A lot of what people know about Somalia comes from movies or television and very little of this has to do with business or technology; companies merging, new products in the market, the stock exchange etc. Rather we see reports on the latest terrorist activities, millions of refugees fleeing from a never ending war, Oscar nominated films on pirates sailing menacingly along the east coast of Africa, or soldiers held hostage by rebels after their helicopter crashes down. Although these reports, films and programs are based on real life events, they leave us with the impression that Somalia is the last place in African where someone would want to be, and that the events taking place in one square kilometre are representative of the remaining 640,000. 

This might explain why an event such as the Hargeisa International Book Fair can go unnoticed in its seventh consecutive year. Or why Hargeisa itself is a city unknown to the world. The unofficial capital of an unofficial country, Somaliland, it is home to roughly 1.2 million people, a third of the region’s total population that unofficially stands at 3.5 million. But why unofficial? Somaliland is not recognised as a country because two decades ago, it politically broke off from mainland Somalia, taking advantage of its geographical location to claim autonomy from the warring south. This way, it hopes to form a stable government and create a safer region altogether, although that doesn’t exactly help to keep the country united.

The Hargeisa book fair is a cultural event that brings together writers from all over Somalia, expatriated Somalis and a host of foreign writers as well. There they showcase of their latest books and literary works on Somali and other African cultures. Also, poets, artists and thinkers from Somaliland and abroad share and discuss their art and literary productions with a varied audience in a weeklong event. The main aim of the festival is to promote a culture of reading and writing in the country and therefore, apart from discussing literature, thousands of books are sold at a subsidised price and thus made affordable to many more people. 

A satellite view of Hargesia shows a city built with a good level of planning. Although densely populated, there is order in place with a well-established road network, commercial, industrial and residential zones. The region’s main economic push comes from livestock farming and fishing, and oil has been discovered, although the region is not yet mature for the political and economic activities that petrol mining involves. The population is generally young; a key resource for the beginnings of any society that requires the energy to rebuild, and the longevity to educate future generations on the values that are now being painstakingly established. The activities of the Book Fair contribute to transcending cultural boundaries between the Somali speaking society and the rest of the world, thus helping rebuild a country that has been for years torn apart by a never-ending civil war.

Somaliland now needs investors in education, agriculture and fisheries to help continue what its citizens have began, putting all its potential to use and showing the world a better side of Somalia. This way, the rest of the country can follow this region’s example, replicating its peace and development strategy, and offering the right environment and incentives for uniting the country.

Jotham Muriu Njoroge has a Bachelors degree in Architecture from the University of Nairobi. He is currently studying an undergraduate degree at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome.