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In Somalia, TEDxMogadishu conference aims to shift the focus to capital’s rebirth

Thursday, May 17, 2012
By Michelle Shephard

A man walks past an Internet cafe in Hamarweyne district of Somalia's capital Mogadishu on Wednesday. A TEDx conference to be broadcast live from Mogadishu on Thursday aims to shift international attention to the city's rebirth.

Combating terrorism, piracy, poverty, corruption and other seemingly insurmountable woes traditionally make up Somalia’s to-do list.

That may change Thursday if organizers and participants of a TEDx conference are able to highlight another obstacle on the country’s road to recovery: Perception.

“We have a lot of challenges here but one of them is perception — perception that Mogadishu is still a place of war,” Liban Egal said from Mogadishu on Wednesday. “There are still security challenges, but it is a place now where you can do business.”

Egal speaks from experience as the country’s first independent banker. On Saturday, he officially opened the Mogadishu branch of the First Somali Bank — an alternative to the country’s government-operated central bank, crippled by years of corruption.

TEDx is the locally run, independent little sibling of the flashy and well-heeled TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference series, where seats to hear inspirational speakers can cost thousands.

Egal joined forces with filmmaker Sebastian Lindstrom and TEDx veteran Nate Mook to organize Thursday’s conference as a way to bring his story and others to the international stage. The conference theme is “rebirth” and those on the ground in Mogadishu say despite all the dire headlines, that’s what happening in the capital.

“As long as people feel secure enough to come back to the city and start to build their lives, the political will follow,” said Egal. “We don’t want to make the same mistake as they did in Iraq, where they put a lot of effort in the political process but forgot the people’s needs.”

Ilwad Elman is another of the speakers, a Somalia-born Canadian who returned to Mogadishu three years ago to help with her family’s non-profit organization. She now works to help rehabilitate child soldiers and counsel victims of sexual violence.

“I remember there was a point where we couldn’t leave the house, or you’d wake up in the middle of the night and you thought your house would fall down because the mortars were so close,” she said Wednesday. “And now, the progress is remarkable. Construction is happening, it seems like there’s real momentum now whether it’s among politicians, local community — everybody who’s in Mogadishu now feels like they’re on the brink, starting a new chapter.”

It’s not the Somalia most people know. Images from the downed U.S. Black Hawk helicopters nearly two decades ago, or the most recent horrific depictions of fighting and famine, remain ingrained in our consciousness.

But highlighting these stories of survival and progress shifts the narrative, organizers say. It also provides an alternative to the recent high-profile conference that brought world leaders together in London to discuss Somalia’s problems.

“We came without any real agenda aside from, let’s have a discussion that’s not really been had right now,” said Mook.

TEDxMogadishu is free, locally supported on a shoestring budget and if all goes well, will be broadcast online starting at 7 a.m. in Toronto.

But in the era of Kony 2012 — the viral film highlighting the atrocities of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, which sparked controversy about the film’s motives and veracity — there is already skepticism.

On Twitter — where news of the conference broke Tuesday — some scoffed at “African do-gooders-making-things-worse,” while others lambasted the “audacity of western privilege.”

The criticism reflects a larger debate about the proliferation of non-government Western aid agencies in Somalia and whether these groups are only duplicating what local groups are better suited to provide.

Lindstrom said in an interview on Skype on Wednesday that he hopes the focus will not be on “organizers, but the people who are part of the conversation.”

In addition to Egal and Elman, the lineup Thursday includes a Somali university president, a real estate agent, a restaurateur and a camel farmer.

Unlike other mega-marketed TEDx conferences, Mogadishu’s was planned hastily and kept quiet in part due to security concerns, organizers said. The Shabab, a Somali-based insurgency that recently joined forces with Al Qaeda, may have left Mogadishu but many of its sympathizers remain and a conference broadcast live internationally would be a natural target.


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