There could hardly be a more poignant or devastating reminder of divisive instability that has spread throughout the Horn of Africa.
On Monday, I moderated a discussion panel on how arts and literature can help rebuild society in the Horn of Africa. But I shouldn’t have been there at all.
Yusuf Hassan, the intended moderator and a Kenyan MP of Somali descent, was absent because of a stark symbol, not of society rebuilding itself, but of society in meltdown: a bomb attack.
The parliamentarian was injured by shrapnel from an explosion in his Kamukunji constituency in Eastleigh, a largely Somali community in Nairobi, on Friday evening. A boy who had come up to greet him was killed instantly, among five who died. It was the second blast in three days.
Kenya’s only Nairobi MP of Somali descent, who has regularly spoken out against the al-Shabaab jihadis who control some of central Somalia, Hassan says he doesn’t know if he was the intended target of the attack.
“In the case of Eastleigh we had no idea maybe a year ago we’d be affected by some of the problems that affect people from the Horn of Africa. Many of these people have fled war, they came here for sanctuary,” he said from his hospital bed. Both his legs are fractured; his right ankle is almost severed.
“It appears the attempt is to create discord and conflict. These communities [in Eastleigh] have lived side by side for over a century,” he said of relations between Somalis and non-Somalis who commute into the city each day for work.
Somalis have become accustomed to fatal tumult in more than 20 years of instability and war. A recent return to fragments of stability as the threat of al-Shabaab ebbs may not be enough.
“We have a state but we don’t have a nation,” said Ayan Mahamoud, managing director of KAYD Somali Arts and Culture, which helps put on the Hargeisa International Book Fair. She was among the panelists co-hosted by Kwani Trust, a Kenyan literary network, and the Nairobi forum, a research body managed by the Rift Valley Institute, discussing how arts and literature can help in societal reconstruction.
“Poets are more important than politicians in Somalia,” she said, pointing to audience member and poet Hadraawi, famed as the Somali Shakespeare and hailed for helping to bring down the dictatorship of Siad Barre in 1991. He was imprisoned for his popular criticism for five years in the mid-1970s and later joined the opposition in exile.
Hassan, whose father was a social historian, said poetry had always had great power throughout the Horn and played a big role both in war and reconciliation. “Every poem has a role in society for peace and reconciliation after a devastating war – usually used to send a signal of peace to the other side,” he said.
The discussion is part of a week-long event, Conversations with Writers from the Horn, part of the biennial Kwani? Litfest. While Kenya’s art scene thrives, participants from other countries experience first-hand the depravities, indignities and fear of being threatened for their work.
Eighteen media figures have been killed in Somalia this year, many of whom spoke out against al-Shabaab. Panellist Meaza Worku confines her work in Ethiopia to the realm of social ills – comic books to combat HIV, radio plays to combat sexism – but dares not drift into politics. Many more write from exile.
Joseph Eluzai, South Sudanese short story writer and panellist, heard the shot that last week killed fellow writer, critic and columnist Isaiah Abraham outside his Juba home. Abraham, pen name for Diing Chan Awuol, regularly criticised government corruption in his writings.
Little more than a year after words from one of Eluzai’s poems were incorporated into the world’s newest national anthem, when South Sudan arrived on the map in July 2011, he is disheartened by the direction of his country’s independence project.
“The space for expression is being narrowed down to pro-government,” says Eluzai.