Somalia: Using the Arts for Peace and Peace-building

Hadraawi - “This respected poet is to the Somalis what Shakespeare was to the English…his poems and literary works reflect on all aspects of life." Pix courtesy:

Hadraawi – “This respected poet is to the Somalis what Shakespeare was to the English…his poems and literary works reflect on all aspects of life.”
Pix courtesy:

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 attacked and killed in Mogadishu a year or so ago. In his story, Abdulkadir Khalif, who was amongst the first journalists to report on the attack, noted that unknown assailants killed Marshale, “a top Somali artiste as attacks on professionals in the troubled Horn of Africa country continued.”

He added: “Marshale was shot outside his home in Waberi district in Mogadishu and was rushed to Madina hospital but after an hour of doctors trying to save his life, Marshale succumbed to the head and chest gunshot wounds.”

Eye witnesses said that he was assaulted by two young men armed with pistols in this latest incident that seemed to target professionals but one cannot also fail to see the affront it has on the creative industry. At the time, this attack on Marshale came a few months after four more people had been killed and nine others seriously injured in a grenade attack at a packed video showroom near Tarbunka square in Mogadishu.

Reports from Mogadishu said that the attackers hurled two hand grenades into a packed video showroom where teenagers were watching films. Most of the victims were said to be teenagers from nearby IDP camps who came to the place for entertainment. In all these attacks and many others in arts and culture related institution, Somalia’s al Qaeda-linked Al Shabaab rebels have claimed responsibility making it clear how they detest the arts.

A few months before the 2012 Olympics games opened in London, two top sports officials in Somalia were killed in the blast at Mogadishu’s national theatre in an attack Islamist insurgents said was 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 and while the two officials who were killed were sports officials, it was not lost to observers that the choice of the Theatre signified their desire to use the 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 has been embraced by their brothers and sisters in Djibouti. I found myself thinking about an earlier trip I had made to Djibouti.

Djibouti touts herself as the capitale culturelle (the capital of culture) at the horn of Africa and the eventful Fest’horn Festival has, without doubt, been one of the instruments that they have been using to drive this point home and claim their centrality in culture matters at the horn of Africa.

Fest’horn Festival is mainly a music festival that draws established and budding musicians from Djibouti and other countries around Africa to celebrate peace. Countries at the Horn of Africa have been beleaguered by a prolonged armed conflict that was in many ways started by intolerance of this or that aspect of the other person or party’s culture or way of life. Some of them were over resources and this made the regions quite unsafe. Djibouti that hosts the festival has its own share of history of this armed conflict that prompted them to initiate this festival.

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, the 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.”

Abbi dancing

Abbi from Kenya performing at the Fest’horn in Djibouti

Kajeem 1

Kajeem from Cote d’Ivoire performing at the Fest’horn in Djibouti

UG- Percussion Discussion

Percussionists from Uganda performing at the Fest’horn in Djibouti











It has drawn artists from Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, Cote d’Ivoire, Yemen, Ethiopia and others. 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 know (at least in many parts of Africa) but when Africa hosted the FIFA world cup extravaganza for the first time in the continent, 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 extravagance, kids in playing fields around the continent are still chanting these words animatedly.

K'Naan's wavin' flag was a  hit across Africa

K’Naan’s wavin’ flag was a hit across Africa. Picture courtesy of

K’Naan electrified the entire continent with this song in the same way he thrilled the crowds in Djibouti. For 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.

It was a double treat for these Somalis in Djibouti. Not only did they get a chance to reminisce about home, they were also paying homage to one of their own shining light. Born Keinan Abdi Warsame in 1978, K’Naan is the grandson of Haji Mohamed, one of Somalia’s most famous poets, and nephew of famed Somali singer Magool and he has told their story to the global village. This is because K’Naan believes that making music to tell stories is a good way to spread the word about what happens to people in places around the world unfamiliar to them.

“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 has).”

In Djibouti, where he told this story in English and mother-tongue, 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 couldn’t help wondering if he could have survived as an artist in his homeland, considering what had happened to Marshale, the comedian. A self taught artist, his determination would have seen him practice his art but the risks would be similar to what befell Marshale. In his most famous song Nagala soo baxa “Come out with it,” K’Naan directly challenges 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.”

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.”

K'Naan-Waving-Flag-Album Picture courtesy of www.BestVideoRap.com16-29-50

Picture courtesy of www.BestVideoRap.com16-29-50

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. But this intolerance is unusual. It goes against the cultural grains.

