Academics, artists, authors, musicians, poets and lovers of their work gathered in Somaliland’s vibrant capital, Hargeysa, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Hargeysa International Book Fair (HIBF) from 22 to 27 July 2017. Among hundreds of the festival’s attendees was a delegation of renowned literary figures from across Africa, including Djibouti, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Ghana and South Africa—all hosted in honour of the fair’s theme, connectivity. International diplomats, including Ambassador Veronique Lorenzo of the European Union, Ambassador David Concar of the United Kingdom and South Africa’s Ambassador to Eritrea, Iqbal Jhazbhay, also attended.
Founded in 2008, the fair has become a significant part of the country’s path to reconstruction where, in addition to discussions of books, crucial issues afflicting the country are addressed and the best of Somaliland’s culture is showcased to the world. This year’s book fair explored the prospective ways of linking Somaliland with its neighbours and the international community. In this regard, the fair covered a range of topics that spoke to the theme, connectivity, including education, language, local research and international collaboration, journalism, photography, and the relationship between drought and climate change. Also featured throughout the week were classic poetry readings, music, dance and board games. The fair was hosted in ten different locations in Hargeysa to mark its ten years achievement.
The keynote address at the 2017 Hargeysa Book Fair was given by Professor Ali Jimale, poet, essayist, scholar, short story writer and Professor of Comparative Literature at Queens College, City University of New York. He spoke about the richness of Somali culture, and African cultures more broadly, and the importance of not neglecting the crucial role of culture and local knowledge in the development of societies. Referring to connectivity, he explained how the Somali word for customary law, xeer, is the same word for the rope that binds together the Somali nomadic hut (aqal).
Emphasizing the theme of the book fair, Jimale also spoke about the need for African countries to empower themselves in order to find indigenous solutions to their problems. ‘It is as much about indigenizing the solution as it is about the problem’ he said. He also encouraged unity among the countries, adding that each country’s success and liberation is tied to the total emancipation of Africa.
In the quest to connect with the rest of the world, the book fair honoured South Africa as the guest country. In Africa, South Africa remains the epitome of freedom and development, is well known for its historical heroes and is also famed for its rich culture, prolific artists, poets and scholars. Protest poet Phomelelo Mamampi, Poet and Scholar Dr Raphael d’Abdon, Scholar David Monyae and Ambassador Iqbal Jhazbhay shared their work and explored ways in which the two countries could learn from each other’s experiences. They spoke about identity struggles and the role of the youth in the making of a nation and advancing Somaliland’s vision more strategically through arts, writing, activism and leadership. They explored ways in which the two countries could learn from each other, acknowledging that despite breaking the chains of apartheid, South Africa has a myriad of issues that still need to be addressed—from corruption to shortfalls in the education system, human rights issues and xenophobia.
Youth, the utmost wealth of Somaliland
Throughout the week, hundreds of flamboyant youth graced the book fair, not only as audiences but also as writers, journalists, photographers, activists and motivational speakers. A noteworthy development in this year’s fair was the fact that ninety per cent of the books launched and displayed at the fair were by young Somali writers, written in Somali. This was a moment of pride for the Somali writers who are mostly self-taught and draw inspiration from accomplished young Somali authors such as Nadifa Mohamed. While enthusiasm for writing is clear, publishers such as Looh Press and Sagal Press expressed the need for better support in terms of skill development and funding.
With the evident energy and productivity of the youth, the need to nurture young talent became a sentiment shared by many speakers throughout the week. Malawian poet and academic, Dr Mpalive Msiska, advised, ‘Writing, like everything else in life, is hard and demanding. However, with desire, tenacity and good planning anyone can become a good writer. I hope you will continue to write.’ Edna Adan added that the Somaliland youth are ‘the utmost wealth of Somaliland’.
It takes a school
Education remained a crosscutting theme in numerous panels at the fair. Recently, Somaliland hit international headlines for the extraordinary achievements of the Abaarso School. Founded in 2008 by American Jonathan Starr, the school has managed to send more of its students to some of the best schools in the world including Harvard, Georgetown and MIT. Nimo Ismali and Mustafa Elmi, alumni of the school who have both graduated from top American universities, sat on a panel with Starr where they attested to the values gained at Abaarso that led to their success. The panelists recognized that the success of Abaarso was a collective responsibility. Starr, who recently authored, It Takes a School, appreciated the remarkable local teachers and students who helped bring his vision to reality. Ismail and Elmi are now back in Somaliland and are teaching at the school as a token of appreciation and as a way of providing mentorship to the many young Somalilanders.
The book fair also explored ways of creating scholarly partnerships with neighbouring countries such as Ethiopia and Djibouti. It acknowledged the contribution of Ethiopian scholars to the African studies globally and identified prospects for academic collaborations such as inter-university collaboration between Somaliland and Ethiopia.
