Somalia’s nascent love affair with books is blossoming as safety returns to the country

A selection of Somali-language books for sale at the Hargeysa International Book Fair.
A selection of Somali-language books for sale at the Hargeysa International Book Fair.
Image: Nyabola, H. Nanjala
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In the craggy hills of Hargeisa, the capital of the breakaway region of Somaliland, organizers and participants this morning (July 23) flooded the opening ceremony of the ninth edition of the Hargeysa International Book Fair. In four days, almost 400 miles away in Garowe, the administrative capital of Puntland region, the second edition of another book fair will be launched. And in just over three weeks, in the seaside capital of Mogadishu, another international book fair will kick off, also for its second year.

Three different fairs in three different regions of Somalia. The politics of federalism in the Eastern African country might be murky, but the country’s citizens are united in their enthusiasm for books and book fairs. As the war-weary nation slowly gains more stability, there has been an uptick in the number of festivals promoting books and the culture of reading. The fairs have become an important place to expose Somalis to different writers and cultures across Somalia, Africa, and the world.

Many of the newer events ride on the coattails of the Hargeisa fair. Started in 2008, it has grown into an annual attraction featuring thousands of writers, poets, journalists, and photographers from across the world. Somaliland declared independence from Somalia in 1991 and has since stood as a peaceful oasis in the warring nation. The book fair has named a guest country every year, with writers from Nigeria, United Kingdom, Malawi, and Djibouti hosted in previous years. Ghana is the guest nation this time around.

At the Hargeisa festival, western classics by authors like Leo Tolstoy and Shakespeare are sold alongside chapbooks of Somali poetry and short stories. Discussions are held that address key issues including censorship, freedom, creative imagination, and the future. The event has also created a platform for new authors to promote their books as well as share ideas, discuss the problems ailing the country, and come up with solutions. This and the other festivals also emphasize the power of the written word, in a country where oral storytelling has been the norm for centuries. The Somali language didn’t have an authorized orthography until 1972.

Philipp Schütz, a Swiss photographer and publisher, is attending the fair in Hargeisa for the third time. He says the mood surrounding the city during the book fairs is what keeps bringing him back. “I like the vibe of the city and how people from here and from the diaspora are contributing to the growth of the city and the country. People work hard to make the city a better place,” Schütz says. The visits have allowed him to expand his network, partner with Somali artists, conduct training sessions for budding photographers, and work on documentary photography projects.

Mogadishu calling

The success in Hargeisa is now trying to be replicated in Mogadishu. When the first book fair took place in Somalia’s capital in August last year, more than 30 writers and 3,000 people attended the three-day event. More than 3,000 books were put on display, a big step for a city that didn’t have any public libraries or commercial bookstores at the time.

The fair also showcased the commitment of young Somalis to build something positive amidst the ravages of war. Somalia is the fifth poorest nation in the world, with an estimated per capita income of $435 according to the World Bank. Youth unemployment stands at 67%, with poor education opportunities and weak political participation making life miserable (pdf) for many.

Despite this, the book fairs are inspiring young entrepreneurs like Mohamed Dubo, who opened the first major bookstore in Mogadishu three months ago. Dubo says he was inspired by the fair to put into action his decade-old dream of opening a bookshop in the Somali capital.

Following the book event, Dubo traveled to Asia to buy 20,000 books, comprise of 7,000 titles. More than two-thirds of the books are non-academic, consisting of motivational and self-help books, novels, memoirs, and autobiographies. He is now importing two containers of books from the United States. Once they arrive in Mogadishu, he says, he hopes to open a major hub for books, which will consist of both a library and a bookshop in the capital.

“The response is quite huge. The need is there. The willingness to read books is there,” Dubo says.

Dubo, who reads three books a month, says he wants to popularize bookselling in Somalia and to expand into other cities across the entire country. As a businessman, “I am looking at it from a profitability perspective,” he says. But as a Somali, he sees his venture as a socially responsible venture, enabling fellow Somalis “to grow through reading and nurture their talents.”

Leading the way

Back in Hargeisa, the theme of this year’s book fair is leadership. It’s a delicate topic as the breakaway region prepares to head into elections next year. Somaliland will also celebrate 25 years since it announced independence from Somalia. In south-central Somalia, the electioneering season for presidential and parliamentary elections is also underway.

But Somalis like Dubo won’t let politics and politicking distract them from their books—selling, reading, and learning from them. Books, he says, teach you about the world and instill in you that “you have a responsibility to grow.”