People in Nairobi say that whatever you look for, you will find it in Eastleigh, or Little Mogadishu, as this Somali inhabited neighbourhood few kilometres east of the city centre is called. Here is where I am doing my fieldwork, trying to make sense of Somali transnational businesses, and I can hardly deny it.
Clothes, electronics, foodstuff, currencies, you name it.
Sure, also pirates.
According to a reportage by a Somali journalist aired few weeks ago on Channel 4 and gone viral on social media, Western reporters in pursuit of an adrenaline pumping story need just a couple of hundred bucks per hour for a compelling blend of exoticism, Islamic menace and social grievances (“We were fishermen but the foreign trawlers forced us to turn to piracy”). Actually, it came out that most of the ‘pirates’ who starred on photo-essays and documentaries had never been to Somalia and they were not even Somali. They were mostly from the North-Eastern Province and worked as waiters, porters and shopkeepers, integrating their regular meagre incomes with splendid earnings out of long rehearsed performances. According to the reportage, these part-time pirates are managed by an agency set up in Eastleigh by a guy who knows well the editorial logics of Western media. The reporter-meets-the-pirate (and he comes back alive) experience is staged in details, including the tense waits (“not yet, it’s too dangerous now”) which prepare the ground for the thrilling face-to-face. At the end of the day, everybody gets what they want: “pirates” get the money, journalists get a story, editors get an enticing filling between commercials.
The reportage prompted embarrassed replies from the victims of this piracy scam: the most illustrious one, Time magazine, refused to comment. There are many creative ways to make money out of journalists, but this could have been an invention out of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. The way it mocks the hunger for sensationalism of some Western media casts a heroic light on the perpetrators. My Somali friends, with whom I share the story sitting in the backyard of a language school in Eastleigh, agree. They particularly like the point of the reportage when ‘Osman’ (it sounds like the lapping of the waves against the keel of the ship, it smells like a spicy chai) explains how it works: “The boss come to us and tell us, you know, ‘the guys, the white man has come we need pirates, you know,’ so he say, ‘assume to be pirates.” Does the white man know that he is being fooled? I ask. Probably yes, my friends tell me (I suspect that they have another answer in mind but they do not want to rage on the white man), but he refuses to accept it, plunging into a state of denial made of sloppiness, lack of time, difficulty to run a background check and hurry to pitch the story before others do. Indeed, this scam reveals more about the Western media industry than about piracy or the Somali community in Kenya. It is another variant of the demand meets offer dynamic, which casts a light on what makes a story (particularly a story from Africa) more sellable. In fact, Somali businessmen make a point of pride out of their skill to understand what people want and how. Turning the dispersal of the diaspora into an asset, they have the pulse of multiple markets. Living at the intersection of different worlds, they boast their capacity to look at the same issue from different perspectives. Piracy is still an appealing item for foreigners, especially in this period, but it is cooling down, to a reasonable level. Since (real) pirates seem in retreat and the number of attacks is sharply falling, the topic is more manageable. Same cannot be said of other ‘items’. What about providing fake Shabaab militants? The idea earns some giggles but nothing else: after the spate of attacks in Eastleigh in December and January, and as the Kenyan army continues to be engaged in the operation Linda Nchi in Southern Somalia, paranoia still lingers. No good businessman would put this item on the market.
Not for now, at least.
Gianluca Iazzolino, CAS PhD student