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Somalia: using the arts for peace and peace-building

Djibouti touts herself as the capitale culturelle and the eventful Fest’horn Festival has, without doubt, been one of the instruments that is used to claim the centrality of culture in national matters. “Fest’Horn Festival is a regional festival of music from the horn of Africa that was created with the intention of bringing attention to this part of Africa, often tarnished by wars, famines and other calamities. For six days this annual artistic meeting happens in the capital of Djibouti with artists from various African countries and the rest of the world. The event not only serves to promote the culture of Africa, but to provide a platform for the promotion of the values of peace and development.”

A few days after my editor asked me to think about this piece, I thought about a popular Somali comedian, the late Absi Jailani Malaq alias Marshale, who was shot and killed in Mogadishu a year or so ago by two pistol-wielding assailants. The journalists who rushed to the scene of the violence reported that the attack was carried out by unknown assailants, who appeared to have specifically targeted Marshale. He was shot in the chest and head outside his home in Waberi district in Mogadishu and was then rushed to Madina hospital but died after an hour of doctors trying to save his life. The killing of Marshalle, a top Somali artist, seemed to be part of an onslaught against professionals, especially in the arts in the troubled Horn of Africa country.

Indeed, one cannot also fail to see the incident as an attack on the broader creative industry considering that several other similar attacks have happened in Mogadishu and other parts of Somalia. The attack on Marshale came a few months after a grenade attack at a packed video showroom near Tarbunka square in Mogadishu in which four people were killed and nine others seriously injured.

Abdi_Jeylani_Marshale Famous Somali Comedian Marshale Shot Dead, Photo: Africanseer
Abdi Jeylani Marshale Famous Somali Comedian Marshale Shot Dead, Photo: Africanseer

The attackers hurled two hand grenades into a packed video showroom in which teenagers were watching films. Most of the victims were said to be teenagers from nearby Internally Displaced Persons’ camps who came to the place for entertainment. All these attacks on the arts and related institutions were executed by Somalia’s al Qaeda-linked Al Shabaab rebels, making it clear how they detest the arts.

A few months before the 2012 Olympic games opened in London, two top sports officials in Somalia were killed in a blast at Mogadishu’s national theatre in an attack by Islamist insurgents aimed at killing senior government figures. The theatre had been reopened for the first time in two decades on March 19 2012, raising hopes the country had turned a corner after being plagued by violence. While the two people killed were sports officials, it was not lost to observers that the choice of the theatre signified their desire to use culture, in its broadest sense, to preach peace.

As I mulled over all these sad events, I couldn’t help thinking how the militants’ abhorrence of the arts and culture is far removed from the way the arts have been embraced by their brothers and sisters in Djibouti. The Somali Republic was created in 1960 by merging the protectorate of British Somaliland with the colony of Italian Somaliland. Despite these colonial boundaries, the Somali community spreads from what was previously described as the northern frontier in Kenya, Ogaden in eastern Ethiopia to Djibouti up north at the Horn of Africa coast.

Somali Natioanal Theatre blast, Photo: The London Evening Post
Somali Natioanal Theatre blast, Photo: The London Evening Post

Djibouti is a former French Somali colony/province and while they share the same language and religion with the militants, they are diametrically apart with Djiboutians who proudly flaunt arts and culture. I found myself thinking about an earlier trip I had made to Djibouti.

Djibouti touts herself as the capitale culturelle and the eventful Fest’horn Festival has, without doubt, been one of the instruments that is used to drive this point home and claim the centrality of culture in national matters.

Fest’horn Festival

Fest’horn Festival is, mainly, a music festival that draws established and budding musicians from Djibouti and other African countries to celebrate peace. Countries at the horn of Africa have been beleaguered by prolonged armed conflicts that were set off by intolerance of one or the other aspect of a person or their culture.

Ethiopia and Eritrea were united as one state when they were fighting against the Haile Mengistu regime but when they toppled him, they turned their guns against on each other. Sudan also had a prolonged conflict that resulted in the creation of Southern Sudan. Even that has not silenced the guns. The war drums have also rung out in Rwanda, eastern Congo and Burundi. Djibouti, festival host, has its own share of history of armed conflict, which fact prompted them to initiate this festival.

