• October 31, 2020

THE EXODUS FROM ASHES TO ACES

For some people, war is a time to make money, while for others, it is time to run for dear life. Mustafa Mohamed Abdi, a shopkeeper in Somalia found himself on the run in the dark year of 2009 like he always refers to it. A cloud of despair descended on his face when his bungalow was demolished by the Al-Shabab soldiers after an afternoon of gunfight. This left his family desolate and helpless. A heavily pregnant wife and a son who was barely one-year-old. The family moved for long hours without a sense of direction. The sound of guns could be heard behind them every waking day and the nagging fear of what was going to happen to them sat heavily in their chests. They trudged on desperately, determined to put a distance between them and the horrible gunshots.  The 35-year-old man was determined to move away from the war ravaged country and seek refuge in a more stable country. As luck would have it, the family ran into other Somalian citizens who were also on the run and they moved in groups. Unfortunately, the whole situation was overwhelming for Hafsa, Mustafa’s wife who could hardly move being hampered by the heavy stomach. After 10km of walking, Mustafa decided to leave his wife and child with his mother in law. As the breadwinner, he knew he had to move and start afresh in another country.  Amidst tears and barely able to tear himself away from his young wife and child, Mustafa doggedly made his way into the unknown across the border.

With his family left behind, Mustafa was not sure whether he would see them again. War not only deprived him of his family, peace and shelter but also the familiarity and culture he was used to. In all this, what kept him going was the fact that he had to stay alive to look after his family. He later found himself in Uganda, living among strange people whose language and culture was un familiar to him. He settled in Kisenyi, a slum in Rubaga division found in Kampala central. It has a big population of foreigners like Somalians, Eritreans, Congolese among others. The crowded houses teeming with all sorts of people from different walks of life were hardly a solace to the emotionally charged Mustafa. His heart heavy with having left his homeland and family behind, he went about trying to find himself what to do to keep afloat in this strange land. After a few days, his business mind opened up to the available opportunities given the crowds of people he would see every day.

Mustafa’s pleasant and jolly disposition cannot go unnoticed by anyone who meets him. This is why it was easy for him to secure a job at Dahabshiil; a Somali owned forex bureau at King Fahad Plaza where he worked for three years. Eventually, he realized that if he was to stay and work in Uganda, he had to learn English and Luganda. This pushed him to enroll for an online English course which he successfully completed. The dwellers in Kisenyi also did a great job in teaching him Luganda. After a long struggle, he saved enough money to rent a decent commercial place where he set up a retail shop. This was the beginning of his breakthrough.

 He started by stocking sacks of sugar, rice and flour. Business however was slow in catching up because of the distrust of the local people towards any stranger and yet he was always present at his shop.

“The only times you do not find him in his shop is when he has gone for routine prayers at the nearby mosque.” Said one of the locals.

 Many would come not to buy but to get a closer look at the stranger in their midst. Little by little, they overcame their distrust as Mustafa set about to do what he had always done back home in Somalia. In addition, his notable devotion to his faith endeared the Moslem community and other locals to him. In the first year of his business, he faced a problem of massive competition and aggression from the locals in Kisenyi. Their perception of Somalians further made it worse for him to sell anything.

“The shopkeepers I found here were not happy with me because I had more customers than them. They abused me often and threatened to rob my shop.” He said with a somber face.

He however continued operating in honesty according to his Islamic faith. He was determined to make ends meet and send money to his family back home. In a space of three months, he had studied his environment and got to know what the locals purchased on a daily basis. He slowly filled his shop with merchandise until his business boomed.

Gradually, the rate at which people were buying his products made him realise the need for expansion. In early 2014, he expanded his shop. He added a bigger room. This drew even more customers to his shop. Those who failed to get what they needed at the local supermarkets always found it at his shop at even cheaper prices. His aim was to sell quality products to his customers. When you enter his shop, the products you find there are not the usual goods you find in other retail shops.

“I have always called my shop a mini supermarket because I realized that my customers desire to have the best.” he said with a wide smile.

One can’t help noticing that his shop is the biggest and busiest in this area. People from all over town come to purchase quality merchandise. Mustafa adds that he started a special offer for fellow Somalians especially those that can hardly afford anything in Uganda. They can purchase whatever they need and pay up in installments. This applies to other loyal customers whether they are Somalian or not. He was able to build a strong customer bond because of his kind heart, respect for himself and all his customers, interpersonal skills and strong shrewd business enterprising skills. The locals fondly refer to him as a ‘Ugandan’ in Somalian skin.

 Eight years later, Mustafa was reunited with his family and for the first time, he was able to see the child who had been in his wife’s womb when he fled from Somalia. She had grown into a chubby little girl with a charming smile. His eyes lit up as he talked about his family who had finally made it to Uganda in 2017. He thinks that he is the happiest man alive because he has his family close for support and companionship. In addition, his satisfaction with the work he is doing in the Kisenyi community brings him a lot of joy plus his role in bringing a big number of Somalians around his shop in the evenings just to talk about their beloved homeland.

Mustafa has plans of expanding further with time. He wants to own a supermarket or wholesale shop one day. He believes that it is from hard work, the ability to adjust to any condition, a positive outlook and embracing change that one can achieve their goals in life. He encourages young people to stop looking down on work, to take up whatever comes their way and turn unfortunate situations into worthwhile living. He also feels for other refugees who come to Uganda and readily helps them out whenever he can. He therefore looks forward to starting a big supermarket that will offer employment to fellow refugees who still struggle to find employment in Uganda.

“Rising from scratch to owning one of the biggest shops in Kisenyi is not easy especially to a refugee like me. That is why I want to give a chance to hard working young people out there to change their lives.” He concludes.

Mustafa who came hopeless, beaten and with no idea of where he was going to start from, is now enjoying the fruits of his hard work. Had he stayed back in Somalia, he would probably be one of the unknown bodies buried deep down in Somalia in a mass grave. The tragedy of burying such a deep entrepreneurship potential would have been felt by the many Somalians and other people he has been able to impact. His resilience, courage, focus and dogged determination turned his otherwise would be bleak end into a glorious beginning.

Story produced during the Inter-University Media Challenge

By  NALUBEGA ESTHER TASOBYA

esietash@gmail.com

MAKERERE UNIVERSITY

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