The Hargeysa International Book Fair takes place yearly in August with writers from Somaliland, Somalia and the far-flung Somali diaspora arriving from as far as Finland and Minnesota, and includes other international guests. This book fair takes place somewhat improbably in the sunny capital of Somaliland. This self-declared independent state, despite having many of the accoutrements of a formal state— its own currency, government, police force, and license plates — isn’t recognized as one.
The theme of last year's 2014 fair was Imagination, which took on a more urgent resonance in a land still struggling to get others to imagine its borders as autonomous.
Yet the real urgency of imagination as something far from literary luxury but human necessity when all else is stripped away — came into stark focus in what started as a conversation over lunch. At the opening of the Hargeysa Culture Centre, I fell into the beginning of a conversation with Dr. Adan Abokor, a soft-spoken man in his sixties and the former head of Hargeysa Group Hospital, back when Hargeisa was still definitively part of Siad Barre's Somalia. Dr. Abokor is no longer as a practicing medical doctor: as he says, "After a thing like that, you can't practice".
That being when, with the callous whimsy of dictatorship, Dr. Abokor went from being the head of Hargeysa Group Hospital and a member of the Hargeysa Group, which aimed to improve conditions in hospitals and schools, to an arrest and show trial. Members of the Hargeysa Group were rounded up. Three of Dr. Abokor's friends were sentenced to death. The rest were placed in solitary confinement, where Dr. Abokor stayed from 1981-1989.
As we balanced our overfull plates, Dr. Abokor described to me how he and his cellmates had developed a language to communicate whilst in solitary confinement. They knocked at the walls in a Morse code-like alphabet of their own creation. Through his tapping communication with his neighbor, Mohamed Baru Ali, Dr. Abokor realized his neighbor's mental state was deteriorating. And so Dr. Abokor offered him the secret solace that he himself had found in the imagined lives of others. When he initially had been incarcerated, a guard had fleetingly allowed Dr. Abokor a special privilege. Although everyone was allowed a copy of the Koran, Dr. Abokor was allowed to choose one other book from amongst his belongings. He quickly grabbed Anna Karenina, the thickest amongst his books. So as Barud Ali's condition deteriorated, Dr. Abokor swaddled his knuckles in cloth and tapped out the novel to his neighbor through the wall. It took two months.
The best book fairs offer chance encounters across borders and backgrounds, and it is here that the Hargeysa Book Fair excels. At another Book Fair lunch, Dr. Abokor was seated next to Malawian poet and professor Dr. Jack Mapanje. Dr. Abokor had once visited Malawi while working with an Italian NGO. Dr. Jack Mapanje, who now teaches at University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne discovered, with a little prompting from Horn of Africa specialist Mark Bradbury, he and Dr. Abokor shared something else: Dr. Mapanje had also been a political prisoner. Imprisoned in Malawi under Hastings Kamuzu Banda's regime, Dr. Mapanje was never told why he had been jailed, though his first book of poetry Of Chameleons and Gods was pulled from Malawian bookshops two years prior to his arrest in September of 1987. His subsequent release in 1991 was equally without explanation.
Unlike Dr. Adan, Dr. Mapanje was locked up with others, but he too found solace in words and language— and imagination. The inmates in Mikuyu prison were only allowed to take a shower if they could provide evidence of their stink- so Mapanje would secretly jump an imaginary rope to work up a good sweat. The rhythms of that imagining inflect one of the first poems he composed in prison, and gave rise to the title poem of one of his post-prison collections Skipping without Rope.
Both men agreed to continue their lunch conversation about the secret languages of the imprisoned in the context of incarceration with Elizabeth Senja Spackman and the interview was recorded by journalist Ismail Einashe. Here is a podcast of their conversation, as they discuss how they imagined their way to freedom, even from behind bars.
Elizabeth Senja Spackman is a poet, playwright, and teacher. After a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Iowa and a few years of teaching in New York, she travelled to Rwanda on a Fulbright fellowship. She extended her stay there for several years to collaborate with various artists, including Odile Gakire (Rwanda Professional Dreamers) and Wesley Ruzibiza (Amizero Kompagnie), while she taught at the Kigali Institute of Education (now the University of Rwanda). She currently lives and writes in Nairobi, Kenya. Twitter @esenjas
Ismail Einashe is a British-Somali freelance journalist and researcher based in London. He’s a regular contributor to Prospect Magazine, African Arguments and Welt-Sichten, and his writing has appeared in several publications, including Mail & Guardian, The Economist and The White Review. He’s an associate research fellow at the University of Oslo, where he works on comparative migration. He has also worked for BBC Radio Current Affairs, and presented for BBC Radio 4. He studied social political sciences at University of Cambridge and politics at the University of London. Twitter @IsmailEinashe