Located on the edge of the Horn of Africa, Somaliland is not recognized by the rest of the world. No matter, a book madman decided to bring the world to this isolated territory by creating his ideal library there.
How to create the national archives of a country that does not exist? The method is the same as for all the other projects that are born in Somaliland: we start from nothing. Literally, in this case.
In 1991, in the rubble of Hargeisa, newly proclaimed capital of Somaliland [le territoire venait d’acquérir par les armes son indépendance vis-à-vis de la Somalie], a seller of camel milk tea and lahoh, spongy pancakes, handed a piece of paper she had picked up from the floor to a customer so he could wipe his hands. Jama Musse Jama was about to roll it into a ball when the text caught his eye.
It was a fragment from the media file of a media trial which, ten years earlier, had sent hundreds of members of a student movement to prison. Jama was about to leave for Italy, where he was awaiting a post as professor of mathematics. But he asked the tea trader for permission to collect the rest of the leaves she had collected. Then, he strolled through the other parts of the ruined center to collect as many documents as possible.
A window to the world
At the time, Somaliland was mainly trying to forget its trauma, wiped out after three years of a merciless civil war, during which the territory had been bombed by the Somali state. Hargeisa was 90% destroyed and the self-proclaimed nation had just declared its independence [jamais reconnue par la communauté internationale]. But Jama figured that someday Somaliland might want to remember.
Thirty years later, the papers he picked up in 1991 have become the founding pieces of informal national archives he created in Hargeisa. Like Somaliland, his project is a “tinkered” institution, built from the ground up and almost without any outside help. And like the self-proclaimed republic, which is not recognized by any other nation in the world, its very existence is an act of resistance.
THIS COUNTRY IS POOR. MOST OF ITS BUDGET MUST BE DEVOTED TO THE VITAL NEEDS OF ITS CITIZENS, I UNDERSTAND, JAMA EXPLAINS IN MELODIOUS ENGLISH TINGED WITH ITALIAN, AN ACCENT HONED DURING HIS YEARS OF TEACHING IN PISA. BUT WHEN YOU ELIMINATE THE ARTS AND CULTURE FROM THE SOCIETAL EQUATION, YOU ARE ELIMINATING WHAT MAKES HUMANITY HUMAN. I WANTED TO MAKE SURE THAT WE NEVER GOT THERE IN THIS COUNTRY. ”
For the rest of the world, Somaliland is none other than a province of Somalia: a territory, which, according to World Factbook published annually by the CIA, at “Separatist ambitions”. However, in Somaliland there is a government, borders, police, army and currency. The region organizes its elections and collects its taxes. But the international community does not give it any legitimacy, Somaliland is deeply isolated. Most of its inhabitants cannot travel because their passport is not recognized or simply because they do not have the necessary funds.
Fifteen years ago, this isolation gave Jama an idea. Why not create an international book fair there? “We should offer people a window on the world, he remembers having thought. And since most people don’t have the opportunity to travel, so the world has to come to them, and books are the best way to get there. “
A book fair and an ideal library
His idea was not unanimous. But he ignored these criticisms and, in 2008, organized the first edition of the Hargeisa Book Fair in the skyscraper capital of Somaliland. The theme that year was “Freedom at a Price”, referring to the arrest of a group of journalists the previous year – a disturbing first in the short history of the all-new country.
In 2008, the fair attracted 200 people. In the course of the 2010s, this figure increased to nearly 10,000 visitors. Jama did not want to see this enthusiasm fall for the other 360 days of the year. There were few bookstores in Somaliland, after all, and even fewer libraries. And those that existed left much to be desired.
He remembers exploring one in the coastal town of Berbera: the shelves were filled with donations from abroad and he found around sixty brand-new copies of a text called Managing your alcoholism, while alcohol is illegal in Somaliland and“You can count on the fingers of one hand the people who suffer from this addiction”, according to Jama.
This is why, from the inauguration of the cultural center of Hargeisa in 2014, he imposed only one strict rule: no donation of books, unless he and his librarians requested a specific title . For librarian Moustafa Ali Ahmad, this rule is essential. Africans, he says, should not feel that their libraries are charitable projects in which bad-eared stationery novels and Westerners’ personal development books die.
14,000 cassettes and clandestine pop
Rather, he set out to build the library he dreamed of as a child: shelves filled with African fiction and thick reference books. “I’m looking for books that will help readers see that there’s more than one way of life, that people lead all kinds of lives, he specifies. I am fundamentally convinced that you can travel through books. ”
Today, the collection is enriched by a list fed by librarians and readers, from which potential donors can then draw. When he goes to Europe, Jama brings back a suitcase of books. He is also the head of a small Somali book publisher, which publishes original works and translations of Western classics such as The Animal Farm [de George Orwell].
But the centerpiece of the archives he began to assemble thirty years ago is undoubtedly his collection of 14,000 audio cassettes which preserve the oral culture of Somaliland society. Some contain illegal pop, which was banned under the Somali regime of Mohamed Siad Barre, in the 1970s and 1980s.
There are also poems, radio theater or news programming. And many others are simply oral “notes”, recorded and exchanged between families in Somaliland and their diaspora relatives. “It’s the heart of our society, concludes Jama, and the heart of our archives. ”
Ryan Lenora Brown
In the grip of financial difficulties, this elegant tabloid founded in 1908 in Boston and read from coast to coast, stopped printing daily on March 27, 2009, to better focus its efforts on its website. A version