Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Nuruddin Farah @ Southbank Centre

My copy of Crossbones, signed by the author.
Nuruddin Farah is someone who has only recently come onto my literary radar. I was gripped with the savage honesty with which he portrayed the struggles of a female in late-fifties and early-sixties Somalia through the eyes of the simple nomad girl, Ebla, in From a Crooked Rib.

Once again, the blessing of living in London meant that mid-week there was the opportunity to see him speak about his latest book Crossbones and about Somalia in general as part of the Africa Utopia season at the Southbank Centre. Even though I originally missed the advert for the talk, my eagle-eyed friend Nasri Adam of Safara Trust informed me of it in the nick of time.

Sat patiently with Nasri, her colleague Elizabeth, and a diverse audience composed of many colours, creeds and nationalities, Farah’s entrance seemed so unassuming for a man who blatantly confronts the injustices of his own culture and the injustices inflicted upon his culture by outsiders.

Our chair for the talk, Maya Jaggi, introduced Farah as a writer who went against the prevalent trends of African writing in the 1970s by not focussing his writing on nationhood, but on the minutiae of his culture. She also reiterated that of the eleven novels he has written, all have been set within Somali communities, despite the amount of globetrotting that he has undertaken.

When Farah first speaks, it is to read an extract from Crossbones, a novel based in modern-day Somalia and focussed around an 11-year-old Al-Shabaab recruit called ‘Young Thing’. The extract he chooses to read sees Young Thing forced to shoot an old man who he had been trying to hide from the rest of the Al-Shabaab militia. 

It is difficult to listen to and throws up a number of moral questions over the dilemma that Young Thing finds himself in, yet it is all done in the typical manner of Farah that exposes the everyday struggle of ordinary people within various pockets of Somalia society. It is clear to see that it is not only Al-Shabaab’s conduct that he is challenging, but he is trying to challenge the reader on a number of levels too. What would we do in that situation? What is the ultimate root cause of this situation?

This theme of suspicion and of deceit is something that Farah picks up again during his discussion with Maya Jaggi. He talks about the high volume of lies that have been able to germinate in Somali society, exacerbated by the fragmentation that has come about after many years of conflict. He talks of no singular group within Somalia, and the Somali communities of neighbouring countries, being privy to a complete picture of the truth behind the conflict there. He adds that “Somalis have begun to believe the lies” created by opposing groups who only have self-interest at heart.

Turning his attention to piracy, a principle thread in Crossbones and the subject matter of most of the news we receive in the West about Somalia, Farah holds a good deal of scepticism. After visiting the small town of Eyl, he questions the idea that pirates, from a village of 3,000 people (presumably meaning the small coastal settlement outside of Eyl), using only 12 by 5 foot wooden boats, are able to know the movements of the world’s most advance shipping vessels. Of the millions of dollars allegedly flowing into the town he says, “I have been to Eyl, the so-called ‘Piracy Capital,’ and there hasn’t been any new buildings built and no one is driving fancy cars.”

One thing that is particularly warming about what Farah has to say relates to the relative peace of Mogadishu at this present moment – I say relative because there are still numerous reports of attacks within the Somali capital. When he speaks of being able to walk from place to place in the city without the need for guards for the first time in years, he beams from ear to ear.

Once, Farah says, the former Somali dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, used to criticise him for providing a commentary on Somalia from the comfort of exile in the western world, but he dismisses the idea that he was ever out of touch with Somalia. In a soft, yet emphatic voice, Farah declares, “I eat Somali. Sleep Somali. I live with the dust of Somalia in my eyes.” He continues that “I feel relaxed anywhere in the continent [of Africa] and feel even more relaxed in Somalia.”

So is there hope for the future of Somalia? The overriding impression that Farah gives is that there is, but that Somalis must be the masters of their own destinies. After all, he asks, what difference was a five-hour conference with David Cameron likely to achieve after so many years of instability?

Farah is definitely one component of the machinery of change for Somalia. His attempts to bring an honest and critical narrative of his country and culture to a global stage come across as a genuine and heartfelt effort to tackle the “lies”. He wants Somalia to move forward and appreciates that he doesn’t have all the answers for doing so. That must be left to the future generations.

Monday, July 02, 2012

The Bakiga Window Vol. II: Jebena, Cini, Bunna!

Dawn in Addis Ababa. Walking from the plane to the terminal building.
The captain’s voice, lilting with a slight American inflection, crackles over the intercom and thanks us for travelling with Ethiopian Airways. The students, most of whom have slept solidly throughout the journey, look groggily around with the realisation that we are in Africa.

It is the crack of dawn on Friday 30th March 2012 and I’ve arrived, accompanied by a group of thirty-one others, in Addis Ababa. The air is still cold, by African standards, but is getting warmer as the minutes pass by.

Once again we are in Addis to change planes; the first leg of the journey having brought us from Heathrow, and the second taking us from here to Kigali, Rwanda. Unfortunately, such journey itineraries seldom match up perfectly and we have a four-hour wait ahead of us.

It is something of a cruel trick that Ethiopian Airways play on us annually as we are led to the smaller of the two terminal buildings, away from the spacious glass and steel, air-conditioned luxury of the newer building, to look at Africa from behind a window. As a result, the feeling that you are truly in Africa becomes suspended as you watch the vibrant orange hues of the early morning sun wash rapidly over the landscape outside.

There is one thing that redeems this situation for me every year though; the coffee ladies.

Paul, Jas and I separate ourselves from the main group and head towards the corner of the terminal. Here we make ourselves as comfortable as possible, sitting on the small wooden stools that surround our host’s podium, her legs about level with head height, and thus perfect for the control of overstimulated coffee drinkers.

She asks us how many cups we want, before setting about roasting the greyish-green coffee beans over a small coal fire, laden with frankincense. A few minutes later, emerging from the fragrant cloud that has enveloped us, are blackened beans. Next the roasted beans are crushed by our host in front of us using a pestle and mortar type implement called a mukecha.

Our host pours bunna from a jebena into a cini.
Finally, after being mixed with water and brewed in a jebena (an ornate, kettle-like ceramic pot), the coffee is poured from height by our host into the small, handleless cini cups. Mixed with brown sugar and accompanied with fresh popcorn, the airport behind us melts away.

Facing away from the hustle and bustle of this cramped little airport terminal, time seems to rush by in the silvery haze of the incense smoke. The three of us engage in increasingly lively conversations ranging from our looking forward to the real arrival in Africa in a few hours’ time, to the quite simply inane – perhaps there is more of the latter at this time of the day.

Needless to say, this rich, flavoursome, earthy coffee is very strong and four cups later our senses are beyond alert. Every speck of dust blown across the floor seems to attract my attention. I decide the best plan is to sleep for a small while to allow my mind to slow back down to its usual pace.

When we take our leave, our host, at the end of our two-hour besiegement of her coffee stand, seems to us like a long lost friend and almost appears sad to see us go, but it’s for the better. This relationship can't carry on this way.

Either way, we haven’t yet arrived at our destination, but this small prelude has piqued our curiosity for our impending arrival in Kigali later today.
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