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Rift Valley Institute

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Cultural festival in Somaliland

The annual Hargeysa International Book Fair took place in August 2013 in the Somaliland capital. The star attraction was the poet Mohamed Ibrahim Warsame, “Hadraawi”, now in his seventies. (The meaning of his nickname, "Hadraawi", which was given to him by his Koranic teacher, is “Big Talker”.) According to Michela Wrong, writing in the Spectator, Hadraawi’s recitation of his poems Dalacaan (“Clarity) and Sirta Nolosha (“Life’s Essence”), had youngsters pressed against window bars to catch his every word. Years of conflict in the 1980s and early 1990s have left Hargeysa without a cinema, theatre or museum. The aim of the Book Fair, now in its sixth year, is a revival in national cultural life. The Fair is the creation of two diaspora Somalilanders: Jama Musse, a mathematician and author who is the founder of Redsea Online, and Ayan Mahamoud, who runs the annual Somali Week in London (18 to 27 October).

This year the Hargeysa event attracted writers and artists from Nigeria, Djibouti, Kenya, Italy, the UK and the worldwide Somali diaspora. One of the best attended events was an appearance by Said Salah, a poet and teacher of the Somali language for fifty years, who spoke of his experience of teaching in the Somali territories and the United States. Several of his former students were there to hear him speak.

The recently-appointed British ambassador to Somalia, Neil Wigan, referred to the century-old links between Somaliland and the UK, and the place in public life of prominent British Somalis such as the journalist Rageh Omar, the Olympic athlete Mo Farah, and the writer Nadifa Mohamed. (Nadifa Mohamed's novel The Orchard of Lost Souls is launched in London on 12 September).

Ayan Mahamoud, organiser of the Hargeysa Book Fair The Rift Valley Institute sponsored appearances by Mary Harper, Africa Editor at the BBC World Service and author of Getting Somalia Wrong, and Michaela Wrong author of books on Kenya, Eritrea and DRC. The Institute also supported presentations by photographers Hamish Wilson, Patrick Wiggers and Kate Stanworth. The RVI Horn of Africa and East Africa Director, Mark Bradbury, author of Becoming Somaliland chaired a panel on the political evolution of Somaliland. Panellists included the Minister for the Environment, Shukri Haji Bandera, the only woman on Somaliland's National Electoral Commission.

In a blog for the Huffington Post, Ayan Mahamoud, organiser of the Fair, described its role as a focus for the energies of youth in Somaliland.

“Unlike many other literature festivals around the world,” she wrote, “it is the young who make up the majority of the audience. They come to attend workshops in photography and courses on creative writing as well as pack in for events such as poetry readings and discussions on politics”

Michaela Wrong wrote of “the essential hypocrisy of the international community’s position on Somaliland". Despite Somaliland's exemplary two-decade record of democratic political process, she noted, the country remains without diplomatic recognition. This, she argued, was a result of donor countries not confronting their own failures. “Having lavished decades of funding and diplomatic effort on dysfunctional governments which failed to unite the country from Mogadishu,” she wrote, “donors are reluctant to undermine their work.”


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