On the plane into Mogadishu, Hamza Egal, a lawyer and U.K. radio host turned agri-entrepreneur, looks out the window down to the coastline of his embattled motherland. After 25 years of civil war, he’s cultivating Somalia’s bloodied soil into farmland.
“You see that beautiful coastline. Blue turquoise waters, white sands. The country is a blank canvas,” he told me. “We’re really developing things from scratch, trying to shape the building blocks of a peaceful home.”
Tired of watching his ancestral land destroy itself, 32-year-old Hamza sees agriculture as a precursor to peace.
“A young man who knows he’s got produce coming up that he can sell — he’s not going to think about joining al-Shabaab for $200 to blow himself up.” He added with radio host clarity: “Food is the key to stability.”
I first spoke to Hamza in April. At the time he was advising a Somali government ministry on administration policy. The dangers of returning to Somalia had just been brought into sharp focus.
Terrorists from al-Qaida-affiliated al-Shabaab had entered the ministry of education in Mogadishu on April 14, spraying rounds of ammunition into government workers. By the time it was over, 17 people had been killed. “It’s heart wrenching,” Hamza said at the time. “It’s a stark reminder that the reality on the ground hasn’t changed even through my three decades of life.”
Al-Shabaab has been fighting Somalia’s federal government forces for more than a decade. In 2004, a transitional government was brought in, financed by the U.N. and supported by the African Union military, to take back control of the country from the extremist insurgents. By 2011 this interim government had retaken control of capital Mogadishu, before a new constitution led to the creation of a proper federal government in 2012.
More recently, as al-Shabaab loses ground to the government, aided by African Union-led peacekeepers, its insurgent guerrilla attacks are becoming more frequent and more random. The group targets hotels and restaurants. The message to returning Somalis like Hamza: No one is safe.
“It never felt as imminent as it does right now,” one Mogadishu-based government contractor told me this summer, shortly after the ministry of education attacks. A British Somali, she was there to advise the ministry and a U.N.-led education program. Two of her close colleagues had been murdered within the previous year.
“Our proximity to death has come a little closer,” she said. “And we’re losing colleagues far more than ever before.”
Meanwhile, Hamza is trying to rebuild his homeland. His 10-acre farm in the Puntland region is allowing people to redevelop local agriculture and support themselves.
Based in the northern tip of the country, on the outskirts of Bosaso city, the farm sits in an unlikely place for an agricultural revolution. A barren landscape of golden rocks, sand and dust stretches toward the horizon in every direction. Almost all the region’s trees have been cut down to make charcoal. A few malnourished goats scratch around beneath the salty earth.
Hamza acquired the land in 2012, after meeting with the president of Puntland, Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, telling him, bluntly, “If you give me the land, I’ll invest the money” to set up the farm. The project is in its early stages — the area has been fenced off into plots and has its own borehole for water — but it represents a sea change for farming in Somalia.
Hamza has started to introduce new concepts to farmers like crop rotation and companion planting. Land is starting to be used every year, all year round, vastly increasing yields compared to traditional subsistence farming. Now, with funding from the Somalia Stability Fund, a subsidiary of Adam Smith International, he’s installing a drip irrigation system that will save water and reduce pests and diseases usually caused by stagnant water. He hopes to replicate this model across the country.
Somalia used to be one of the world’s primary exporters of frankincense, bananas and sugar, he said. But years of civil war have destroyed the industry. Now, at Hamza’s community farm, in what he calls “a kind of hippie setup,” a group of 10 local farmers are producing food to help ease food insecurity in the region, while young people are being trained in agriculture business and bookkeeping.
“It was a booming sector,” Hamza said. “But during the war, everybody who was involved in farming left the country. Now we’re showing young Somalis that prosperity is not about crossing the Mediterranean, it’s about planting a seed in your own lands.”
In early 1991, over half of Somalia’s population fled the country as their homeland became engulfed in civil war. Armed rebel groups had ousted military dictator Siad Barre, and as the government collapsed the country gained its status as a “failed state.” The Fund for Peace, a U.S. think tank, had put the country at the top of its Fragile States Index every year from 2008 through 2013.
