The Making Of Dahabshiil: A Brief Interview by Ahmed I. Samatar with Haji Mohamed Said Duale, the founder of Dahabshiil and one of the two wealthiest among all Somalis in the Horn of Africa at present.
Haji Mohamed Said Duale (best known as Dahabshiil) is the wealthiest Somalilander and one of the two richest among all Somalis in the Horn of Africa at the present time. This interview took place during two Ramadan nights in the summer of 2019. The first episode was conducted at his palatial and extensive compound in eastern Hargeisa, the capital of the Republic of Somaliland; the latter episode was recorded at a suite in the prime Damal Hotel in the same city.
Haji Mohamed Said Duale is, in all appearance and immediate mannerisms, an exceptionally dignified, self-effacing, and considerate man. These characteristics are coupled with a quickness of intelligence, restrained but a good sense of humor, quiet assertiveness, speaking fluently in high grade Somali and with precision, and an admirable entrepreneurial ambition for his already vast and thriving constellation of companies, as well as for the Somali people, if the latter would only resurrect their collective civic belonging. There is no doubt, then, that his profile among all Somalis is one of prideful recognition as a remarkable model of ingenuity and disciplined energy. My own late grandfather, Samatar Mohamed Farah, commonly known as “Samatar Dhere”, celebrated as a community leader during his own long life, left with the rest of us and for the ages this instructive and relevant insight: “there are only two ways to build the human universe to a distinguished level: the creation of wealth or the production of knowledge.” Each endeavor, according to him, required stupendous dedication, exceptional acuity, and conscientious and continuous labor. Dahabshiil’s awesome and worldly success confirms one part of Samatar Dhere’s gnomic assertion.
During the first installment of this interview, we sat at Dahabshiil’s capacious and well-furnished living room, in the most sprawling compound in the city and built-in 2012. He welcomed me with the mixture of low-key modesty, even diffidence, and generosity that has become his trademark. We sat comfortably and each draped in a soft macawis, and occasionally indulging in an assortment of tea, water, and delicacies that were laid out for us on the side.
Ahmed I. Samatar: Where do we start, perhaps when and at what place you were born?
Dahabshiil: I came into the world in a rural area in the Haud zone of the deep Togdher region. This was during the time of the British Protectorate. Because Somalis in this region did not pay much attention to the colonially designated boundaries, my extended family would crisscross the demarcation line, depending on the availability of rainwater and pasture for our livestock. The nearest village was called Habura, now administered by the town of Gashamo. I believe I was born around the late forties, perhaps 1948.
AIS: How about your forefathers and mothers?
Dahabshiil: My grandparents died before I was born, and my father passed away in 1966 in the south of Yemen. He was not working there but was on a visit when death came to him. My mother died in Burao about fifteen years ago.
AIS: What was your father’s occupation?
Dahabshiil: He was essentially the leader of a pastoral household in the nomadic way of making a livelihood. However, though I was not witnessing to that; others have told me that my father carried out some basic chores for the Italian invaders of Ethiopia in the 1930s.
AIS: In your childhood, what do you most remember about your parents? Were you closer to one of them?
Dahabshiil: First of all, I think it is universal that when children are very young, they have a propensity to be closer towards their mother. Given the nature of childbirth, the intimacy is greater. The father is certainly crucial in teaching one about the ways of life, about obligations, and rules. But the mother is the source of immediate gentleness and personal care.
AIS: In your first decade of life or so, what are the things that you remember the most?
Dahabshiil: Because of the fact that we were pastoralists roving in the Miyi, all I could recall was the vastness of the territory, the impermanence of settlements, the preciousness of rain and pasture, and the prevalence of austerity in all aspects of the living conditions.
AIS: How about wildlife, such as lions and hyenas?
Dahabshiil: In that part of the territory, there were no lions, leopards, or elephants. One could see smaller wildlife such as foxes, maybe hyenas, gazelles, dik-diks, rabbits, and the like. Some of these were relatively bountiful.
AIS: When was the first time you thought about working for yourself, and, therefore, going it alone?
