Jama Musse Jama, second from left.

Literary festivals are becoming more prominent in Africa. These festivals unite lovers of literature and arts from all over the world. This year, the continent witnessed a large number of literary extravaganzas that left their attendees talking and excited long after they ended. Some of such festivals include the Writivism festival which took place in Kampala, Uganda in June, Hargeysa International Book Fair in August, and Storymoja festival held in September in Nairobi, Kenya. Meanwhile, the continent’s literary capital, Nigeria, played host to three big events in November: the Lagos International Poetry Festival(although in its first year), the Lagos Book and Art Festival, and of course, Ake Arts and Book Festival in Abeokuta. But what does it take to pull out such gigantic events and keep them rolling annually? Hear from Jama Musse Jama, founder and organiser of the Hargeysa International Book Fair as he speaks of the 8th Hargeysa International Book Fair which took place in August, this year.


The Hargeysa International Book Fair (HIBF) started in 2008 and over the years, has drawn audience from far and wide. How would you describe the journey so far?

In two words: an adventure. From its inception to today, HIBF has been full of surprises and an incredibly rewarding experience. There was scepticism about the festival being organised in Hargeysa. Somaliland is not yet recognised by the world and it is always assumed that it has much more urgent priorities than hosting a book fair and arts festival. However, our guests have shared our excitement about the country and this city. There is a dynamism, warmth and hunger for learning in Somaliland. Our guests have never declined an invitation to come to Hargeysa because of fears and when they leave, they are the most genuine ambassadors for this young nation. Secondly; Somali arts, culture and language is such an incredibly rich subject to work with, that through HIBF we have been able to contribute to knowledge production. We publish books in the Somali language and have been able to translate classical works of George Orwell, Oscar Wilde and Anton Chekhov.

Promotion of Somali culture and literature seems to be the main aim of Hargeysa International Book Fair. Has the festival not come far and well enough to have same aims extended to other parts of Africa? By this, I mean having discussions on other African cultures and their indigenous literature, other than those from Somali-speaking regions.

Our festival is incredibly diverse and while it first and foremost offers an opportunity for the Somali-speaking world to learn about their indigenous forms of art and culture; we strongly encourage an exchange of traditions and cultures with other countries, especially those on the African continent. This is the third year we have dedicated the festival to a guest country, which means that we pay special attention to the literature and art of that country. In addition to Kenya and Malawi; we have this year, celebrated the art of and artists from Nigeria.

For the many places in Africa where the mother tongue is relegated to second language status in homes, where European languages are, not only languages of communication, but also of instruction in educational institutions, and business firms, what really is the hope for literature written in African languages? Who are the readers?

African languages, including Somali, are affected by globalisation and therefore have to compete with foreign languages. There is both a necessity and good use for foreign languages, but our struggle to develop the Somali language has been made harder by the fact that the Somali language has a stronger oral than written history. The Somali orthography was only introduced in 1972 and for some years before the dictatorship started a war against its own people, there was a real social and scientific effort to stabilise and develop the Somali language. In the intervening years since, we have experienced a devastating war and almost total physical and emotional destruction.

8th Hargeysa International Book Fair Credit: somalicurrent.com
8th Hargeysa International Book Fair
Credit: somalicurrent.com

This has been a great set back, however Somaliland is reconstructing and that also includes a revival of its language and cultural institutions. We are gradually seeing literacy rates improving in Somaliland, but we still have a long way to go before we can speak of a “reading and writing” culture. Printing is expensive and the publishing industry has yet to be developed.

The festival has also hosted authors and journalists over the years: Nuruddin Farah, Chuma Nwokolo, Nadifa Mohamed, Okey Ndibe, Michela Wrong, Niyi Osundare and others. What are the things you look out for annually in selecting these writers?

It is important to us that HIBF offers a platform for Somali-speaking writers to present their work and exchange ideas with their readers in Somaliland. But at the same time, we also want to create a space to introduce the people of Somaliland to a wider world of art and literature beyond our borders and regions. Therefore we really seek to achieve diverse programming, be it of style, genre and even art form.

Themes for the book fair have ranged from Censorship to Citizenship, Collective Memories, Future, and Imagination to this year’s theme; Space. What often inspires these themes?

