beyond secondary school at Dadaab). To this camp and another in Kakuma, all “bonafide” refugees are confined. Simply, you were either part of and included in the rolls of these two camps, or you were in limbo.

From 1991 to the present crisis where thousands of Somalis, (disproportionately) the poor, including women and children, were and are currently interned at the city soccer stadium are part of this continued status limbo – neither citizen, refugee or human. The current arrest is yet another one of the numerous onslaughts from the day they set ground in urban areas to the current situation. With a nod from the UNHCR and international/local NGOS, the police have shown complete impunity on Somali refugees from their first arrival, and earlier on the indigenous Somali inhabitants of Eastleigh, where naturally the multitudes who legally under international refugee sanction came in search of safety and a better livelihood. Eastleigh a historically Somali residential area dating as far back as the beginnings of Nairobi, a colonial city established as a half way point for a railway from the coast to Uganda. Somalis are part of the formative landscape of this city from the late 19th century. The current Kenyan imaginary, hard driven by the media, is that Eastleigh is just another country at our door step, the barbarians at the gate. Somalis, being Muslims, have an added denigration in a country where another religious fundamentalism is very much alive and unscrutinized. Kenyan presidents attend mass on Sundays publicized on national television.

Those arrested and put in what is being called #KassaraniConcentrationCamp on Twitter, despite the outrage, has been the general condition of the urban and hinterland Somali in Kenya. Kassarani is a newer version of Dadaab, a generational concentration camp.  Dabaab, despite being home to a generation born after Somalia’s collapse, is a law unto itself, it defies the laws of nature. It is a place that interns Somalis with the great endorsement of the UNHCR, as a perpetual Somalia. The governments of Somalia, Kenya, and the UNHCR have recently signed a tri-partite agreement to “repatriate” Somalis born in Dadaab and other camps, but back to where? Of course there is the rhetorical fine print which unequivocally states that it is by one’s own volition. Amnesty International and others have clearly stated their reservations, not critiquing the plausibility of repatriation, but rather the guarantee of safety and livelihood. On the other hand, the refugees themselves have decided living in Somalia without safety is perhaps a better preposition than living in the shadows of urban Eastleigh.

Looking back at the arrests, pillage and rape of Somalis in the urban setting through the years, it has been endorsed through silence and the UNHCR’s collusion – that one who is not confined to a perpetual and abstract Somalia is indeed in a state of limbo.  Here there is no protection from the very same perpetual limbo. The government is saying today, “not in camp,” not anywhere, despite the charter allowing for movement and seeking a better livelihood beyond even one country. This despite the apparent dynamism of the “refugee,” who has done wonders in mainstream Kenya.

All of this has returned the Somali to a key figure, or an othered African personality, the terrorist, since the Westgate incident and numerous threats and the recent exploitation in Eastleigh. The Kenyan government has very much suspended, through the rule of exception, the rights of Kenyan Muslims. There have been running battles between the historically disenfranchised Muslim citizens who inhabit the coastal region, and the state security apparatus, such as the extrajudicial killings by mysterious death squads, violent forays into mosques in Mombasa, and the ransacking of Eastleigh. The marquee terrorist lurking within an otherwise pristine Kenyan landscape are all of Kenya’s Muslim inhabitants. The reactionary islamphobia targeting Muslims by the government, with either tacit silence or vociferous approval similar to post-9/11 America’s unrelenting patriotic jingoism and xenophobia, became the unquestionable position for everyone, especially the forth estate.

The hold over image of the pirate from the War on Terror is the media’s very own mythology, this latter day anachronistic African figure in the form of a Somali. Add to this the frequent usage of the terms terrorist and warlord, all serving to make it difficult to even extricate the human from the Somali refugee, in a land that is fraught with overly deterministic mythologies about ethnicities in general. The media is aware of its part in the reportage of these very same ethnic mythologies and the part this played in the violent post-2008 election mayhem in Kenya, and all agreed to be extremely cautious when it came to the very same mythologies. However, in the case of their fellow citizens who are Somali, it seems this does not apply. The unfortunate and often dehumanizing myths predicated on grouping an entire people as one of these three things are entirely opportune to render the Somali without any form of humanity. The Somali is curiously at best an unfathomable entity, with important office bearers somehow detached and othered from their Somali ethnicity. For their own political expedience, they are often government stalwarts and career politicians with a seemingly hostage constituency. Hostage because it defeats logic when you historically elect an official that vigorously maintains the status quo when your region remains entirely out of it.

The almost twenty plus years of persecution and imposed limbo status of both the citizenship and refugee condition of Somalis in Kenya is in itself a crime against human dignity. The UNHCR policy of ghetto camps in perpetuity defies its own mantra, which allows for the freedom of movement outside these internment camps the world over. A better way is to learn and adapt to the realities of refugees rather than impositions that are thoughtless and contradict what is human.

Image by Brian Inganga. More here.

