Why I moved back to Somalia (and you should, too)

At Jazeera Beach, Mogadishu. It was my first time seeing the ocean in Somalia, a lifelong dream of mine, a full two years after I returned. (Courtesy photo)
At Jazeera Beach, Mogadishu. It was my first time seeing the ocean in Somalia — a lifelong dream of mine — a full two years after I returned. (Courtesy photo)

The moment my flight lifted off from SeaTac International Airport en route to Somalia was probably the most emotionally conflicted point in my entire life.

I was elated to be returning to my country of birth for the first time since fleeing with my family as a young boy in 1991.

On the other hand, I was extremely uncertain as to what awaited me back home.

Were all the rumors and myths I’d heard about Somalia true? Would my poor command of the Somali language be a hindrance to my repatriation? Would my people back home accept me with open arms? Or would they treat me as an outsider who was only there for a vacation — but would ultimately return back to the creature comforts of a first world life?

All these questions wrestled in my brain along with my debilitating fear of flying.

Looking back on that moment some two years later, I can’t help but laugh at my unfounded trepidations.

My choice to leave Seattle was one of the best decisions of my life.

Initially, being with my family again was the main motivating factor that led to my decision to return.

But I was also getting away from a mostly stagnant and unfulfilling life in Seattle — White Center to be specific.

I was tired of working dead end jobs just to pay the bills. I felt trapped in a vicious cycle, where I always ended up at the same starting point, with no end in sight. I felt as if I was living a real life version of the movie Groundhog Day.

“I’ve seen people come here with a modest amount of savings and leverage it into entire hotel chains.”

After years of feeling out of place in Western culture, while not fully understanding my own cultural heritage, I felt the time was right to take a leap of faith and explore my roots. I wanted to see where I came from. I wanted to learn the foundations of Somali culture straight from the source.

I also hoped to understand the challenges that Somali people were facing on a daily basis.

How could I help my country reemerge from decades of conflict? I needed firsthand knowledge of the ongoing humanitarian climate back home if I was really going to help. This same firsthand knowledge would be invaluable in helping me understand what it meant to be Somali, and conversely, Somali-American.

Culture shock

I was greeted at the “airport” by my mother and three younger sisters. The landing strip was an unpaved dirt and gravel roadway that I’d be happy never to see again. The airport itself was little more than a square, flat-roofed building made of cinder blocks instead of wood and steel — like the typical home in Somalia.

I hadn’t seen my family in a year and a half. They had returned because they were fed up with the culture and way of life in Seattle too. My little sisters needed to learn some valuable lessons that only Somalia could provide — before they began to take all the opportunities and privileges they were blessed with in the States for granted.

My mother needed to return to the clean air, even cleaner food and warm weather of Somalia for health reasons. Living in Seattle for so many years had taken its toll on her physically, and going back home was a surefire way to alleviate what pained her.

Homes in the Bari Region, in Northeastern Somalia. (Photo by Said Maxad)
Homes in the Bari Region, in Northeastern Somalia. (Photo by Said Maxad)

To say that I experienced culture shock from the moment I stepped off my last flight to the Central Somalia city of Galka’ayo would be the understatement of the century.

It was so oppressively hot that I had to take a few deep breaths just to gather myself before going through baggage claim.

On the twenty minute drive to our house, I was struck by how red the sand was, how bright the sun was, and the multicolored plastic bags that hung haphazardly in trees for as far as the eye could see.

I asked how they got there and was informed that there isn’t really any proper waste disposal in Somalia, so people just litter whenever they need to, or burn big piles of refuse like bonfires. The wind carries the discarded plastic bags through the air until they ultimately get stuck to tree branches.

A few things I learned from my first few days in Somalia were hard to come to terms with it.

For starters, drinkable tap water was a thing of the past for me. In Galka’ayo, the ground water that is pumped into houses is unfit for human consumption due to a high mineral content. It isn’t uncommon to have to pay for multiple types of treated water for different purposes. The highest grade is intended for drinking and the lowest grade is intended for washing your clothes by hand. That one took me a while to get the hang of, but ultimately, it’s infinitely more rewarding than just tossing them into a washing machine and pressing the start button.

The main form of transportation in Galka’ayo is a big economy van that’s used as a public bus. You pay about 25 cents one way and squeeze into a seat intended for three with four other passengers. It should come as no shock that the windows are usually closed and the AC doesn’t work.

