“Hey, my name is Hodan. And I am Somali.”
The last part of that statement made me smile, mainly because I couldn’t comprehend why she was distinctly introducing herself as “Somali” when everyone else in the room was one. This was mid-September 2014, and almost 30 of us ethnic Somalis congregated in a country mansion with expansive gardens in South Wales for a creative storytelling workshop. We were writers, journalists, academics, and graphic designers who had come from Australia to America to talk about our work and discuss how to shape a new Somali narrative both at home and in the diaspora.
“And you are?”
“I am Abdi Latif,” I replied. “And I am Somali too.”
In the following days, I came to know well the phenomenon that is Hodan Nalayeh: A Somali-Canadian journalist and videographer whose buoyancy and energy drew people in that conference together. A colorful raconteur, she wore her love for Somalia on her sleeves and spoke about the country at length in broken Somali during evening fireside chats.
In the months and years that followed, she made telling uplifting and inspiring stories about Somalia her métier, especially after founding the Somali-dedicated YouTube channel Integration TV. As her profile rose, the 43-year-old, whose family moved to Canada when she was six, decided to permanently move back herself to Somalia last year to counter stereotypical media coverage and showcase the country’s rich culture and natural beauty.
That zeal and determination came to an end on Friday (July 12) when Hodan was killed in an assault on Asasey Hotel in the southern Somali city of Kismayo. The terrorist group al-Shabaab attacked the compound where a high-level political meeting was taking place pending regional elections. The attack took the lives of 26 people including Hodan’s husband Farid Jama, broadcast reporter Mohamed Omar Sahal, local politicians, along with citizens from Tanzania, Kenya, Britain, and the United States.
In a cauterized nation caught between a troubled past and an uncertain future, senseless attacks and deaths continue to shape everyday life. The horror of these attacks are not just in the number of people killed but in how they engulf prominent, capable, intelligent, and hardworking Somalis who are determined to change the nation’s course for the better. From students to engineers, serial entrepreneurs to singers and lawmakers, the wave of violence continues to leave behind a trail of horror, misery, and anger.
Hodan was conscious of these dangers and through her work highlighted how people were beating the odds amid lack of prospects and deepening insecurity. Through her videos, she traveled throughout the nation to engage politicians and young students, empower female business owners and highlight how cities were changing.
Wielding a camera in a nation where suspicion and distrust pervades can be tough, but Hodan pushed on, visiting villages and sharing tea and stories with strangers. And in a country where women continue to face immense socio-economic, cultural, and political challenges, she popularized the Somali hashtag #NaagIskaDhig, which loosely translates to #StandUpLikeAWoman.
As death and destruction arrive unannounced in Somalia, Hodan understood the importance of highlighting the good stories, the silver lining, the successes of Somalis both at home and in the diaspora. On some level, she imbibed the words of Nigerian author Ben Okri who once wrote, “To poison a nation, poison its stories. A demoralized nation tells demoralized stories to itself.”
By documenting the stories of hope in Somalia through its champions and participants, Hodan understood that it was the prerogative of the living—especially the journalists, the writers, the privileged few—to amplify these positive narratives.
In her short life, Hodan lived true to the meaning of her name, which means ‘lushness,’ ‘richness,’ or ‘vibrancy’ in Somali. The overwhelming futility of her loss will remain a constant presence not just within her family and friends but among people all over Somalia and the world. But by living a life of contribution, she will go into history books as the journalist who claimed her country back when bloodshed and entropy ruled supreme.
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