| "Africa always suffers
food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. but the Somaliland
people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to
For seven years now, there’s been a
fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that
doesn’t officially exist.
Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have
been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital,
Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar,
who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be...
“...one of the most important institutions and reference
points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a
country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning
and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”
Now the first storey of the
Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it
with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.
Some background is necessary here to
explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa
of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires
established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883,
the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed
the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that,
the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.
And, excepting some uproar during
World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.
When the winds of change arrived in
1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic:
a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two
sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five
days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This
will become important later.
(In case you are wondering what
happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly
dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)
The new country, informally known as
Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and
were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of
General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the
Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government
finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.
For one thing, it split in two,
along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British
portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In
the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal
sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil
war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is
still officially going on.
The north, meanwhile, got off
relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous
Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state
of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.
This hasn’t persuaded anybody,
though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that
has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the
distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of
diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.
Neither has its library.
Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It
occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s
main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on
the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s
main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of
Telecoms that lies right next door.
This spiel, in a video produced by
the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of
its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that
Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real
But it isn’t just that: the
description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan
2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS,
the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first,
secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes
sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)
And so, the new building will
provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional
services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems
of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library
trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book
dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other
educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will
specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.
All this, it’s hoped, will raise
literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and
Somali, and so boost the economy too.
Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali
who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland
government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from
individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had
higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the
last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”
Now the scheme is moving to its
second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This
will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture
and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can
help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash
sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not
offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two
forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments
about the best way to do this. One said
“donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this
“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year,
if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But
we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books
or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational
Which is good advice for all of us,
pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page
: “Africa always
suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the
Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the
generations to come.”
The building doesn’t look like much:
a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea
of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving.
Books are better than sovereignty anyway.