Getting Somalia Wrong
Faith, War, and Hope in a Shattered State
Zed Books 2012
Several months ago I interviewed Steve Bloomfield, the author of a book on African football, for New Books in African studies. As usual, I ended the interview with a simple enough sounding question: ‘Where is your favourite place in Africa?’ Steve’s answer was an unusual one – ‘Mogadishu’. Out of all of the fabulous places on the continent why on earth had he chosen the place that in itself was an expression for chaotic, murderous anarchy?
Mary Harper’s Getting Somalia Wrong: Faith, War, and Hope in a Shattered State (Zed Books, 2012) helps explain why Steve was so entranced with Mogadishu. Somalia is not an easy place to get your head around, but it’s certainly fascinating, and Mary (an old journalistic colleague of mine from the BBC World Service) knows it well enough to give an outsider a real feel for what makes the place tick.
Somalia is a country of paradoxes. It is pretty much unique in Africa for its racial, linguistic, cultural and religious coherence, and yet it lacks any genuine and effective central government. Some Somalis dream of a ‘greater Somalia’ that would involve incorporating chunks of territory from neighbours, and yet it is itself home to (at least) two coherent breakaway states, Somaliland and Puntland. It is a failed state and yet every Somali has a set place in its intricate web of clans that allows some of the most complicated functions of a modern state to function without the usual state infrastructure.
Somali also matters: from the piracy that reaches out from its shores far into the Indian Ocean, to its potential for destabilising a large chunk of eastern Africa through violence and Islamic extremism, to the security threat that its diaspora is considered by some to pose from Minneapolis to Melbourne.
Mary’s book is an excellent way to (begin to) understand Somalia, a place that she evidently loves. She doesn’t pretend that it’s anything less than a complicated and unique country, but leaves readers flattering themselves that they understand the country more than is genuinely possible! I really enjoyed reading the book, and now have a bit more of an idea why Steve thought Mogadishu was the best place in Africa.
I hope you enjoy the interview, and I thoroughly recommend getting hold of a copy of the book!
PS: Mary’s website is www.maryharper.co.uk and she can be found on Twitter at @mary_harper
PPS: Oh, and you might also want to follow me at @npw99 and NBN at @newbooksnetwork and @newbooksafrica