There are more trees in Mogadishu than you might expect, at least in August.
From above, the city is knots of green punctured by blue, red and beige roofs rolling into a strip of bright white sand before falling into the sea.
In August, the air in the city is cool and a crisp ocean breeze clears the humidity so that it is actually quite pleasant to sit outside in the afternoon, sipping coffee while thinking about the latest cabinet reshuffle.
These are things I know because I spent a week in Mogadishu at the fourth edition of the Mogadishu Book Fair, a pioneering event that uses literature to inspire and motivate particularly young people in Somalia’s capital city.
War is a complicated thing, and the war in Somalia is perhaps one of the most complicated. Since the overthrow of the Said Barre administration in 1991, the country has collapsed into ever more complicated cycles of violence and reprisals. The fighting has been attributed to a broad range of political motivations and actors: money, power, ethnicity, clan, respect, territory, history, religion, age, migration – all of which have some explanatory power but clearly not enough to capture everything. Meanwhile, the killing continues. In the week before the book fair, a car bomb in Mogadishu killed a number of people, while a popular young entrepreneur named Mo Sheikh Ali was assassinated in broad daylight.
What does it mean to hold a book fair in the middle of so much uncertainty?
For one, it is a reminder that behind each number or statistic that we see flashing on our screens every evening when we see news from Afghanistan, Iraq, the Central African Republic or Somalia is a person who had a family, hopes, and dreams – a life. War is devastating, not because it destroys economies or fractures political alliances but because it steals people from their communities and makes it impossible for those who are left behind to live full lives. Events like the book fair allow us to focus on Somali people outside the context of war and to see the people behind the numbers.
The mythology of Somalia has in some ways overgrown the reality of the place, and for outsiders, the narrative of violence sprints around the world and punches you in the face long before the kindness and hospitality of Somali people has had a chance to put on its shoes. Yet in several important ways, Mogadishu is the same as any other place: filled with people who just want to get on with the business of being alive. The young people at the book fair are so excited to be surrounded by literature – especially in their own language. They are grateful for the handful of outsiders who confront fear to come and speak to them as people rather than subjects of study. And while it is impossible to escape the reality of conflict and insecurity, the large hall packed to the rafters with over a thousand pairs of eager eyes and happy smiles, is a testament to how welcome this event is.
A large part the audience is young and part of a generation that has never known anything but war, and the book fair is one of the many initiatives launched by this generation to define themselves beyond war. Much of this work is being done online as young Somalis take stunning photographs and videos of what is unquestionably a beautiful corner of the world filled with hardworking survivors, showcasing a different side of Somalia. You can almost feel them willing a renaissance with little more than their drones and DSLRs, fuelled by hope and determination.
The late Mo Sheikh Ali was part of this diffuse movement. He was the leader of the Mogadishu Start-Up Grind, as well as a judge on a televised entrepreneurship competition, the founder of the first florist and the first dry cleaner in Mogadishu since 1991, and a vocal champion of the power of youth to recast the city’s fortunes. He was as far away from the stereotype of the baby-faced militiaman as you could get. The circumstance of his death underscores both the senselessness of war and the perverted logic of the hidden interests destroying anyone who wants things in Somalia to change for the better. And so this book fair, so soon after the young man was killed, is both an emblem of resilience as well as a major act of defiance to those interests.
The Mogadishu Book Fair is also a reminder that life persists. War is upheaval and uncertainty but life persists because people often don’t have a choice: all human beings suffer from that instinct to keep moving. Despite the perennial threat of random violence, people in Mogadishu still wake up every morning, get dressed and go about their business, because life persists. This resilience shouldn’t deter action to stop conflict – the trauma and suffering of war is real. Rather, it is another call back to our shared humanity. With the exception of sociopaths, most of us want the same things – to be able to eat, drink, provide, sing, dance and smile – and there is a universal obligation to create space so that people can keep moving.
Nevertheless, in Mogadishu, the reality of war is never so far away that those attending the book fair can forget it altogether. At eye-level, far below the range of drone photography, the trees are hidden from the street by thick concrete blast walls. Cars weave through security barriers along pavements patrolled by men in uniform brandishing automatic rifles. Meetings are cancelled because security warnings lead to insurmountable traffic. A five-minute walk elsewhere is a 30-minute security effort in Mogadishu. There are body scanners at every turn, invasive pat-downs to enter restaurants and coffee shops, and the constant background hum of military helicopters and regular shooting drills. There is constant tension in the air – a deep gnawing consciousness that this event is a plaster on a gaping wound in a deeply injured society.
War is real, present and toxic, but hope and determination are a start to pushing back. The book fair and the cluster of efforts by young Somali people to reclaim the story of their country are an unexpected and welcome knot of green in the desert of conflict.
Nanjala Nyabola is a political analyst and the author of the forthcoming book “Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics”.