Trial by fire

My immersion into Somali cultural norms and linguistic idiosyncrasies was nothing short of trial by fire. I made more than my share of faux pas in the first few months.

No shortage of parking at the beach. (Photo by Said Maxad)
No shortage of parking at the beach. (Photo by Said Maxad)

One day I decided to venture out to the city in shorts and a tank top. I was warned by every single one of my family members to change before I left — that modesty norms in Somalia were not the same as in the States. Typical hard-headed Somali that I was, I decided to go against the advice of my more experienced family and struck out on my journey.

I got more than a few unfriendly stares and disapproving shakes of the head, culminating with two young boys stopping to stare, point and laugh at me for a good five minutes.

I was with my younger brother’s friends, who were all from abroad like myself and had been there long enough to know better. They’d been through some of the same touch adjustments themselves, and told me to just stick to pants and a button up shirt when in public. No need to give people a chance to ostracize you for having Western tendencies.

Back to Somalia: A growing trend

It might seem hard to believe, since you only hear about bombings and violence from mainstream media outlets, but there’s actually an influx of Somali diaspora returning back home, following many continuous years of improved safety and infrastructure development.

Most of the country north of Mogadishu is relatively peaceful, with the self-declared state of Somaliland in the north having no crime to speak of. Terrorism is really only a problem in certain southern Somali cities nowadays, and even that is sporadic at best. You just have to know what areas to avoid.

More and more people are choosing to take their savings and invest in startup businesses and NGOs in Somalia to help rebuild the nation on a grassroots level. East Africa is a booming hub of economic development, and Somalia is poised to become a regional powerhouse as the security situation further improves.

Opportunities for wealth creation exist most prominently in the import/export, hospitality, agricultural, fine dining and manufacturing sectors.

Returning diaspora members are positioning themselves for success beyond their wildest imaginations — especially compared to their prospects in the States. I’ve seen people come here with a modest amount of savings and leverage it into entire hotel chains and various other lucrative entrepreneurial enterprises. Many go on to reinvest a sizeable portion of their earnings into building infrastructure, doing charity work and other ways of directly addressing issues that face marginalized communities throughout Somalia. 

Thanks in part to an infusion of investment from the Somali diaspora, the economy is expanding from agriculture and fishing to more industry and services. (Photo by Said Maxad)
Thanks in part to an infusion of investment from the Somali diaspora, the economy is expanding from agriculture and fishing to more industry and services. (Photo by Said Maxad)

True, progress is slow, thanks in large part to common misconceptions about the current security situation and living conditions in Somalia.

But there are so many things to love about living here. We have access to fresher fruits, vegetables and meat than you could ever get in the States. All natural ingredients make the food spectacular, with no added chemicals, pesticides or hormones. The air is unpolluted and fresh, the weather is nothing short of perfect, and the people are easy going.

The pros far outweigh the cons when it comes to living in Somalia.

My hope is that with further exposure to the realities of living In Somalia today, more of the Somali diaspora will invest their time, skills and savings into helping reestablish our country as a model of African excellence.

For me, moving back home has been a life-altering change, but there is nowhere else I’d rather be in the world.

Come through, fam.

Said Shaiye

Said Shaiye is trapped behind a computer screen, trying to write his way out. He is a proponent for decolonization, both in himself and in the collective black consciousness. He's currently working on his tan, somewhere in East Africa.
Said Shaiye

20 Comments

  1. I’m surprised that you didn’t speak of the lack of racism in your country?
    Surly this a everyday event within America and the city from which you left!
    “Please speak on the differences

  2. Sounds great, if you are a healthy young man with struggling prospects in an expensive US city. Wait until you (or more likely) your mother gets sick. Umm…what’s the average lifespan in Somalia vs the US? What’s the healthcare like? How’s the quality of life for you if you are a woman, in the heat…such as your elderly mother?

    How clean can the air and food be, with people burning trash because their is no proper sanitation? How safe is the water supply really, and who is checking on it?

    Seattle is stupid expensive, and a silly place to live if you are struggling. You might have considered another city to live in, for the sake of your mother.

    Good on you to be proud of your homeland, but don’t pretend it’s all roses and honey!

    1. Yes it ol roses 🌹 and honey 🍯 Bra cause in Somalia your always having free while in the states you will most like be stressed and depressed type of a person so all the the things u mentioned do mean nun if you are always mentally unrelaxeed

    2. Yea we know that America is great and all that in every perspective ..and that Somalia is a very horrible place according to the western media ,but I assure that all of those thing that u talked about excist and in abundance. So don’t just jump into conclusion that your not aware of ..

