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Rift Valley Institute

Making local knowledge work

Hargeysa International Book Fair 2015


The 8th Hargeysa International Book Fair (HIBF) was held in Hargeysa, Somaliland from 1 to 6 August 2015. The fair is organised by Redsea Cultural Foundation, a partner of the Rift Valley Institute.

The theme of the year was ‘Spaces’, aimed at exploring the different areas human beings occupy physically, spiritually, culturally, artistically and politically, among others. For the organisers, it was also an opportunity to reflect on the arts and the way they are growing, particularly in the Somali context. Somalis, traditionally nomads, now inhabit different spaces as a result of strife, urbanisation and other factors. The festival theme was an inquiry into how changes in the world today affect the wellbeing and expression of people as they develop and grow in new spaces.

The festival brought together writers, poets, artists and activists from Somaliland, Nigeria, Malawi, Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, Djibouti and the United Kingdom, among other countries. Over the six days of the festival, many attendees were drawn to the vibrant discussions and performances on social and cultural reconstruction, especially of Somaliland. Distinguished guests included the First Lady of Somaliland, Her Excellency Amina Mahamud Jirde, Harriet Mathews, the British Ambassador to Somalia, Alberto Fait from the European Union and Mohamed Ibrahim Hadraawi, the renowned Somali poet.

In the spirit of connecting Somaliland to the wider African continent, Nigeria was the HIBF 2015 guest country. Nigeria, the most populous country of Africa, is also famous for its prolific scholars and artists. Professor Niyi Osundare, Dr Okey Ndibe and Chuma Nwokolo spoke of their identity, culture and arts. From literature to governance, the guest panellists underscored the need for integrity in the production of cultural material and leadership. Drawing from their national experiences, the Nigerian writers called for a respect of diversity in order to avoid conflict. For them, Africa’s challenge lies in building good governance that fights corruption, violence and other vices that cripple the continent. The Nigerian delegation also presented their recent works and shared the enduring historical and political significance of Chinua Achebe’s seminal novel, Things Fall Apart.

The theme ‘Spaces’ was covered in the course of the week through artistic expressions and discussions on gender equality, identity, leadership and governance.

The home of poetry

Poetry, as the great Somali poet-philosopher Hadraawi would say, ‘delivers its wonders when we’re seated and settled’. Dr Mpalive Msiska and Phyllis Muthoni brought the worlds of Malawi, Kenya and beyond to Somaliland through their poetry readings. Reflecting on a brutal period of Malawi’s history, Msiska recited: ‘the hills, bare…have refused to pray for rain. Please take me to the river. I want to plant love in the mouth of the crocodile.’ These lines described the aspiration for hope even in difficult moments such as persecution by authoritarian governments. Msiska said that festivals such as HIBF were important spaces of solidarity in the human struggle that each society in the world can relate to.

Hargeysa was praised by Muthoni in her poem titled Hargeysa. Celebrating the seven years she has visited the city, Muthoni likened the fondness she feels to the fulfilling moments shared over suqaar (savory meat) and spiced tea.

The beauty of Somali classical poetry and music was seen through presentations by Jaamac Saleebaan Tubeec, Xasan Xaaji Cabdillaahi ‘Ganey’, Axmed Saleebaan Bidde and Rashid Bullo. The fair also dedicated an evening of dancing to a live performance of Sitaad, ancient Sufi women’s religious songs.

‘A better world for women is a better world for men’

With the rise of gender-based violence and the failure to achieve the Millennium Development Goal of gender equality by 2015, various festival panels discussed ways to redress this issue. Jude Kelly, founder of Women of the World (WOW), a global movement of festivals, and Edna Adan examined notions of gender in societies where most women continue to face a myriad of challenges as they struggle for equality.

Kelly, who perceives gender inequality as a global problem and not unique to certain countries, advocates for collective responsibility from both men and women in ensuring equality. Her sentiments, ‘a better world for women is a better world for men,’ were shared by other panellists covering this topic in different contexts of politics, activism and the arts.

Edna Adan, a multi-award winning activist and advocate of women’s rights, used her own lived experiences to demonstrate how, in spite of many challenges, girls and women contribute to making their communities better. A trained nurse, the Director of Somaliland’s first maternity hospital, and the first female Foreign Minister of Somaliland, who has dedicated her life to improving her country, Adan encouraged young women to learn from the Somali women who have defied gender, racial, political and other obstacles to be leaders in their areas and to champion women rights.

Expounding on women’s contribution to progress, Dr Siham Rayale spoke of the research she has conducted on the role of women in the democratisation process of Somaliland. She found that they played a major part in the struggle yet are not recognised for it. They continue to face discrimination in social and political spheres. While statistics may show an increase in women’s economic participation, Rayale saw what she called ‘institutionalisation of gender inequality’. This is in reference to women occupying lower cadre jobs in the labour market compared to men who occupy more management positions. According to Rayale, better spaces for women are available, and society needs to work collectively in facilitating women to access these opportunities. 

One of the ways in which women can enjoy these opportunities is through increased political participation. A panel of prominent Somaliland women dissecting this matter included H.E. Shukri Bandare, H.E. Samsam Abdi, Amina Milgo and Ayan Mahamoud, one of the festival organisers. The women politicians spoke about their political journeys as minorities and the difficulties they have faced in pushing their cause. In spite of a higher female population in Somaliland, there is low female political representation. In order to increase this, the women strongly recommended political and leadership capacity building for young women in Somaliland. They are also pushing for 10 per cent women representation in Parliamentary Electoral Law.