The Cultural Grain

The arts and particularly poetry has been a way of life in the Somali community that spreads from Kenya, Ogaden in Ethiopia, Djibouti— former French Somali coast and others often described as former British Somaliland in the north and Italian Somalia in the south.

Somalia's noted contemporary poet Maxamed Xaashi Dhamac, known as “Gaarriye

Somalia’s noted contemporary poet Maxamed Xaashi Dhamac also known as “Gaarriye. Picture courtesy of

“The 19th Century English explorer Richard Burton famously described Somalis as a “nation of poets” in his classic work Footsteps in East Africa,” Maxamed Daahir Afrax, a writer and literary scholar based in the UK, points out in his paper Towards a Culture of Peace presented to Conciliation Resources. “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.”

“A play called Gaaraabidhaan (Glow Worm), staged in 1968 by the late playwright Xasan Sheikh Muumin, is believed to have inspired the military coup led by Siyaad Barre in 1969,” Maxamed explained further. “Similarly, Landcruiser, a play by the late poet-playwright Cabdi Muxumed Amiin, staged at the National Theatre in Mogadishu in 1989, attacked the deeds of the 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.”

He added: “In Somali society poetry, oratory, theatre and song, are the dominant forms of cultural expression. 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.”

Tool to Promote Peace and Conflict Resolution

Writer Nuruddin Farah. Somalia's famous son and man of letters

Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah. Somalia’s famous son and man of letters. Pictures courtesy of

The arts—poems, drama and song, orally-presented, as well as written literature are in the Somali-gene and this is why targeting of the artists has been confounding. It is 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 arts is banned. But then again, it can be argued that they do this because they (insurgents) realize the power and influence that the arts have.

Keinan Abdi Warsame aka K'Naan

Keinan Abdi Warsame aka K’Naan

The current regime has had to content with this considering that an attempt to assassinate the new president was staged a day or two after he was elected signifying that the power of the bullet and barrel will continue to be used. 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 but 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.

Kham: Living the Dream in Comics and Cartoons

A former editorial cartoonists and creator of numerous comic characters—Bongoman, Babu, JJ, Inspector Kamata etc., James Kamawira popularly known as Kham is a devoted cartoonist. Tasked by his peers in the industry to champion and foreground cartoonists’ issues, Kham hopes to approach this task with the same devotion. The Interview.


 Msanii Kimani: You have one of the longest running comic character Bongoman, who has done virtually everything. How long has Bongoman graced our newspapers?

Kham: Bongoman was conceived in 1987 while I was a graphics designer in a small design firm in Nairobi, but it was not until I joined the Kenya Times newspaper in 1989 that it started running in the Newspaper. Bongoman is the ordinary Kenyan who resides in the Eastlands suburbs of Nairobi, married to Mama Boi and father of 10 year-old Boi. He is unemployed most times but ‘hassling’ to earn a living although the household is largely supported by the wife who runs a grocery store in the estate. Bongoman is the alter ego of the typical Kenyan man who gets to do what most would want to do but can’t or won’t!

Kham's Bongoman series.

Kham’s Bongoman series.

Msanii Kimani: Some of the earliest Kenyan comic books were the Pichadithi collections like Kenyatta Prophecy, The Greedy Hyena, Wanjiru the Sacrifice, The Amazing Abu Nuwasi, Lwanda Magere, The Ogre’s Daughter, The Adventures of Hare, The Wisdom of Koomenjoe, A Poor Man’s Bowl, Terror in Ngachi Village, The Cunning Squirrel, Omganda’s Treasure, Children of Sango, Simbi the Hunchback etc. What is your take on this?

Kham: I greatly respect all those people who were the pioneers of cartoons in Kenya and owe a great debt to them for that. The late Terry Hirst, Edward Gitau and the late Frank Odoi, who were the first local names in the industry that I encountered. I never imagined in my wildest dreams that i would be able to know them and to work with them.

Msanii Kimani: Apart from Bongoman, you have also created several other characters who have been fascinating and full of drama. I am talking about JJ, Babu, Inspector. Why aren’t they as consistent as Bongoman?

Kham: As a cartoonist I have created many characters, some never even saw the light of day (publication). But at one point you do settle down on one or two, JJ almost duplicated Bongoman but he was quite different in his persona and approach. JJ comics were also short three deck gags as opposed to Bongoman’s long running comics. A comic artist is always in the process of creation. I may create some other character in the future, who knows.

Msanii Kimani: Where do you draw inspiration for all these characters and the stores that they tell?

