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At His Own Risk, Somali Chef Creates Gourmet Haven In War-Weary Mogadishu

Nov 26, 2012
Originally published on November 26, 2012 4:48 pm

Ahmed Jama was running a successful Somali cafe in southwest London when he decided it was time to go home. Against the urgent advice of friends, he returned to Mogadishu three years ago and started cooking.

Jama epitomizes the spirit of rebirth in the city that has been brutalized by 21 years of civil war. As expatriates return to take their homeland back from warlords, terrorists and looters, Jama is doing his part to revive Mogadishu one prawn at a time.

"This is all traditional Somali food," he says, standing in his open-air kitchen. "The soup I make from spinach, pumpkin, potatoes — all locally grown vegetables." The self-described "skinny, bald Somali guy" is surrounded by bubbling pots of broth and plates of lamb shoulder and lobster tails. His customers sit under a thatched roof on a floor of red African sand.

This is one of four restaurants Jama has opened in Mogadishu since he came back. A fifth is on the way. They're each named The Village, which is also on the sign of his London establishment.

The mindless violence that earned Mogadishu the moniker of the world's most dangerous city spared Jama's restaurants until two months ago.

On the night of Sept. 20, a crowd was enjoying tea and political gossip at his eatery in central Mogadishu across from the National Theater, when two men wearing explosive vests blew themselves up in the dining room. The blasts killed 14 people — including three Somali journalists — and injured 20. Jama knew all the customers who were casualties. The suicide bombers were thought to be connected to al-Shabaab, an Islamist militant group opposed to the Western-backed government of Somalia.

Jama dealt with the trauma of the attack the only way he knew how.

"[In the days] following the explosion I went in the kitchen," he says quietly, "in the kitchen cooking."

That restaurant was recently renovated and reopened.

"I showed them I'm not going to give up. I showed them I'm still wanting to stay here," he says.

After the bombing, Jama strengthened security at his other restaurants. His location in the Hodan district may be the only seafood shack in the world with its own guard tower. He says he wants his customers to feel safe and relaxed.

There is, in the Village Restaurants these days, the same feeling that was palpable when a beloved restaurant in New Orleans reopened after Hurricane Katrina: an emanation of humanity, a celebration of good food and a triumph over chaos.

His restaurants are islands of civility, conversation and slow food in a bludgeoned city. One only has to speak to his customers.

"I cannot even explain to you the meaning of what happened in Somalia. The worst of the worst happened here," says Burhan Gutale, a local businessman who never left. He says there wasn't a decent cafe to be found in Mogadishu during the civil war. People wolfed down their food, oblivious to palate, and raced home because they were afraid.

"I remember when he [Jama] started here," Gutale continues, "and I used to say, 'Please don't do it, it's not a good place.' He said, 'Listen, somebody has to start to do it. I have to create a place where people can come and talk decent. Let us do something different.' And he did it."

Symbolism aside, what draws people to the Village Restaurants is a reconnection with delicious, authentic Somali cuisine, which is a crossroads of tastes from the Middle East, Italy, Ethiopia and Persia.

A meal at The Village starts with a salad of shrimp, mango, lime, onion and strips of chapatti bread. A fillet of kingfish, caught that morning, is grilled over charcoal and enlivened with a light green-chili sauce. A side of rice is garnished with carrots, onion, cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, raisins and green pepper.

Everything is local, everything is fresh — because it's hard to get processed food in Mogadishu. There are also traditional Somali dishes on the menu such as soor, sorghum mash; canjeelo, Somali pancakes; and camel meat.

Locals say you couldn't get good food in Mogadishu during the civil war.

"Yeah, it's something Mogadishu needed. Mogadishu was all traditional food, the same canteen-style. So it's great somebody comes and opens a restaurant and raises the standards," says Fatima Abdullahi, a former BBC reporter and now a Somali political consultant who moved back from London.

The despite-all-odds success of the Village Restaurants has been an inspiration to other Somali expats to return and open businesses.

"Actually one of the reasons I moved back is, I was inspired by him. It takes a lot of courage," says Ismael Assir, puffing on a bubbly water pipe of flavored tobacco after a meal. Assir recently returned from Boston to sell solar panels here.

Courage indeed. On Nov. 3., the terrorists returned. That Saturday afternoon, two more suicide bombers tried to force their way into the restaurant where these interviews were conducted. When they wouldn't agree to the pat-down required of all customers, a gunfight broke out with security guards outside the entrance. Then they detonated their bombs.

Jama's guards were injured, but only the bombers died.

The workers cleaned up the blood and body parts and repainted the steel gate. Three hours later, the restaurant reopened.

