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From Hargesia to London: A different perspective, Somalis changing the narrative through literature and art

For the last one year that I have been working as the Information Coordinator for Somalia programme, I seem to have a first for everything and my story below will not be any different.  During the month of August 2015, I was honored to participate in the Hargeysa International Book Fair (HIBF) in Somaliland.  For those hearing of this event for the first time, HIBF is the largest celebration of Somali literature and culture in East Africa that brings together people from far and wide in order to promote a culture of reading and writing in the country.  12182610_901026189982165_382385106474047066_o

During the 2015 ‪‎HIBF, Oxfam was there to celebrate with its partner the Redsea Cultural Foundation and share in the SPACE as the theme suggested celebrating the art and culture of the Somali folks.  I was told by a veteran guest and writer, Chuma Nwokolo that each year, The Fair brings together famous writers, celebrated poets, skillful artists and noble thinkers not only from Somaliland but the world over to explore and discuss their art and literary productions with the audience.

The organizers of the Book Fair have seen its popularity and interest grow as it builds on a vibrant oral tradition of poetry and songs through which history and culture are shared and enriched. Themes explored in the past include future, imagination, memories amongst others. The 2015 theme of space looked at various aspects such as physical space, social space, political space, spiritual space, cultural space, personal space etc and what each of these mean to us and in particular the Somali people.

12182962_902037946547656_8666339614453759687_oThere were lots of spectacular displays on show of art, books and great photography exhibitions by local and international photographers such as ‘Flowers of Hargeisa’ by Alison Baskerville. Alison was once told that the plastic bags around the city of Hargeisa were the flowers of the city but she sees the real flowers as the women of Hargeisa.

On one of the days, Oxfam had an amazing opportunity to engage with the crowd mostly youth, activists and authors through an interactive session and panel discussion whilst launching its report ‘Somali Solutions: creating conditions for a gender-just peace’. Applause! Applause! Applause! from the audience to our invited guests Annab Omer and Nafisa Mohamed: women pioneers for women empowerment who shared their historical journey towards creating space for women in leadership and decision making. These two women were extensively involved in the peace process of Somalia post the civil war. We were also happy to present the research report to the British High Commissioner for Somalia who was also in attendance.

12183982_902036849881099_2243302946596744334_oIn the same breath, I had an opportunity to travel to London to also participate in the Somali Week Festival (SWF) and just like the Hargeysa International Book Fair (HIBF) the theme remained that of ‘Space’. The guests talked about the spaces Somali arts and culture has carved out over the years, the spaces that are being eroded, and the new spaces that are being expanded and enriched. There were emphasis on the significance of preserving Somali heritage and looking at the importance of creating tolerant cultural spaces where intellectual discussions can take place.

The SWF created an excellent opportunity for artists to continue to explore alternative creative outlets for their work while also looking at ways of reviving traditional spaces that are vastly disappearing. I absolutely enjoyed the launch which showcased some of the poets and writers who have broken the boundaries placed upon women’s artistic freedom to recite the gabay (Somali poems) while at the same time advocating for the preservation of culture. Somalis are an oral society – this is what defines them and their abilities of oral composition are amazing as was witnessed when these gracious women stood up to recite their poems.

Another interesting conversation that captivated me was the one on Somalis in the media which explored the different ways in which they can change the narrative and one-sided position currently being offered by looking at a range of media platforms and tools like social media to empower the Somali people to have their voices heard and change their own narrative. The phenomenal instagram sensation Ugasso Boccow and reclaimed journalist Mohammed Adow of Al Jazeera were amongst the guest speakers who talked about their efforts towards showing a different perspective of Somalia through their work and challenges they face especially having lived in the Diaspora and trying to return home to rebuild what was left behind.

12029823_900298070054977_5951515522010738465_oAs we came to the close of the event, I vividly remember one of the writers quoting that what makes culture resilient is the acceptance of change, understanding the importance of individual independence and self adaptation to circumstances. The Somalis are known for their resilience so these words resonated quite well and took their thoughts back home. I also noted that women’s representation at both events was well catered for as they were taking the lead in various discussions debates, presentations, coordination etc. The youth came out strongly in expressing their concerns and provided significant contributions on their views and the future they would like to see for Somalia. It was evident to see that actually the ‘space’ that was created has empowered youth and women whom in the past had this space shrunk to express their views and concretely elaborate what their issues are without fear or reprimand.

I was pleased to be in the same space as that of a very curious and intellectual crowd that mostly comprised of youth in a conversation about art forms and art spaces. They reflected on their work and what the future holds for the Somali language, music and theater. I feel privileged to also have been a part of creating this space where traditions and cultures can be exchanged while at the same time ask for tolerance, support and appreciation of our diversity.

photos by Alexandra Chege/Oxfam

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