I woke up around 5am in Addis - had a hurried breakfast then left for 8:30am flight to Hargeisa. I got to the airport and most of the women were in full hijabs. I was wearing diracs that I had bought from a kind Somalilander woman in Eastleigh called Fardowsa. She had assured me that this would be appropriate dress code for Hargeisa. Now that I was standing at the airport in a sea of women in full hijabs I began to get nervous that perhaps I had not bought appropriate clothing for my trip.
We got on the plane. First and business class was all white people. I figured out they must all be working for development agencies. Economy class was the rest of us:-) We got to Hargeisa around 1pm. I arrived and met a really friendly French girl who was attending the festival. As we were chatting, we bumped into a very well-known Malawian professor of literature - he used to be a judge for the Caine Prize. I love literary festivals - you get to rub shoulders with the most fascinating people. I have found African writers to be the least pretentious people i've ever met. Maybe it's because as writers you might get fame, but very rarely have the fortune. I get the feeling that festivals with musicians or actresses would be more hierarchical - with the more famous artists not really mingling with "the watus." In literature festivals, all of you get to interact. As a new writer, I always feel so fortunate to be in the midst of people whose work I have admired for a long time and be sharing a beer or a rolex (egg rolled in chapatis,) and talking like old friends. Writers are also wacky - so I always feel quite at home at literature festivals, as I have always been a bit of an odd-ball.....and the conversations are the best!
The Malawian professor had arrived but all his luggage was lost. We got out of the airport and I remember wondering why there was no real customs check. We just landed, got our bags and left without anyone searching them. We got to the hotel - a really lovely comfortable hotel. I slept for half an hour then went down to the reception for lunch. I met some lovely Kenyan ladies who work at the Rift Valley Institute. My head scarf game was not yet on point. I had done a very traditional head scarf style that covered all my hair, my ears etc. I figured it was better to err on the side of too-conservative in the beginning then look around and see what everyone else was doing after a few days. Unfortunately I had tied my headscarf so tight that I couldn't hear anything well, my neck was hurting, breathing became a bit labored and I could not eat.....Rookie error. I had to excuse myself from lunch to go and tie it in a way that could allow me to function...
We left for the festival grounds. I stocked my books at the official festival bookshop. As I was walking around, I found another bookshop stall. The owner called me over, looked at my book and asked for 10 copies. She gave me $100 immediately for the books. I was really impressed. Most times at festivals, you stock your books and only get paid at the end for what sells. I had always heard that Somalis are the best people to do business with - and now I was seeing it. No haggling. No "come back after a few days we discuss", No "we will see" - Just "How much is it? Ok. Give me 10 copies - here is your money." It has a lot to do with how tight family and clan relations are in Somali culture. A lot of Somali businesses are ran on trust rather than on official contracts. People don't want to betray that trust because you not only bring shame on yourself, but shame on your family, your clan etc. It could explain the success of Somali money transfer businesses such as Dahabshill or Somali prowess in in international logistics e.g. Salihiya cargo - that can get your stuff from locations the world-over to their warehouse in Nairobi. They are able to use the global Somali network of relatives to ensure logistics is flawless. The other thing about Somali businesses - especially retail - they are highly price competitive. When I went to South C to buy my diracs, I was so surprised to learn that each would cost me $3 for the fabric and $0.50 for stitching. I could not even negotiate. Where else are you going to buy a full outfit for KES 350? Only in Eastleigh..The customer service might not always be that great, but hey - many places have horrible customer service and still charge you an arm and a leg.
I stayed on for a session on ancient manuscripts and a Somali play that I'm not quite sure I understood. It was in Somali. I think it was about a fight between animals, but I could also just be making this up given how little I understood:-)
Everywhere I looked around at the festival, I saw the most beautiful women in the most amazing fabrics. Fardowsa had been right - my diracs would be quite at home here in Hargeysa. I remember every single Somalilander I met saying "Thank you for coming to Somaliland." It just made me feel so warm and fuzzy inside that someone would thank me for coming to a festival I had been dying to attend ever since I first heard of it.
No - thank you Somaliland and thank you Hargeysa International Book Fair for having me.