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Songs, dance and Poetry: Reviving Cultural Diplomacy for Somali progress

by Liban Obsiye & Sakariye Hussein
Friday, November 11, 2016

Culture has long been central to human exchange, understanding and war and peace. Culture in many ways defines our very existence as it determines our primary socialization, our view of the world, language and even what we eat and how we feel. Culture is a transformative tool for human interaction, entertainment and cross border partnerships. It is also a positive and effective diplomatic tool to advance the interest of a nation, especially, a recovering one like Somalia, with an enormous Diaspora scattered all over the globe.

Cultural diplomacy is a type of public diplomacy and soft power that includes the exchange of ideas, information, art, music and other aspects of culture among nations and their peoples in order to foster mutual understanding. Cultural diplomacy is the counterbalance to the hardnosed diplomacy based on trade, security and secrecy that is most portrayed by Hollywood in political thrillers, ironically, one of America’s greatest cultural diplomatic asset.

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Somalia has a proud and resilient people who have always truly valued their customs and traditions. Somali culture, like most cultures, is built on a proud and established tradition of poetry, storytelling, music, dance and unique dress which compliments the national climate and puts the countries materials to effective and beautiful use. Since independence, there was a sustained effort to employ culture to unite the Somali speaking people and to keep alive these solid bonds that acted as connectors at a time of erected land borders and regional territorial disagreements in the Horn of Africa.

The Government of Siad Barre invested heavily in cultural diplomacy and the arts to spread Somali culture, values and ideas extensively within Africa, Europe and the wider world. Through the commissioning of songs, theatre plays, radio presentations and poetry, the Siad Barre regime’s early efforts managed to successfully raise awareness of Somalia regionally and internationally. The famous state sponsored Waaberi band toured the world singing, acting and presenting the best of Somali culture at a time of great hope. To symbolize the centrality of the arts to promoting Somali unity at home and culture and traditions abroad, a beautiful modern national theatre was built in Mogadishu. However, in the early 1980’s when political instability started to rear its ugly head in Somalia, the successes of the earlier cultural diplomacy started to decline given the focus on fighting the enemy within.

Following the start of the civil war and up to this point in time, very little effort has been made to revive Somalia’s cultural diplomacy, at least at the governmental level. Of course, there are many factors to this but among the most important is the single minded focus on the state rebuilding process, which itself requires some aspects of cultural input and diplomacy to be successfully implemented by diverse stakeholders.

While the Somali state has remained absent from cultural promotion and activities since the beginning of the civil war in 1991, there is finally realization of its importance in Somali diplomacy and development. Somalia’s first drafted Foreign Policy puts the promotion of Somali culture internationally at the heart of the strategy to change the narrative on Somalia. For over 25 years, conflict, destruction and a failed state narrative has dominated the way Somalia and its people came to be viewed internationally.

Today, a Somali cultural awakening is taking place across the world mainly led by the Somali Diaspora. Alongside the long running London Somali Week celebrations, there have been cultural events in Kenya and Minneapolis this year to name but a few. Music, poetry, traditional dress, storytelling and food were all key components of the events which successfully drew diverse audiences.

Discussing the key motivations with many organizers, it is clear that they all want to promote, celebrate and preserve their cultural traditions and values. More importantly, most of them saw cultural education and exchange as the best means to change the often negative perceptions of Somalis and Somalia.

Cultural diplomacy, like all forms of diplomacy, is all about changing and influencing perceptions locally, nationally and internationally. Many Somalis truly felt upset when US President-elect Donald Trump falsely vilified them as non-contributing refugees in Minnesota. Rather than respond by shouting back insults at him or amplify his statements with mainstream media commentary, it would have been easier and better to just ask him and his supporters to visit the Somali Museum in Minnesota. Here they would have learnt more about the successful Somali Diaspora’s proud contribution to the progress of their adopted home State in the USA. The significant advantage of having a Museum dedicated to the promotion of Somali culture and intercommunity education abroad is that Somalis are able to tell their own story, from their own perspectives and represent their own history and hopes for the future to their neighbours, countrymen and the world. Therefore, the Somali Government and Diaspora, in partnership, must continue to systematically encourage and actively support venues and strategies for communicating Somali culture to the world. 

In recent year’s book fairs and literature festivals have sprung up all over Somalia. While international literature is proudly on display at all these events, more and more Somali language books are on offer to readers at home often written by young authors. The vast majority of these stories focus on transmitting Somali culture and traditional values to its readers and the only way to make this an effective cultural diplomatic tool is for the Somali language to be taught more widely in places where Somalis live internationally. In this regard, the Somali Government and Diaspora must jointly lobby for the Somali language to be part of the main education curriculum in government schools and at major universities to complement their own efforts at home. In this regard, the Somali government and people should recognize the efforts of institutions like The School of Oriental and African Studies in London for its commitment to teaching the Somali language to all students wishing to learn it.

The Somali Diaspora and the next generations of Somalis at home have lost touch with their culture to a certain extent given the near two decades of civil war in Somalia. For those born after the start of the civil war, there is every chance that all they know about Somalia, its rich culture and history are informed by negativity which frightens them off from embracing it. Through the promotion of and education in the real Somali culture, this vital group will most certainly come to appreciate and embrace it. However, for this to succeed, the Somali government must understand that it needs to use the influence and pulling capabilities of this soft power to win over its next generation for its own progress and prosperity.

Cultural diplomacy is truly central to Somalia’s development and how it is viewed by the rest of the world. Both are critical for Somalia as it stands at a cross roads between going forward to stability and democracy, stagnating or even worse, returning to its troubled past. Promoting Somali culture both at home and abroad in an institutionalized and consistent way through partnerships is far easier than it has ever been given Somalia’s progress, its rich and diverse culture and its young and dynamic population both at home and in the Diaspora. More importantly, there is the state and independent media infrastructure to truly execute a cultural diplomacy policy which has the real potential to change how Somalis and the rest of the world view this beautiful nation and its resilient, proud and entrepreneurial people.

Liban Obsiye is a Senior Adviser to the Somali Minister for Foreign Affairs and Investment Promotion. He can be contacted through the below means:

[email protected]  & @LibanObsiye (Twitter).

Sakariye Hussein is a member of the Global Somalia Diaspora’s Senior Management Team in London. He can be contacted through the below means:
[email protected]   & @Zakaria jawdeer (Twitter)

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