The themes have two overall functions. Firstly, we pick thought provoking issues which will spark conversation and attract the curiosity of our audience… The themes can be topics/concepts which are either hotly debated in Somaliland or offer an opportunity to reflect back, have a collective discussion on concepts we take for granted. Secondly, the themes have a practical purpose. They offer coherence and cohesion in a festival program which includes such a broad range of guests and touches on so many different types of creative works.

Nigerian works displayed for sale at HIBF this year. Credit: hiraan.com
Nigerian works displayed for sale at HIBF this year.
Credit: hiraan.com

You would agree that pulling out such huge and historic gathering every year demands so much energy and even sacrifice. What would you say has been your motivation?

I’m driven and encouraged by the fantastic response HIBF receives each year. It would also be fair to say that HIBF is making a real, tangible change. When we started eight years ago, the arts and culture scene in Somaliland was grossly underdeveloped; there were few public libraries and even fewer platforms for people to gather and exchange ideas. It just so happens that we utilise the arts as a tool to facilitate this exchange, but HIBF brings the community together to discuss issues of social significance and followed up. Moreover, now that the festival is more established, we not only create an opportunity for talented people to present their work and get recognition for their endeavours, but through our courses (on creative writing and photography) we also go on to build their skills and knowledge so that they can grow creatively. I would say that HIBF demonstrates, in practical terms, the importance and value of arts and culture as a human right and today, development partners in the Horn are much more responsive to integrate arts and culture.

Along the line, you may have encountered one or more challenges. What has been your greatest challenge so far and how have you been able to handle it?

I think my biggest challenge has been living abroad in Europe and organising HIBF for seven years, it took an incredible amount of time and effort, and as HIBF got bigger and bigger, this became impossible and unsustainable. I took the difficult decision of leaving my job at Pisa university and coming back to live in Somaliland and establish a permanent base for HIBF with the Cultural Centre.

I would also like to know how the Somali community, the government especially, show support for Hargeysa International Book Fair.

Without the support of the community and the Somaliland Government, HIBF would not have been possible, the government provides support in many ways, contributing to the content, the events, opening the book fair and directly participating, promoting it both in Somaliland and outside of it. In addition, the government provides security for our guests and the events throughout with the national police force. Likewise the public support their local artists, welcome and attend events of international authors, they buy books and young people volunteer to help out from all over the country.

Let us talk about the 8th Hargeysa International Book Fair. How difficult (or easy) was it planning this year’s event?

It is always difficult to plan a series of events, which stretch over a period of six days. Scheduling, timing and funding are always challenging. It helps to have a lot of help and volunteers. I think this year has been especially difficult, because we have had to run the newly opened Cultural Centre, with its weekly program and activities as well as preparing for HIBF; so it was almost double the usual work load.

The festival features a guest country annually and in its eighth year, Nigeria emerged the guest country. Are there any specific reason for this choice?

There are several reasons for this. Somaliland is an internationally unrecognised country and by focusing on a guest country each year, we are introducing the public and writers of that country to Somaliland. Likewise, as Somaliland remains closed off to the world; we are introducing Somaliland and Somali people to those of the guest country.

Nigerian guests; Chuma Nwokolo, Niyi Osundare and Okey Ndibe at the festival. Credit: wargane.com
Nigerian guests; Chuma Nwokolo, Niyi Osundare and Okey Ndibe at the festival.
Credit: wargane.com

Africans also tend to be shut off one another. This is an effort on our part to break this barrier, honour African literature and create a platform for each nation in Africa to present their work and introduce their country to everyone at HIBF. Next year, our guest country will be Ghana.

How would you compare the turnout of the festival this year to those of previous years?

For the last 8 years, we have had an increase in the number of participants, both local and international guests – this year, we had to move to a bigger venue to cater to this growing crowd. The turnout has been excellent for all the events, there was not a single event that was not attended by at least 500 people.

And what would you say has been, so far, the greatest achievement of the festival?

I think HIBF’s greatest achievement has been the establishment of a permanent Cultural Centre, with a library and artistic laboratory for the community, which is open 6 days a week to everyone in Hargeysa, the capital of Somaliland.

Finally, what words of encouragement would you offer to individuals who, in their home countries, are working towards establishing literary events as grand as the Hargeysa International Book Fair?

I would encourage them to do so, to seek connections and support from existing artists and networks in their country. Establishing a literary event takes a lot of effort, dedication and funds are not always easily available to support these efforts, therefore having the support of local artists and community is important.


For more updates on the Hargeysa International Book Fair, please keep visiting this site.

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