When Jama Muse Jama announced ten years ago that he is holding a Book Fair in Somaliland’s capital (Hargeisa), eyebrows were raised. People were not sure if he was planning to sell books, give them away for free or do an NGO style presentation about literature.
I don’t mean to bore you with repetitive details about the history of Somaliland, its suffering during the Somali civil war, eventual break away from Somalia or the twenty-six years of continued peace and progress that followed. For that, you probably need to visit the Book Fair or just speak to any random Somalilander. Once you do, you will realise the level of devastation visited on that country physically and intellectually. So, for a man to come along seventeen years later and inform the population that he was planning to organise a Book Fair (and an international one at that) in an unrecognised and still recovering country, seemed like the height of folly and dubious ambition.
For such an idea to be successful one needed to have an informed audience, a knot of writers, authors, intellectuals, academics and, of course, sponsorship and support from organisations that foster cultural enrichment. If such existed, they weren’t very visible due to, amongst other things, a lack of a platform. This was surely a stab in the dark by Mr Jama.
The first Hargeisa International Book Fair took place in 2007. Two hundred people participated and many Somaliland diaspora followed this new and unique idea from afar. To the surprise of everyone, it turned out to be a roaring success. Now, ten years later, the number of participants exceeds ten thousand and the eyebrows are being raised for totally different reasons.
With hindsight, and the aid of many of the books found in the Fair in those ten years, it is clear that Mr Jama had spotted the potential supressed energy in Somaliland and worked hard to unleash it. While everyone knew of household names such as Hadrawi and the late Gaariye, not many others were known or had the reputation to showcase their talents to the public. Now, the place is teeming with celebrated writers, poets and intellectuals. Every year brings even more interesting Somali books covering all areas and topics. Publishing and self-publishing are flourishing, book launches, poetry nights, readers clubs and translations of popular classics have become the norm.
Every year has a theme and a country as a guest of honour. Distinguished authors and writers from all over Africa (and beyond) have taken part and helped enhance the knowledge and thinking of Somalilanders by exchanging ideas and sharing their experiences. Learned Somalilanders from all fields of knowledge have visited to discuss, advise and encourage the (now) thriving Somaliland literary scene. Offshoots, parallel events and imitations have been seen all over the Horn of Africa, all because one man once thought it would be a good idea to have a Book Fair.
Somaliland may not be politically recognised now but the word is most certainly out. The Hargeisa International Book Fair goes from strength to strength and, in the next ten years, you may find yourself clutching an International best seller written by a local Somalilander. Remember, ten years ago, not many people thought such a Book Fair was possible.