African Arguments by Mary Harper

Last month, as I walked through Bakara market – the main commercial district of Mogadishu – it was difficult to believe that just one year ago, it had been a stronghold of the Islamist group, Al Shabaab, and the scene of frequent fire fights and mortar attacks.
In August 2011, the militia largely withdrew from Bakara and the rest of the city. It has since been driven out of other key areas of Somalia, but still controls significant parts of the country, and carries out frequent suicide and other attacks in the capital.
Bakara market was positively booming. In some streets, I could not move for the crowds of shoppers. In others, donkey carts, cars, minibuses and lorries piled absurdly high with produce, jammed the roads, horns blaring constantly.
As a rather obvious foreigner and therefore a potential target, the plan was to keep me on the move, whether on foot or in the car. This proved difficult in Bakara. Once, when we were completely stuck in a traffic jam, one of my bodyguards fired his gun out of the window of our vehicle. He told me it was the only way of getting the traffic to move. Fortunately, he aimed upwards into the sky.
Bakara market is a riot of colour, sound and smells. There are freshly painted buildings, in beautiful pastel shades of pink, blue, yellow and green. Others are grey concrete, clad in scaffolding, as Somalis rush to repair them from the rubble of war. New tin roofs glint in the sunlight.
The huge market is cleverly divided into different zones, each area selling particular items. We started off on ‘Pharmacy Street’, where the shop fronts were decorated with paintings of medicine bottles, syringes and packets of pills. One even showed a box of Viagra, the drug used to enhance male sexual performance.
‘Suitcase Street’ and ‘Shoe Street’ were next to each other, a sign perhaps that the traditionally nomadic Somalis are always on the move, packing up their bags and wearing out their shoes. We moved through an area selling the brightly coloured gauzy cloth used to make women’s dresses. Now that Al Shabaab has largely left Mogadishu, women are no longer forced to wear dark heavy robes, and to completely cover their faces.
The area selling locally-grown fruit and vegetables, freshly baked bread and slabs of red meat was particularly busy. It was Ramadan, and people wanted to make sure they had enough supplies for iftar, the often elaborate evening meal served to break the fast. I noticed some of the bags of rice and other grains on sale were printed with the words ‘World Food Programme – Not for Sale’.
The offices lining the streets were also doing good business, selling airline tickets, and offering printing, photocopying and other services. The biggest, most glamorous buildings were home to telecommunication giants, remittance companies and newly-opened banks.
A local official told me that millions of dollars of business are done every day in Bakara market. It was easy to believe him. Read more…