Last month’s successful Mogadishu International Book Fair was one of the best civil society-led initiatives in the Somali capital in this year. For three days in late August, Somali writers of all ages and hundreds of readers congregated in the City Palace Hotel to celebrate literacy and culture. The inspiring stories and the beautiful scenery of Mogadishu, amplified by social media users who made the hashtag #MIBF2015 trend on Twitter regionally, replaced the depressing Somalia/Mogadishu bylines of terror attacks, famine and malfeasance of all types.
The highlight of the fair was the Somali young people who attended. Well-dressed, beaming young men and women descended on the fair, hungry for books and normalcy. The organizers did not fail them, as they assembled an array of authors and speakers including dozens of young authors, male and female, who kept the crowd on their feet. It was not the youth alone who were in awe, as this was probably first event of this kind in Mogadishu in the past three decades, if not more, drawing most of Mogadishu’s urbane residents into the packed auditorium. That included the President of the Republic.
The goals of the fair were to celebrate and highlight books (approximately 3,000 were exhibited), literature and to motivate young writers. I am certain all those objectives, and more, were met.
Apart from book signing events, many other activities were held including keynote guest lectures, panel discussions and debates. Among the panelists were President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud who spoke about the importance of books and answered questions from the audience about his life and reading culture.
I manned a booth set up by Heritage Institute, and we distributed our publications for free. We also hosted a dinner for the authors and guests from outside Mogadishu and some locals, 40 people in total, at our compound. It was pleasure to meet, share ideas and discuss with those Somali authors and guests. As a Somali research institution whose vision is to advance the culture of reading, learning and research, it was pleasure for us to host Somali authors in our compound.
During these three days, I bought many important books that I was desperately looking for. I also met with many young writers with amazing creativity and energy. Growing up and studying in the country, I had never before had the opportunity to take part in a book fair. This is the reason why the fair was unique for me and many other young Somalis in Mogadishu. During the past two decades, it was hard for us to get books to read for our university studies, let alone attend a book fair where thousands of books were on display.
One of the things I liked about the fair was the fact that it gave everyone the chance to meet with authors in person. Besides book buying, I met, for the first time, many friends whom I only knew through social media.
The Mogadishu Book Fair event symbolizes recovery. Many of us realize how far we have come. Because of our collective resilience, I can say Somalia is on a path of recovery, slow and steady but nonetheless recovery.
The Mogadishu International Book Fair was a success story in every way. Kudos to New Horizon, which organized an amazing and timely event. Also, congratulations to the Somalia Stability Fund who funded the initiative.
The book fair’s instant popularity illustrates how young Somalis desperately crave books, which is a symbol of, and yearning for, normalcy. What this also demonstrates is the need for permanent libraries in Mogadishu and other Somali cities. We cannot hold daily book fairs, and we cannot allow cities of hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions, to be in the dark and without books.
Establishing libraries should be a top priority for national and local governments and also be at the top of to-do lists of civil society organizations, businesses and intellectuals.
It is the turn for Somalia’s national government and regional governments to create permanent book fairs – libraries – for the Somali youth and all citizens. Civil society, the business community and citizens alike should also actively support this cause. Last but not least, let the Somali youth – inside and outside the country – demand, lead and ensure each Somali city gets a library. Establishing libraries is a noble, doable and needed deed. A city without library is a dark and soulless place; let us bring light to our cities.
Mahad Wasuge is an associate researcher with HIPS. Follow him on twitter @MahadWasuge