Mogadishu, Somalia — ``Sharks don't eat people. They bite people. Like a dog. I've never known anyone eaten by a shark. The only problem is that their bite is sometimes a little bit fatal.'' From his office in the weathered mariner's tower overlooking old Mogadishu harbor, Englishman Adrian Saunders must be the only person here ready to strike up a defense on behalf of the sharks that prowl much of Somalia's Indian Ocean coastline.
With a history dating back to the 10th century, the Somali capital was first settled by Arab and Persian merchants seeking hides, skins, precious gums, ostrich feathers, ivory, and slaves from the Abyssinian hinterland.
``All these stories you hear about shark attacks are overdramatized,'' argues Mr. Saunders, who is advising the Somalis on how to develop their coastal fishing industry. ``You see, I am a sort of defender of sharks, even though I fish about a thousand of them a year.''
He has theories, curious ones, about why Mogadishu sharks tend to attack only between May and November. ``It all has to do with livestock exports,'' he suggests, noting that the shark population varies according to the amount of animal entrails chucked into the sea from the city slaughterhouse.
No one here seems particularly anxious to put Saunders' shark theories to the test. At least not voluntarily. Whether eaten or bitten, people are still being attacked, the most recent fatality occurring, ironically enough, at a place called Shark's Bay some 10 miles down the coast.
None of these incidents, however, have curbed the determination of some local residents to go swimming, or at least get wet. For Somalia has some of the finest windswept beaches on the continent and it would be a pity not to use them.
The diplomats and the international-development crowd head for the beaches south of the capital on weekends, where their four-wheel-drive vehicles, tents, picnic hampers, Frisbees, and umbrellas punctuate each little cove, sand dune, and headland. Some, like the Marines from the United States Embassy, venture in, but only up to their chests. ``Even then,'' drawled one strapping soldier, ``we all face outwards.''
A somewhat ramshackle, treelined city of aging coral stone buildings, delapidated Mediterranean villas, and nondescript bungalows, Mogadishu is not an unpleasant place. Despite the often torrid humidity, a perpetual breeze wafts in from the Indian Ocean, the waves of which thunder with spectacular vehemence against the ramparts of the old port.
Arab and Persian influences of the past stand out. The mixing of cultures has lent Mogadishu and other port cities such as Brava or Merca, a distinct atmosphere. The Old Town part of Mogadishu is a labyrinth of narrow alleyways, dark, medieval courtyards, moldy townhouses, and ancient mosques.
Since independence from Britain and Italy in 1960, other influences have left their mark. The 1969 coup led by Gen. Siyad Barre brought a Soviet-backed police state whose ``scientific socialism'' soon led the country to economic ruin.
It also cluttered the capital with statues of soldiers striking heroic poses, shoddy blue-painted party edifices, and ghastly patriotic posters, one depicting Siyad Barre being hailed by throngs of peasants with fixed Mao Tse-tung grins.
``You can't imagine how much time everyone wasted attending parades, speeches, and more parades,'' a Somali friend said. ``Apart from helping us ruin our country, that's all the Russians ever really gave to us in abundance.
Despite Mogadishu's shabbiness, it is a city to which one grows easily attached. Bank clerks may doze at their desks, ministries may close for the day by noon, and gasoline may be impossible to buy. But there remains a certain charm. Somali warmth and hospitality are disarming and one can only shrug one's shoulders in resigned frustration at the inconveniencies.
The women, strikingly beautiful in their guntimos -- cotton or silk wrap-arounds ranging from canary yellow to lavender blue -- move about unveiled. Mogadishu is an easygoing city, lacking the constraints and intolerance often encountered in more conservative Islamic societies.
The city, as with the rest of the country, is still under military dictatorship, but ``scientific socialism,'' with its inefficient government conglomerates and top-heavy bureaucracies, is being overhauled or abandoned. Private enterprise, which is far closer to the Somali sense of tradesmanship than state farms and Marxist rallies, is making a comeback.
Strolling through the jammed side streets and bazaars in the early evening, I could scarcely believe the myriad of small shops that have appeared. Glowing new plastic signs boast Japanese radios, Swiss watches, West Germany engineering instruments, or Italian sunglasses.
Compared to the forlorn and empty shelves of earlier days, shops now bulge with consumer goods. New restaurants have appeared, as have office blocks, hotels, and apartment buildings. Much of this new consumerism, however, is not solving Mogadishu's tangle of urban problems: water, health care, unemployment, and overcrowding. From a small town of 35,000 at the end of World War II, the Somali capital has swollen to an estimated 700,000, but its municipal facilities have failed to keep pace with demand.
Notwithstanding government propaganda stressing progress, Somalia's health situation is disastrous. Numerous water points in and around the city, for example, are badly contaminated and filthy.
Another problem is the surge of people who have flocked to the city over the past two or three years in search of food and jobs. People rummaging through garbage or begging are not an uncommon sight.
But as in so many cities ranging from Port Sudan to Djibouti and Mombasa, it is the children who are often left to fend for themselves.
Wearing grimy pants and shirts, a few with beat-up rubber thongs, but most barefoot, they rush up to foreigners shouting: ``Baksheesh! Baksheesh!'' which, roughly translated, means ``tip.'' For a small tip they will watch, or protect, one's car.
A rough and tumble lot, they clamber onto one's vehicle, fighting among themselves for the honor. Many carry razor blades, usually for protection against each other, and have scars to prove it. Periodically, the kids are hauled in by the police who, as a precaution against lice, shave their heads. Their short-lived baldness is a source of great embarrassment.