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Somaliland's Hargeisa book festival celebrates fifth year

by Mark Tran
Monday, July 16, 2012

Refugees in Hargeisa in 2009. Jama Musse Jama hopes the book festival will inspire local young people to get involved in cultural activities. Photograph: Antonio Olmos for the Guardian

Horn of Africa's answer to Hay-on-Wye fills cultural void for young in country where 70% of population are under 30

It is an unlikely spot for a literary festival, a town of half a million people with no theatre and no cinema. But Hargeisa is carving out a reputation as the Horn of Africa's answer to Hay-on-Wye by attracting readers and writers from around the world to its book fair.

Ensuring that Somaliland's oral tradition endures is one of the motivating factors behind the Hargeisa book fair, the brainchild of Jama Musse Jama, a senior analyst with a computer science company who lives in Pisa, Italy.

The event – now in its fifth year – celebrates not just literature but theatre, film and music, as well as showing off Somaliland's local products from fruit to its version of Coca-Cola.

Held in the working men's club in central Hargeisa, the presentations are given in a packed hall, with red, green and white streamers – the colours of the national flag – on the ceiling where the white paint is visibly peeling.

A makeshift tent outside houses volunteers, including young women wearing hijabs and backwards baseball caps, selling old paperbacks and newer ones published by the organisers.

At nearby stalls in the dusty yard, women sell large watermelons, lemons and soft drinks under bright red parasols to ward off the sun. Unlike Hay-on-Wye, armed soldiers in fatigues are in evidence. Although this is one of the safest cities in the Horn of Africa – metaphorically, it's a million miles from Mogadishu – the authorities are taking no risks.

Jama left Somaliland in 1986 for Mogadishu, the Somali capital, and did not return until 1991, when Somaliland declared itself an independent republic. During its breakaway Hargeisa was so heavily bombed that it became known as the Dresden of Africa. Since then – in stark contrast to Somalia – Somaliland has been a haven of relative calm and stability, aided by millions of dollars in remittances from the Somali diaspora, many living in the US and the UK. It is now courting foreign investors, although the lack of international recognition can be a hurdle.

Jama started the book fair not only to ensure the survival of Somaliland's rich oral tradition, but to fill what he saw as a cultural void. "It is unacceptable that in this city there is no national theatre and no cinema. There is nothing for young people to do," he said.

Somaliland has about 3 million inhabitants with up to 70% aged under 30. Jama wants the arts to provide a healthy alternative for the young to chewing khat – the ubiquitous drug in the region – or worse, following the siren call of al-Shabaab, the Islamist militants in Somalia.

Ayan Mahamoud, who co-manages the book fair and organises its sister festival in London every October, also trumpets the importance of the arts and culture in building national identity.

"You can't become a nation by just building an army and a police, you need the arts … through books you change people's minds," she said. "You need a culture of peace and tolerance. The book fair provides a space for our youth to engage and discuss with each other."

Among those at this year's event is Georgi Kapchits, a Russian who during the cold war worked for Moscow Radio, the Soviet Union's version of the BBC World Service. Having graduated in African studies at Moscow University, he found himself broadcasting to Somalis on Somali folklore. Decades later, Kapchits, 72, is promoting his new book, Somalis Do Not Lie in Proverbs. Many of the proverbs featured were sent in by his listeners over the years.

"I wanted to collect these proverbs to make sure the oral tradition does not die out," he said, as he walked along Hargeisa's unpaved roads, strewn with discarded plastic bags used for khat.

The fair's organisers also want it to be a showcase for Somali literature, to bring it to the wider world and to bring international literature through translations to Somalis. Recently Jama's publishing house has published translations of works by George Orwell and Anton Chekhov, and provided an English translation of essays by Muuse Ismaaciil Galaal, a leading Somali literary figure.

Beyond the fair, its organisers have been promoting readers' clubs in Somaliland's six regions as a way of pressurising regional leaders to build libraries. "We've had pledges of land and now two regions have pledged buildings for libraries," said Mahamoud.

Rahma Hassan Tubez, 20, a medical student and readers' club member, is at the fair to see Mohamed Ibrahim Warsame "Hadraawi", considered Somalia's greatest living poet. Tubez said Hadraawi had complimented her on her Arab poetry and had urged her to write in Somali.

"When I was young my dream was to become a doctor, now whenever I have free time I write poetry," said Tubez, who cites Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People as her favourite book. "This year I started writing Somali poetry because Hadraawi had encouraged me."


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