Entrepreneurial flame still burns despite Somalia's devastation

December 28, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

AFGOI, Somalia -- Bright and early each brutally hot day i Somalia, Ali Osman Hassan shows up for work in the middle of nowhere, on the rocky road that links Mogadishu with the interior.

Using his hands, Mr. Hassan scoops dirt and rocks into a foot-deep pothole, sculpting a smooth, rounded top. As each vehicle approaches, he draws attention to his handiwork by spinning a piece of cloth like a cowboy's lasso over the filled pothole. Then he pauses, hands raised and smiling, in a bid for donations.

On a good day, Mr. Hassan's efforts to save the rickety axles and bald tires of Somalia's trucks earn him about 4,000 shillings from passing motorists. That's only about 80 U.S. cents, but it's enough to put food on his family's table.

"I feel my work is good for the cars," said Mr. Hassan, 24. "And I need money for daily life."

Somalia's 7 million people have no government, no telephones, no airline and not a single operating factory. And yet Mr. Hassan and other pothole repairers on the bumpy roads are proof that the entrepreneurial flame indigenous to African society still burns, however dimly, in Somalia.

The elite among Mogadishu's merchant class fled the nation's deepening nightmare two years ago. Most of those lucky Somalis with capital are now exiled members of former dictator Mohammed Siad Barre's Darod clan. They run lamp shops in Djibouti, export firms in Dubai, cab companies in Washington, nightclubs in New York and shops in Nairobi.

But, as the pothole franchisees show each day on the Mogadishu-Baidoa road, many of the Somalis who remained behind are able and willing, with some help from the outside world, to rebuild their savaged and looted nation.

The United Nations, U.S. diplomats and other world leaders hope to fully restore that spirit, beginning with U.S.-led Operation Restore Hope.

"This entrepreneurial spirit is deep in the Somalis," said JiShanor, an American development expert, fluent in the Somalian language, who is now on contract to the U.N. Development Program in Mogadishu. "And the spirit lives. These people don't need much of a push to get going again. It's in their blood. They just need capital, a lot of capital."

In the new, fragile calm that has settled over Mogadishu in the days since the Marines landed Dec. 9, impromptu markets have sprung up all over. In the gutted, seaside capital city, dozens of rickety new stands appear with each new day of peace.

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