Reached by phone in Mogadishu, Ahmed Jama says simply, "We're OK. We're open for business. People in Mogadishu are resilient."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Mogadishu is making something of a comeback. The capital of Somalia has seen more than two decades of civil war. Relative peace has come to the city after African Union peacekeepers pushed aside militants and largely won control. And a Somali expatriate has seized the chance to come home.

He's a restaurant owner who wants to revive Mogadishu one seafood dish at a time. It goes without saying that NPR's John Burnett went to order a meal.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Ahmed Jama was running a successful Somali cafe in southwest London when he decided it was time to go home. Against the urgent advice of friends, he returned to Mogadishu three years ago and started cooking.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking foreign language)

AHMED JAMA: The vegetables here. The bananas and spinach, carrots, pumpkin, potatoes, all mix in the flavors.

BURNETT: Jama, self-described as the skinny bald Somali guy, stands in his open air kitchen surrounded by bubbling pots of broth and plates of lamb shoulder and lobster tails. His customers sit under a thatched roof on a floor of red African sand. This is one of four restaurants Jama has opened in Mogadishu since he came back. Each is named The Village. A fifth is on the way. They're packed every day.

Jama's restaurants had been spared the mindless bloodshed that earned Mogadishu the moniker of the world's most dangerous city until recently. On September 20, an evening crowd was enjoying tea and political gossip at his place in central Mogadishu across from the National Theater when two men wearing explosive vests blew themselves up in the dining room.

Fourteen people died and 20 were injured. Jama knew them all, except for the suicide bombers, who were thought to be linked to Islamist militants opposed to the Western-backed government of Somalia. Jama dealt with the trauma of the attack the only way he knew how.

JAMA: Following the explosion, I went in the kitchen, in the kitchen cooking.

BURNETT: That restaurant was recently renovated and reopened.

JAMA: I showed them I'm not going to give up. I showed them I'm still wanting to stay here.

BURNETT: Jama strengthened security at all of his locations. Today his cafe here in the Hodan district may be the only seafood shack in the world with its own guard tower. There is, in the Village restaurant these days, the same feeling that was palpable when a beloved restaurant in New Orleans reopened after Hurricane Katrina - an emanation of humanity, a celebration of good food, and a triumph over chaos. One only has speak to his customers.

BURHAN GUTALE: I cannot even explain to you the meaning of what happened in Somalia. But the worst of the worst happened here.

BURNETT: Burhan Gutale is a local businessman, a regular customer, and one of the friends who cautioned Jama not to open this place.

GUTALE: I remember when he start here. And I used to say, please don't do it, it's not a good place. He said, listen, somebody has to do it, somebody has to start to do it. I have to create a place where people can come and talk decent. And, you know, let us do it something different. And he did it.

BURNETT: Symbolism aside, what draws people to the Village Restaurants is a reconnection with delicious authentic Somali cuisine, which is a crossroads of tastes from the Middle East, Italy, Ethiopia and Persia. A meal starts with a salad of shrimp, mango, lime, onion and strips of chapatti bread.

A fillet of kingfish, caught that morning, is grilled over charcoal and enlivened with a light green chili sauce. The side serving of rice is garnished with carrots, onion, cinnamon, cardamom, raisins and green pepper. Everything is local. Everything is fresh. Because it's so hard to get processed food in Mogadishu.

There are also traditional Somali dishes on the menu like soor - sorghum mash; canjeelo - Somali pancakes; and camel meat. Locals say you could not get good food in Mogadishu during the civil war. People wolfed down their food, oblivious to palate, and raced home, because they were afraid. Fatima Abdullahi is a former BBC reporter and now a Somali political consultant who moved back home from London.

FATIMA ABDULLAHI: Yeah. It's something Mogadishu needed. You know, Mogadishu was all like the traditional foods, the same kind of canteen-style. So it's great somebody comes and opens a restaurant and raises the standards.

BURNETT: The despite-all-odds success of the Village restaurants has been an inspiration to other Somali expatriates to return and start businesses. Ismael Assir recently moved back from Boston to sell solar panels here.

ISMAEL ASSIR: Actually, one of the main reasons I moved is because I was inspired by him. It takes a lot of courage.

BURNETT: Courage indeed. On November 3, the terrorists returned. That Saturday afternoon, two more suicide bombers tried to force their way into the restaurant where these interviews were conducted. When the assailants would not agree to a patdown - required of all customers - a gunfight broke out with the security guards outside the entrance.

Then they detonated their bombs. Though Jama's heroic guards were injured, the only fatalities were the bombers. Jama's staff cleaned up the blood and body parts, repainted the steel gate, and reopened three hours later. Reached by phone in Mogadishu, Ahmed Jama says simply: We're OK, we're open for business, people in Mogadishu are resilient. John Burnett, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.