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July 11, 2007

Of stereotypes and Somalis

A friend of mine was preparing for a trip to Mogadishu, Somalia, probably the toughest place in Africa -- if not the world -- to report from at the moment. When she told a Kenyan friend about this, he sent the following text messages:

"Hi! Here is a few tips for u on how to fit in while in mogadishu. keep clearing ua throat even when u dont have to n make it very loud, then spit it out far off."

"Wear oversized flipflops n drag them along as u walk. bump onto everyone as u walk in the streets. make conversation animated like it is a fight. chew miraa." (Miraa, also called khat, is a mild narcotic plant that's chewed by millions of men in the Horn of Africa.)

Cultural stereotypes aren't very nice, but just like everywhere else in the world, there are some rich stereotypes here in Africa about certain groups. The most commonly stereotyped Africans? I'd have to say that would be the people of Somalia, and in their case it's almost always negative.

Somalia, somewhat famously, has been without a functioning government since a coup in 1991, unleashing a human tidal wave of millions of refugees across the world. There are large Somali communities in places like Minnesota and New Jersey (remember the kid who got beaten up by A.J.'s friends in one of the last episodes of The Sopranos?), but also in stable African nations like Kenya and South Africa.

Somalis are known as excellent entrepreneurs (another stereotype), and the far-flung diaspora includes many businesspeople who've made names for themselves in their adopted countries. The former mayor of Mogadishu, over lunch at his hotel on my recent trip to Somalia, told me about how he started a successful janitorial company in the Minneapolis area despite speaking little English, and how his wife was running it while he returned to Somalia to try and help rebuild his country.

This success, in part, is what fuels strong resentment of Somali communities in Africa. In Nairobi, merely mentioning Eastleigh, the large, sometimes unruly Somali enclave in town, draws a roll of the eyes or a shudder from a Kenyan. More than a few taxi drivers have declined to take me there. A Kenyan colleague once complained that he had to leave his apartment because Somalis were moving into the building, paying cash for everything and driving up the rents -- "there goes the neighborhood." Human rights groups have pointed out repeatedly how difficult it is for Somalis to gain ID cards and other government papers.

Elsewhere, the consequences are more brutal. In South Africa, another major destination for the Somali diaspora, Time magazine reports this week that the resentment has turned deadly: more than 400 Somalis have been murdered there over the past decade. Much of the violence is blamed on South African blacks, who, 13 years after apartheid, are still largely unemployed, overwhelmingly poor and generally excluded from the tremendous economic growth that the so-called Rainbow Nation is enjoying. South African intellectuals are alarmed at the growing xenophobia in their country and the violent "black-on-black" crime that it's producing.

The Somalis are one of many war-ravaged communities that have sought refuge in South Africa. Last year in Cape Town, I met some smart young refugees from Congo -- engineers, university students -- who were washing cars in the parking lot of a posh new gym. Each of them had stories of being mugged or assaulted, sometimes at gunpoint. The large groups from Rwanda, Angola and Zimbabwe also are the target of crimes. But, according to Time, "it is the Somalis -- insular, entrepreneurial and, above all, prosperous -- who bear the brunt of South Africa's new prejudice."


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Somewhere in Africa was written by McClatchy correspondent Shashank Bengali, who covered sub-Saharan Africa from 2005 to 2009. He's now based in Washington, D.C., as a national correspondent.

Read Shashank's stories at news.mcclatchy.com or send him a story idea.


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