* This blogpost is part of ongoing research work on COVID-19 in Somalia. It is Part 1 of a series of blogposts the blogger intends to post here, and elsewhere, on a regular basis with the hashtags #COVID19Somalia #DHUM @Diaspora_Hum.
PART 1: APRIL 20th
On March 16th 2020, Federal Government authorities announced the first case of COVID-19 in Mogadishu. A month later, the first case of the pandemic – locally popularly known as ‘cudurka dilaaga’ or the disease that kills – was officially confirmed in Garowe by the Puntland COVID-19 Response Committee. It is said to concern a 33-year old Somali male with no travel history whatsoever. The Committee, in its public video announcement, mentioned that this was worrying as it indicates that more people could have the virus and not know it.
In Garowe, like many other towns in Puntland, people are responding with mixed reactions. Few are engaged in preparedness practicing some form of social distancing. The overwhelming majority, however, is out and about.
For many locals the reality is that nothing much has changed. People are still in restaurants. Planning wedding parties. Young men are still playing football. Authorities seem ill-prepared for the pandemic and unaware of the health and social inequalities it poses. If health care workers are to make meaningful interventions, they need to understand how the COVDID-19 pandemic is locally perceived and what is on people’s hearts, minds and lips. How well informed is the community?
Through simple day to day chats with neighbors and friends data was gathered and an attempt is made to give some insight into how families in Puntland perceive the COVID-19 pandemic and how families are coping on a day to day basis.
Local perceptions of COVID-19 and coping strategies
If Mamo Halimo Yusuf is not in her small family shop by the corner of her house, then she is in her local market stall selling homegrown fresh produce. “I haven’t gone to the market these days”, she explained. I am unwell, otherwise I would’ve gone. The days ahead of Ramadan are particularly good for business but I am unwell and not able to go. It is too risky”.
While some take precaution, others believe that there is too much sin in the world and that this virus is a punishment sent by Allah to teach people a lesson. Hussein, a merchant confirms this “some people have confirmed it (the virus) will not kill Muslims as we wash and pray five times a day”. Coronavirus will only kill the infidels”.
But for Istaahil, a woman from my own neighborhood, it is different. “We are receiving daily messages on WhatsApp about how 1000s have died globally, including many Somalis at home and abroad. So, this virus clearly does not only kill non-Muslims.”
Praying more & harder
Coping with COVID-19 can be a stressful thing. Some resort to religious coping strategies -spiritual retreats, fasting and praying more. Families are praying together more and harder asking for forgiveness from the Almighty, neighbors and enemies. The holy month of Ramadan is fast approaching.
Mrs Shukri Doobe who sells milk on the street said, “We don’t sleep that well anymore. We worry a lot about the health of our loved ones. I’ve paid all my debts. I owed some people some money and I have paid all my debts. We read Surat-al-Fatiha 7 times, Allah will remove worries and pain.” In Harfo, groups of women have conducted aribari – spiritual offer rituals whereby a goat or sheep is slaughtered and alot of Quran is read through dhikhr. Sometimes the Quran is recited over water in a bowl and blown unto it. The water is then sprinkled onto individuals, clothes, the home as a form of protection.
Escape to the miyii – remote rural areas
Others, especially the elderly, have escaped to the miyii – the remote and rural areas of Puntland. It is believed that there is less congestion, less worry, and even less disease in the faraway miyii areas. People might as well be on lock down in the miyii and practice social distancing. The miyii is also associated abundance of camels and Somalis praise the health benefits of consuming camel milk, camel milk and even camel urine which is is used for various health purposes.
Bringing beloved ones together
Families are bringing in their elderly beloved ones from faraway places as shared again by Fatima – “I made arrangements for my elderly mother who lives in the Burtinle to be fetched and brought to Garowe. I want her to be with me in these difficult times. I don’t want her to suffer or die alone far away from me.” I am happy she is here now and she is well, alhamdulilah.”
Impact on small businesses
Small business owners are also affected. Yusuf Yoolax is a Forex dealer and has a small tin stand on the side of the street. “I can’t be outside for very long anymore. I have to close my business after Maghreb prayers. So, I am now operating from home at night.”
Similarly, women who own small and petty business such as selling vegetables or meat in the local market, are equally affected. Hawa Mohamed is such a woman who sells fresh produce in the local market. She explains “my family has been involved in the meat business for a long time. We herd livestock and sell fresh meat every day in the market. I meet 100s of people on any given day to sell meat or life livestock to. The demand has now changed, we are selling less meat now.”
Fears and frustrations
Social distancing and the recent curfew have led to frustrations. “We have been told not to go to mosque, to avoid large gatherings, not to visit neighbors, not to be in the tea shops or restaurants, so, what do we do? Where do we go? It’s too much. Do we stay at home all day? We will die of walwal iyo walbahaar – worry & stress in English – before the virus catches us.”
In some cities wearing a mask is frowned upon. In Galkayo, earlier this week, a young female student from one of the local universities wore a simple face mask to the market to protect herself. The people at the market soon started to confront her, eventually shouting at her as she looked suspicious, even accused of carrying the virus. She was instructed to remove the face mask because it scared people. For many it is a shameful thing to wear a mask in public. The same happened to another young man in the same town last week.
Ali Muse from my neighborhood in Garowe, also shared his frustrations; “Some people kill time by watching TV or playing on their devises. I am not such a person. For me that kitaab is my companion,” he explained, pointing to the Holy Quran on a nearby shelf.
Stocking up on essentials
Families have stocked up on essential dry foods and filled up their water storage areas underground enough water. “We are preparing little by little, but for how long we dont know”.
Not everyone can afford to stock up in advance on supplies. Some families must hunt for daily chores to earn some money to make a living the main question on their mind is “what do I feed my children today”, not where do i go to for social distancing or find a hand sensitizer. Such families often make a dollar a day from collecting trash, polishing shoes, sweeping public corridors or doing some laundry work. These families count on cash they have collected each day and have live with large families in small spaces where social distancing is impossible.
Protecting oneself from COVID-19 is an expensive affair and the pandemic exposes gender and other inequalities and vulnerabilities in Somalia. Not every Somali family in Somalia receives remittances from family members abroad. Not every Somali mother waits for cash from a third party at month-end.
*Sahra Ahmed Koshin is an Anthropologist and a researcher based in Garowe. She is a PhD Scholar in Diaspora Humanitarianism in Complex Crisis at the University of Nairobi and at the University of Copenhagen. She can be reached at email@example.com or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter- @sahro and @Diaspora_Hum.
Below are some pictures of different locations in Garowe taken today – Sunday 19 April, 2020, 16:53hrs.