With the Hargeisa International Book Fair gaining more popularity in the recent past, there is interest from many to know more about this undiscovered gem and also the little known country behind the festival.
Do not consider yourself naïve if this is the moment you learn that Somaliland is not just a fancy name for Somalia, but rather is an autonomous region that has been existing peacefully for over 20 years – yes, 20 years. If it comforts you I was as clueless as you likely are about Somaliland’s existence up to a few years back. Once I came to terms with the fact that the world as we know it was hiding lots of useful information from me, I was further amazed to find out that one of the region’s most spectacular and well attended book fairs takes place every year in the capital of Somaliland – Hargeisa. With that I vowed that I would attend the book fair and discover what all this was about. I was extremely fortunate to attend the Hargeysa International Book Fair (HIBF) in August 2015 and here are the key highlights of it for me as a non-Somalilander.
The flowers of Hargeisa – its women and their brightly colored outfits: I had not been quite sure what to wear in Hargeisa. A week before my trip I went to Eastleigh in Nairobi to shop for diracs. I found myself at the shop of a lady from Somaliland called Fardowsa. Her fabrics were beautiful and brightly colored. I have nothing against bright colors, but the last thing I wanted to do in Hargeisa was be in any way inappropriately dressed. I knew that the dressing would be quite different from that in Nairobi, and I did not want in any way to look like a silly foreigner. Fardowsa assured me that the outfits she had picked for me were quite acceptable, but I was only sure of this once I got to Hargeisa. The women wear the most amazing fabrics and colors. I had never ever used a headwrap in my life, but in Hargeisa I learnt that there are ways to wrap your hair that are quite fashionable. The real flowers of Hargeisa are indeed the women. It was great to see HIBF celebrate this women with a colorful exhibition titled “The flowers of Hargeisa” that featured women making a difference in Somaliland.
Sitaad (religious drumming by Somali women) inspiring nationalistic pride in Hargeisa. Of course, I was dying with curiosity to watch Sitaad drumming at the festival. We had been repeatedly told that Sitaad was a music form exclusively performed by women – a sufi Islamic practice interlinked with spiritualism and one of the few public artistic outlets that allow women to bring up issues affecting them and explore issues of fidelity, peace, philanthropy etc. My curiosity was piqued. It was wonderful to be invited by Somalilander women to join them in the dance. The most beautiful moment was when a Somaliland flag appeared out of nowhere, the room was in a state of frenzy, the drums grew louder, the women singing asked in Somali – “Whose flag is it?” The response “SOMALILAND!” “Whose country is this? “SOMALILAND” Whose constitution is it? “SOMALILAND”. I was entranced by the nationalistic pride that revealed itself through Sitaad. Now I knew why guide books talk about Sitaad as having the ability to get participants into a state of “ecstasy” and “spiritual intoxication.”
The blind poet who composed her first poem at the age of 8 while lost in the wilderness: Once upon a time an 8 year old blind girl was accidentally left behind by her nomadic family in the wilderness as they moved to another location. In a state of fear, this little girl heard the laughter of hyenas around her, sounds of the wild terrified her. To calm herself, she recited a poem to a hyena close to her. She eventually made it to safety and credits the poem with enabling her to “speak to the wilderness.” This is not a fairy tale – this is the true story of a young Somalilander poet by the name Hawo Jama Abdi. Listening to this girl’s story (in translation as she was speaking in Somali,) was extremely captivating. The power that art has to strengthen, to heal and to inspire.
Women of the World (WOW) session in Hargeisa: One afternoon, we had a lovely session with women from Somaliland, those from the diaspora and those from elsewhere on the continent and beyond. It was wonderful to hear women young and old voice the challenges they face as a result of gender discrimination. What was even more inspiring was hearing the stories of those who have defied the odds against such discrimination. Somali women who have opened and run very successful businesses in Hargeisa despite some of the backlash they face, great women such as the 78 year old Edna Aden – Somaliland’s first foreign minister, a trained nurse, senior WHO official who is currently building Somaliland’s first maternity hospital. Women who have fought and continue to fight the good fight for gender parity in their communities.
Long lunches, tea-time discussions that we hoped would never end and evenings spent chatting up to 2am: The discussions at literary festivals are one of the most exciting aspects of the fair. I can’t count the idle hours spent discussing everything under the sun with the likes of Chuma Nwokolo, Dr. Mpalive Msiska, Prof. Osundaro, Okey Ndibe, Nadifa Mohamed, Quman Akli, Dr. Siham Rayale, Maimouna Jallow, James Murua, Hannah Pool, Zahra Jibril etc.
Henna at the salon with festival guests including Nadifa Mohamed and Hannah Pool: I can unashamedly claim that one afternoon in Hargeisa, I got to visit a henna salon with Nadifa Mohamed (“Black mamba boy”, “Orchard of lost souls”), Hannah Pool (“My father’s daughter”) and other wonderful guests and spent a few hours getting henna tattoos on our hands.
Laas Geel – prehistoric paintings in caves and rockshelters: While this is not part of the festival in any way, being in Hargeisa gives you the ability to take a one hour drive to caves with rock art that dates between 9,000 – 3,000 BC. The rock art is among the oldest found in Africa. It has been recommended that Laas Geel be protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site, but due to the regions complicated diplomatic situation, the area has been left to its own defenses. The over 5000 year old rock art in the caves is in remarkably great shape, but it is unsure how long the site will be able to remain as it is without formal protection.
Love of literature: A friend who attended the HIBF in 2014 told me about one day when Somaliland’s most famous poet – Haadrawi – performed. She is also Kenyan and could not understand his poetry in Somali, but was amazed by how captivating he was. She looked around her and the huge venue was full – there were people on the windows. Outside there were people sitting on trees trying to hear him recite his poetry. This image for me is a testament of the love for literature in Somaliland. Students bought books of other African authors who they had only recently met at the festival. Thousands attended the different sessions – even those who did not speak English perfectly, still attended the English sessions and engaged as much as they could. It was simply inspiring – especially thinking of similar sessions in Nairobi where one normally sees the same faces and starts to wonder if it will ever be possible to fill a huge auditorium unless you are Ngugi wa Thiong’o. The selection of books available in Somali was also quite surprising – the realization that so many people write and read in their local language.
Warmth & hospitality: Only in Somaliland can you get to a shop, not have enough money for your purchases, try to take some back and have the person at the till tell you, “No, it’s fine. This is enough.” It was one of those moments – we were enroute to Laas Geel and stopped at a shop to buy water and other things we would need for the journey. At the till I realized I didn’t have enough money and attempted to take some things back, but the person serving me would not allow that. I left the shop feeling terribly guilty. “How could they let me pay them less?” My Somalilander companion told me, “That’s normal here. If you go into a shop and you clearly have an emergency, they can even let you take things for free.” I had no words – leaving a shop without paying? Not in Nairobi! There were so many instances when I felt overwhelmed by the warmth and generosity of people. During my sessions at HIBF, every Somalilander’s question began with “I thank you for coming to Somaliland.” It was said with such genuine warmth that I really hoped I was a worthy guest - at least a guest deserving of all the praise.