Eight thirty in the morning in Hargeisa and a crowd has formed outside the function hall of the Guled Hotel. Visitors are queuing at the security check and waiting to get in. It′s book fair time in the capital of Somaliland. By Michaela Maria Muller
Inside the hall, things are already busy too. Some three hundred chairs have been set up, with burgundy upholstery and golden fittings. They give the otherwise sober room an almost celebratory atmosphere. The first visitors are strolling along the tables, browsing the books or deep in conversation. Others are indulging in a pre-event coffee or a Somali tea, also called chaa. Two currencies can be used: US dollars or Somaliland shillings. The hotel proprietor is working the floor, welcoming every guest with a handshake.
A book fair is not the first thing one might expect here. Yet over the past ten years, it has become a flagship event for Somaliland. The state on the Horn of Africa declared itself independent from Somalia 25 years ago but has yet to be acknowledged by any other country. Very few people are aware of how well the state works. The Somalilanders, as they call themselves, are proud of what they′ve achieved, virtually without international help and the book fair is one of those achievements. It is the cultural highlight of the year: Somalinimo for all – readings, discussions, concerts – and visitors from around the globe.
The first event of the day is a discussion about language and identity. The panel consists of guests from five different countries: Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somaliland and England. Zaynab Sharci is a London-based publisher. One focus in her catalogue is books for Somali children to learn the language in the diaspora: CDs with traditional children′s songs, picture books and simple grammar textbooks. The title of her bestseller comes from her son, she says.
The book is called ″Daadah″, meaning ″follow me″ in Somali. Next to her on the panel, the British linguist Martin Orwin explains why language acquisition is so important. He teaches Somali and Amharic at London′s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS): ″Many of my students don′t speak their native language fluently and are ashamed of the fact. Some are even teased by their fellow students. But to some extent, the language opens a door to their identity.″
Bringing the right people together
The book fair was initiated by Ayan Mahamoud and Jama Musse Jama. She lives in London, he in Hargeisa. They tend to play down their hard work of connecting continents and cultures.
″Ultimately, we′re interested in bringing the right people together,″ says Mahamoud. She′s actually an event manager, she tells me. But even in the UK, people realize this is a rather modest description. She was recently awarded the title of Order of the British Empire for her ″services to promoting friendship and cultural understanding between the UK and Somali Region″. The panel discussion is over. As the participants leave the stage to applause, her telephone rings. She discusses something with the caller while waving the group into the garden for refreshments.
The garden is dotted with pavilions, where waiters are laying tables for lunch. A TV crew is setting up for an interview alongside them. The former First Lady and founder of a hospital, Edna Adan, has offered to speak spontaneously. When the cameraman can′t get hold of his colleagues, the British writer Nadifa Mohamed steps in and asks the questions. The book fair is a little like the country′s reconstruction – everyone helps where they can.
The American news magazine Huffington Post recently referred to 79-year-old Adan as the ″Muslim Mother Teresa″. One thing′s for sure: she is an example for all Somalilanders. No matter where she makes an appearance, people flock around her. She set up a hospital in Hargeisa in 2002, called the Edna Adan Hospital. Just under 18,000 children have since been born in the delivery ward. The hospital also trains midwives, nurses and medical specialists and has its own pharmacy. Adan uses her international contacts to bring progress to the country.
″Muslim Mother Teresa″: Edna Adan is an example for all Somalilanders. She set up a hospital in Hargeisa in 2002, called the Edna Adan Hospital. Just under 18,000 children have since been born in the delivery ward. The hospital also trains midwives, nurses and medical specialists and has its own pharmacy
The wall of her office tells a photo story of her achievements: Adan as a young woman training as a nurse in London, as the wife of the first president of Somaliland and during her travels as foreign minister. ″I was one of the first girls allowed to go to school here,″ she remembers. That is still not the case for many girls. When it comes to women′s rights, Adan′s unyielding side comes to the fore. Men and women have equal rights – that is not a matter for debate for Edna Adan.Shortly before noon prayers, the hall begins to quieten down. Some guests retire to one of the pavilions for lunch: boiled or fried meat with rice and salad, followed by fresh melon or a glass of camel′s milk. It′s something of a test of courage for the guests from abroad. We agree that the milk tastes like smoked meat.
This year′s guest of honour is Ghana. The writer Amma Darko, architect Joe Addo and journalist Esther Armah have come from the capital, Accra. Armah will later talk about something she shares with many Somalilanders: the experience of trauma. When the civil war broke out the dictator Siad Barre ordered for Hargeisa to be wiped out. The bombardment went on for months, with almost 250,000 people killed.
The sun sets early in Somaliland, at about six all year round. Yet then the city awakens for a second time. The shops and restaurants are brightly lit, people fill the streets. They have rebuilt their city. In the Guled Hotel, volunteers cover the book tables for the night. All is ready for the next morning.
Michaela Maria Muller