The role of art and literature in countries of the Horn of Africa was up for discussion among some distinguished Somali, Ethiopian and Sudanese writers who attended Kwani? Litfest 2012 in Nairobi. Kate Hampton was there and sent this report.
The absence of moderator, Yusuf Hassan, was on the minds of many who attended ‘Conversations with the Horn’, a forum at the recent Kwani? literary festival. And not surprising, because Hassan (the only Kenyan member of parliament of Somali descent) had been seriously injured just a week before the event in a grenade attack on a mosque in the Nairobi suburb of Eastleigh. Five other people died in the blast. It is speculated that Hassan was the target of the attack because he is openly critical of Al-Shabaab, a Somalia-based jihadist group with suspected links to Al-Qaeda.
Hassan’s absence set the stage for stand-in moderator, Katrina Manson, to get panellists talking about how they confront seemingly intractable problems through their art, but often at great personal risk.
Joseph Eluzai, a writer from South Sudan, was the first to respond. Eluzai is an employee of the government of the new nation state, (its national anthem even borrows a few lines from one of his poems), but he is nonetheless critical of the current dispensation, arguing that although art should be used to regain a sense of pride, worth and identity, the space for such expression is being narrowed in South Sudan. He urged writers and artists to persevere to raise awareness about issues that concern the broader public.
Somali scholar and writer, Said Jama Hussein, agreed that consciousness-raising is vital to reconstruct a society in which people will be free to contribute without fear. But, equally, he argued, reconstruction in many Horn societies cannot be separated from historical legacies of destruction, including colonialism and slavery: many citizens of post-independence societies expected nirvana, but instead were confronted with civil strife and military coups. The livelihoods, hopes and aspirations of those who had risen up for prosperity and peace were destroyed. Literature and the arts, said Hussein, have the power to develop intangibles, such as hope, aspiration and consciousness, without which more tangible aspects of development can be rendered superficial. Panellist Ahmed Abbas agreed, saying that artists don’t change society themselves; they inspire others to do so.
Among the panellists was Ayan Mahamoud, an artist and the managing director of Kayd Somali Arts and Culture, an organisation that promotes artistic and cultural events in the Horn of Africa and Europe. Mahamoud recalled her early career as a social worker and said she came to the conclusion that the help she was providing to individuals didn’t impact on society as a whole. She realised many issues people face in Somaliland are ideological and she could make more of a difference working with artists.
In Mahamoud’s opinion, art should promote difference and a society can only be reconstructed if there are free spaces in which such promotion can take place. She noted that many people think that Somalia should be peaceful because, unlike neighbouring countries divided by tribe, Somalis speak the same language and share the same culture. A lack of difference is precisely the problem, suggested Mahamoud. ‘Somalis have so much in common they don’t tolerate difference,’ she said.
Mahamoud added that writers in places such as the US have the luxury of writing for themselves with few restrictions, whereas in places such as Somalia it is impossible to write without thinking about group values, cultural values and the values of governance. Writers based in the country have had to conform to the collective opinion and write what people want to hear.
Ethiopian playwright, Meaza Worku, admitted she had difficulty writing about certain subjects, including about conflicts dating back to before she was born. She was very young during the civil war but, as she pointed out, ‘the damage caused by the war is still affecting us now.’
Worku suggested that art should play a major role in the moral reconstruction of society, but artists must be first free to honestly address everything that is taking place and has taken place. Up to today, Worku noted, ‘One must be careful, writing is a risk’.
The conversation would not have been complete without input from Maxamed Ibraahim Warsame, Somalia’s freedom-fighter, social justice advocate and greatest living poet, better known as Hadraawi, who sat among the audience. In the 1970s, Hadraawi was imprisoned for five years for writings critical of the military government. He pointed out the irony of how someone so silenced would go on to become one of Africa’s most prolific poets.
Somalia’s literature, and especially its poetry, has a long political history. Mahamoud noted that Somalia’s art and literature shaped Somali identity more than anything else: ‘If it’s good, it contributed to it. If it’s bad, it contributed to it… Poetry is so central; it’s the only acceptable form of opinion-making [in Somalia], and it’s acceptable to everybody.’
Not surprisingly, Hadraawi is more famous than any modern-day Somali politician. All Somalis know poets from the decolonisation period, and understand how their literature has been employed in fights against dictatorship. Hadraawi is so popular because he’s a poet, explained Mahamoud, and his work continues to be of great political import.
The man himself finally took centre stage, explaining that Somali poetry is different from other writing styles – in the same way different spices are used to create different tastes, so different ways of writing are best used for different purposes. Hadraawi said Somali poetry and literature can be much more effective than political rhetoric at inciting sedition, conflict, strife and war, but can be equally effective to broker peace.
He recounted a tradition of Somali elders: if someone proved to be pathologically aggressive, the person would be tied up and brought before ‘wizened elders steeled in the art of poetry’. The elders would recite poems and proverbs that would show the person the gravity of his wrongs. Hadraawi said the aggressive person would ‘gradually soften until he becomes humble’.
He concluded by reminding the audience that in every aspect, stage and event of human life – whether birth, marriage, death or the rainy seasons – poetry and literature always have their ‘glorious and glamorous space’. Societies cannot be reconstructed without them.
This piece originally featured in the Chronic (April 2013 edition), available here. Stories range from investigations into the business of moving corpses to the rhetoric of land theft and loss; from latent tensions between Africa’s most powerful nations to the soft power of the biggest satellite television provider; and from the unspoken history of Rushdie’s “word crimes” to the unwritten history of PAGAD. It also investigates crime writing in Nigeria, Kenya and India, takes score of the media’s muted response to the ‘artistry’ of the World’s No1 Test batsman, rocks to the new sound of Zambia’s Copper Belt and tells the story on one man’s mission to take down colonialism’s monumental history.
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