      Please

  3. I hope this is a joke…. You have better luck trying to convince someone that a Mexican prison or even Hell is a decent place. I’m gonna stay right here in the great United States.

  4. I dont find it surprising that some people feel entitled to belittle you and your country of origin. How hypocritical that those who would tell us “Go back to your Africa” are now scornfully wishing you good bye. Dear Somali brother, I feel your pain and delight in your decision. As we know, our parents only came here for refuge. I will be the first to admit that white peoples opinions about us is not all Black and White but lots of Grey. Many of us are ready to take plunge and get our hands dirty, because only Somalis can change there nation. In America and Canada we will never be intergrated and the overt or covert racism is just tiring. I commend walal for your decision and I will be there soon. Arent we all on a journey to find out who we are?, where we came from?, are there others like me? We have a chance to help our people change, and in that spirit of humanity I salute you for your chose in leaving the USA. Your identity was never valued and will never be valued, it is just the law of Majority, I am preparing to take that plunge for good, having gone there a few times, I am confident I will adjust just fine.

  5. Brother be home there is no better place to be better were ever you the place you Born of get married your pape and your mama me 2 bro , i hoop you Health ,save ,and good life our home Somalia insha Allah i love it were we from originali best home east Afrika somalia from South .West,east .of north we have one laguage one religion one calture. And That is why we love eacher other we come aboard world Amerika of Europe . Africa ,Asia, we one we ever insha Allah

  6. I feel somali. I have memories of somalia. I say proudly that i am from somalia when asked where i am from. I have love for somalia. I belive that the somali nomad life style was and is better then the one we live here in the westren world in many ways. Some of us feel somalinsm and others dont. ( somalinsm) my word. Its sad it is the way it is. But as a person who belives that somalis are my people. Somalia is my country i belive its a honourble thing to go back and enjoy, help Support, and live your country. I can write a whole page about this. Kids brought up here dont have that somalinsm feeling. If i could change that i would.

  7. It’s beautiful to state all these comments but they simply are not true….as a security professional your comment on a misunderstanding about the security and terror situation is nonsense……

  8. A good personal story indeed, but it is a bit of an encouragement to advise on one to go back to Somalia for good. And as a fellow Somali living in the UK and probably much older than you, I would advise one has to understand what we Somalis went through as refugees in different places of the world and how open-handedly the western countries welcomed us to their homes with e ery possible protection in terms of accommodation or refuge, financial and social aspect. We Somalis have to thank a million times to UK, US, Canada and Australia for their heart-felt rescue to Somalis and all other refuges, these people are saviours of weak world. One has forget about the politics and the odd racism they may encounter at times, this is nothing to comparing towhat they did for us and children. So, my advise here is one can go back to Somalia and invest there at the same they do not have to forget about their other country that first made great with money and life.

  9. Yes yes I agree with you 100% home is where the heart is, not a day goes by without praying to be united with my mother who lives in Mogadishu, but like you said on your article; “working dead end jobs just to pay the bills. I felt trapped in a vicious cycle” this is exactly spot on, because this is how the system of the western culture was created, and it’s only few individuals who don’t fall into this trap. Five years working for the same company, when the year finishes you are back to same spot. Why because you have to pay bills, support your family abroad, if you are like me you get into debt so you never end up paying off that interest. So like many brothers and sisters who wish and pray to get out of this trap, never stop praying coz every dark night there is bright day afterwards. Peace to all. One Somali one love.

  10. Hell no. I’m a Somali American and I lived in Somaliland for 3 years because my mother felt like she wanted to be close with her family again. It was 3 years of hell. Sexism from men telling me that there was no point to persuade a college education , insults from the Issaq that live in Somaliland because I had a Hawiye father. Disgusting social norms. I mean, I don’t blame the people, or their religion. It’s just their backward culture and ignorance. Somali people no matter where they’re from need to consider their culture and manners.

  11. Hilarious how you casually brush aside the serious water problems plaguing the country, lack of infrastructure, extreme poverty, and some of the highest crime rates in the world. Terribly irresponsible for you to encourage people to move from one of the wealthiest and advanced nations in the world, to one of the most dangerous and socially backwards, all while pretending it’s a paradise.

  12. Very dreamy. My understanding is reality hit ( ie the difficulty in making any kind of living from nothing in Africa) and the writer returned to US

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