More Than Books – Jama Musse Jama’s visions for Hargeisa International Book Fair and beyond
Text by Andreas Hansen. All photos by Kate Stanworth,
By the end of our interview at the Ambassador Hotel in Hargeisa, the young waiter brings us the bill and discretely asks Jama: “Is the book fair happening this year?” As Jama confirms this, the waiter asks again: “I’ve written something. Can I submit it?” Jama nods approvingly and then turns to me with a huge smile on his face that tells me how this just made his day.
Jama Musse Jama recently left the Somali diaspora life behind and moved home to Somaliland. He spent the past two decades in Italy, first as a student and then as a mathematics lecturer at the University of Pisa. Besides his research on traditional Somali games and the history of mathematics in the Horn of Africa, Jama’s deep involvement in Somali cultural and diaspora affairs has established him as one of the most prominent figures on the Somali cultural scene. Among other things, Jama is co-organizer of the annual Somali Week Festival in London and founder of the Red Sea Cultural Foundation, and the Hargeisa International Book Fair in Somaliland which this year takes place 8-13 August.
Trying to establish an overview of Jama’s many engagements and initiatives can be overwhelming so I ask about his long term project and he explains that the common thread in his work is to provide alternatives for young Somalis. “This is the last chance to put our society on the right track and to show young Somalis that there are alternatives to all forms of extremism,” he tells me, and highlights the urgency of the current challenges in Somaliland: “There is no library, cinema or theater in Hargeisa, and even the football pitches are in a horrible condition. 60% of the Somali population is young and many of them are unemployed so where do they spend their time and energy? Now is the chance to change this, not in 3-5 years.” This might seem like a potentially dangerous project and Jama adds that he is not seeking confrontation: “We know that the majority of the people love and really appreciate what we are doing and are supportive, and that is what counts.”
Young Somalilanders performing their own version of Happy: We are happy from Hargeisa
“We are in Africa and need to understand it”
The theme of the 7th edition of Hargeisa International Book Fair starting next week is imagination and Jama cites the famous Albert Einstein quote stating that: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” Imagination is a theme well suited to follow the past year’s festival themes: collective memories (2011), the future (2012) and journey (2013). Imagination also highlights a strong motive in Jama’s engagements with the book fair, that is, through literature Somalis can explore where they are coming from, where they are going and how they are getting there.
Another recurrent feature of the Hargeisa International Book Fair is the guest country which in 2014 will be Malawi. As part of the festival, six Malawian authors will visit the festival and in advance of the book fair several of their books will be published in Somaliland. Asked about the reasons behind the guest country element, Jama describes how Somalis generally have strong connections to neighboring countries, to the Arab world and to the diasporas in the US, UK and Scandinavia, but they often know almost nothing about the rest of Africa. “Somalis believe they are Arab – and we do share the religion and other things with the Arabs – not African. But the increasing Arabization of Somalia is very worrying and we need to counterbalance it.” One way of doing this is through literature and arts and the book fair plays a key role in this endeavor. “We are trying to let young Somalilanders know about other African cultures and tradition, how they can appreciate being African. We are in Africa and we need to understand it,’’ Jama underlines.
As a new feature of the 2014 edition, the literature festival will also include a focus on ”pink literature” and girls-for-girls literature, incl. a competition for upcoming young female Somaliland writers and mentorship classes for aspiring female writers. What is evident also from this initiative is the continuous insistence by Jama on the positive contribution of literature in social and political matters.
A permanent stronghold of literature
Jama has returned to Somaliland not only to be closer to family and relatives and to continue the work on Hargeisa International Book Fair but also to realize an old dream of his: establishing the first Hargeisa Cultural Center. The book fair happens only once a year and Jama feels that every year after the festival a certain momentum is lost and he has now grown tired of having to recreate a that momentum every year. ”The Hargeisa Cultural Center should be seen as a permanent extension of the book fair”, he explains, and the establishment of a permanent presence is already well underway. Jama has rented a building for the next two years and the Somaliland Government has donated a location for a permanent cultural center to be constructed. The EU is supporting the project but more funding is still needed.
