Photo by Toby Hayman
Mogadishu Then and Now is a photographic exhibition currently on display in Nairobi, Kenya which documents neighbouring Somalia’s capital city before and during the on-going civil war. Conceived by photojournalist and writer Rasna Warah, the exhibition intends to allow present and future generations of Somalis to learn about their rich heritage.
The exhibition is co-curated by Ismail Osman and Mohammud Diriye, the former curator of Mogadishu Museum, whose personal collection provided most of the pre-civil war images for Then and Now. As highlighted in the opening statement of a short essay by Osman, “Mogadishu literally means ‘The Seat of the Shah’ (from the Arabic Maq’adul Shah)” a testament to the beautiful and cosmopolitan city that now seems something of a distant memory. The city’s history dates back to the 10th century when Persian and Arab traders settled there, making Mogadishu a centre for Islam, described by legendary explorer Vasco de Gama as, “a large city with big palaces and many mosques” when he passed through in the 15th century. From the early part of the 20th century until the late 1980s, Mogadishu or Xamar (pronounced Hamar) as the locals call it, was considered one of Africa’s most alluring cities, a billing that has been practically reversed as a result of the civil war that began in 1991.
We caught up with the Mogadishu Then and Now exhibition’s creator Rasna Warah to discuss her thoughts behind and intentions for the project as the fight now is to educate a young generation of Somalis about their rich culture.
The exhibition shows two very different sides of Mogadishu, is it a concern of yours that the city as it existed before the civil war is in danger of being forgotten?
I don’t just think that there is a real danger that the city as it existed before will be forgotten, but there is a real possibility that in a few years no one alive will even remember it. All of the children and most of the youth of Mogadishu have known nothing but war. Many of the people who remember Mogadishu in its heyday now live in the diaspora and have never been back. Most of the historical archives of Mogadishu were either looted or destroyed during the civil war, and so there is little known about what the city used to be like before the 1990s.
If the pre-war city were to become little more than a distant memory, how would that affect Mogadishu culturally?
The pre-war city has already become a distant memory for most Somalis. Apart from the writings of Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah and anecdotal evidence by Somalis living in the diaspora, there is no permanent repository of Mogadishu’s rich cultural heritage. However, you must remember that residents of Mogadishu have managed to survive despite enormous adversity and have managed to retain many elements of their culture. The problem is that the war economy and the prevalence of a gun culture in Mogadishu has created an atmosphere of fear and militancy in the city, which may take years to erase. Many Mogadishu residents suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, having been exposed to constant shelling and bombing in the last two decades.
How much have you personally seen the city change during your time writing about and photographing it?
The first time I went to Mogadishu was in November 2011 and I have not been back. But I have been speaking to many Somalis in the diaspora and in Mogadishu itself who remember it as a vibrant, cosmopolitan city with wide boulevards, cinemas, theatres, grand hotels and historic monuments. They talk of going to the beach and playing volleyball and football and generally enjoying urban life. This all changed in 1991 at the start of the civil war. In more recent years, the Al Qaeda-linked Al Shabaab militia banned residents from watching movies or playing football, which made life for many residents quite unbearable. Al Shabaab thrived in the absence of a functioning government and imposed draconian rules on the Somali people, which were widely resented. When I visited the city, it looked nothing like the city that people remember. It was completely gutted and bullet-ridden.
Would you say that it is more important to ensure that a generation of young Somalians learn about the city as it was, rather than change outsider’s opinions of it?
Of course, the main aim of the exhibition is to instil in the youth and children of Mogadishu a sense of pride in the city so they can rehabilitate and preserve it for future generations. That is why I and my co-organisers are planning to exhibit in Mogadishu later this year. Once Somalis rebuild their capital city, the world’s perception of it will change automatically.
What are your intentions for the exhibition’s impact on future design and restoration initiatives?
I am hoping that the government and the international community will rehabilitate the historic sites and monuments to their original form. It would be a shame if the city is levelled and re-built from scratch without taking into account the rich history and architectural and cultural value of the old historic sites. I believe some parts of Mogadishu should be declared heritage sites and preserved for posterity.
How hopeful are you that Mogadishu will one day return to being the vibrant, cosmopolitan city that it once was?
I am very hopeful. Already there are signs that the city is ready to be rebuilt. Many former residents are moving back to rebuild their shattered homes and some countries, such as Turkey, are rehabilitating important government buildings, schools and hospitals. It may take a while, but it is not impossible to see Mogadishu as it once was.
BBC journalist and author of Getting Somalia Wrong? Faith, War and Hope in a Shattered State, Mary Harper underlined the importance of the project,
“With so much destroyed in the city, the rescued images are an invaluable record. They offer proof that Mogadishu was once a peaceful city. Although its old beauty is gone forever, it is possible that the city once known as ‘The White Pearl of the Indian Ocean’ will have another day in the sun”.
Harper, who is one of the BBC’s chief Africa correspondents, reported on Friday about the first dry cleaner’s to open in Mogadishu for more than twenty years. The story, along with Warah’s exhibition are both testament to a city which is determined to re-build despite the on-going conflict, a remarkable resilience and defiance that give ‘Xamar’ every chance of one day returning to its former glory.
Mogadishu Now: A pictorial tribute to Africa’s most wounded city runs until 4 June 24th at Alliance Française, Nairobi.
By Alec Dudson
Photo by Toby Hayman