April 19, 2012

An Optimistic Future for Urban Planning in Mogadishu

4 Comments
Mogadishu, Somalia (Sutika Sipus)
Tomorrow I head back to Kabul.  This morning I had the opportunity to discuss with the Mayor, the Deputy Mayor, and other upper administration how to streamline existing operations and opportunities for new projects.  As the Urban Planner for the Benadiir Administration, Mohamed Ahmed has already accomplished a great deal in the short time he has been here.  Consequently, I made a point that my urban planning solutions all accentuate  his own work, but also introduce new assets and opportunties.   I've already started some of these projects, but I look forward to returning to Mogadishu in about 6 weeks to continue focusing the ground implementation.  I am grateful to the opportunity to work together with the municipality and hope this partnership is long lasting. 

The Youth Volunteers of the Mogadishu Benadiir Adminstration (Sutika Sipus)
What really stood out today was meeting with the Mogadishu Youth Volunteers.  At a total of 200 volunteers, these youth are high school and college students who grew up in Mogadishu while faced with civil war and the threat of al shabaaab.  After shabaab withdrew from the city, some of the young people from different districts started working together and were surprised by how much they could accomplish.  The group quickly grew and became more sophisticated in organization, capable of taking on large projects.  It blew my mind how hard these kids worked in the hot sun, with no water or shade, picking up trash, cleaning out overgrown brush, and burning rubbish.  If the people of this city can continue to dedicate themselves to the common good like these kids, then the future looks bright.

Local Cafe in Mogadishu Somalia (Sutika Sipus)
I also had the chance to visit a cafe with some friends.  The owner lived in the UK for many years and has opened a couple businesses since returning.  The kitchen standards, the food quality, and the service are all top notch. There are lots of great things happening in the city of  Mogadishu, yet where are the news agencies covering it?  Of course upon returning back to the administrative offices, I did happen to see a foreign television crew.  And what were they filming?  The armed guards.  No surprise.

April 18, 2012

Another Day in the New Mogadishu

0 Comments
One of the new flights between Istanbul and Mogadishu cuts across the sky from a bombed out cathedral (Sutika Sipus)
Everything has been non-stop. 

I spent the morning down at the port, speaking with local fishermen about their industry and trying to learn how the fishing economy has changed over the last 10 years.  I was curious if all the piracy along the coast had affected their livelihood, and they said they sometimes get hassled and search when far out at sea, but typically the piracy hasn't had any impact in their lives good or bad. Their biggest issue was the lack of refrigeration and storage options, so at the end of the day, anything not sold fresh at the market goes bad and much is thrown away.  Occasionally they have a good day wherein they catch a lot of fish yet manage to sell all of it, yet this doesn't happen enough.  It seems that right now business is good and they are selling more with the stability and rapid growth of the city, yet until they can refrigerate their catch, they will always be stuck losing money.

Morning at the Port of Mogadishu (Sutika Sipus)
I also attended a large meeting between the heads of all the district leaders and AMISOM.  The AMISOM mission to Somalia has seen recent successes, but as the city is no longer a major conflict zone, they are striving to keep local peace.  There is a municipal police force, yet the force is too small and underfunded, so the Uganda contingent is now trying to fill this role.  District leaders expressed concerns passed to them from their neighborhood residents about the infiltration of al shabaab and about the circulation of unregistered weapons.  The AMISOM Colonel did his best to work with the leaders to develop pathways to solve these problems.  

After the meeting between AMISOM, all District Leaders, and the Municipal Government (Sutika Sipus)
At the meeting, a new district commissioner explained that his district contains a very beautiful beach and on fridays, many thousand people visit, yet there are no life guards and children have died from lack of supervision.  He explained that on most days the local fishermen are sufficient to handle the problem, yet as al shabaab forbade swimming, many people want to exercise there new found freedom and thus the crowd is too big for locals to monitor on the weekend.  The AMISOM Captain addressed the issue, hoping to coordinate the coast guard to address the problem.