The Somali refugees arriving in the U.K. struggled to find their feet, said Adam Matan, director of the Anti-Tribalism Movement. The London-based group runs workshops to confront problems in the Somali community and helps refugees integrate into British society.
“You can’t imagine the trauma those people had to go through,” he said. “Leaving behind loved ones, belongings, their houses, their businesses. And not knowing where your mother or father is — some were stuck in refugee camps, others were arrested trying to flee to Europe. How do you deal with that when you yourself are lost in a foreign country? The trauma is beyond imagination.”
Hamza’s father, a university lecturer in the U.K., and his mother, a high school teacher, had moved to London in the 1970s. From a large, well-educated family in Mogadishu, Hamza’s father’s story contrasts with the vast majority of refugees at that time. Most fleeing to the U.K. in the ‘90s had little understanding of English, no knowledge of local government or the British education system.
They had to pull together to survive, and Hamza’s parents used their position to help others. Their living room in Whitechapel, east London, transformed into a support center on weekends. Somalis gathered to help each other fill out paperwork or contact doctors. They huddled around the radio wearing layers of sarong-like traditional dress — the only clothes they’d brought with them. Hamza remembers the deep, operatic “boom box” voice of the BBC Somalia radio presenter, and the frantic call-ins from listeners desperate for information about their loved ones.
Through the pain of loss and separation, they’d sit and recite gabay — a chanted form of Somali poetry — evoking the landscapes and customs they’d known before the war. The smell of freshly baked Ugali cake filled the air.
“I grew up seeing this kind of solidarity every weekend,” said Hamza. “It taught me that it’s only us who can help ourselves.”
Somalis in the U.K. struggle with the education system and have one of the highest unemployment rates of all of Britain’s minorities — but like his parents, Hamza was an outlier. He was born in Madina, Saudi Arabia, while his parents were performing the Hajj, or pilgrimage — as a kid he’d tease his brothers, reminding them that he was the only one of them born in the holy land. He studied human rights law in London and participated in related conferences around Europe. If he’s not working on development projects across East Africa, he’s in the gym. His Facebook page is a mix of posts criticizing government institutions in Africa and selfies from the weight room. His posts usually end with the hashtag #GoHardOrGoHome.
But Hamza wasn’t content to stay in Europe. The stories of his ancestors had left him searching for his own identity. His uncle, a pilot in the Somali air force, was persecuted by President Barre and flew out of Mogadishu in fear of his life. Such horrors clashed with idyllic pre-war stories that Hamza heard of his parents’ bourgeois, middle-class life in the capital in the ‘60s. At the time, Mogadishu wasn’t a war zone, it was an educational hub of East Africa.
He went on to be a guest on radio programs such as the BBC’s “World Have Your Say” — but Hamza’s broadcast activism truly began in 2009 in the back room of an internet café in a residential outpost of west London.
From a makeshift wooden studio in West Acton he hosted weekly shows on Nomad Radio — a now-defunct grassroots station that tried to face up to the myriad issues of the Somali community in exile. Two young Somali entrepreneurs in 2008 started the station to give the community a platform. Hamza said he created his show, the “Nomad Show,” because of “the identity crisis that I deeply felt.”
We recently met not far from the radio station, at Westfield shopping center in Shepherd’s Bush, near a housing project that became home to Somalis seeking asylum in the 1990s. It’s an area of contrasts. Some second- and third-generation immigrants from Somalia, Sudan and Eritrea make a meager living from run-down market stalls under makeshift plastic roofs. The younger generations hang out in the monolithic new shopping arcades that dominate the skyline. Hamza and I went for coffee. The Starbucks stereo was playing “Baby” by Brandy — the kind of 1990s R&B that soundtracked this area of London while Mogadishu was going up in flames.
“We were looking for a way to talk about our problems and find solutions, a way to voice the opinions of people that don’t have an outlet,” he said.
