Hargeisa International Book Fair aims to help change Somaliland’s oral culture

By Gregory Warner

In the Republic of Somaliland, literacy is more than an educational goal. It’s an economic lifeline to the diaspora who provide most of the country’s economic support.


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Book Fair Aims To Help Change Somaliland Oral Culture
Hamdi Ali Musa saw her first book when she was 10. Now 25, she’s one of Hargeisa’s only librarians. “A revolution has been happening in publishing books, reading, writing and literature,” she says.
Gregory Warner/NPR


Let’s go now to a book fair. The Hargeysa International Book Fair takes place in a country that is not internationally recognized. The Republic of Somaliland is a self-declared state. To the rest of the world, it is an autonomous region of Somalia. It has a president and a police force but no passports or embassies. NPR’s Gregory Warner reports that in a place like that, books can become an economic lifeline.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: The Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah has been translated into 20 languages but never until this year into his own native Somali. I met that translator in an echoey main room at the Hargeysa International Book Fair.

Why did you want to do this?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: He asked me to do it. How can you say no to Nuruddin Farah?

WARNER: Now, it’s not so unusual for a novelist to write in his second or even third language. But when Farah’s first novel was published in English in 1970, Somali did not even have an official written language. They got that in ’72 because Somali has always been an oral culture. This book fair aims to change that.

JAMA MUSSE JAMA: Written word, the written history, written literature, in Somali, written word, it’s a crucial time.

WARNER: Jama Musse Jama is co-founder of the fair now in its ninth year. It takes place in Somaliland, which you won’t find on most maps of Africa, except as a dotted line carving off the northwest chunk of Somalia. But step around this city and it does not feel anything like Somalia.

HUSSEIN BURHAN: You can walk anywhere in Somaliland. You can drive anywhere in peace.

WARNER: Dr. Hussein Bulhan is president of one of the dozens of universities cropping up here. And he points out the patent differences between Hargeisa and Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. While Mogadishu, just 500 miles to the south, is beset by terrorist attacks, here, you can drink tea in an outdoor cafe until 3 in the morning if you want because of strong community policing.

But another difference is while Somalia has been showered with international aid, he says Somaliland has had to rely on itself for the last 25 years.

BURHAN: Not because of loan, not because of aid, not IMF, not USA, not World Bank – sheer people effort.

WARNER: Now, Somaliland does get help from one group, though they don’t have a fancy acronym. Somalis in the diaspora, in Minnesota, Toronto, and Dubai, contribute about $500 million a year to Somaliland’s economy. That’s about a third of the country’s GDP, and that’s where this book fair comes in. This fair is the biggest annual event in Hargeisa.

And it’s a gathering spot timed for diaspora summer vacations.

BURHAN: And the diaspora, that has been helping, the diaspora that left this country as refugees. You understand, they were still linked up with the community here.

WARNER: But their children don’t have that direct link.

Book Fair Aims To Help Change Somaliland Oral Culture
At 16, Roda Hassan was the top scoring girl student in her high school exams in all of Somaliland. Her dream is to finish her trilogy of motivational books for youth — compiling advice learned from her mom and other mentors.
Gregory Warner/NPR

BURHAN: The younger ones in the diaspora at the present time are disconnected from reality here. They were born there.

WARNER: Fifteen million people speak Somali both here, in Africa and around the world. But the founders of this book fair argue that speaking is not enough, that a primarily oral culture cannot be the glue for a people spread out around the globe. The aim of this event is to encourage a culture of reading and writing in Somalia.

FADDAH DEHOWER: I’m a writer.

WARNER: You’re a writer?

DEHOWER: I write three books.

WARNER: Faddah Dehower (ph) is a college student in Hargeisa. She’s just 18 years old.

You’re 18 and you’ve already written three books?


WARNER: All right.

Her three books explore the importance of women in Islam. But then I meet her 16-year-old seatmate Roda Hassan (ph).

RODA HASSAN: I am preparing three books.

WARNER: She’s also writing three books.

HASSAN: And one of them is finished but two still there is.

WARNER: Wow, three books is like the minimum, right? Now, you have to start with three books.

HASSAN: But all of my books talks about motivation.

WARNER: It’s a motivational series for Somali youth with advice that Hassan has gleaned from her mom. And I’m guessing it must be good advice because this 16-year-old, I find out later, got the third best score in Somaliland on her high school exams. She was the top-scoring girl. And, frankly, if I had not met her at random, I might think she was a plant put there by the book fair because she’s one of the smartest high school students in the city nursing a dream to be on stage at this book fair talking her self-help books.

Somaliland has come far with its own self-help, but it’s banking, its future on being more than just an oasis of peace in a war-torn country, but a crossroads of written culture for a people scattered by war around the world. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Hargeisa.

gregory_warner_vert-d286995e88e03487a820dde31a0f4f0339c1fb78-s200-c85About Gregory Warner

Gregory Warner is NPR’s East Africa Correspondent. His reports cover the diverse issues and voices of a region that is experiencing unparalleled economic growth as well as a rising threat of global terrorism. His coverage can be heard across NPR and

Sour: NPR

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