Somalia: Postcard from … Hargeysa, Somaliland


No 1 African literary festival: Somaliland buzzing with expectation

No one would claim that the Hargeysa International Book Fair presents a threat to the Jaipur Literary Festival or its ilk. It will be a while before the capital of the Somaliland Republic – a country yet to be recognized by the world’s Foreign Offices despite 23 years of de facto independence – plays host to large numbers of hard-drinking London publishers and literary groupies eager to catch sight of their favourite authors.

But there are few literary events where you will come across the kind of rapturous enthusiasm that was on display this August when hundreds of young Somalilanders cheered the national poet Hadraawi. And few foreign writers will have experienced the kind of gratitude that met the handful of authors who did make it here.

The most remarkable thing about the Hargeysa book fair, however, is that it takes place at all.

The Somaliland Republic is theoretically part of Somalia – a byword for failed statehood and Hobbesian violence. And even though Somaliland itself boasts a functioning state and a multiparty democracy, you wouldn’t expect it to host a literary festival. This is not one of those super-rich Gulf States, whose spendthrift rulers buy prestige by importing Western culturati.

Somaliland is a place where there are few tarmac roads even in the capital. Electricity is supplied by diesel generators, almost all consumer goods have to be expensively imported from Ethiopia, and the mainstay of the economy is the breeding and sale of camels and goats, supplemented by remittances from a large diaspora.

On the ground, however, Somaliland does not feel poor. The capital’s rapidly changing skyline and busy stores testify to growing prosperity. Its physical infrastructure, like the single, potholed highway between the capital and the main port at Berbera, may need investment, but its communications infrastructure is already impressive.

Somaliland has two competing private providers of 3G cellular phone service whose towers provide better coverage than their British equivalents, and both of the country’s ramshackle airports offer free wi-fi. There are no banks as yet but much of the population use their mobile phones to make financial transactions