Still, Hargeysa was an infectiously upbeat place. Somalilanders impressed me with their ready smiles, their generous laughter, and their habitual extension of handshakes. They came out in such number at the festival because, deep down–even instinctively–they recognised the tremendous reach and power of culture. They knew that culture not only gives identity but also strengthens a people as they grapple with their everyday and existential challenges.
Whether Americans or Africans, my friends reacted in much the same way when I disclosed I was headed for Hargeysa, the capital of Somaliland, to participate in an international book festival.
“Somalia?” one friend asked, a look of deep concern on his face. “Why?”
“Somaliland,” I corrected.
“Isn’t it the same thing?”
“No–but, in some respect, yes,” I said. I then explained how British Somaliland had merged with once-Italy-ruled Somalia to form a federation. And how, as a fall-out of the resistance that removed Siad Barre from power and left much of Somalia an anarchic space, the northern clans of Somaliland had opted to form a separate, self-governing republic. Even though Somaliland is bereft of official recognition as a sovereign national entity, its people have run their affairs as a de facto nation-state–complete with an army, police, prime minister, parliament and ministers.
Another friend asked, “Is that not the place where pirates hijack ships?”
“No,” I replied.
Others, in anxious voices, admonished me: “stay safe,” “be extra careful,” “don’t wander.”
There was the impression I was a war correspondent about to venture into a theatre of fierce fighting, a bloody war. For that matter, I, too, nursed, some sense of apprehension. Despite reassurances from two writer friends, the Somali novelist Abdi Latif and the Nigerian writer Chuma Nwokolo, I had moments infected by fear.
Despite those residual anxieties–and, in some measure, owing to them–Hargeysa (alternatively spelt as Hargeisa) turned out one of the most moving of the many literary festivals and cultural events I have attended.
The story of my invitation to this extraordinary festival is worth telling. A year and a half ago, Chuma Nwokolo had sent me an email wondering whether I would like to be a guest of the 2015 Hargeysa International Book Festival, the Eighth edition of the event. Chuma, the author of such delightful literary romps as The Ghost of Sani Abacha and Diaries of a Dead African, had then participated once in the festival–and had written alluringly about his experiences.
Imposingly tall, his mane of hair remarkable for the dark middle sandwiched by two gray sides, Chuma could easily come across as unapproachable. Instead, his exuberant manner and raconteur’s flair, wedded to a lawyer’s emphatic, methodical mode of delivery, make him an instant crowd charmer. Last year, the organisers of the festival asked him to return for his second outing. Not only was he invited back this year, his third, he was also given the task of curating Nigeria’s delegation, the organisers having decided to honour Nigeria as the “guest” country for 2015.
In the end, the wit and versatile poet, Niyi Osundare, Chuma and I made up Nigerian team. In number, the writers and participants from Kenya dwarfed us. Of course, Chuma and the organisers had invited a few other Nigerian writers. Some declined due to conflicts in their itinerary.
I suspect that one or two others chose to stay away based on the misconception that Somaliland was a hotbed of sectarian terror.
What an amazing reception we got, not only from the organisers but–even more remarkably–from the hundreds of people who packed the capacious conference hall at Guleed Hotel where most of the events took place. Our panel discussion, which explored Nigerian literature, was a big draw.
The festival ran from August 1 till August 6. Day after day, the hall was filled. A passerby might have conjectured that the event was a music concert, instead of a cultural event centred on literature and orature.
In a telephone conversation the day I left the US for the long trip to Hargeysa, the Harlem-based Somali writer, Abdi Latif, had said to me, “You will be impressed.” He had been part of last year’s edition of the event, and spoke highly of Chuma Nwokolo and Jama Musse Jama, the initiator and founder of the Hargeysa Book International Book Festival. It transpired that Latif’s sentiment was a huge understatement.