Young women poets and writers also shared their experiences in a panel looking at spaces for future generations. Hawo Jama Abdi, a poet who was born blind, first composed poetry when her nomadic family accidentally left her behind as a child. Her poem to the wilderness soothed her at a very scary and desolate moment. Nadifa Mohamed, a British Somalilander, could relate to Hawo’s poem as in her own writing she addresses a certain absence that is filled through the stories she weaves. In talking about being role models, Yasmin Kahin, a playwright and poet, feels that she and the other young Somaliland women are the first generation of female writers.

While carving their artistic niche, Kahin explained that they have not had many female Somali writers to look to, therefore drawing inspiration from other sources. Another challenge to their growth is the modesty with which these female writers view their work. This can become an obstacle to the recognition and marketing of their work when compared to their male counterparts. This discussion raised interesting issues of historical and cultural roots, with regard to the role played by older women and their oral artistic expressions and the different contexts that creative women of the world live in. As Mohamed pointed out, the experience of the girl or woman in London is not always the same as for the one in Hargeysa.

Her Excellency Amina Mahamud Jirde, the First Lady of Somaliland, reiterated the importance of empowering girls. She lauded the festival organisers for creating a space for artistic expression by women. Commenting on political participation, Her Excellency said women deserve respect and involvement for their trustworthiness. Jude Kelly echoed the First Lady’s words as she closed the Women of the World (WOW) panels saying, ‘lack of recognition of women’s contribution is like denying their soul.’

Identity and politics of the diaspora

The question of identity and rights within communities was also raised at the book fair. Hannah Pool, a writer and journalist of Eritrean descent, shared her views on activism while in a conversation with Quman Akli. Pool sees activism as an action that should come from the grassroots. She stressed the importance of the diaspora giving the local communities space to address issues, as they best understand their respective contexts. Nevertheless, she did not dismiss the significance of the diaspora as a vital segment of identity and most importantly, development. For Pool, it is important to integrate knowledge and ideas from local and diaspora communities. She recognised festivals such as HIBF and WOW as platforms for this.

The importance of building relationships between local and diaspora communities was highlighted by Dr Siham Rayale. While sharing her initial experiences of arriving in Hargeysa from Canada, Rayale recalled the way her foreign accent and broken Somali was mocked. She was first discouraged by this but worked at building relationships when she started teaching at a university in Hargeysa. Gradually she was able to fit in. Joe Addo drew a link between relationships and architecture. The Ghanaian architect emphasised the need to reduce the disconnect between locals and the diaspora. Addo cited global examples of the transformational role that diasporas play in reconstruction. He urged Africa in general, and Somaliland in particular, to connect with the diaspora in order to broaden development prospects. ‘It is the attachment to a place, sense of being and identity that will transform Africa,’ he said.

The discussions that ensued from Addo’s presentation raised concerns over the question of modernity verses tradition. In the wake of globalisation and the Internet era, Africa’s traditional socio-cultural values are feared to be eroding and the architecture is largely influenced by the West. Nonetheless, Addo believes that Africans have the ability and power to describe the African context, challenging architects to lead by example. ‘You have to cherish what is yours,’ he insisted. According to Addo, it is also this pride that will help the youth of today be motivated to stay home and not lose their dreams and lives through tahriib (illegal migration).

Borrowing from the rich tradition of literature, a panel exploring Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart looked at the modern-day significance of this novel that was written over a half century ago. For Dr Okey Ndibe, Achebe’s novel is an important series of narratives that resisted Europe’s colonial construction of Africa, remaining influential for writers who are still telling positive stories of Africa. Dr Mpalive Msiska urged writers to learn from Achebe, who worked to correct some of the European misconceptions of Africa, and to be politically committed in their work saying, ‘a great writer does not separate aesthetics from politics’. Chuma Nwokolo, reiterated the power of family and traditions and the values that can be gleaned from the rural African community, a setting Achebe favoured in most of his works.

On conserving and restoring the African identity, storytellers Said Salah and Maimuna Jallow livened the festival through engaging performances borrowing from the rich oral traditions of Africa. Their message was to remain committed to keeping oral stories alive, especially for children, as they impart timeless values and lessons.

Leadership and governance

Remaining true to the importance of spaces that provide stability in people’s lives, the discussions did not stray far from artistic relevance in politics. Poor leadership and weak governance structures largely contribute to the many issues the writers treat in their works such as poverty, illegal migration, clanism, racism and xenophobia, among others.

Jonny Steinberg, a South African writer, raises some of these issues in his recent book, A Man of Good Hope. In telling the story of a young man who fled Mogadishu and ended up in South Africa, he reveals the struggles of many people today in the violence and suffering they encounter in search of a better life. Expounding on xenophobia, Steinberg said it starts with governments that mistreat minority groups, which gradually feeds into a national psyche. Another writer, Michaela Maria, a German journalist and author of Amaal and Sameer did not shy away from addressing the sensitive and often contentious issues of refugees, justice and piracy in her debut novel. In a world faced with grave insecurity, Chuma Nwokolo, like Steinberg, linked the thriving of insecurity to governments that serve narrow interests. This situation is compounded by poor redress of injustices, which leads to a vicious cycle of violence.

In a week looking at the meaning and importance of spaces, the festival brought together different people to reflect deeply on this theme while continuously celebrating the unifying power of the arts.

This report was written by Ndanu Mung’ala, RVI Programme Administrator and Amina Abdulkadir, RVI Assistant Programme Officer.


This podcast, made during the 2014 Book Fair, records a conversation between the poet Jack Mapanje and Dr Adan Abokor about their experiences of being imprisoned under the former authoritarian governments in Malawi and Somalia, respectively. They explain how while isolated in their prison cells they developed secret languages that enabled them to communicate with fellow prisoners and to sustain their minds and their spirits. The interview was conducted by Elizabeth Spackman.

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