Photo: Music Africa
Fest’Horn Festival, Photo: Music in Africa

Its promoters note: “Fest’Horn Festival is a regional festival of music from the horn of Africa that was created with the intention of bringing attention to this part of Africa, often tarnished by wars, famines and other calamities. For six days this annual artistic meeting happens in the capital of Djibouti with artists from various African countries and the rest of the world. The event not only serves to promote the culture of Africa, but to provide a platform for the promotion of the values of peace and development.”

It is here that I met K’Naan, a Somali then living in Canada, who was wildly cheered when he performed. Then he was little known (at least in many parts of Africa) but when Africa hosted the FIFA world cup extravaganza for the first time, K’Naan became a household name across Africa with his hit song Wavin’ Flag.

His lyrics, “Give me freedom, give me fire, give me reason, take me higher; See the champions, take the field now, you define us, make us feel proud,” and chorus “When I get older; I will be stronger; They’ll call me ‘Freedom’; just like a wavin’ flag………,”-were catchy and memorable. Several years after the world extravaganza, kids in playing fields around the continent are still chanting these words animatedly.

K’Naan electrified the entire continent with this song in the same way he thrilled the crowds in Djibouti. For the several hours that he was on stage, Djiboutians forgot about their worries, Somalis living in Djibouti forgot about the conflict back home as they enjoyed themselves and also paid homage to one of their own shining lights.

K' Naan, Photo: Radio Canada International
K’ Naan, Photo: Radio Canada International

Born Keinan Abdi Warsame in 1978, K’Naan is the grandson of Haji Mohamed, one of Somalia’s most famous poets; he is also a nephew of famed Somali singer Magool .”If you’re going to make music I think it should contribute in some way,” he said in an interview with Africa Success website. “It doesn’t have to change the world, it could just be a good melody. My experiences aren’t just mine, it’s just that I can articulate them in English, it is also about the lives of people who have suffered,” as he and his family have.

In Djibouti, where he told this story in English and Somali, he reminded the excited listeners that they can be agents of peace and positive change back home. His scintillating performance reminded Djibouti and others that Somalia, inspite of all the problems she was experiencing, has great men and women. The country has a great history and people committed to a great future.

As I thought about K’Naan in Djibouti, I wondered if he could have survived as an artist in his homeland. A self taught artist, his determination would have seen him practice his art but the risks would be similar to those that menaced the comedian Marshale. In his most famous song Nagala soo baxa “Come out with it,” K’Naan directly challenged the Somali warlords: “Come out of my country; You’ve spilled enough blood; You’ve killed too many people; You’ve caused a ton of trouble.”

K'naan , Photo: Billboard
K’naan , Photo: Billboard

In another song K’naan expresses his outrage against the brutalities of the warmongers: “See they rack bodies not grain; Chop limbs not trees; Spend lives not wealth; Seek vengeance not truth; Moisten pain not plants; Sharpen feuds not minds.” These songs would definitely not have won him any favours. Perhaps some young men armed with pistols or with hand held grenades would have been sent his way.

The Cultural Grain

The arts, and particularly poetry, have been a way of life in the Somali community which spreads from northern Kenya, Ogaden in eastern Ethiopia, Djibouti and into the diaspora in Europe, America, Australia etc. Richard Burton, an early 19th-century English explorer, famously described Somalis as a “nation of poets,” an assertion echoed by other scholars.

In a 1969 coup, Siyaad Barre took control of Somalia and declared it a socialist state. Military misadventure into Ethiopia over the Ogaden area and corruption led to resentment of his regime. Soon clan wars erupted, resulting in his toppling in 1991. However, the clan-based militias that overthrew Barre descended into infighting and lawlessness, triggering famine and a massive refugee problem.

Repeated attempts at peace and political transition failed during the 1990s and early 2000s. In 2004, an interim Transitional Federal Government (TFG) led by President Abdullahi Yusuf was formed but this did not lead to normalcy. The TFG paved way to the current Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) but it is still beleaguered by war.

Former Somalia President Abdullahi Yusuf. Photo: VAO News
Former Somalia President Abdullahi Yusuf. Photo: VAO News

The search for long lasting peace in Somalia persists. The voices of the proponents of using arts in this search for peace and prosperity have also not gone silent. Somalia’s own son, Maxamed Daahir Afrax, a writer and literary scholar based in the UK, underscored the importance of poetry in a paper, Towards a Culture of Peace, presented at a gathering at the Conciliation Resources, an independent organisation working with people in conflict to prevent violence and build peace.