Opportunities for women
Despite the success stories of young women like Ismail in Somaliland, the struggle for equal opportunities for women continues. The fair discussed this lack of opportunities for women in both the public and private sectors in Somaliland. Ambassador Jhazbhay, who, in addition to being a diplomat, is an Islamic scholar, lauded women for their extraordinary contributions and achievements in society. Drawing his arguments from Quranic lessons where Allah honours women, he urged men and society as a whole to respect women. In the same breath, Edna Adan, the Director of Somaliland’s first maternity hospital and an advocate for women’s rights, encouraged young women to follow the footsteps of the Somali women leaders and to defy any form of fear. She recognized Ambassador Ayan Mohamud, HIBF co-founder, as a great example of what passion and courage can achieve in the face of difficult odds. She congratulated her for her work in supporting HIBF co-founder, Jama Musse Jama, in making the book fair a success over the years and her appointment as the first Somaliland Representative to the UK.
The fair dedicated a night of poetry, music and dance to women, with praises and words of encouragement.
Language and connectivity
Most of the sessions in this year’s fair were conducted in Somali with the ultimate aim of ensuring the majority of the audience were able to follow and engage in the discussions. Young writers, poets and musicians were all encouraged to preserve the Somali language by increasing its production. Concurring with this, Nadifa Mohamed, who is currently writing her third book, announced to an excited audience that she is translating Black Mamba Boy into Somali.
The seminal works of Hadrawi and Hudeydi, among other legendary poets and singers, were celebrated as the pride of the Somali culture. In this regard, language was referred to as essential to preserving culture and heritage. The novel, The Extinction of Menai, by Chuma Nwokolo from Nigeria, which was launched at the fair, also fed into the topic of language and culture, describing how the fictional Menai people of Nigeria’s Kreektown lost their identity after an unethical drug was administered to them.
The fair also explored ways in which Somaliland could link with its Somali-speaking neighbours through research, education, trade and other developmental portals. Participants were also encouraged to learn foreign languages in order to expand their worldview and opportunities.
2018 Somali Studies International Association
In preparation to hosting the 2018 Somali Studies International Association (SSIA), the book fair, in conjunction with the Rift Valley Institute, hosted a panel on Somali research that explored the realities of conducting research in Somali territories and ways to increase the production of local knowledge. The panel pointed out that most research on Somali regions are carried out by non-Somalis and are usually donor-driven. This has been a longstanding issue raised by Somali scholars, sometimes referred to as Cadaan Studies. The SSIA aims to assist young Somali scholars to address the sense of disconnect and encourage them to be more active and take ownership of scholarly contributions. The SSIA is also expected to provide a platform for young Somali scholars to showcase their work and to interact with international academia. Two of the panelists, Nasir Ali and Abdullah Duh from Hargeysa University and Puntland State University, are working with the Rift Valley Institute to build the capacity of their institutes to undertake research that is generated locally and is relevant to local needs. With funding from the Somali Stability Fund the project trains teachers in research methodologies and provides grants for research.
Drought and climate change
In addition to discussing books, poetry and dance, the fair also examined what is currently considered the worst drought experienced in the region since the 1970s. The panel, which included representatives from the UN and Somaliland’s Ministry of Information, among others, investigated the role of climate change in the development of drought. Dr Mohamud Hashi, an economist and climate change expert, stated that the tremendous decrease in rainfall in recent years is evidence that climate change is a reality in Somaliland and has contributed to the current drought. Key concerns for Somaliland include long term degradation of pastoral and agricultural land and freshwater resources resulting in threats to food security, the economy and health. Speakers also pointed out that severe environmental degradation caused by climate change will lead to increased rural-urban migration as well as migration out of Somaliland. For these reasons, they called for a strategic review of the national development plan to include ways to combat climate change.
Thirty kilometres outside Hargeysa lies Laas Geel, a beautiful and monumental site of cave formations and symbolic paintings that date back to 7000 BCE. The paintings in this site include images of human figures and animals, some of which are no longer present in Somaliland, such as giraffes. For Somalilanders, this site holds a significant heritage value as it not only serves as a tourist attraction but also depicts ancient cattle herding culture. While the site draws tourists, its world heritage status remains unrecognized. In the quest to advance its recognition by UNESCO, the book fair, in collaboration with Friends of Laas Geel, hosted a poetry reading session at the site, with renowned local and international poets.
Culture and Development
After ten years, the 2017 Hargeysa Book Fair proved once again the relevance of this cultural event for the people of Somaliland—young and old—and the wider Somali-speaking region. With events held in ten different locations around Hargeysa it demonstrated how the fair has grown in parallel with the city. The fair was therefore both a showcase of the revival and value placed on Somali culture—particularly among the youth—and the central importance of culture in the development of a country.