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February 24 - March 01, 2012

 

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Re-dressing the notion of
Somalia as 'a failed state'

'Getting Somalia Wrong, Faith, War and
Hope in a Shattered Life' by Mary Harper

African Arguments ZED BooksLondon and New York.
Pp 217. Bookshop cost of £12.99. Google Amazon.

BOOK REVIEW BY ERROL TRZEBINSKI
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Coastweek -- Mary Harper’s brilliant, Getting Somalia Wrong, Faith, War and Hope in a Shattered State was recently launched at SOAS in London receiving high praise from her peers, Small wonder.

Mary Harper’s first book is an important work: Harper, BBC African editor and journalist has also written for the Washington Post, The Economist and The Times.

Listeners to the BBC World Service will be familiar with her voice, interviewing dissident Presidents, and asking the questions that other journalist dare not.

With Somalia, a near neighbour sharing a border, Kenya has grown more and more concerned as war torn Mogadishu has gone from bad to worse so Getting Somalia Wrong is essential reading for those who have lived with "the Somali problem" for two decades.

As many as 600,000 of displaced Somalis have amassed in refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia so that now the camps themselves appear "normal" as do the self imposed enclaves where Somali’s hang together.

The very word, Somalia, stands for a ‘failed state.’

Haven for Al-Quaeda;

the worst crisis,

the most corrupt;

the "dodgiest passports in the world."

Take your pick.

Harper has been reporting on Somalia since the outbreak of civil war in 1991.

Coastweek -- Mary Harper’s Getting Somalia Wrong, Faith, War and Hope in a Shattered State was recently launched at SOAS in London.

That year, her mother, Gay happened to be working with Save The Children for Unicef in Mogadishu.

Mother and daughter kept in touch as often they could by international telephone.

Gay Harper, would reassure Mary, who could hear sounds of shelling and the whine of bullets in the background, that she was OK. Quite safe.

Twenty years on, somewhat ironically BBC African editor Mary Harper gets calls virtually daily from that same benighted city when her colleague, Mohamed Moalimu reports casualties: the deaths, the wounded, the number of children abducted during the hours of the latest battle.

Sometimes, Moalimu holds up the phone so that Harper can hear how close and heavy the blitzing.

Harper’s knowledge of her subject, with impunity, has entered her bloodstream.

She knows herself how pre-judice against Somalia "ticks all the boxes for an African disaster zone."

Yet with ample proof, she suggests in multiple lucid glimpsesin Getting Somalia Wrong, that Somalia needs to be looked at differently.

Harper’s uncluttered narrative also turns out to be a page turner.

• Many, many books and words have been published on Somaliland.

Quite a feather in the author’s cap comes from Professor Ioan Lewis, whose knowledge of Somalia’s culture and history is highly respected, as a long-time observer who now proclaims, Mary Harper’s first book …

"The most accessible and accurate account available of the contemporary Somali World."

Harper’s message is clear.

Somalis have an ability to survive in chaos and squalor, lacking modern facilities, blessed with an attitude as uncom-promising as their passion for the hostile country, nomads from birth.

They are born talkers, story-tellers and poets, waxing lyrical about camels, the stars and the desert, images contrasting sharply with headline grabbing coverage of violence.

Film of teenagers (and younger) brandishing sawn off shotguns; still photographs of shrivelled mothers holding children so emaciated that huge eyes, underline the listlessness of starvation since famine, has yet again recently dominated world television networks.

By circumventing the pitfall of condescension, and without heavy analytic judgment as an "expert" Harper’s accessible style is a welcome introduction as to why the majority of European countries, have managed to get things so wrong, making clear that Somalia is not actually a failed state as so much one as mistakenly defined by modern political theories.

Evolving systems of education, local politics, business and even justice appear to be thriving.

The Somalis are at heart, resilient; their survival is unyielding, endemic to the harshness of their waterless thorn filled terrain.

The complexity of the clan sys-tem is partly responsible.

Each chapter, contains little known revelations on education.

Islamism, Piracy and Clans.

From the age of eight, children have a profound knowledge of their lineage.

