‘Is Hargeisa your permanent home address?’ she asked, ‘I’ve seen you here many times before.’
‘I’m here, for now,’ I laughed, thinking that our only truly permanent home address was our plot in a cemetery.
It was July 2018 and I was in Somaliland, on my sixth consecutive visit to the Hargeisa International Book Fair. It was the eleventh year of the annual fair which coincided this year with the Somali Studies International Association conference. On the brand new stage at the Hargeisa Cultural Centre sat a delegation from the guest country, Rwanda. From my front row seat, I took a photograph. On the far left of the frame was film director, Eric Kabera. The BBC’s Mary Harper was chairing the panel. Actress and producer, Carole Kamerera and Kigali-resident Ugandan journalist , Frederick Goloomba, made up the rest of the delegation. They spoke of Rwanda’s phoenix-like rebirth from the ashes of a genocide by machete.
Yet, in the foreground of my photograph stood the elephant in the room, a more recent victim of a traumatic encounter with a machete (or power saw, more likely). It was a Prosopis Juliflora, which was the fancy name for the humble mesquite tree whose decapitated remains stood bang in front of the stage. The gnarled memorial to the dead tree was surrounded by flowers, like the graveside of any other revered elder.
There was a story there, surely.
I clearly remembered the deceased mesquite tree from my last visit to Hargeisa in July, 2017. The Prosopis Juliflora is not a grand tree. What it offered was a modest shade from the sun. In the photograph above, it sheltered a council of elderly poets in session. It is not native to the Horn of Africa, according to Ahmed Ibrahim Awale of the Somaliland Biodiversity Foundation. It arrived here only in the 80s. Initially, Somalilanders paid no attention to the invasive species: they had much more urgent problems to attend to, problems such as Siad Barre’s air force which was carpet-bombing Hargeisa at the time in his attempt to end Somaliland’s secession. Eventually, most residents of Hargeisa fled, returning after the war to find their abandoned compounds overrun by thousands of mesquites. They named the tree “Garnawaa”, (Unknown tree in the Somali language). Today, the tree is perhaps more ubiquitous and better known than many trees indigenous to the Horn of Africa, but the name has stuck.
The remains of the tree is a poignant metaphor for the work of the Cultural Centre itself. For what is culture if not a memorial of ancestry. By leaving a memorial of the garnawaa in place, perhaps Dr Jama Musse Jama, director of the centre, was trying to replace the roof of leaves with watertight eaves, while preserving a root to the past, so that like an artefact in a museum, a piece of history might evoke the whole of its heritage.
A couple of days later, a delegation from South Sudan took the stage accompanied by a team from the Rift Valley Institute. Young Machot Amuom told how growing up in wartime stripped life of everything but the essentials. Culture was an early victim. Chief Salatin of Northern Bahr el Ghazal and the soft-spoken King Wilson Peni of the Azandes turned up in dapper suits, less the usual paraphernalia of royalty. Asked of their strongest impressions from their first visit to Somaliland, King Wilson and Chief Salatin spoke of the Somali traditional dress embraced by young and old alike, the deportment of her citizens, and the culture. For South Sudan, their great challenge was excavating a culture and a way of life that had been interred by colonists and buried under decades of an uncivil war. King Wilson himself was ending an interregnum by returning to a kingship from which his great grandfather was evicted in 1905. In his words, ‘To kill a people, you must first of all destroy her culture.’
Yet, some cultural “destruction” and modification is not only useful but essential if the culture is to exist anywhere outside a museum in the present. The pre-1905 king of the Azandes, for instance, was a warring sovereign. To successfully fit into the modern day, he has to be reinvented as a peaceable royal that recognises, and serves, the sovereignty of the people. It is the choice between abrogation – as the French did to their royals, and reformation, as the British did to theirs.
Section 58 of the Somaliland constitution establishes a House of Elders as an upper house in parliament with powers to make laws for security, religion and culture. To build a peaceful, successful republic, the house has to be bold in legislating across its remit, and with the Ulema, the constitutional religious council, resist interpretations of the Sharia that has set the rest of the world aflame, while updating traditions so that the vulnerable and oppressed are protected
The story of the mesquite was also a sermon on xenophobia: originally alien to the land, it put down roots and made a home in Hargeisa. Where it was cut down out as an environmental threat, it has also found a home.
Yet, it is not only war that decimates culture. Even in times of peace and prosperity, it can be a struggle to preserve the unique colours of our local identities from the monochromatic onslaught of the hegemons of religion, culture and language. From the alien names of her people and wildlife, streets and lakes, to the foreign inspiration for her architecture, politics, and philosophy, Africa can be chronically ashamed of her past, uprooting vestigial stumps, building her mongrel streets and cities on a concrete tabula rasa more bastard than Western or Eastern. In traditional genocides, invaders may kill off menfolk and keep women and children who will adopt the names and language of the invaders and be subsumed into their culture, leaving nothing of the old.
