Hell’s Kitchen

How a cook becomes a symbol of Mogadishu’s painful rebirthing

Ahmed Jama is a cook. He had a quiet job in London, yet one day he decided to return to his Mogadishu. Here he opened a restaurant with the idea of restoring confidence in a city ravaged by civil war, and of healing with food the fractures caused by the conflict. The al-Shabaab islamic extremists did not like the notion, and they blew it up. Jama opened another, in a different neighborhood. Al-Shabaab sent a suicide bomber who blew himself up killing customers and staff. The same happened to the next three restaurants. After the last attack, Jama took up the head of the aggressor and personally threw it into the street, opposite the entrance of his restaurant. “I wanted to make a gesture of defiance”, he says. Five hours later, the restaurant was again open to the public.

Jama leads an impossible life: he rarely goes out for fear of being killed, and when he moves he changes each time the route. But he doesn’t lose heart, because he is convinced that, if during the past 25 years Somalia could ever hope to get back to normal, the moment is now. Jama is not the only one to believe it: encouraged by the perspective of the country’s first electoral experiment, planned for 2016, many Somalis of the diaspora are returning to their homeland. And for the first time in a quarter century the economy seems to be recovering.

Somehow, Jama is a symbol of Somalia trying to revive. In the West he would never be called a chef, but some in Mogadishu consider him a hero.