Digital Africa and Women of STEAM – Insights from Somalia Women Photography Changing perceptions and narratives

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Not so long ago, I presented my recent book, “Creative industries and international business development in Africa», in front of a full house during a side event at the University of Kigali on the theme of “Digital Gender Divide”, which coincided with the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Kigali, Rwanda. Shortly after this event, I posted on Celebrating the Commonwealth Women’s Forum 2022.

In my presentation at the event, I highlighted the need to integrate STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics) into the conversation on African development, whether in the context of Commonwealth countries, the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) or any forum for that matter.

I have always been an advocate for real African stories, changing narratives to resonate with the realities on the ground. While Somalia may not be a Commonwealth country, even though 21 of the current 56 member countries are from the region (Gabon and Togo recently joined the family), the story around “changing African narratives” through photography, as shown in the illustration of Somali women, is more than a fairy tale.

Before September 2020, nothing was like the Somali Arts Foundation (Saf), as that was its launch date. According to a BBC News feature, however, that all changed. Somalia, with its more often evoked images of violence and destruction, held some surprises in store with a photography exhibition in its capital, Mogadishu. This reveal not only meant to challenge negative perception, but also served to recast who defines the real pictures in the first place.

Indeed, the narrative was captured and also presented in a recent book Creative industries and international business development in Africa. What is even more telling is that Somali feature film photographers were all womenSagal Ali, Fardowsa Hussein and Hana Mire.

The exhibition, titled ‘Still Life’, is the brainchild of Sagal Ali, the director of Saf, which she launched in September 2020. While reaffirming that photography in Somalia is considered a man’s job (especially when it comes to street photography), women are not supposed to be ‘outside to document everyday life, in a place where most people are still busy just surviving’, she shows how that is changing. Sagal Ali goes further by stating that “creativity and culture have been decimated by more than 30 years of conflict in Somalia […] Saf’s goal is to bring it back to life, to give people space to breathe‘.

Its motivation seems to be twofold, that is to say linked to gender and contingent on culture (albeit national). On a national level, her main goal is to change the way people are perceived, and in this exhibition she hopes to challenge the idea that women cannot accomplish highly technical works of art. As she points out:

I was drawn to the female gaze and the emotions the photos evoked in me. I don’t think these photos could have been taken by men‘.

On his side, Fardowsa Hussein explains the reason for his profession as a photographer. According to her, ‘Somalis say it is the hardest job one can do, but also the most rewarding because camels are so precious in our culture‘. Speaking of one of her favorites, she opines:

I took this photo near the southwestern town of Hudur […] Camel herding is the most beautiful thing you can see. Young boys are responsible for taking them into the bush for grazing. Two boys have to take care of 50 camels and sometimes go six to seven days without water.’

Fardowsa further states:It is important that women reclaim public space […] I want it to become completely normal for a woman like me to go out, film and take pictures, without fear of being harassed or worse‘.

Her photo, “Young Woman Enjoys a Swim at Lido Beach, Mogadishu” is a portrait of a woman by the sea and also her favorite image. She says the fact that she, too, was wearing a hijab put the woman at ease, giving her the opportunity to capture that intimate moment. As she continues to elaborate, “there was a lovely stillness around her, despite the commotion all around her.”

In the case of Hana Mirehis portrait of Awais, is much appreciated. As she states, ‘He has such a kind soul. He told me this is the first photo he’s ever had of himself. He faces all kinds of discrimination.. The skin tone in the portrait tends to give insight into the reasons for the discrimination Hana alludes to. Therefore, it was completely understandable that Hana felt it was “important to show how diverse Somalia really was,” but through photography and the power of her imagery. As she points out:

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

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

I was in an auto-rickshaw in Mogadishu when I saw these two girls […] It was totally spur of the moment. I jumped out of the vehicle and they had no idea I was taking their picture. Then I showed them the picture, which they loved.

Hana’s Woman in Orange Jilbab The 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 notes, “one woman stood while others knelt and prayed, a fan blew on her orange dresses, so they looked like the sail of a ship”. In another image also shot at Hamar Weyne, Side portrait, Hana reveals the neighborhood’s narrow, winding streets and Arabian-style architecture. As she points out:

This is one of my favorite places to take photos in Mogadishu […] I saw this man walking and loved what he was wearing. I asked him if I could take his picture and he said he would be happy if I did..

Another photo worth mentioning is Changani, named after the neighborhood where it was taken, and which is also said to be Hana’s favorite photo. As she said, I was in the old Shangani district:

“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 and elegant city.”

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

Do you remember the previously mentioned “orange dresses”? Yes, it’s the “new black” capturing the Orange Economy which has now become the accepted appellation of the creative industries – thanks to HE Ivan Duque Marquez. Yes, the orange economy offers endless opportunities, and the sooner the world, and especially Africa, realizes this and takes advantage of it, the faster the anticipated reduction in gender gaps will be.

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