Babu, the adventurous kid

Babu, the adventurous kid

Babu by Kham

Babu by Kham

Kham: Largely from everything about me and my love for a good story. I enjoy the very act of bringing a fictional character to life. I draw a lot of inspiration from the people who write to me call me and tell me they love my characters, Babu is especially popular with children and I recall a young gentleman I was introduced to at a function. He was very excited at meeting me and told me he enjoyed reading Babu in his later primary school and throughout secondary school. He is a father now and his son loves reading Babu every Sunday and he can get no rest until he buys the Sunday newspaper. Babu has transcended generations! Babu books are due for publication sometime in the near future.

Msanii Kimani: You no longer draw editorial cartoons. Why did you stop?

Kham: Mainly because I wanted to concentrate on comic development. I am basically a comic artist and feel more satisfied doing comics. There is also a growing number of young editorial artists who also deserve the chance to publish their work. A cartoonist needs exposure in order to grow and quite unfortunately in Kenya, the newspapers are the only avenues for that. I am also involved in the revival of the defunct KATUNI, the Association of East African Cartoonists (since renamed, East African Cartoonists Society- KATUNI). As the Chairman, I want to build it into a vibrant society that will support cartoonists. We are in the process of drawing up programs that will launch the new society into one that can offer alternative exposure to upcoming, cartoonist, illustrators, comic artists and other artists.

Msanii Kimani: Take me through the journey of your life— when & where were you born? Are you the eldest or last-born? How many are you in the family?

Kham: I was born in 1965, the second born in a family of father, mother, two boys and three girls. My father, the late John Crispin Kamawira was a Geography lecturer at Kenyatta College (Now Kenyatta University) and my mother was an actress with VOK (now KBC) under the late Francis Imbuga. My father moved to the Adult Studies Centre (now Kikuyu University Campus) in Kikuyu and this is where my childhood proper began.


Kamata the super cop

Kamata the super cop

Kamata 002

Kamata the super cop

Kamata 003

Kamata the super cop







Kham: I began Std 1 at Thogoto Junior School (now Musa Gitau Primary School). It was run by missionaries then, and I vividly remember the headmistress, Mrs. Welsh and later, the disciplinarian, Mrs. Wainaina. It was life full of adventure with the neighbor’s children from the college housing estate. My father was transferred to Nyeri when I was in Standard six and I transferred to Nyeri Primary School where I completed my Primary education. I joined St Mary’s Boys High School and later Icuga Secondary School where I concluded my Secondary education. I remember that throughout my school days I’d get into trouble with many a teacher for cartooning them while in class much to the hilarity of my co-pupils.

Msanii Kimani: And when did you start life as an illustrator?

Kham: I began my working career as a trainee graphics designer and two years later I joined an Advertising Agency, Hill Ayton, as a finished artist. I still had a burning desire to do cartoons for the media and I finally got the chance to do so when I was invited by the Kenya Times Media Trust to be their editorial cartoonist in 1989. Unfortunately Kenya Times Media Trust collapsed in 1994 and I had to leave. The management tried to revive it and it continued for some years but it finally just died. I still remember it as the first platform that published my work and as the most interesting place that I ever worked. I moved to Media House, but it too collapsed and that’s when I landed at the Standard Group, where I was the editorial cartoonist till 2013. I still contribute Bongoman, a daily strip and Babu, a weekly strip that runs every Sunday.


Bongo 103

Bongoman and the kidnappers

Bongo 104

Bongoman and the kidnappers

Bongo 105

Bongoman and the kidnappers







Msanii Kimani: Where did you go to college? How was it? What are some the challenges and trials that you encountered while trying to learn the trade?

Kham: I have never trained as a cartoonist and I don’t believe anyone can train to be a cartoonist. One has to have an inherent talent as an artist. At this point some go into cartoons, fine art, others into sculptures and others may go into animation and some other art-based disciplines. The major challenges I faced in my early days a cartoonist were limitation. I worked for a newspaper owned by the ruling party KANU, in those days, KANU was the government and the government was KANU, there was practically nowhere to draw the line between the two. I could not caricature the president, or some powerful fellows in government or party. Cartoonist in private media too, could not draw the president until much later my colleague Paul Kelemba ‘Maddo’, who was in the Standard Newspaper at the time dared to do so, in another publication and nothing happened! This finally opened the floodgates; I could draw the president now, but strictly, in ’good light’. I however took a course in 2D animation at the School of Electronic Art in San Francisco, California, USA in 1992 on a USAID, Training for Development Scholarship.

Msanii Kimani: Please give me an outline of the body of your works- the things that you have done- both in Africa and internationally.