I left the meeting greatly impressed by the role of the local district leaders in expressing their communities.  The Mayor gave an impassioned speech about the necessity of them being ever close to the eyes and mouths of the citizens and he further chastised the leaders to enforce strict oversight regarding fighters in their neighborhood.  He argued that AMISOM cannot control the rise of warlord, yet the community can, so it is essential the youth are going to school and not getting involved with gangs or militias.  It is essential that the local leaders push this policy throughout their districts.

When the meeting concluded, the Mayor asked what I think about the events of the day, and I responded that it is truly sad the UN doesn't see these processes.  Democracy and local level governance are daily ongoing within the city, yet when I had a meeting at the UN the day before, I was personally distraught over their poor knowledge of the geography, their ignorance about local governance structures, and their complete lack of understanding about the local channels of communication.  

I realize that those working within the UN must work within an exceedingly narrow framework, as this framework is necessary for such a massive institution to function.  However for the individuals to not see outside the framework, and thus do work not informed by the urban reality, is truly sad.  It is like doing urban planning without a site visit or writing a biography without meeting the subject.  There is only so much information one can absorb from a distance.  If you want to know how water tastes, then you must dive in and drink it, as standing on the shore will never leave you the wiser.

April 16, 2012

Post Conflict Urban Planning and Reconstruction in Mogadishu Somalia

0 Comments
The former Parliament Building, devastated by war.  Photo by Mitchell Sutika Sipus

Today was a massively busy day for meetings.

I had a meeting with the Mayor and Govener of the Benadiir Administration, Mohamuud Ahmed Noor. We discussed his primary vision for the city and regional development, his trials and efforts in the past and the obstacles he faces today.   Around this time I also met some traditional leaders and members of the Benadiir council working on a variety of USAID projects.  I've been greatly impressed by his efforts and those of the Deputy Mayor, Iman Noor Icar with whom I've been meeting regularly.  Aware of the issues of corruption in their country, they continually work with international donors so that no cash transactions take place, rather the donor has full responsibility for handling the funding while the administration simply provides the needed manpower to implement the projects.  With this model, various initiatives in partnership with Turkey and USAID have been seeing great success.

Last night the urban planner working with Benadiir, Mohamed "Shaan", and I discussed at length the obstacles concerning data collection and mapping of the city.  Although UN-Habitat has a large collection of data, unfortunately they are not willing to share direct shape files and thus their information is of no real use to the municipality.  It is truly unfortunate that a UN body would pose such a hinderance to the efforts of the municipality.  Yet thanks to open-source mapping technology and the efforts of my friends at Somalia Report, I believe I can thoroughly solve this problem so that we simply side-step the UN and do the work that needs to be done.

Mitchell Sutika Sipus, Mohamed, and Abdul on the Somali Coast

I also had a chance to explore some of the historic district of Mogadishu.  We were escorted by a Captain in the African Union's peace keeping force and I was able to talk to him about his experience of fighting in Somalia.  The wreckage in this area from 20 years of war is truly profound to see, but it left me thinking a great deal about all the other images of Mogadishu that never come out.



Business is booming in the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia. Photo by Mitchell Sutika Sipus

While the world constantly sees the destruction in Mogadishu, they don't get a chance to learn about the dynamic change abreast, the massive return of Somalis, the economic explosion taking place from new investments and the visionary work of the municipal government.  Just today I had a cappuccino at a cafe founded by a Somali who lived for a long time in the UK.  It was delicious.  Things are happening and they are happening fast. This is story that is worth telling, it must be told.

Travel Businesses on Mecca Marena Road. Photo by Mitchell Sutika Sipus

April 15, 2012

Arrival in Mogadishu

0 Comments
The Former Parliament Building of Somalia.  Photo by Mitchell Sutika Sipus.

This morning I arrived in Mogadishu.