Cultural ‘genocide’ can be voluntary and completely bloodless.
Across the world, the extinction of language, identity and culture continues apace. This is the burden of my most recent novel, The Extinction of Menai. A Libyan recently suggested to me that the most accurate litmus test of the destruction of his country’s civilisation was the loss of courtesy, that glue of a common culture that bound people together. I saw some of that courteous glue in Hargeisa: on a short cab journey from my hotel to the cultural centre, the driver – with whom I could barely converse – recognised me as a visitor to his country and offered me his wifi hotspot. It was my first hotspot offer from a cabbie, anywhere. I thought about Maskarm Haile’s couch-surfing journey from Cape to Cairo (narrated in her book, Abyssinian Nomad), and the large-heartedness of common people that saw her through a sixteen-country sojourn, and I saw how it was possible for peoples, with thousands of mutually unintelligible languages, to speak one common cultural language of courtesy.
Surely this is a lesson for the times, certainly a hard-earned one for guest country Rwanda, for courtesy was the opposite of the vitriolic rhetoric that triggered the genocide. We spent many late nights in conversation talking Rwanda, talking Africa. Sifting what lessons could be learned from our experiences as creatives observing the transition of our countries from clan to continent. We talked about national wounds and healing, about communal scars and regrowth. It seemed that the principal question for religion and society alike was what to do about the problem of ‘evil’, which for humans appear as inevitable as eating and drinking. What to do when iniquity becomes so rampant in a population that the judicial system is overwhelmed and prison becomes impracticable. The option of confession and forgiveness, truth and reconciliation, restores some harmony to community, but presupposes a shared value of what amounts to evil. It requires the participation of the offender and denies healing to victims of unrepentant abusers.
The path to that communal healing lies in the culture of dialogue, where values are negotiated and founded. Ambassador Iqbal Jhazbhay, in his talk, referenced the Ethiopian/Eritrean détente as a model for the healing that should take place between the sister countries, Somaliland and Somalia. It is a long-overdue process that must be driven by people, if not governments. The failure to address this poorly serves the Horn of Africa and has made of a functioning state, a de facto refugee camp whose citizens cannot so much as negotiate a visa office. This aberration has endured for long enough, and requires the recognition of a moral reality that would take a war to reverse. And as we reconcile belligerents in the present, we must also reconcile with our forbears and history. To arrive at the Africa of our dreams, all the borders from Cape to Cairo from the Horn to The Gambia, must be softened by trade and travel, by mutual respect and fraternal relations.
Culture is memory. When we bury loved ones, our most precious keepsakes are surely memories. Culture is ethnic memory, communal memory, ancestral memory. It is what remains of the clan from a thousand years ago. It is a people’s way of remembering a buried, and cherished ancestry. It is a selective rendering of our best, after expunging the worst. It is a curated room of remembrance in a modern home.
But, it is not a prison; so we are also free to open the door, and walk. We have a “fundamental human right” to bury ours, if we do desire, and culture another nation’s heritage. Sometimes the call of the ‘modern’ seems to demand the abrogation of a history too traumatic to be curated. The truncated garnawaa suggests a half-way house where modernity is not ashamed of its heritage. It reminds the theatre-goer of today of the theatres of yesterday, of the council of poets that gathered under her shade in years past, rehearsing poetry that will later be decanted onto a modern stage. Culture is a collaborative performance of old and young, of the living and the dead, of yesterday and today on a stage for tomorrow’s edification. In the serial remixing of old and new, of ancestral inspiration and youthful dynamism, the future is perpetually amazed by what the present has made of our past.
And that is how it should be.
The machetes of modernity have savaged us, severing much of our past from both remembrance and practice. Jos Museum which dates from 1952 houses Nigeria’s museum of traditional architecture. The Uganda Museum in Kampala, which was established in 1908, has an even more elaborate exhibit of traditional architecture, a football field with a dozen or so adobe buildings on the periphery, from the ethnic nations that comprise the Ugandan state.
As the visitor walks from exhibit to exhibit, he finds himself travelling, not just from Tooro country to Bunyoro, or from Hima to Ankole, but from today back into history as well. And perhaps in the rooms of reed he might find inspiration for elements of his next building, much like the imposing reed entrance in the Ugandan museum. With repositories like these, perhaps the way our ancestors lived may yet inspire the way our children will live.
The book fair wound down, the most successful yet, attended by dozens of nationalities from around the world. I paused by the garnawaa’s “permanent home address” and realised that it was not ‘dead’ after all. It had sprouted a green shoot. Perhaps by 2019 it would wear a green “afro”? No matter. It was enough to suggest a final metaphor from nature: culture is no dead ancestral relic. It is a living, breathing thing, like remixed songs, slang, architecture… it is a collaborative artform by our ancestors and us, for an audience yet unborn.