Small city. Big dreams.

Mogadishu is a dense city: 91 square kilometers (35 square miles) with a population of over 2.5 million people, according to urban city index Demographia. Shaped like the head of an ax, it hugs the waters of the Indian Ocean even as it arcs back into dozens of tiny, sand-filled alleys, several tarmacked roads, 17 districts, numerous open-air markets, before offering itself up to the rest of mainland Somalia and the Horn of Africa.

With its white and gray architecture hemmed in by the blue horizon of the ocean, it was once described by the renowned Somali author Nuruddin Farah as “one of the prettiest” cities in the world. But the capital and its cosmopolitan culture became unmoored after 1991: after 20 years under the grip of a tyrant, looting militias, marauding tribespeople, and most recently terrorists, left it dispossessed for another three decades.

An aerial view shows rickshaw traffic in the downtown of Mogadishu, Somalia February 14, 2018.
Changing city.
Image: Reuters/Feisal Omar

Yet that hasn’t stopped Somalia’s young from struggling to restore their nation. Since 2011, there have been efforts to revive tourism, rebuild the ruins of war, rehabilitate child soldiers, and use technology and innovation as a way to create employment opportunities.

When I last met Mohamed in June in Nairobi, he spoke about some of these endeavors, the audacity and unity among the young, about his work with female techies at Bilan Codes enterprise, and laughing through his tooth-gaped smile, about the city’s new pastry shops and cheesecake variety. But he was also miffed by the traffic-clogged streets of Mogadishu and lamented the continuing deadly attacks on hotels and restaurants.

In a conversation that lasted till 1 am, Mohamed spoke about how urban renewal in Mogadishu was less about shiny new apartments and pizza parlors, but about the newfound energy to change lives for the better. There was still a long way to go, he said, but men and women, locals and diaspora, intellectuals and students were all yearning to contribute and heal the city step by step. Mogadishu was on a winning streak.

Mohamed Mohamoud Sheikh Ali at the Somalia Premium Laundry in Mogadishu
Happier times at the Somalia Premium Laundry in Mogadishu.
Image: TEDx Mogadishu

Uncertain future

The great urban activist Jane Jacobs once wrote: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” This clarion call for strength in diversity was what made Jacobs the doyen of urbanism and a passionate advocate for building and sustaining vibrant cities. By standing up to New York city supremo Robert Moses, she rallied against the erasure of experiences and memories, argued for self-preservation, and championed the cause of the self-regulating communities who keep an eye out for each other and manage the convenience stores and the laundry shops. Remove them, she warned, at your own city’s peril.

Which is why the salvo of bullets that killed Mohamed—and many, many others—means only one thing: that the visible signs of progress in Somalia were coming at a huge cost. The bullet, not the bulldozer, is Mogadishu’s way of displacing its best and gentrifying its streets. The bullet is there to scare, to stymie progress, to force many to leave and others to cower behind barricades, to declare that entropy is and will remain the norm.

Through Mohamed’s loss, Mogadishu has been deprived of one of its best advocates, one who knew that it was more than the sum of its occupants, businesses, and new structures. Mogadishu has lost an icon. And the question now remains: How do you rebuild a capital when “everybody” isn’t there?

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