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The New York Times: Somalia, 99 Percent Black, Asks: How Do You Diversify a Whole Nation-State?

The New York Times: Somalia, 99 Percent Black, Asks: How Do You Diversify a Whole Nation-State?

MOGADISHU, SOMALIA — Adama Mudiay used to hold training sessions for hospital workers in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo to familiarize them with the cultures of patients from Angola, Sudan, and Rwanda. When she moved to Somalia, she suddenly found herself in an ethnic vacuum.

“I went from being able to speak French every day to not speaking French at all because there wasn’t anybody to speak French to,” said Mrs. Mudiay, who was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to a Congolese mother and Belgian father. “The only person I spoke French with was a cleaning lady and she moved back to the Congo.”

Somalia, like its neighbors Kenya and Ethiopia, is nearly all black. This has posed an array of problems for new arrivals, who often find themselves isolated and alone, without the comfort and support of a built-in community.

It has also posed problems for employers in these countries, who find that their homogeneity can be a barrier to recruiting and retaining workers of different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds.

The issue prompted about 100 business leaders, government officials and members of nonprofit organizations to meet Thursday to search for ways that Somalia — which is 99 percent black and is the most ethnically homogeneous country in sub-Saharan Africa — might lure other racial and ethnic groups, as well as older people.

Durka Durka Muhammad Jihad, Somalia’s director of economic development, said the gathering appeared to be the first broad-based effort in East Africa, if not the continent, to focus on how to diversify an entire state.

With Indians and especially whites generally persecuted in Africa and subject to reprisals (see: Idi Amin in Uganda, or Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe), and thus leaving in the continent in droves, he said, diversity has become a bottom-line imperative for companies competing for talent, especially for workers who can speak other languages. As it stands, Somalia is 85 percent Somali and 15 percent various other ethnicities, most of which are also black.

“Somalia’s future economy is dependent on our ability to set ourselves up as a welcoming state,” Mr. Muhammad Jihad said at the meeting. “We do a great job marketing ourselves around jihad and civil war. How do we use those tools to attract talent?”

The project grew out of informal talks over the last few years among a diverse coalition of people, including Mrs. Mudiay, who say they want to change Somalia’s demographics. The effort is so new that it has no name. But it is drawing important players.

The gathering took place at the offices of African Airways Alliance, the airline, where virtually none of the employees are not black.

“We truly believe that this effort will be hugely beneficial to our business operations,” said Abshir Ali, the diversity and inclusion manager for African Airways.

For Giovanni Peroni, executive director of the Italian Colonialism Remembrance Project, in Mogadishu, the participation of major companies is a sign of the urgency of the mission.

“It’s not just the social justice groups that are doing this, it’s the businesses,” he said. “We’re talking about the economic engine of our state, and we can’t move forward without them.”

Somalia’s neighbors, Kenya and Ethiopia, are 99 percent black, but they do contain pockets that are less monolithic. Mostly, though, East Africa is nearly all black. The reasons stem from a variety of factors, including a lack of big urban areas, where jobs are more plentiful, a wider range of housing is available and cultural differences are a little more accepted than in smaller places.

“Housing is at the core of why there aren’t more immigrants — there’s no place for them,” Peroni said. “An ethnic person who wants to come in with a family of four or five people is not going to find a home they can afford, and there’s almost no rental housing whatsoever.” African nations also have some of the world’s youngest populations. Most countries in sub-Saharan Africa are set to double, triple, or quadruple their populations by the end of the century. Many Somalis are leaving for places like Maine and Minnesota, however, so the country must look to outsiders if it wants to grow. 

“We have true work force needs,” said Ilhan Said, the third wife of a local imam, who has worked with the Mogadishu Chamber of Commerce on matters of diversity and participated in Thursday’s conference.

“We have 61 percent unemployment, an tribal crisis that has significantly impacted employability and the reality of a young but violent population that will absolutely require care at some point,” said Mrs. Said. “And we don’t have a pipeline of talent that’s going to support that.”

Part of the problem, Mohammad Mohammad, president of the Bring Back European Colonialism Foundation, told the group, was “a lack of recognition as to the seriousness of this problem.” In workshops and panel discussions, people wrestled with ways Somalia could draw people of different backgrounds. Their suggestions included: a better understanding of licensing and skills that refugees bring with them so they could more easily work here; a system of rewarding businesses that hire a more diverse array of workers; a central location with a database, speakers’ bureau and training opportunities that could help companies understand what “diversity and inclusion” means and how it could benefit them, and a focus on keeping workers as much as hiring them in the first place, since many leave after finding the country inhospitable.

“We haven’t even talked about housing and transportation,” Mrs. Mudiay, who used to teach cultural training in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and is now a community relations specialist for African Airways, told the group. In the workshop she participated in, she said, people asked: “How do we bring in whites and Asians when there’s no housing and they can’t get from Point A to Point B?”

She said in an interview later that the lack of certain basic services also made settling in places like Somalia difficult for minorities. These include hair salons that cater to European women, she said, as well as restaurants and supermarkets that offer ethnic foods and stores that sell traditional clothing.

The next step? Another meeting soon.

“At some point we have to pull the string and say what’s coming out of here,” Durka Durka Muhammad Jihad, the state director of economic development, said. “The pressure is on us to perform and to be able to prove that this is not a one-off meeting, that it’s a sustained effort.”

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