April 20, 2012
Somali-Kenyans have long been a part of Kenya's business and cultural community, but when the al-Shabaab militant group started carrying out attacks in Nairobi, the Somali community faced negative associations and stereotypes.
As Kenyans have come to realise that al-Shabaab's attacks are indiscriminate and its members include non-Somalis, however, these stereotypes have been dissolving, analysts and members of the Somali-Kenyan community say.
The Somali community's entrepreneurship has weaved them into Kenya's economic, political and cultural fabric, according to Kwame Owino, executive director of the Institute of Economic Affairs.
"Somali-Kenyans have been merchants, using their connections abroad to source for goods and using their family networks to keep costs low. As a result, they built a strong economic presence across Kenya," he told Sabahi.
Owino said the Somali community has dabbled in virtually every kind of business, proving to be the backbone of many markets, such as car imports, mining and oil services.
However, Owino said, Somalis' economic prosperity and their relationship with other communities were threatened following a series of grenade and landmine attacks by al-Shabaab.
"In the early days of the attacks, their businesses were affected, as people erroneously linked them to al-Shabaab," he said. "Most were avoiding their doing business with Somalis."
Owino said the al-Shabaab attacks threatened to degenerate into ethnic tensions between the Somali community and other communities.
Abdi Hussein Omar, a 35-year-old Somali-Kenyan who works as a cashier at a Nairobi hotel, said the social stigma against Somalis was palpable whenever there was a grenade attack.
He told Sabahi it took more than two months after an attack before non-Somalis would visit the hotel where he works.
"When you entered a public service vehicle, looks from fellow passengers suggested you were a suspect and were not welcome," he said.
Omar said security officers sometimes accosted persons with Somali complexions on the street, or even inside their businesses.
"There was a false perception that anyone who is a Somali is an al-Shabaab," he said.
Retired Kenya Army Major Bashir Hajji Abdullahi, who works as a security consultant, said hostility towards the Somali community has drastically reduced.
"People realised that al-Shabaab recruitments transcended an ethnic community. This became evident when some of those arrested in connection with the grenade attacks came from outside the Somali community," Abdullahi told Sabahi.
He said the fear eroded gradually after many Somalis supported the Kenya Defence Forces operation in Somalia. He said Kenyans also took note of the indiscriminate nature of al-Shabaab attacks, which targeted areas irrespective of who was present.
Farah Maalim, deputy speaker of Kenya's National Assembly who also represents the Lagdera Constituency in Garissa County, told Sabahi that the Somali community has been united with the rest of Kenya against al-Shabaab.
He said al-Shabaab should be vanquished by any means. "All we ask of the government is that tackling al-Shabaab should not be used as an excuse to harass and profile the Somali community," he said.
"Kenyans and authorities have learned to differentiate criminals from law abiding citizens," he said.
North Eastern Provincial Commissioner James ole Seriani told Sabahi that dealing with suspected al-Shabaab members as individuals has also helped reduce the fear.
He said security agents have intercepted people of various nationalities intending to join al-Shabaab. "We make it clear that the terrorists are the works of a few elements out to spoil the name of a community or a religion," he said.
Sheikh Abduwahab Mursal, secretary of the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya Wajir Branch, said terrorism is prohibited in Islam.
Somalis are peace-loving, he said. "The Somali refugees in Kenyan camps are waiting for restoration of peace to head back to rebuild their country -- and al-Shabaab is a threat to achieving that peace," he told Sabahi.
Hassan Abdi Hirmoge, a 45-year-old textile merchant in Nairobi's Eastleigh neighbourhood, said business in the teeming Eastleigh market suffered a great deal following al-Shabaab attacks.
"Most of our customers are from other ethnic communities in Kenya. In the early days of the attacks, they avoided coming to the Eastleigh bazaars," he told Sabahi. "The situation has improved and business is back to normal. One of my customers told me that he would not let al-Shabaab threats affect their business."
Mercy Kaburu, a lecturer at Daystar University in Nairobi, said Somalis came to mind for most people whenever there was attack. She said Somali-Kenyans and Somali nationals are often lumped together and erroneously linked with al-Shabaab.
"Those who have lived with the Somali community and tasted their hospitality usually do not jump to such a conclusion," she told Sabahi. "Somalis are hospitable and will go to any length to ensure your stay is as comfortable as possible."
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