Melissa Smyth

Most maps made of the Horn of Africa today do not represent Somaliland on its northern limb, reflecting the subjectivity of a world that chooses to classify the twenty-five-year-old country, at most, as an autonomous region of Somalia. This omission, however, reflects some of the formative challenges of postcolonial and post-conflict development for Somalilanders. With few international diplomatic ties, limited access to the development funds allocated to Somalia, and a diaspora claiming much of the generation that fled war as well as its children who go abroad seeking higher education and employment, Somaliland is largely on its own. Yet there is a distinct drive towards democratization, a flurry of new investment, a trend of return, and an acute sense of procedural self-awareness. Driving by one of many newly opened cafés in the capital city of Hargeysa, a British-Somali friend rolls his eyes and exclaims sardonically, “It’s called Peace Café? Aren’t we beyond peace by now? They should call it Development Café!”

One can hardly expect to rely on maps for getting around Hargeysa, which has no postal service and no formalized address system. Rather, directions are given in landmarks—up the hill, past parliament, beside Telesom. Next to Maroodijeex Bridge in the Sha’ab area is likely the largest collection of maps in the country, being archived and prepared for display at the Hargeysa Cultural Center (HCC). Most are colonial remnants: geological surveys, Italian military maps, plots of regional vegetation, and never-realized railway routes, planned by the British to compete with French exploit in Djibouti. The most captivating of the collection sits on a shelf in founder Jama Musse Jama’s office: a hand-drawn representation of tribal movement before 1948, showing the seasonal migration patterns of pre-colonial pastoral society. Its description reads:

This map was one of thousands of documents ransacked from the government offices in the aftermath the civil war (1988-1991). It was retrieved and saved by Ahmed Ibrahim Awale in 1991 from a local restaurant. Unfortunately, thousands of smaller documents have been utilized as mouth wipes, as there were no other materials to serve that purpose at that time.

Fortunately, this map was too coarse and wide to be used as a mouth wipe.

There is something cathartic in imagining the reclamation of these expensive imperial documents for such a base purpose. In 1991, peace was a primary concern in Somaliland, along with clean mouths. A quarter-century later, however, the maps serve another purpose. Displayed in the HCC art gallery, the only of its kind in Somaliland, they offer a public insight to the cartographic wisdom of colonization; as the exhibition booklet notes, “maps reveal not only the geographic landscape, but also the landscapes of power and global politics.” By replacing historical materials in a redemptive contemporary setting, the modest displays at the HCC mirror the intentionality and self-awareness of neighboring institutions like the Murumbi African Heritage Collection at the Nairobi Gallery and the Ethnological Musuem at Addis Ababa University. The reclamation is also of knowledge, and of the authority of knowledge production. 

The HCC art gallery (photo by the author)

The HCC art gallery (photo by the author)

The maps accompany the center’s collections of traditional artifacts, antique books and Islamic manuscripts, contemporary artwork, newspapers, and over two thousand cassette tapes. The majority of these historically significant documents ended up at the HCC simply because there was no other logical home for them, no one else with the resources to preserve and prepare them for public access. “Hargeysa used to be a cultural hub for Somali speaking societies,” explains Jama, who cofounded the center with Ayan Ashour in 2014, “it had the most beautiful theaters, the national library, and the national museum, built by the Siad Barre regime. This was destroyed by the same government that built it. In 1988 the city was leveled to zero.” Many of these institutions were also looted, further injuring the national consciousness of a society recovering from decades of trauma. 

Despite exceptional progress in a region characterized largely by instability, cultural institutions have taken a backseat to political and economic development in Somaliland. Jama explains: “After independence, nobody cared about culture, literature, like it was a luxury. I don’t agree. You can’t build a country only on physical infrastructure… you also need art and culture. Without them you cannot build a sustainable society. Unfortunately that vacuum remained for a long time.” 

As soon as the HCC opened in an attempt to begin filling this vacuum, the demand for artistic and intellectual space was overwhelming. In just a year and a half, the center has expanded to its greatest possible capacity, offering, in addition to the art gallery, a library of over fifteen hundred titles, reading rooms and performance spaces, book launches, film screenings, poetry readings, and musical performances, skills training workshops, and a number of public lectures and panel discussions. The staff expresses the most pride in the children’s program, which developed unexpectedly out of a single theater performance into a weekly production attended by hundreds of children and parents.

HCC events serve as sources of entertainment as well as enrichment, both particularly valuable to a society that has few available avenues for cultural exploration or creative outlet. The opportunity to gather in the evening in the open-air event space, whether for a documentary film screening or a performance of traditional music, is in itself a valuable resource for the community. The accessibility of its public programming is complemented by its support for the development of sophisticated artistic practices and scholarship, particularly through courses in technical skills like photography and writing. These programs have cultivated a rigor and vibrancy that characterize Hargeysa's reestablishment as a regional hub of Somali culture. 

The founding of the center and expansion of its programming developed naturally out of the equally unanticipated success of the Hargeysa International Book Fair (HIBF), an annual event sponsored by the Redsea Cultural Foundation and Kayd that began with a book talk and discussion among some two hundred people in 2008. It was born out of concern for press freedom after the jailing of journalists in Somaliland, planned by some members of a network of diaspora Somalis who called themselves the Somaliland Forum. “From the first day,” notes Jama, “I realized that was really something needed, something missing, because there was no platform at all to talk about books.”