Jazz in Cape Town
Sunday night on Twitter with Binyavanga Wainaina
The following two tabs change content below.
Abdi Latif Ega is a Somali novelist/scholar and the author of Guban. Follow him on Twitter @Gubanburnt.

Latest posts by Abdi Latif Ega (see all)

15 thoughts on “What’s it like to be Somali in Kenya

  1. Wow,
    If i was not a Kenyan, this is what i would get from this article:

    1. Only Somalis in Kenya are forced to pay bribes.
    2. Only Somalis in Kenya suffer from state violence
    3. In Nairobi, Somalis only live in Eastleigh
    4. Somalis are the only group cross border ethnic group in Kenya
    5. Somalis are not part of the government of Kenya

    All this are not true, We have an imperfect system and government and we should criticize and agitate for a better and just government for ALL

    There will be no justice for a somali if there is no justice for a kikuyu, or a Sabaot if we only seek justice for our ethnic entities we will never get justice for all.

    I expect more from a cosmopolitan writer instead of shedding more light on the issue you selectively use historical events to prove your point and create an us vs them scenario which alienates even your allies in the cause of justice. The pen is mightier that the sword, the writer should wield he’s pen more responsibly.

    I am a proud pan africanist, i believe africans should be free to travel freely and live anywhere in our continent. I however have no sympathy for those with narrow ethnic interests which are destroying our continent.

    • Thank you for clearing up.!

      I was going to leave a commemtn saying that I didnt understand the composition of this blog.
      It doesnt convey a message that is easily understood by a foreigner.

      There are no clear points, and i didnt learn from the first 2 minuites of reading where we were going.

      Im gald that its not different to be Somali in Kenya, than it is to be Kikuyu in Kenya or Tanzania.


  2. I am not a kenyan or a Somali and hence do not know the situation on ground but I will say this, discrimination and violation of the human rights of any group is wrong. However it is a natural reaction, we saw this in post-911 America. What is important is that the leaders of the groups have a constructive discussion and the cooler heads amongst the Kenyan populace should advocate for the rights of their Somali counterparts and convince the greater populace that discrimination is not the way forward. They need to work with the Somalis and Kenyan Muslims to root out terrorism from their country.

  3. What about the thousands of lives lost and 100s of hostages held by Somalis in Somalia?

    Why dont you talk about that? I have a friend who was kidnapped in 2011, to date her whereabouts remain unknown.

    Who are doing all those nasty things in Somalia and making the country unbearable for anyone to live in including Somalis? Somalis!!!!

    Look at the huge logs and murderous bullets in your own eyes before pointing fingers.

    If you could save your energies to resolve the issues in your country all your problems will be 75% solved.

  4. I am Kenyan of Somali origin and I am Muslim, I have been able to experience this kind of discrimination first hand and especially at malls where police will accuse you of carrying a bomb and harass you because you are dressed in an abaya. This kind of discrimination needs to stop in the country and as Kenyan’s we need to realize that we are one people, however, this does not feel like its the case. We fail to recognize that there are Kenyan Somali’s who are true Kenyans, the same way there are Kenyan Indians. The only difference is the government is not asking the Kenyan Indian’s to return to their country, because they are Kenyan and the government has no right to do so, so why ask Kenyan Somali’s? This is prejudice and we are not like Zimbabwe we have always been a very secular country, accepting of all religions, races and ethnic groups, so why change what makes our country great. I understand that the problems happening in the country is an extremely serious matter but do not blame and entire ethnic group and religion for what a few are doing because i for one am not in support of them, and i think everyone will agree with me in saying that the police need to stop this menace but not by arresting people just because of their ethnic group, this is ignorant and reflects badly on our government and police force. They should be able to make informed decisions based on their expertise.

    • My sister, with all due respect, Kenyan somalis are not comparable to Kenyan Indians. Kenyan Indians migrated across continents while Kenyan Somalis are a cross body populace… just like the Maasai (Tanzania, Kenya), Luo (TZ, Uganda, Sudan), Mijikenda, Kamba, Borana etc. There are many Africans in Kenya who occupy trans national identities when the region was partitioned by Europeans. Someone below mentioned the case of “Somali Bantus” — a group that has been horribly oppressed to this day under Somali rule in a permanent stigmatized caste state of “slavery”. Again, there is a complicated and hypocritical relationship these groups.

      I vehemently oppose discrimination of all sorts but painting Somalis are “innocent victims” is a tainted delusion. We need to fight for ALL minorities in our country including women, ethnic groups, LGBTIs, and other marginalized groups that are even more oppressed in Somali society. Freedom for ALL not just a select few or our fellow ethnic compatriots.

