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.”
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 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.”
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.
“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
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.
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.