The motivation for the cultural center is the same as what made Jama launch the book fair 7 years ago: providing alternatives to Somali youth. ”We need to show young people that they can earn money and make a living through arts. Many young artists in Somaliland are embracing other art forms than literature and we need to cultivate this and show them that it can be affordable living.” To achieve this, creative courses and workshops will be offered to young writers, photographers and artists at the cultural center. As an example of how this can be done, Jama mentions the young photographers that were trained by Kate Stanworth during the book fair in 2013 and two of them have already become established professional photographers in Somaliland.
But the ambitions for Hargeisa Cultural Center go further. 15000 books have already been donated for the creation of a library at the center and Jama is working on establishing cooperation agreements with Hargeisa University and several universities in Italy to facilitate the exchange of students and residencies for researchers. More importantly though, Jama hopes that the cultural center with time will establish itself as a key forum for discussions and meetings in Somaliland. ”Our traditional platform for discussions has gone missing. We used to meet under the tree but we don’t any longer,” Jama says.
Appreciating the differences
What makes the biggest impression during my chat with Jama is his determined belief in the importance of arts in creating positive changes in society. I ask him to elaborate on his view on the role of arts in a Somali context and he tells me that for him, art is simply fundamental in constructing citizenship and that poetry is the most important tool in the artistic toolbox. Jama illustrates this with an example from Hargeisa International Book Fair. Every year during the literature festival, young Somalis from different parts of Somaliland are asked what it means to them to be from Somaliland. ‘’They express this through poetry and their answers are just incredible’’, Jama tells me.
However, Jama also acknowledges that the role of poetry in Somali society is changing drastically. ‘’We have lost our famous oral tradition,’’ he states and explains how Somali poets in his view first lost the skill of improvisation and then the rhythm and melody because they started writing down poetry (the Somali Latin script was only institutionalized in 1973). ‘’Something beautiful has been lost,’’ he says. Jama and his colleagues are now trying to regain the vanished through poetry recitation and spoken word battles during the festival.
A final but essential thing that Jama is trying to achieve via the book fair, the cultural center and many other engagements is to teach Somalis to appreciate their differences rather than using them as an excuse for conflict. ‘’Somalis have grown up thinking that we were all the same. This has created problems and made us intolerant. We now need to show and to appreciate our differences.’’ During Hargeisa International Book Fair, the differences in the poetry, dance and calligraphy traditions between different parts of Somaliland and between Somaliland and the rest of Somalia are intentionally being highlighted and celebrated. ‘’This is a way of overcoming religious and other obstacles and creating tolerance,’’ Jama tells me before he concludes: ‘’I am Somali from Somaliland. There are differences between us and we should appreciate them.’’
All the photos accompanying this article were taken by Kate Stanworth during Hargeisa International Book Fair 2013. In November 2012, Kate spent three weeks travelling round Somaliland taking photos of the local elections. She became fascinated with Somaliland and was in 2013 invited back to exhibit her photos at the Hargeisa International Book Fair and run photography training workshops. Kate will be returning to the book fair again this year.
Asked about her impression of the book fair, Kate explains: ‘’I had heard that the fair was a really nice event but what surprised me was Somalilanders’ pure passion for poetry and literature, and the enthusiasm of the audiences at the readings and talks. When the poet Hadraawi (considered the Somali Shakespeare) spoke, the hall was packed and young kids were crowing to see in through the windows. The photo training workshops were really fun and there was some great talent there, despite the fact that people say Somali culture is an oral one, with little emphasis on the visual arts. I was so happy that many of my photo trainees came back to photograph the fair and we ended up working together.’’
Explore more of Kate’s excellent photos from Hargeisa below and more of her work here.
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