In the entire presentation, he was unequivocal that poetry has traditionally been the principal medium through which Somalis define their identity, record their history, express their innermost feelings and communicate their views.

He added: “Poetry has been the basis on which other forms of oral cultural expression have developed, such as Somali theatre which emerged in post-independence Somalia as an important art form in Somali urban life. Somali theatre, which incorporates drama, music, dance, visual arts and short-lined modern poetry, became the main medium of expression for artists prior to the civil war and played an important political role.”

Somalia's National Theatre, Photo: Telegraph
Somalia’s National Theatre, Photo: Telegraph

The link between art and politics is often expressed in the staging of a play called Gaaraabidhaan (Glow Worm) in 1968. The production, by the late playwright Xasan Sheikh Muumin, is believed to have inspired the military coup led by Siyaad Barre in 1969.

Twenty years later, in 1989, a play titled the Landcruiser by the late poet-playwright Cabdi Muxumed Amiin was staged at the National Theatre in Mogadishu. The production attacked the deeds of the Siyaad Barre regime and is popularly believed to have hastened its downfall. After the playwright was arrested, a song of the same name articulating the play’s central idea became an instant hit, catching the growing mood of popular opposition to the government.

“In Somali society poetry, oratory, theatre and song, are the dominant forms of cultural expression,” Maxamed told the gathering. “Somalis’ thoughts about the last two catastrophic decades have been recorded in poems, drama and song, as well as written literature. Somali oral culture is a very powerful tool to promote peace and conflict resolution.”

Somali-Welsh poets. Photo: Gareth Phillips/ PR
Somali-Welsh poets. Photo: Gareth Phillips/ PR

Tool to Promote Peace and Conflict Resolution

The arts – poems, drama and song, orally-presented, as well as written literature – are in the Somali genetic make up and this is why targeting of the artists is confounding. Well, but what do you expect from islamists who only want one book, the Koran? It is so strongly rooted in their cultural grain that even with the threats and killings, the Somalis have not abandoned the arts. It is a tool that has been employed in the country’s long search for peace and normalcy.

In his analysis, Maxamed pointed out that poetry, drama, music and oratory have been major factors in the success of important political movements and events in Somali history: the nationalist movements that led to independence in 1960; the early years of the military revolution of 1969; the overthrow of that military regime; or the Peace and Reconciliation Conference in Arta, Djibouti, in 2000, which led to the formation of the first Somali Transitional National Government.

He said: “During the Arta Conference, for instance, many poets and performing artists were mobilised, including from the Djibouti artistic community and the diaspora. During the six months of the conference they engaged in artistic productions that promoted peace and reconciliation, which were broadcast on Somali-speaking media channels in Somalia and around the world. The effectiveness of these cultural forms as tools for promoting peace is underscored by two important factors: that Somalis are united by a single language; and Somalis’ renowned love of oral literature. Over the past two decades Somali artists have proved their commitment to promoting peace in their country, producing a huge body of literature on the theme.”

This is why it is odd that cultural workers and artists are being targeted by the insurgents. In places where they control, any works of art is banned. But then again, it can be argued that they do this because they, the insurgents, realize the power and influence that the arts wield.

President of the Federal Government of Somalia. Photo: Jowhar
President of the Federal Government of Somalia Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. Photo: Jowhar

The militants even targeted the president of the current Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) with an attempted assassination staged a day or two after he was elected, signifying that the power of the bullet and barrel would continue to be used. The Somali Armed Forces and the African Union Mission in Somalia have supported the FGS and huge territorial gains have been made. This is very important because the FGS has now been able to extend its administrative reach, which is a critical it the government were to meet its long term state-building objective that would result in holding of a country-wide elections by 2016.

The military gains are important and as they brace for the coming election, they should probably look into the cultural grain for answers to counter the extremists’ messages. They are still faced with a tough battle for the hearts and minds that the arts communicate and hold critical conversations on nation building and reforms. The country has a long history of using the arts to win this kind of battle.

As the country maps her long term road to stability and prosperity through elections and the constitutional process, it is also time to tap into the undying power of the arts that is in every gene of the Somali people to show that the country can reclaim its place amongst nations.

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