The opening of the new printing factory in Hargeisa is a welcome relief for students, authors and those interested in diversifying the advertising of their business offerings. This is a sign of progress and an understanding of the key role publishing plays in education,
communication, entertainment and knowledge sharing. However, as a writer I know that more Somalis prefer to argue in coffee shops in the middle of the streets than to sit and read an article of any length.
The printing factory is a great and much needed endeavour. The presence of the key Ministers and the cutting of the ribbon by the president were, for once, required to welcome in a new age of enlightenment in the self-declared independent state of Somaliland.
Perhaps now grassroots local authors, playwrights and academics will be able to publish widely in their areas of interest in any language they wish. Even more importantly, Somalis can break the western knowledge monopoly and the encroaching Chinese one, by creating their own and disseminating it widely to their peers in their own mother tongue. There
is much to write about as Somalis are a people of poems, stories and endless debates. Aside from ideas, thoughts and the vast quantities of paper needed to publish them, the success of the printing factory would depend on external factors which if not in place, can shut it down before it is able to put a full stop in its first publishable sentence.
Where are the readers?
Very few people in Somalia read as most prefer to carry on their traditional oral culture. While it is great news and a testament to their incredible memories, Somalis cannot hope to share their poems, stories, history and words of wisdom by transferring it from their tongues into the ears of the next generation in an information age. The younger Somalis today prefer to listen to music on their Iphones and watch Western and Indian movies made in Hollywood and Bollywood. Cultural globalization is re-enforced by the dominance of these two major movie makers as well as international musicians and fashion designers that are making the Somali culture almost irrelevant among the youth. This is dangerous for a nation which wants to preserve its unique identity, history and culture. It may even lead to a backlash and a security nightmare led by radical religious groups which aim to plug the vast gap between what they see as westernization, their religion and the Somali culture.
Most Somali families living in Somalia and the Diaspora have cable TV which they find difficult to turn off and while some Somali channels have finally started to penetrate the market, they are unable to compete due to poor content, management and irregular programmes. The Somali public are sick of political talk shows, repeat news and Turkish soap operas, as well as unknown singers stealing classic songs from dead and living legends.
The best way to preserve the unique Somali culture, literature and heritage is to write about it and educate the young through the national curriculum. This would require scholars, entertainers and poets to write and debate through publications. Even if some ideas are weird or controversial and some interpretation adventurous, how are we to know the future generations may not find them useful and act on them? And why limit literacy to the classroom and the young? Why not initiate community based and led literacy projects and debates in every city and village?
Some Somali poems and stories date back to the nation’s early ancestors, even older than Shakespeare himself but while the latter is a global literary icon, studied in almost all languages, no Somali writer is ever mentioned even in the narrow fields of African and Colonial and post-colonial literature. Nigeria has Chinua Achebe, who will be his equivalent in Somalia? Whoever, they are needs to start putting their work on paper and publishing it.
A national literacy project is easy to establish and with better aid co-ordination, since every NGO seems to be doing something towards advancing education in Somalia, easy to finance and implement. However, before this dream can materialize the government must provide an incentive for the public to learn to read and communicate in writing. This is easily achieved through ensuring all government communication with the public is in writing and not just on the television or radio. If the government in Somalia and the self-declared independent state of Somaliland was to provide meaningful public services like free education, training and support for the vulnerable it may have been able to force applicants to apply via writing and encourage literacy this way. But this path is obviously closed for now. In the absence of this, the government should nudge the public through persuasion and the promise of a more fulfilling life if the public are able to learn to read and develop a reading habit. The proven message is that those who read get ahead. Further, they enjoy a better quality and a more meaningful life.
Publication is a natural next step for a nation of expressive people. The key impediment to progress and peace for the Somali people is a lack of dialogue about their very future which involves them. Key decisions are always made by unaccountable donors, in distant lands and enforced by those that have appointed themselves to lead them. Publications will tackle this by allowing likeminded people from all tribes to share ideas and unite behind an ideology as oppose to tribe which is currently the case. Many great ideas are either killed off locally or never have the chance to reach a national audience because of a lack of publication. Talk is truly cheap and easily forgotten. If authors published and were allowed to freely, their ideas can escape the confines of their cities and villages to gather support nationally and internationally. Who knows what changes they may inspire?
Publishing cannot exist independently of regulation and it must not be allowed to. Knowledge development, sharing, improvement and preservation are all important but individual rights to privacy must be balanced against this. A media law which protects copyrights, so as to incentivise authors to publish as well as protects key individual freedoms against the spreading of falsehood needs to be formulated to enable the success and quality of the publishing companies and what they produce. In the absence of sensible real policies of this nature, the publishing company would be wise to take the lead in this matter to protect its reputation, authors and advance the education of the local and national leaders of tomorrow.