Nelson Mandela has always been a hero for me. He symbolises everything that is positive about Africa. A desire to overcome the odds. A deep outrage at injustice. A strong belief in the value of diversity.
‘I dream of an Africa which is in peace with itself,’ Mandela once said. ‘I dream of the realisation of the unity of Africa, whereby its leaders combine in their efforts to solve the problems of this continent. I dream of our vast deserts, of our forests, of all our great wildernesses. ‘
That’s why the famine in Somalia affects me so profoundly. It’s a crisis caused by disunity and war. Yes, there’s been persistent drought, but a key cause of the famine is the years of conflict that has torn the country apart.
I visited Somaliland, in north-west Somalia, eight years ago. Somaliland is an unrecognised, self-proclaimed republic. It broke away from the rest of Somalia in 1991, its people fed up with the decades of civil war. It’s a beautiful country: vast deserts, nomads, traditional huts –the kind of landscapes Mandela would admire.
But it also bears the marks of years of conflict: abandoned tanks by the side or the road, minefields, psychologically-devastated war veterans stumbling around the streets of Hargeisa.
I was working for an NGO at the time. I spent 10 days there visiting local NGOs, visiting aid camps, speaking to the Somali people. I was touched by their resilience, their friendliness, their desire to build a better life in the face of such overwhelming odds.
But I came back distraught and shocked at the history of Somalia: how the country was manipulated by the Cold War powers, how arms dealers continue to fuel the conflict by providing weapons to armed factions, how the Western media only ever portray Somalia when there’s conflict or famine.
For years, I mulled over this. I went back to university and did a PhD in sociology and media studies. I wanted to understand why the media portray Africa so negatively and what effect this has on us. I wanted to understand why we only ever think of Africa as a continent devastated by war, famine and disease. I wanted to understand why Mandela’s vision of a peaceful Africa still seems such a distant dream.
On Friday, I picked up a tabloid newspaper in a cafe. There was a two-page spread about the Somali crisis. It was asking for donations, which is good. But the full page picture of an emaciated Somali child, with stick-thin arms and legs and blood-shot eyes, shocked me. The child was just a few years old, yet it looked 90.
I know that newspapers and charity fundraisers say that shock pictures of Africa lead to donations. I know that tugging at the heart strings is a very effective way of encouraging people to donate. I know that we urgently need money to help the Somali people.
But are such photos the best way of doing it? Is it dignified to show a poor, starving Somali child? What image does it create in our minds about Africa if all we ever show are pictures of starving babies or gun-crazed terrorists?
In the long run, it creates compassion fatigue and a feeling that Africa will never get better. The public is generous and continues to donate, but many of them think here’s yet another famine, with yet more starving babies and yet more murderous war lords.
There must be another way of raising funds for Somalia. A way that doesn’t involve repeatedly showing such shock tactics. A way that respects the Somali people and doesn’t show them as desperate and needy of hand-outs.
The Somalis I met were dignified, upright and hard working people. They traded in the markets, ran local NGOs to help their country men and women, campaigned for women’s rights. They believed in peace, put their lives at risk, distributed aid in relief camps. These are the kinds of stories we need.
And that’s the reason why I wrote this novel, The Somali Doctrine. I love thrillers and I love action stories. My hero is an Interpol agent who is sent to Somaliland to investigate a fictitious NGO, which I call Universal Action. He meets all the kinds of bad guys you’d expect in a thriller: psychopaths, mercenaries, secret agents. And the reader reviews are loving it.
But I also use the novel to highlight the problems caused by the mass media and NGOs in their portrayal of Africa. And that’s why I think it’s so relevant to the crisis in Somalia. If we want a long-term solution to Somalia and Africa’s problems, we have to start at home, with how our newspapers and charities portray Somali and African people.
We need to portray the Somali people how they really are: resilient, positive, hard working, capable of resolving their problems without outside interference. That’s how we’ll help Somalia avoid further war and famines and achieve Mandela’s vision of peace.
I hope you enjoy reading The Somali Doctrine. It's first and foremost a thriller, which I hope you'll find entertaining, but one with a strong social message.
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