And "can recite his or her genealogy through the male line, some twenty or thirty generations back, to a common ancestor."

A Somali proverb, neatly sums up the divisive nature of the clan.

"Me and my clan against the world,

Me and my family against the clan,

Me and my brother against my family;

Me against my brother."

Yet the collection of different clans and regional organizations, by example, may well display a form of possible stability for Somalis.

Nor is the importance of Qat dodged.

The natural stimulant, central to daily existence in Somalia, deliveries arrive by air, to wherever Somalis exist and are impatiently awaited.

This is a habit that Westerners simply do not (or cannot) understand.

In Nairobi’s Eastleigh, rundown by –trash, potholes, open drains, flies buzzing over everything and called, "Mogadishu kidogo" new buildings in costly reflective glass and marble flooring, rise from the all but non-existent infra-structure.

Water and electricity supplies at best erratic, where "a special qat street, is lined with dukas where the addictive green leaves hang in bunches.

Somalis relax in numerous tea houses, chewing the cud, - a sort of café society - grouped like "mini-parliaments" arguing noisily on politics and world events.

This trade in qat is worth tens of millions of dollars annually, showing no signs of dwindling during this drawn out conflict.

The extraordinary concept of ‘pavement banks’ close by the Dahabstiil multi-storey operation HQ in Hargeisha was founded by a humble importer because he needed foreign currency to trade.

The result on the street now-adays - "Men sit beside wire cages stacked high with Somali shillings, US Dollars and other currencies.

When they want to have lunch, they simply put the money inside the cage, lock the door and leave."

Few have forgotten that phrase, "Black Hawk Down" spawned term by conflict between General Aideed sparking the first Battle of Mogadishu in 1993 after two American helicopters were shot down;

In a frantic military operation to rescue their countrymen, eighteen US servicemen were killed; some corpses were dragged through the streets.

Since then, "The USA and its allies misinterpreted these events", comments Harper.

"They mistakenly equated a home-grown form of political Islam with the international al-Qaeda franchise … by doing so inadvertently advertised the country as a promising new battle front for jihadists from across the world".

Harper is ever persuasive; statistics even, do not make her reader’s concentration wander:

"In 1999 the overseas trade in small stock sheep and goats ("shoats" as the late Elspeth Huxley called them) from Somaliland and neighbouring Puntland was larger in volume, than before the Government’s collapse."

• Since them millions of dollars have been spent on conferences purporting to have the answer to Somalia; being seen to be ‘doing something’ outweighed every-thing else.

With vested interests in pro-longed meetings, when a marathon conference dragged on for two years in Nairobi, the Kenya authorities became so desperate they organized a farewell party - a broad hint - it was time to go home.

Harper believes implicitly the rest of the world must surely learn from Somalis’ resilience.

Most civilians left in Mogadishu, are there because they cannot afford to leave:

She cites the acumen of one Somali business man who has left, witnessed while sitting with him in a London restaurant hammering out "multiple deals on his various mobile phones, while consuming Spaghetti bolognaise and sending endless emails on his Blackberry.

Britain’s Foreign Minister, William Hague has just returned from installing a new UK envoy in Mogadishu.

The timing of publication of Getting Somali Wrong, is perfect.

The Berlin Conference in 1885 was attended by white faces.

This time Somalis will be sitting around the carving table on 23 February in London when the all important conference on Somalia takes place.

Harper has shown how clan-based policies in the northwest (Somaliland-the former British protectorate) and northeast (Puntland), among others, are already self-governing with a remarkable degree of success in terms of local governance.

Somalia has never been easy for onlookers to fathom.

She has pointed out that re-dressing the notion of Somalia as "a failed state" is overdue.

Foreign powers involved in the Horn of Africa need to scrutinize its history again if they want to understand it.

Harper’s provocative argument seeking to shift a narrow vision of the country to broaden understandings of Somalia’s situation today, is as wise as it is refreshing.

Let’s hope that her insights in Getting Somali Wrong, are perceptive enough for this engaging study to become a classic.

There is a good Glossary, Bibliography, chronology and index though pagination for the index leaves a lot to be desired.

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