Nadifa’s Flights of the Imagination Goes on a Literary Tour of East Africa


By Nadifa Mohamed/TelegraphNadifa Mohamed Young gifted & multicultured

Somalilandsun – Having just returned from Nairobi, my curiosity about life in Kenya has deepened; the frenzy of the capital conflicts with the quiet, pastoral towns I have read about in Dreams in a Time of War by Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Unbowed by Wangari Maathai.

It is easy to understand why both writers have such an attachment to the land when the earth spits out palms, fruit trees and crops at every turn – even in urban Nairobi there are quarters with more greenery than I had ever expected: sitting in the outdoor study of Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina, I wanted to remain for days picking through the piles of books I saw dotted around, listening to the songs of birds I didn’t recognise.

I was unable to visit the decidedly non-idyllic neighbourhood of Eastleigh – the heaving, mercantile, Somali district of Nairobi – but I heard tales of the enormous economic success exiled Somalis have found in Kenya, to the point where they are seen as the “new Gujaratis”. The In-Between World of Vikram Lall by MG Vassanji describes the “old Gujaratis”, the Indians who were brought to Kenya as indentured labourers by the British and who became the country’s middlemen – politically, commercially and even spiritually. The marginal status of both Somalis and Indians seemed underscored by the adverts lining the walkways in Nairobi airport, which celebrated every other “tribe” but them.

Ethiopia is another country with seemingly more “tribes” than it knows what to do with; it is perhaps Africa’s last empire, pulling together Christians, Muslims, Jews and Animists into a union that is often fractious. Beneath the Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste movingly describes the horror of civilians caught up in the bloody transition from monarchy to Marxist dictatorship. The white cloths worn by many Ethiopians have always appeared to me as mourning shrouds for the tragedies that have befallen the country, from the Italian invasion in the Thirties to the recent violence in Ogaden.

Cutting for Stone by the Indian/Ethiopian/American writer Abraham Verghese is set in a hospital in Addis Ababa, a self-contained world attempting separation from the upheaval beyond its walls, and it gives a sense of the country’s contradictions – both progressive and feudal, gentle and brutal, pious and sinful. The melancholic art, the mountain monasteries, the smoky native jazz give Ethiopia a unique atmosphere of sadness its rapid growth cannot dispel. It feels like an ancient, world-weary place lived at the pace of a clicking rosary.

If Ethiopia is old and sorrowful, Somalia is like a hyped-up teenager speaking a dozen words a second into a clutch of mobile phones, a different international SIM card in each of them. The diaspora that will descend on the former Somali republic this summer is biblical in scale – the multiplicity of languages spoken reminiscent of the Tower of Babel. There are now three states where one used to be – Somaliland, Puntland, Somalia – but only the last is internationally recognised. It is in 20-year-old Somaliland that this sense of youth and vitality seems most evident; totally “Hiroshima-ed” after the civil war, the capital city, Hargeisa, has been rebuilt bigger and better. The publishing industry is flourishing, with both young and old exploiting new technologies in order to self-publish; it is not unusual to be accosted in the market by a novelist or poet hawking literary wares from a bag.

The Hargeisa Book Fair, which will be held this August for the sixth year running, is where I create my Somali library: from beautiful and unusual works such as Environment in Crisis by Ahmed Ibrahim Awale, an environmentalist and poet, to The Mourning Tree by Mohamed Barud Ali, a doctor’s account of imprisonment under Siad Barre’s dictatorship. In the kind of unsentimental, dynamic place that sees cemeteries regularly built over, these gentle books allow reflection on all that has been lost in the war.

Another book that must be mentioned is The Bradt Guide to Somaliland: I cannot have been the only one to have felt a jolt at seeing the title. For most of my life the whole Somali region has been a place beyond reach, not even within the world’s postal service, but this guide to Somaliland’s rock art and places of scenic beauty made me feel that maybe those heartbreaking times are over.

As Somalia also experiences a cultural and economic revival, I look forward to seeing new fiction from Mogadishu, Baidoa, Kismayu and other southern cities. Crossroads by Nuruddin Farah presents the most contemporary depiction of a Mogadishu plagued by criminality and violence, but I hope that with the din of guns quieted for the moment other stories will also emerge.

Nadifa Mohamed is the Somali-born author of Black Mamba Boy and Orchard of Lost Souls, published this August.

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Editor’s Note:

The Bradt Guide to Somaliland Introduces one of the world’s least chartered travel destinations. This book offers coverage ranging from the low-key capital Hargeisa and mediaeval port of Berbera to peerless rock art sites such as Las Geel, and the scenery and wildlife of the Daallo Escarpment, towering 2,000m high above the pristine reefs of the Gulf of Aden.