  5. I think it is absurd the government and most of the population of Kenya don’t not seem to appreciate the gravity of Somali situation. How can you leave in a country for 19-20 years and the only genuine opportunity the government provides you is that of leaving in a ‘concentration camp’ or ‘illegally’ in the country at the mercy of corrupt government officials? Regardless of your background country, the government need to realise some of this people feel more Kenyan than Somalian, and implement Europe style emigrational amnesty, and allow them to be Kenyan citizen contributing (most contribute already) to the construction of a safer open Kenya. The Kenyan government needs a pinch of realism in its effort to deport Somalis back to their country. It is unrealistic, inhumane, uneconomical and illogical to try and implement a million deportation orders in the current corrupt environment. Yes, there is always going to be people who will take advantage and cause trouble, but you are not going to solve that by alienating and dying the same colour the rest of the very sea your sort to fish the rear spices (the so called terrorist). Think if only for economical reason. It is better for Kenya, better for Somalis and an outright defeat for the bad guys.

  6. It would be wonderful if the writer of this piece would have talked about Somali historical abuse of the Negroid Somali Bantu who were and are treated as slaves throughout stay in Somalia. What hypocrisy and victimhood he exhibited in this article! Illegal Somali immigrants should be sent to refugee camps if they are willing, or back to liberated areas of Somalia if they are unwilling to live in refugee camps. It is not incumbent upon the Kenyan government to host, naturalise or aid these refugees in any way. The Somali Diaspora is large enough and educated enough to sit down and sort out the clan issues that have led Somalia to be the basket case of the world. Kenyans are now tired of hosting them and it is official Kenyan policy (as well as official Somali Government policy) that Somalis should go back home and rebuild their own country.

  7. That article is full of untruths.
    One cannot tell a Kenyan Somali apart from one from Somalia except through screening.
    Somali’s are very loyal to one another and will not report each other no matter the crime.
    It is also true that the operatives in the 1998 US Nairobi embassy bombing in which over 200 Kenyans died and the Westgate one costing 70 lives came from Somalia.
    Had they come from Tanzania, Tanzanians would be screened in Nairobi.
    The first duty of any state is protection of its citizens’ lives and property.
    Niceties like the coddling of ungrateful refugees who consider their hosts stupid comes far down the line.
    Live with it.

  8. those committing crimes in kenya must have connections with the corrupt police and other public officers like immigration and registrar of persons.why blame innocent civilians to curb crime or face deportations?its the duty of the govt of the day to put measures in place and to punish corrupt officers rather terrorising certain communities.No sane minded person can blame the current insecurity crisis in the country to refugees or kenyan somalis?is bwire somali?somebody somewhere cheating kenyans to turn on one another with out much help.The few years of my security trainings in kenya give me hints that to get a culprit committing crimes in kenya,yu dont need any civilians help,yu only trustfull officers on the ground and good govt machineries.if police have to get kitu kidogo to attend to an emergency call?if immigration expert have get kidogo to change names and identities,how can we fagia crimes out of our loving nation?we shouldnot cheat the common wananchi eti hawa wasonjo ni ma alshabs hawa hawa ndiyo wanajua?hey guys we need good systems and not greedy kenyan officers selling own country n reputations n now throwing blames to harrass good citz..i was born,brought up n schooled n worked in kenya, the loopholes.are known.
    let good n peace loving come out n say the truth.not tribalists here.

  9. Well Writtenow and very informative.

    This oppression against defenseless group displays the ugliness of the host society. There are many ways to solving problems, this is not one of them.

  10. Well written to capture all that is needed to inform those who are more Kenyan than others, just to add to your description, I had similar experience two years ago. A Kenya of NEP extraction, schooled in same school with Kibaki, Saitoti and co, and furthered my education in Kenya, England and united state. I went back to the country and was working as researcher in eastern part of Kenya, helping poor farmers of Makueni for close to seven years. I often drive along Mombasa road to work and back to Nairobi for the weekend, once in a while I will give ride to police officers manning roadblock at Konza back to there station in salama. It came to my surprise when I just realized I was lesser Kenyan tormented by the same people I gave ride to. it is one of the days when Somalis were being swooped in Nairobi, on that day I decided to travel by Minibus and was seated at the rear seat of the bus. when the bus arrived at the same Koza spot, an officer peeped through the passenger, and noted my “peculiar looks”, and immediately ordered me to alight, to which I obliged, before I realized, I was handcuffed standing as criminal along the road. Surprising, I could recognize all the three officers, just travelled with them a week ago, but they pretended,I must have came from another planet. Of course the expectation was a bribe, since I did not give in, a way out had to be found, the way was I should give them a number of non-Somali staff who can confirm my identity from place of work. That was most embarrassing day. Everyone travelling by known to me was wondering with the episode, That is the day cemented my belief that NEP people a second or third class.

  11. More than a fifth of kenyan land belong to Somalis that is Northern Frontier Districts (North Eastern Province and upper Eastern Province). My opinion is to advice Kenyan of Somali origin to declare autonomy or even independence from the rest of Kenya. Kenyan Somalis are the only community which integrated more than any other community in Kenya because you could find them in any county and district. They are the only community that is able to speak almost all 42 languages found in kenya. They have intermarriage with other communities than any community. But thanks God, kenyan Somalis have never lost their identity. So Kenya has part of Somali or Somalis have part of Kenya, which ever way, Somalis will always remain true to their identity and hard working community.

Leave a Reply