No 1 African literary festival: Somaliland buzzing with expectation
No one would claim that the Hargeysa International Book Fair presents a threat to the Jaipur Literary Festival or its ilk. It will be a while before the capital of the Somaliland Republic – a country yet to be recognized by the world’s Foreign Offices despite 23 years of de facto independence – plays host to large numbers of hard-drinking London publishers and literary groupies eager to catch sight of their favourite authors.
But there are few literary events where you will come across the kind of rapturous enthusiasm that was on display this August when hundreds of young Somalilanders cheered the national poet Hadraawi. And few foreign writers will have experienced the kind of gratitude that met the handful of authors who did make it here.
The most remarkable thing about the Hargeysa book fair, however, is that it takes place at all.
The Somaliland Republic is theoretically part of Somalia – a byword for failed statehood and Hobbesian violence. And even though Somaliland itself boasts a functioning state and a multiparty democracy, you wouldn’t expect it to host a literary festival. This is not one of those super-rich Gulf States, whose spendthrift rulers buy prestige by importing Western culturati.
Somaliland is a place where there are few tarmac roads even in the capital. Electricity is supplied by diesel generators, almost all consumer goods have to be expensively imported from Ethiopia, and the mainstay of the economy is the breeding and sale of camels and goats, supplemented by remittances from a large diaspora.
On the ground, however, Somaliland does not feel poor. The capital’s rapidly changing skyline and busy stores testify to growing prosperity. Its physical infrastructure, like the single, potholed highway between the capital and the main port at Berbera, may need investment, but its communications infrastructure is already impressive.Somaliland has two competing private providers of 3G cellular phone service whose towers provide better coverage than their British equivalents, and both of the country’s ramshackle airports offer free wi-fi. There are no banks as yet but much of the population use their mobile phones to make financial transactions
That said, Hargeysa is a city in which donkeys imitate the role played by cows in India’s cities, calmly stopping traffic as they stroll through town. It is a low-slung, dusty, higgledy piggledy town spread unevenly over a long ridge, and facing two conical hills whose name in Somali translates as ‘the young girl’s breasts’.
In the centre, there are a handful of shiny four-storey shopping malls and a dozen office buildings being built. Like the Land Cruisers that jam the few paved streets, they are a manifestation of the relative prosperity that has come to Somaliland in the past few years.
The city comes alive after dusk when its streets are bright and busy. For a poor country there seems to be a remarkable amount of commercial activity, but then Somalis have been traders since the Land of Punt sold frankincense to the Pharaohs.
Large numbers of Somalilander exiles have come back in recent years and their influence is apparent. The founders of the festival are themselves diaspora Somalilanders. Jama Musse Jama, a businessman based in Rome, and Ayan Mahamoud, from London, knew their country had a hunger for books but no longer any bookshops.
They also wanted to counter the growing influence of Islamist charities and ultra-conservative preachers that have come to Somaliland from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.
Old Somaliland hands are struck by the recent increase of black abayas in the capital – urban Somalilander women traditionally cover their hair, but with brightly coulored scarves. Given the appetite shown at the festival bookstore for copies of Anne Frank, Jane Austen, Tolstoy and Kafka, along with books about modern Africa, the founders seem to have found their audience.