Many of Hamza’s generation were just children when they left Somalia. They struggled with identity and felt a huge disconnect from their elders. Many became involved in gang crime and violence. Mothers would call into the “Nomad Show,” worried about their sons. Repeat offenders would talk about the difficulty of reintegrating after being in prison. Topics ranged from problems in school to joining al-Shabaab — everything was up for discussion. For the first time, any Somali could speak openly from behind a veil of anonymity.
“Everybody has someone back home,” Hamza said. “Whatever happens in Somalia affects people back here.” As the war evolved, what started as a coup escalated into sectarian violence driven by tribalism. “What we discovered on the show was you have a lot of young people very aware of the issues on the ground, asking, ‘How do we deal with it?’”
The show grew to reach an audience of 20,000 across Europe and North America. A community of engaged young Somalis was growing. Then the famine hit — and everything changed.
In 2011, severe drought and failed harvests caused the worst famine on earth for 25 years. Within 12 months, it had claimed more than a quarter of a million lives. “It was hard to ignore anything related to Somalia beyond that point,” Hamza said. “This is why I went back and helped create SRDF.”
The Somali Relief and Development Forum was an NGO that brought together small, fragmented humanitarian organizations already working in Somalia. It raised funds and provided influence and accountability to otherwise voiceless charities. Dr. Hany El-Banna, founder of Islamic Relief, was its patron.
Hamza’s radio work had raised his profile among the Somali community in the U.K., and he began to play more of an active role with London-based development organizations. He soon flew to Somalia as a monitoring officer for SRDF, sent to do a rapid assessment of the famine.
He found the agricultural sector obliterated and the population almost totally dependent on food donations from abroad. When al-Shabaab took over the country, most international organizations stopped supplying aid. “You’d find dead bodies left, right and center,” Hamza said. “It was bad.”
As the famine was raging, so was the civil war. By August 2011, Somali government forces had rooted al-Shabaab out of most parts of Mogadishu, and even though offensives were ongoing, something strange happened: The diaspora returned home.
“People are going back for one main reason,” he said. When his generation was young, they’d heard from their parents how good life was back home before the war, how beautiful the land is and now a whole generation is rediscovering this part of its identity online. “We didn’t know the land, but we always had that connection. Today we see beautiful photos on Twitter, videos on Facebook, we see what it’s like on the ground, beyond the headlines. And people are coming back to reconnect to their land.”
These days, 40,000 Somalis come back to their country each year to set up businesses and invest in real estate. Even though al-Shabaab increasingly targets this new wave of returning expats, the tide isn’t waning. By late 2012, Hamza was again back on the ground in Mogadishu.
Adam Matan, from the Anti-Tribalism Movement, goes back to Mogadishu every year to run seminars and professional internships for returning diaspora. He sees a new generation of young people rebuilding the country’s public and private sector. “In terms of security, it’s extremely frightening to operate there, where there are extremists,” Matan said. “But people are making that commitment to their country, and young Somalis are returning from all over the world. That is where the hope is at the moment. Unless this generation makes the change, nobody else will. It has to come from us.”
It was September the last time I spoke to Hamza. On Sept. 1, al-Shabaab killed 70 African Union troops in an attack on a military base. Later that month, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced the deployment of 70 British peacekeepers.
“Somalia doesn’t need more guns,” Hamza told me on Skype. “I’m 100 percent sure if the British government sends troops into Somalia, it’s going to create more extremists.”
Hamza couldn’t talk long. The connection cut in and out, and he was very busy. For now at least, the idea of Somalia as a haven exists only as an elusive allegory from some timeless Somali poem.
As we ended the call, Hamza recalled an evening back at his parents’ house in Whitechapel. A group of older relatives gathered reciting gabay poetry. They reminisced about their childhood through intimate, bittersweet verses.
Hamza remembered one poem in particular about an evening on the Somali coast. When his ancestors were kids, after playing out all day they’d get hungry. They’d step out into the Indian ocean with makeshift plastic containers, picking out whatever seafood they could catch. As evening drew in, they’d come back to the beach and light a barbecue on the clear, white sands, the setting sun reflecting on the turquoise blue water.
Hamza knows it word for word. He thinks of it every time his flight descends into Mogadishu.