I wasn't exactly certain what to expect, although I thought I had a general idea. Somehow some major details slipped my mind.  I knew after departing the plane that there might be some suspicion about who I am, but I didn't expect so many military and police to try to stop and question me.  Tough looking soldiers from the African Union were all around and it was difficult to avoid generating interests.  Fortunately I was immediately accompanied by my security escort within 2 seconds of stepping off the plane, and a moment after by my host, a member of the Benadiir Administration.  They had with them a letter from the mayor explaining my purpose and were kind enough to manage all the border issues, including passport control and visa acquisition.  

The other thing that really jarred my mind is the heat.  It is seriously hot here.  Like Cairo in August hot. But there is a constant steady wind from the ocean which is soothing and it also reduces the dust.  The heat is also offset by the generous hospitality of my hosts.  Over the years I've had the fortunate to learn firsthand about the wonderful way that Somali people treat their guests, and today definitely the people I met all certainly lived up to the reputation.  As the hotel doesn't often have western guests, the kitchen made a kind gift of presenting me with a delicious grilled lobster with dinner.  Cups of strong sugary tea are ever-present as are piles of fish, freshly caught and served with a spicy lime sauce.  I could totally get used to this.  

Today was mostly a day for long meetings and brief introductions.  Soon more serious work can begin as there are a great deal of issues to resolve but in the first 24 hours I hope to simply learn as much as possible before I propose any ideas or tools.  The city is faced with a vast array of obstacles including conflicts over land title claims among returnees, issues of economic development, public health, education, historic preservation and so on.  The city is faced with the challenge of reinventing itself, yet only now that I am on the ground can I begin to see the miasmatic web of complex social and political dynamics that also restrain it from moving forward.  But hopefully in time we can loosen the knot by focusing on simple solutions to widely agreed upon problems. There is a great deal to be done, and somewhere admits the chaos are a few areas of mutually agreeable issues.  And as we uncover these small points of objectivity, we also can uncover the small points of light to widen the window of opportunity that will change the story Mogadishu.

April 6, 2012

En Route to Mogadishu

0 Comments

I will step off the plane in Mogadishu in one week.  Under most circumstances that would be a strange experience, but coming from Kabul it is all the more unusual.  I hope to make the most of my layover in Dubai to freely wander around the streets, enjoy the feeling of entering a restaurant without being checked for weapons, or having to analyze surrounding buildings for sight lines and escape routes every time I sit in traffic.  Kabul isn't all that dangerous, but one has to be constantly vigilant of their surroundings and Mogadishu isn't really all that different.

The other strange thing has been the experience of thinking about Kabul within my pre-departure ritual.  Over the years I've developed a process to prepare mentally and physically before entering complicated places.  I like to take up an exercise regimen, consume copious amounts of powdered weight-gainer from the health food store, and spend weeks slowly packing my back before departure.  I start by accumulating everything that I think would be worthwhile, from flashlights and pocketknives to socks and candy bars, then over the last few days chip away at that pile to determine what is essential, what is not, and how it all fits in my bag.  I like my back to be no more than 50% full, leaving room to pick stuff up on the way, do my best to keep it light. But Kabul has me questioning the necessity of this whole process.  After all, I can find all of those things here, so why did I bring any of them in advance?  It has me questioning what to bring to Mogadishu, and what to leave at home.  Especially strange since this time home is Kabul.

For years I've dreamt of working in postwar reconstruction and urban planning in Mogadishu, but I always imagined it would be far into the future.  I am grateful to my project partners for the opportunity, and while wide-eyed at timing, I feel good about it.  I look forward to working with local officials to solve various infrastructure and population problems.  Right now the issue of land ownership claims among returnees is a major issue for the city and I look forward to tackling this problem among others.  Will definitely update the blog a couple times before leaving but the story doesn't end there.  If this first visit goes well, I'll be back quite a bit over the course of the year.