As darkness engulfs Mogadishu, all but one of the Somali capital’s streets empty rapidly. Residents flock to Maka Al-Mukarama road to admire the new attraction: solar-powered street lamps.
Modest as it may seem, the illumination of this main thoroughfare is a remarkable sign of recovery in a once-gracious city battered by two decades of continuous unrest.
The new lamps, which capture sunlight to charge batteries, are being funded by the Norwegian government. Bit by bit, parts of the city are emerging from the shadows, starting with about 50 lamps along the Maka Al-Mukarama road running from the airport to the presidency at Villa Somalia.
When the sun goes down on a recent evening, the new lamps flicker into life.
“To me, this is a symbol of hope. A symbol that perhaps the good old days are back,” says Mohamed Moalim Suleyman, a 42-year-old businessman.
Strongman president Siad Barre was ousted in a 1991 coup and in the years that followed, bloody battles between rival militias, warlords and Islamist fighters reduced the formerly elegant Mogadishu to a wasteland of ruined buildings and many historic sites in the Italian colonial-era seaside town were deliberately targeted.
Strolling down the street with Suleyman is Gure Adan, 37, who works at the seaport.
Adan, who was just a teenager when the years of turmoil began and remembers little of pre-1991 Mogadishu, is excited about the new lights.
“A few months back, this road was very dark and deserted at night. Not any more. For the first time in 20 years, Mogadishu feels alive,” he said.
For the generation that remembers nothing but war, the street lights bring renewed optimism.
“From now on we can stay out longer at night. There’s not so much chance of getting killed,” says 19-year-old Salim Abdukadir. “We can even play football at night if we want,” he said, leaning against one of the lamps.
The capital once synonymous with lawlessness is showing other hopeful signs. Some Somalis who had once fled are returning, bringing with them money earned abroad to rebuild their homes and resurfacing walls scarred by bullets and blasts.
City officials hope the new lights will make life easier and safer.
“It was not hard to install and this is amazing technology,” a technician who helped put up the lights said, adding workers installed about 10 lampposts a day for a week.
In a city where traffic rules are but a distant memory, one driver has already crashed into a lamp post, said Mohamed Yusuf Osman, a spokesman for the Mogadishu city authorities.
A costly fine of $1,000 (795 euros) — a vast sum in one of the world’s poorest countries — will be enforced for anyone damaging the lamps.
Attending an event to mark the installation of lights, Mogadishu mayor Mohamud Ahmednur Tarzan said the lamps would help “wash away the memories of war”.
But some remain skeptical, arguing it will take more than a well-lit street to end the scourge of shootings and roadside bombs that still make Mogadishu one of the world’s most dangerous capital cities, a good nine months after Al-Qaeda affiliated Islamists pulled out of fixed positions.
“It is dangerous enough to walk this road during the day. Will street lights make it safer at night?” wonders Osman Ali, a grocer on a nearby street.