A gathering of ideas in Mogadishu

Abdifatah Ahmed, (Kalga’al), a visually impaired journalist, giving his TEDx talk. PHOTO | ALICIA SULLY. 

During the reign of the Al-Shabaab militia in Mogadishu, any form of art regarded as un-Islamic was banned and many artistes fled the country.

It is only in the last one year, that music, and other forms of art have returned to the city.

Peace is gradually taking hold of the city with scenes of children playing in the streets, the famous Lido Beach filled with weekend swimmers and the cafes teeming with people.

Over 150 people gathered in Mogadishu late August, combined with a global audience through social media, to hear the incredible voices that have fought against all odds in various fields to help get Somali back on the international stage. These short talks by artistes and intellectuals, at events known as TEDx, have been held in more than 150 countries, but holding the same event in Mogadishu, requires a very different level of preparation.

The Jazeera Palace Hotel, was chosen to make the event accessible to as many people as possible, even though it lies outside the protected area in the city.

“We worked closely with security experts to ensure the safety of attendees, created difficult-to-copy invitations, and everything went smoothly,” explains Alicia Sully.

The satellite live stream was steady with viewing events from Copenhagen to Melbourne; even the Dadaab Refugee camp in Kenya, where one of the TEDx speakers grew up, had a viewing event.

Here was a platform on rediscovering Somalia, a country that has been ravaged by civil war for two decades, but has started to regain life in very unexpected ways.

The first TEDx Mogadishu, whose theme was “Rebirth”, took place in 2012 at the First Somali Bank, the country’s first commercial bank to operate after 21 years, and was attended mostly by university students who had little idea of what to expect.

According to Sebastian Lindstrom, the success of that first event created a platform for the team to expand their ability to find captivating speakers, while seeking sponsorship.

Lindstrom and Sully are part of What Took You So Long, a team of documentary filmmakers dedicated to the stories of unsung heroes with the experience of having worked in over 60 countries.

They have filmed herders, different camel milk organisations and were instrumental in bringing the concept of TEDx to Mogadishu.

Dry cleaner

Nothing illustrates the fragility of the Somali capital’s newly found peace than the story of how this year’s TEDx, originally scheduled for June, was moved backward after two suicide bombers attacked the biggest UN base in Mogadishu, killing 13 people.

This second TEDx Mogadishu, an offshoot of the global conference on ideas, was organised in 10 days rather than the four days it took to put together the first event. Besides, this was the first to be held since the formation of the Federal Government of Somalia

Even the President of Somalia got to share his views on rebuilding the country through such forums. “As one of the oldest cities in the Horn of Africa, Mogadishu needs a lot of creative ideas as it sets about the task of rebuilding,” said President Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud in a video message to the TEDx gathering.

The event was streamed live on the Internet with a total 14 speakers, including an artiste who survived two decades of persecution and is now involved in peace building; a blind journalist campaigning for disabled Somalis; A Somali-American discovering her roots and a Somali novelist.

Iman Elman, a 21-year-old raised in Canada who is a military commander in the Somalia National Army, in charge of nearly 100 men told a powerful story of how she earned respect within her forces in the battle against Al-Shabaab militia.

Her older sister IIwad is shattering stereotypes, too, campaigning against violence on women and promoting their rights through a centre she runs with her mother.

Entrepreneur Mohamed Mahamoud Sheik spoke of his success in opening Mogadishu’s first dry cleaner in over 20 years after noticing men, including the President, carrying suits all the way to Nairobi for cleaning.

Novelist

Jabril Abdulle, 42, explained how the arts are fundamental to Somali’s recovery. Mr Abdulle lost his entire family in the civil war and started the Centre for Research and Dialogue.

He is running several programmes, including a mentorship for young artistes, My Mogadishu photography group and a Somali Idols talent contest.

Last year, Abdulle escaped death when a suicide bomber struck Mogadishu’s reopened national theatre earlier in the year, killing more than 10 people.

One of the “painters of Mogadishu,” Aden Farah Affei, faced persecution during the regime of Siad Barre, but is now playing a central role in peace building. 

His artistry has chronicled almost every significant event and debate in the country as well as figures that have shaped Somalia’s past. 

Mr Affei belongs to a collective of veteran artistes using art to spread a message for peace and against corruption. They are reviving a culture that disappeared when the Somali government collapsed and warlords took over the county.

However, the artistes continued to create behind the scenes and when the militia was kicked out of Mogadishu by the African Union forces last year, they emerged in the open once again.

Young artistes are now being mentored through a programme run by Abdulle’s Centre for Research and Dialogue.

Another highlight was the presentation by Somali novelist Abdi Latif Ega, who is a scholar at Columbia University in the US. His recent book Gudan, is a tale of the Somali revolution through the stories of diplomats, camel herders, military personnel, clan elders and others cutting across all levels of Somali society.

“I wanted to get away from the narrative that Africans always need help,” he said.

The project of Somalia is not only for the people of the West, but has to be driven by Somalis themselves.”

Musician Mohamed Kabanale recalled the worst days of the conflict when he fled to Kenya where he learnt to play the oud from exiled Somali artistes.

The crowd loved his singing and his oud, a plucked stringed instrument resembling a lute and which is popular in the Arab world

To signify the success of this year’s TEDx Mogadishu, guests were treated to 50 litres of camel milk at the end of the event.

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