Kham: I have held joint exhibitions with my colleagues, Maddo, the late Frank Odoi and Gado in Kenya and outside Kenya, i.e. Dar es salaam, Switzerland, Italy and Norway. I have been contracted by the World Bank to develop cartoons for their calendars, which feature cartoonists from around the globe. I have done some cartoons for foreign media, i.e. BBC and some publications in Norway, USA and Finland. I have been one of the principle artists in the development of the world-acclaimed POPED series.

Msanii Kimani: When did your start doing editorial cartoons?

Kham:  1989, Kenya Times Media Trust. I have been drawing Editorial cartoons since then, 1996- Media House, 1997- Standard Media Group.

Msanii Kimani: Who was your role model in the industry?

Kham: My role models were the late Terry Hirst, Edward Gitau and the late Frank Odoi. These three gentlemen greatly inspired me in my childhood and early teens.

Msanii Kimani: What is your opinion of the comic industry in the Kenyan and African literary scene?

Kham: The comic industry in Kenya has been neglected.  It is quite vibrant in Tanzania with quite a number of comic books like Kingo doing the rounds. In Kenya, there are some factors that affect the production of comic books. There is a very high taxation regime on paper and other assorted art accessories and therefore printing. The media is also so cocooned into sensational news that even ordinary features have been neglected. There was some effort put into comic production by Sasa Sema productions under Lila Luce, but somewhere along the way the publication was sold to a bigger publishing house with the promise that they would continue the good work. Not another book was published after Lila Luce, an American, left.

Kham and civic education

Kham and civic education

Msanii Kimani: What needs to be done to increase its vibrancy?

Kham: The East African Cartoonists Society is in the process of identifying partners who can assist this industry to thrive. With consistent financing and commitment from media/publishing houses, Kenya can become the hub of comic production in Africa. Kenya has the infrastructure and immense talent.

Msanii Kimani: Do you think the industry is able to support an artist to live off it?

Kham: Right now that is doubtful, but with time and proper structures put in place by the players in the industry, it is possible. The association is trying to come up with a well thought out and sustainable project to ensure this.

Msanii Kimani: Is there hope for it beyond the occasional illustrations in the newspaper?

Kham: There is hope and that is what we are about. At EACS-KATUNI we hope to create a forum that will be able to give all aspiring artists a platform to provide them with exposure and even employment.

Msanii Kimani: What is your opinion of the cartoonists in the newsroom?

Kham:  We have some brilliant cartoonists in our newsrooms and others are coming up rapidly. Right now there is certainly no shortage of really good cartoonists in the newsrooms although there is a fair share of mediocrity in there too!

Msanii Kimani: Would you say there is a favorable market for comics in the Kenya and Africa in general?

Kham: Oh, yes, it’s just that in their haste to make super profits through textbooks, the publishers in this country have not yet realized that. Even local comics would make some modest returns although publishing and printing cost are rather high in this country. I have a project in the pipeline to deal with this although I would not like to comment about it at this time.

Kham and civic education

Kham and civic education

Msanii Kimani: What are the other things that you like doing when you are not working? What are your hobbies etc.?

Kham: I am a farming enthusiast and I am planning on setting up an integrated farming concern in the very near future. When I am not working, I am doing research on agriculture and when I am not doing that I love watching movies, travelling and reading.

Msanii Kimani: What are some of the other extraordinary things that have happened to you and also added invaluable experience to your life as an African cartoonist?

Kham: As a cartoonist you are very intimately in touch with the political pulse of the country and world at large. I think this allows you to look at human interaction in a completely different way from ordinary citizens. It allows me to place the political class under closer scrutiny. I have also had the opportunity to meet cartoonists outside the country and work with them. I have held numerous exhibitions within and without the country, visited foreign countries such as the USA, Britain and Canada. I also got a scholarship to do animation in the United States in 1992.

Most of all I have been able to identify one glaring obstacle that prevents Kenya from developing as smoothly as it should. Lack of Information! We moved from one regime that hoarded information and moved to two regimes that have made politics the staple diet of the citizens at the expense of valuable knowledge that can uplift the standards of so many. Majority of Kenyans still do not know about the contents of the Constitution and many more do not understand the mechanics of our country’s new political dispensation, devolution. Including those who “purport” to lead. A blind man cannot lead another blind man. I am exploring various possibilities to remedy the situation.

Kamata 008

Kamata the super cop

Kamata 009

Kamata the super cop

Kamata 010

Kamata the super cop



Babu’s adventures


Babu’s adventures


Babu’s adventures








Bongo 108

Bongoman and the kidnappers

Bongo 109

Bongoman and the kidnappers

Bongo 110

Bongoman and the kidnappers