This platform has grown into one of the largest festivals in East Africa, bringing thousands of local and international guests to celebrate literature and the arts for a week each summer. It also brings thousands of books—unfortunately still scarce in Somaliland—and showcases the accomplishments of local and diaspora Somali writers. Its success has helped to chip away at Somaliland’s isolation, bringing it into international spotlight and strengthening cultural ties across the continent by featuring a “guest country” each year. Jama said that before hosting Malawi in 2014, many Somalilanders didn’t know anything about their southern neighbor—or even its location. After the fair, Malawi became a common topic of discussion, and Malawian television programs started discussing Somaliland. Next year, the HCC will lend its support to the first Malawi International Book Fair.

Children's program at the HCC (from TV Somaliland Europe)

Linguistics workshop at the HCC, December 2015 (from Toosh News)

As the festival grew each year, it became evident that one week was not enough—Hargeysa needed a permanent space to carry on what happens at the festival each year. The HCC is as much about recovery—for example, of a trove of cassette tapes recorded in the first music shop in the region, opened in Djibouti by Somali poet Ibrahim Gadhle—as it is about documenting the present—through the collection and archival of more than a dozen local print publications. The HCC plans to digitize these and other materials as part of a publicly accessible online database, opening up research and educational resources on Somaliland. Even more so, the center exists to prepare and empower a young generation of Somalilanders, those born after independence, with an eye toward a future that depends upon cultural development.

Somali ownership of the Somali narrative is a pivotal juncture in an academic field largely dominated by the colonial tradition of white European scholars. Critical discussion of this power dynamic took place with #CadaanStudies (using the Somali word for whiteness) on twitter following the exclusion of Somali academics from the board of the Somaliland Journal of African Studies (SJAS). In response to the aggressive and dismissive response from SJAS board member Markus Hoehne, who suggested that Somalis have been too lazy to produce significant academic work and that they should “look beyond [their] Somali navel,” hundreds of Somali academics and their allies signed an open letter:

We are keenly aware...that inextricably linked to the expansion of European power in the Horn of Africa was the production of cultural and historical information about Somalis. In the postcolonial present, the production of knowledge about the Horn of Africa remains largely in the hands of European and American academics and analysts, increasingly linked to the informational needs of neocolonialism and the War on Terror. There is too much at stake for our voices and concerns to be dismissed.

The conversations sparked by this collective protest continue. At a linguistics conference held last December at the HCC, a group of Somali and international scholars gathered to discuss a bid to host the 2018 Somali Studies International Association Congress in Hargeysa. Organizing the conference, which most often takes place in Europe, in Somaliland would allow more Somali scholars to participate, including those unable to travel abroad and those without official academic credentials. Further, they argue, it would strengthen the platform for discussing the historical inequities in Somali Studies and negate doubts about Somali ownership of knowledge and academic prerogative.

Artwork at the HCC gallery (photo by the author)

Artwork at the HCC gallery (photo by the author)

The HCC has gladly become a hub for these conversations within Somaliland, but looks forward to losing its near monopoly on cultural programming in the country. Aside from a handful of cafés and the Hiddo Dhawr “tourism village,” the center is the only venue for the arts regularly open to the public, but remains limited by grant cycles and physical space. Jama hopes that others will be empowered to start new initiatives: “We are helping to fill the vacuum, but it’s not enough. We hope that there are cultural centers in every corner of the country. We would like to see public and private institutions specifically intended to protect the artist.” In fact, plans for a national library and historical museums focusing on genocide and the Somali National Movement have begun formulating in the last year.

Projects promoting freedom of expression remain critical in a time marked by increasing conservatism and social restrictions. Eight years after the first HIBF event, journalists remain at risk, including three who may face jail time for their work despite constitutional protections of speech, while advocates for their freedom have been subject to slander. Among the challenges to an open society are, for instance, opponents of secular music and those who opposed British theater director Jude Kelly's participation in the 2015 HIBF due to her marriage equality advocacy. The HCC used the incident as an opportunity to open up channels of communication with conservative leaders, but it also set a tone of caution for its future endeavors as it seeks to avoid confrontation. While staff considered choosing tolerance as the next annual HIBF theme, they settled on a safer alternative: leadership and creativity.

The HCC leadership has also expressed awareness of its shortcomings and remaining challenges; for example, they are strategizing ways to make their programs more accessible to women, who are underrepresented particularly in evening events. Striking a careful balance between progressivism and pragmatism, the HCC team continues on its mission of empowering young creative and intellectual leaders. Some frequent visitors describe the center as the only space in which they feel comfortable expressing themselves, among a community of students, researchers, and artists eager to share their ideas and work. And while spotlighting local achievements, it also fosters a climate of internationalism, through the HIBF guest country—this year’s will be Ghana—and the global south-centricity of the always-growing library collection. The HCC community, both local and international, looks forward to the ninth annual HIBF, to take place this July 23-28.

Feature image from

Melissa Smyth is an associate editor at Warscapes. She was a volunteer at the Hargeysa Cultural Center in the winter of 2015-16.