Dahabshiil: Though I cannot be precise, I believe the death of my father created an immediate challenge – that is, we became orphans. I had three older siblings, one brother (Ismail Said who is still alive) and two sisters. Ismail began to work in Aden, Yemen, but the remittances he was sending back to us were not enough for what was then a somewhat large family. Of course, the support from Ismail was coupled with yields from our livestock, which, in the end, made it possible for us to sustain ourselves. But it is important to note that I always desired to go to the urban world. I wanted to get some schooling as well as join the alluring culture in towns. It also dawned on me that work and standards of living of those households who had more livestock and those who had less were no different. Their clothing was the same, the food was the same, the housing was quite similar, and the general rhythm of life was monotonously identical. While such a way of life had its own worth, I saw Miyii circumstances as stagnant and with no opportunities for progress. Consequently, I began to imagine what life in towns will be like. In fact, such a dream became sweet and irresistible enough that I decided to go to Burco. My purpose was to at once go to school and earn a living. While it was difficult to line up both, I was able to register for night school through a program called “Adult Education.” As for the day, I began to work in a basic teashop owned by a relative who had returned from Aden a few years back. I kept on these two tracks for a few months. Because I had no expensive social habits (belwed), I was able to survive and then make a bit of success of my introduction into urban existence. A few months later, and this was mid-1967, I was called in by another relative who had a shop in the town. He invited me to work for him and run the store, while he attended to his growing trade in livestock — one of Burao’s primary and most lucrative economic activity. He offered me sixty shillings a month, a sum that made me extremely elated.
AIS: Why did you feel so happy?
Dahabshiil: I never, heretofore, had such amount, so I was stunned. I began immediately to pass most of the monthly sum to my family back in the rural settlements. For me, life in town and working in the shop was satisfactory. For instance, I had access to food, including generous portions of subag (ghee) with most of my meals. I began to feel safe from hunger, and even in rare moments when I experienced its pinch, I always found a few dates and some water or milk. At nighttime, I slept under the counter of the shop. From that moment, then, I felt satisfied. The shop was doing brisk business. Among others, many of the members of the families of Somali armed forces stationed in Burao were our customers to an extent that they opened credit lines for their daily needs such as sugar, tea, rice, and oil and then paid their accumulated bills by the end of the month. The key person in these transactions was a respected sergeant. He played the role of damiin (guarantor). Business in the shop began to rise. Now, the customers in Burao were of two types: those who were working for the Somali Government and those who were from the rural areas and temporarily visited the town to sell livestock, milk, and other pastoral products in return to buy the items they needed. There were also scatterings of students in various types of lower-level educational institutions.
AIS: At that stage, were you just an employee, or did you acquire any equity in the shop?
Dahabshiil: No equity at that moment. I was working for the owner. However, as months passed on, I bought a sack of sugar – one produced at the famous Jowhar sugar factory in the South and originally established by Italian colonialists. This sugar was brought to Burao and sold by the Commercial Bank to the more substantial traders in the town. The owner of our shop was not among the big traders. Consequently, that gave me a fleeting opportunity. However, on the fateful morning of October 21, 1969, while I was not aware of it, the military coup took place. One of my passions as a young man was keenly listening to the radio, particularly the National Broadcasting Service from Mogadishu and the Somali section of the BBC from London. I was a devotee of the news and artistic programs such as songs, poetry, and drama. On that morning of October 21, as was my habit, I tried to turn on the radio at 6:00 am. Strangely, it was silent. I examined the set to see if everything was in rightful order. I found no technical problems, yet there was no trace of the regular programming. After an hour of dead silence, suddenly an unfamiliar and heavy voice came through. The first words were these: “This is Radio Mogadishu, the voice of the Somali people.” This was quite different from the past whose mantra was: “This is Radio Mogadishu, the voice of the Somali Republic.” The announcer declared that he had an “urgent” message and kept repeating that again and again. I decided not to pay too much attention, and thus, focused on filling the orders of my early customers. Around mid-morning, I went out to buy more sugar. I entered into one of the wholesale stores and bought a sack of sugar. I think I paid about 125 shillings. In those days, the Somali shilling was relatively valuable, with a stable exchange rate to the US dollar of just over six shillings. I hired, a xamaal (a porter) to bring it back to the store where I began to sell the content in small retail quantities. A few hours later, and in the midst of the transaction with women customers, there appeared a military vehicle at the front of the shop. Two soldiers dismounted and walked into the shop. They inquired whether I had acquired the sugar, and I replied in the affirmative. They asked where it was, and I pointed to the open sack. They took the sack and then ordered me to come with them. With a degree of bewilderment, I hurriedly closed the shop and was driven to a station.
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