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Reviving Somalia’s peaceful past

A project to preserve the country’s oral history amplifies a renewal now lifting a society out of collapse.

Monitor

This year marks an important transition in Somalia. A multinational force led by the African Union will begin drawing down its presence. For the first time in three decades, the world’s longest-faltering state is assuming full control of its own security.

That has many international observers holding their breath. During his first year in office, starting in May 2022, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud made impressive early military gains against his country’s main threat. In recent months, however, the extremist group Al Shabab has shown it won’t go quietly.

Solving the problem of violent extremism is the critical security challenge in Africa, and Somalia is a key battleground in that effort. Yet to focus just on the country’s military fortunes misses a key part of its defenses and Somalia’s most important lesson in rebuilding so-called failed states. The nation’s real strength rests in the insistence of ordinary Somalis to reclaim the story of the country as a place where unity, dignity, and creativity flourish.

One project seeding that mental renewal is an effort to digitize the prewar archive of Radio Mogadishu. It includes hundreds of thousands of broadcasts and interviews on decaying reel-to-reel tapes. The recordings are preserving the only known surviving oral history of Somalia dating from before independence in 1951, nearly a decade before independence, to 1991, when the station was shut down at the start of civil war.

Together, the recordings capture a country that most of its citizens have never known, a vibrant society where sports, poetry, architecture, and music flourished. The tapes include plays, prayers, and political debates.

The archive survived three decades of urban warfare among rival clans through the efforts of a few individuals who saw it less as a record of the past than as a portrait of Somalia’s potential. “There’s a narrative implicit in the histories being told,” noted Philip Sherburne, a music critic who reviewed a compilation of tracks drawn from the archive. “Radio Mogadishu, a government station, played a unifying role. … It is a story of openness that is at stark odds with the past few decades of Somalia’s history.”

Reclaiming such views of Somalia’s past isn’t an act of nostalgia. It is about reminding Somalis today that they are capable far beyond the dysfunction they have endured. One measure of that mental transformation is a resurgence of sports for girls in recent years. Once banned by Al Shabab, basketball and soccer leagues are thriving again in Somalia and drawing communities together. Men are among the most active fans.

“Since we started playing, community perception of us has completely changed,” said Aniso Abdiazis, a female player who helped break through social resistance to sports for girls a few years ago. “People who used to shame us, now clap for us,” she told the U.S. Agency for International Development.

As they have lost ground, Somalia’s extremist groups have lately started their own broadcasting outlets to try to shift public perception back in their favor. They face stiff resistance.

“My aim was to protect this important heritage for the Somali people,” said Abshir Hashi Ali, a former police officer working to digitize the Radio Mogadishu tapes. During the decades of urban warfare among rival clans, he said, “there were always good people … who helped me save this precious treasure.”

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