Digital Africa and Women of STEAM – Insights from Somalia Women Photography Changing Perceptions and Narratives

Digital Africa and Women of STEAM – Insights from Somalia Women Photography Changing Perceptions and Narratives

It wasn’t too long ago that I pitched my recent book, “The Creative Industries and International Business Development in Africa“, to a packed audience at a side event at the University of Kigali on the subject of “digital gender divide”, which coincided with the recently concluded Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Kigali, Rwanda. Shortly after that event I posted on Celebrating the Commonwealth Women’s Forum 2022.

In my presentation at the event, I did highlight the need to incorporate STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics) into the conversation of African development whether in the context of Commonwealth countries, the African continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) or any other fora for that matter.

I have always been an advocate for real African stories, changing the narratives to resonate with the realities on the ground. While Somalia might not be a Commonwealth country even with 21 out of the now 56 member countries being from the region (both Gabon and Togo recently joined the family), the story around “changing African narratives” through photography, as the illustration of Somalia women shows, is more than a fairytale.

Prior to September 2020, there was nothing like the Somali Arts Foundation (Saf), as that was its launch date. According to a BBC News feature, however, all that has changed. Somalia, with its more often conjured up images of violence and destruction, has thrown out a few surprises with a photography exhibition in its capital, Mogadishu. This revelation has not only set out to challenge the negative perception, but also served the purpose of recasting who is defining the true images in the first place.

Indeed, the narrative was captured and also featured in a recent book The Creative Industries and International Business Development in AfricaWhat is even more revealing is that the Somali photographers in the feature were all female – Sagal Ali, Fardowsa Hussein and Hana Mire.

The exhibition, called ‘Still Life’, is the brainchild of Sagal Ali, the director of the Saf, which she launched in September 2020. While reaffirming that photography in Somalia is considered a man’s trade (especially when it comes to street photography), Women are not expected to be outside documenting day-to-day life, in a place where most people are still busy simply surviving’, she demonstrates how this is changing. Sagal Ali goes a step further to state that, ‘creativity and culture have been decimated by more than 30 years of conflict in Somalia […] The aim of Saf is to revive it, to give people space to breathe’.

Her motivation seems twofold, that is, gender-related and culture (albeit national) contingent. At the national level, her main aim is to alter the way people are seen, and in this exhibition, she hopes to challenge the view that women cannot accomplish highly technical works of art. As she points out:

I was attracted to the female gaze and the emotions the photos invoked in me. I don’t think these pictures could have been taken by men’.

On her part, Fardowsa Hussein explains the rationale for her photography craft. According to her, ‘Somalis say this is the hardest job one can do, but also the most rewarding as camels are so precious in our culture’. Talking about one of her favourites, she opines:

I took this photo near the south-western town of Hudur […] Herding camels is the most beautiful thing you can see. Young boys are responsible to taking them into the bush for grazing. Two boys have to look after as many as 50 camels and are sometimes gone for six to seven days with no water.’ 

Fardowsa points out further: ‘It’s important that women reclaim the public space […] I want it to become entirely normal for a woman like me to go out and about, filming and taking photos, without fear of harassment or worse’.

Her photo, ‘a young woman enjoys a swim at Lido Beach, Mogadishu’ is a portrait of a woman in the sea and also her favourite image. She says the fact that she too was wearing a hijab put the woman at ease, giving her the opportunity to capture this intimate moment. As she goes on to elaborate, ‘there was a beautiful stillness about her, despite the commotion all around her’.

In the case of Hana Mire, her portrait of Awais, is much-loved. As she states, ‘He has such a kind soul. He told me it’s the first photograph he has ever had of himself. He faces all sorts of discrimination’. The skin tone in the portrait tends to provide some insight into the reasons for the discrimination Hana alludes to. Hence, it was quite understandable that Hana felt it ‘important to show how diverse Somalia’ truly was – albeit through photography and the power of its imagery. As she points out:

“too often people think Somalis are just one tribe, that they all speak the same language.” 

But this is not true’. She describes the inspiration of one of her works thus:

I was in an auto-rickshaw in Mogadishu when I caught sight of these two girls […] It was totally spur of the moment. I leapt out of the vehicle, and they had no idea I was taking their photo. Afterwards, I showed them the image, which they loved.

Hana’s Woman in Orange Jilbab image was taken inside one of the oldest mosques in Hamar Weyne, one of the capital’s oldest districts, during the Eid al- Fitr holiday. As she points out, ‘A woman stood up while others knelt and prayed, a fan was blowing her orange robes, so they looked like a ship’s sail’. In another image also shot in Hamar Weyne, Side Portrait, Hana reveals the narrow winding streets and Arab-style architecture of the district. As she points out:

This is one of my favourite places to take pictures in Mogadishu […] I saw this man walking along and I loved what he was wearing. I asked him if I could take his photo and he said he would be delighted for me to do so.

Another photo deserving mention is Shangani, named after the district it was taken, and also reportedly Hana’s favourite photo. As she put it, I was in the ancient district of Shangani:

“Even though I could see the trauma of war in the buildings, it reminded me of my parents and their happy memories of the once beautiful, elegant city.”

She explains how she was being silent, reflecting on her parents’ experiences, when she saw a boy staring out to sea. ‘I thought it was me. He represented the child in me’.

Do you recall the “orange robes” previously mentioned? Yes, that is the “new black” capturing the Orange Economy that has now become the accepted appellation of the creative industries – thanks to HE Iván Duque Márquez. Yes, the Orange economy does avail infinite opportunities, and the sooner the world, and especially Africa, realises that and capitalises on it, the quicker the anticipated bridging of the gender gaps would be.

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