A weeklong festival of books, culture and literature kicked off Saturday in Hargeisa, the capital of the internationally unrecognized breakaway republic of Somaliland.
Authors, artists and scholars from around the world are attending this little-known but significant Hargeisa International Book Fair. Now in its ninth year, the event attracts representatives from 12 countries, including Nigeria, Germany, Britain, Ghana, Italy, France and South Africa.
Somalia’s civil war and former dictator Mohamed Siyad Barre’s brutal war with Somaliland in the 1980s took a toll on the region’s cultural centers.
“This has diminished arts and productivity. Composing plays and finding spaces where youth can showcase their art and skill did not grow,” said Ayan Mohamoud, managing director of Kayd Arts and Culture, the organization that coordinates the book fair.
The Hargeisa book fair invites authors and artists from African countries every year to learn about Somalia. Ghana is this year’s guest country. Previous years’ guest countries include Nigeria and Malawi.
Mohamoud said the idea behind inviting other countries is to help Somalis learn about other African countries.
“Somalis have little knowledge about Africa,” she told VOA. “We believe inviting the scholars from these countries, be it Ghana or Kenya, will shape the views of their people toward the Somalis in their countries.”
This year’s theme is leadership and creativity, and the role literature plays in good leadership.
“Ghana is a country where there has been no civil war, it’s a good example for Africa, it had a good leader, and it’s a good example for the theme,” Mohamoud said.
The event also brings together Somali authors regardless of political beliefs.
“The biggest part [of the festival] is showcasing books and creativity of the Somalis,” Mohamoud said.
Preserving the Somali language
There are fears that a lack of cultural development and the effects of civil war will lead to the disappearance of the Somali language. The country’s literary community and avid readers converge not just for their common love of books, but also to preserve their culture and language.
Authors, poets, composers and artists come to display their work and creativity.
“The enthusiasm and encouragement it has created among the young people is unmeasurable, there are reading clubs everywhere, there are so many authors who want to present their work and books,” Mohamoud said.
Farah Gamute is one of this year’s participants. He said he came to the event to raise awareness about preserving the language.
“We are participating with our old work and to tell about the role of literature and how it benefits mother tongue,” he said. “The Somali language existed thousands of years without being written, it held on against other neighboring languages, and the reason is because of the literature.”
Author Abdullahi Awad Cige said he came to pass on experiences with the younger generation.
“The young has a chance to learn about what is missing from their work, grasp a lot, ask questions and help preserve the language,” he said.
The Hargeisa book fair inspired the launch of similar events in Mogadishu and Puntland, and Somali heritage festivals in Kenya and in Europe.
“There is an increased interest in culture and literature,” said Mohamoud. “The goal is to reestablish cultural intuitions; no people progress without the development of their arts, culture and literature.”