Video Games Keep Somali Boys Off Street

MOGADISHU, Somalia - Inside a hot, cramped room in the Somali capital, 10 sweating children sat on wooden desks, not unlike those found in schools. These boys, though, were not in class. They were staring at a small TV and tightly gripping video-game controllers.

Video games are the new rage in Somalia, a first-world entertainment option for teenage boys that wasn't permitted when ultraconservative al-Shabab militants controlled the capital. The insurgents - who were pushed out of Mogadishu last year by African Union and Somali troops - banned recreational pleasures like movies and Nintendo.

With the militants gone, Somali teens and boys are bingeing on entertainment systems like Sony's PlayStation, a development with both positive and negative aspects.

Some parents say the video games are helping to keep teens off the street, which in turn lowers the chances they might be recruited by al-Shabab. But many teens admit to skipping class to practice their gaming skills.

"I spend half of my day here. The video games are fascinating," said Abdirizak Muse, a 16-year-old who dropped out of his Mogadishu school in early 2011 after al-Shabab militants dug trenches around it.

Among the positive changes in Mogadishu since al-Shabab's ouster are new restaurants, a vibrant beach front, the reopening of the national theater and video-game parlors.

Mohamed Deq Abdullahi, a father of two teens, watched his boys play a soccer video game in a sweltering parlor on a recent sunny day. He sees the boys' new hobby as a beneficial development.

"This is his daylong activity because I don't want him get bored and go to war," Abdullahi said. "The busier they stay the more tired they get and the more they ignore violence."

During the Islamist uprising in 2006 that gave way to the al-Shabab militia, schools were prime recruitment sources for militants seeking to bolster their ranks. Hundreds, likely thousands, of children were lured into combat.

While video-game shops where teens can pay a fee to play by the hour are popular, the minority of more affluent Somalis are buying game systems for home. Muse Haji, a father of six, bought a system for his kids.

"For us it's a choice between the lesser evil and the bigger evil," he said. "Instead of my children going out and being radicalized and used as human bombs, it's better for me that they stay at homes and play games.

"We focus on nonviolent games such as car racing, soccer and some educational games," he added.

Haji said that like all children of this generation, his children are fanatics about technology, a positive change from generations past when kids were more interested in firing weapons and joining war.

At a video game shop in the Wardhigley district of Mogadishu, dozens of kids waited in line earlier this week to get a chance to play. The shop charges the equivalent of 10 cents for 15 minutes of play. The atmosphere is eerily quiet except for the beeping, whooshing and cheering emanating from the games.

"I have been here almost an hour to wait for my turn. I will play a game of soccer with my friend again," Shafici Osman, 14, said with an air of desperation as he watched his friends play. "I like coming here every day. I am either playing or watching others play. I am happy because my parents approve, and they give me money to play."

The sudden popularity of video games has created a strong business opportunity. Arcade owner Ahmed Aden said he has watched his business quickly grow since opening seven months ago.

"We started with two screens and now we have eight. Our business is booming," he said.

A 2011 U.N. report said that children were being systematically recruited by militants across central and southern Somalia. Schools - both teachers and students - were consistent targets by recruiters, the report said.

The report said some 50 schools suspended operations in south-central Somalia because of growing demands from militia groups as schools were destroyed and damaged during clashes between insurgents and government and African Union troops.

Ali Abdi, a 15-year-old, said he was trained to fight with al-Shabab, but after returning home for a visit his mother wouldn't let him return to the militia. Abdi's brother opened an arcade, where Abdi now happily spends his time. He plans to return to school when militants no longer recruit from classrooms.

"Many of my friends are unlucky and have taken part in the violence in the country. Some of them have died. Others are carrying guns around. In some ways, video games have saved my life," Abdi said.

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