THE BLOG

Somaliland: Host to One of the World's Most Remarkable Artistic Gatherings

29/08/2013 16:05 BST | Updated 28/10/2013 09:12 GMT

It may not be as big as Edinburgh's summer festival or as long established as the now 25-year-old Hay event but the Hargeisa International Book Fair can lay claim to being one of the world's most remarkable artistic gatherings. For the annual Fair is attracting a growing number of authors and artists to the Horn of Africa - a region usually in the international news for famine, conflict and piracy rather than animated discussions about the arts.

It is not, of course, that these challenges don't exist in the region. It is just that they are not the whole story. And that's particularly the case in Hargeisa which is the capital of Somaliland, an oasis of calm in an otherwise unstable region.

There is a real buzz when the Fair is taking place, as it was last week. It's the sixth year that the event has been run and it keeps growing in its scale, popularity and reputation so that it is now one of the largest public celebrations of literature in East Africa.

And it is not just the location that makes the event different. Unlike many other literature festivals around the world, it is the young who make up the majority of the audience. They come to attend workshops in photography and courses on creative writing as well as pack in for events such as poetry readings and discussions on politics. This youthful interest is one of the reasons why those who come to speak are invariably so delighted by the interest and excitement they generate.

In the earliest years, our authors and artists were largely local or from Somaliland's artistic diaspora around the world. This year Mohamed Ibrahim Warsame, commonly known as "Hadrawi," was in attendance, he is considered by many to be the greatest living Somali poet and is often described as the Somali Shakespeare.

But we are also beginning to attract international speakers who have heard about the Fair and want to experience it themselves. Among those who appeared this year are the British journalists Mary Harper and Michela Wrong, American writer Ben Stein, Nigerian author Chuma Nwokolo, and Scottish poet W.N Herbert.

Guests also included Neil Wigan, the new British Ambassador to Somalia. On his visit, he spoke of the strong links between the two countries - Somaliland was a British protectorate until 1960 - and how the Book Fair showcased the energy and talent in our society.

While Hargeisa doesn't yet have a cinema or a theatre, there is a real effort underway to ensure culture is high on the national agenda.

The International Book Fair is just another step in putting down the foundations that a stable and democratic country needs. In a troubled region, Somaliland has shown what can be achieved with determination.

There is a huge amount more to do, of course, to ensure growth and development. Progress on strengthening state institutions such as the police and combating poverty must be accelerated - something which will be helped if the country gains international recognition as an independent state. But it is culture which provides the beating heart of any nation.

And, of course, literature and the arts, by opening minds to new ideas, can also help foster understanding and heal divisions. It is why the growing reputation and reach of the Hargeisa International Book Fair is important not just for Somaliland but in helping the entire region move to a new peaceful and prosperous future.