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Rasna Warah

Rasna Warah is a well known journalist, photo journalist and author.  She’s currently a columnist with the Daily Nation and has penned two largely appreciated books: Triple Heritage and Missionaries, Mercenaries & Misfits. She also writes and edits for UN HABITAT frequently. She’s a well traveled, witty, insightful lady with a most gorgeously husky voice that would fit a film noir with perfection. I am thankful to my good friend Ahmed Salim for the introduction and to Rasna for allowing me time to talk to her before her big show last Tuesday (5th June 2012) and even humoring me enough to let me tape the quasi interview on my cell phone.

Promotional poster featuring the Cathedral

This show I mention is a photo exhibition dubbed ‘Mogadishu: Then & Now’ that Rasna and two of her partners put together at the Alliance Francaise and runs until the 24th of this month. The opening was graced by the Prime Minister of the Transitional Federal government (TFG) Mr. Abdullahi Mahmood Ali and the Mayor of Mogadishu Mr. Mohammed Ahmed. The exhibition had just come from its debut in Istanbul, Turkey a few days prior and hopefully it will have the opportunity to show in Somalia as well. Inshallah.

Rasna had been writing stories on Somalia for a while and it struck her that in order to write in all earnest about the situation she would need to get a feel for it herself. She wanted her stories to have a significant and actualized basis so when she heard her friend was travelling to Mogadishu she went along without a second thought! Being on the ground was a devastating realization for her. “I saw children living in bullet ridden buildings and had nowhere to play because everywhere was so dangerous.”  What were former homes and shops, hotels and schools, restaurants and theatres were now empty shells still in the process of disintegration. The 20 year war had stripped Mogadishu down to a horrific shadow of its former self but Rasna was hopeful for the future.

She took photographs of the destroyed city and was introduced to the former curator of the Mogadishu Museum Mr. Mohammed Diriye, by Mr. Ismail Osman, an activist and telecoms engineer who is originally from the fallen city. The trio then collaborated to put together the photos to be featured. Mr. Diriye contributed with some photos he had salvaged and saved for over two decades both from the former museum and his own personal collection as well as pictures gathered from different sources and families of a beautiful, peaceful, vibrant Mogadishu. Rasna added her pictures from her trip where she captured the contemporary Mogadishu. The exhibition was born.

Mr. Diriye holding up one of the pictures on display

Their impetus for organizing the show was the compelling need they felt to remind the Somalis who knew the majestic Mogadishu what it was and could be, and to show the Somalis who have known nothing but war and ruin, a greater and prosperous existence. The Somalis have a heritage to protect and propagate for the sake of generations past and forthcoming respectively. A heritage to be proud of. A heritage worthy of preservation. In a way, they are paying homage to the “Jerusalem of Somalia” as Rasna put it, and hoping the Somalis will join them and feel moved enough to reconstruct their homeland. She talked about the Mogadishu I’d heard about frequently from my mother recounting her visits in her youth. The gorgeous beaches, the abundant seafood, the bustling & lucrative jewelry markets that traded in gold & silver. “People used to go to Mogadishu for shopping like they go to Dubai!” Rasna declared. Its prime location connecting East Africa and the Middle East was favorable and made it a hot-spot for traders. It was also a favored holiday destination by virtue of its beautiful cerulean ocean, inviting beaches, delicious weather and charming people.

Rasna confided that Ismail has a dream that one day Somalia will regain peace and stability and he will be able to share his childhood delights with his children by taking them there on visits. In fact, she mused that many Somalis both in the Diaspora as well as right here in Kenya probably have that pull to their home. That deep-set desire to once again live and prosper in their own country. It’s an affinity that cannot be denied.

The photographs on display featured everything from black and white drawings of ancient Somali civilization to the coming of the Omani rule, to colorful pictures of the colonization periods, to independence and then war and the ghostly existence it now assumes. I was amazed to see a picture of an aged, but still mostly standing, cathedral built by the Italians during their occupation of the territory. As much as I know about the presence of non-Muslim powers over Somalia through the French, English and Italians it never occurred to me that there were churches built. I saw pictures of people of both Somali and European origin dancing at a party, children playing on the beach and then I saw before & after pictures of hotels that were once majestic but are now broken down with squatters seeking a most desperate shelter within them. Deserted streets. Children looking far into the distance with all the light drained from their eyes. It was sad. In some photos I could have been staring at a picture of a coastal town in Greece (minus the white-washing). Or a city like Nairobi albeit not the present-day Nairobi. The images evoked both sadness and pride in me.

Al-Uruba Hotel (pre-war)

Al-Uruba Hotel (post-war)

Somalia has suffered painful losses during the war and is still paying the price. Isn’t it time to realize that rock bottom is not a final destination but actually makes a very solid foundation for greater things to rise from? I asked Rasna what she wisdom she would impart on Somalis on the issue of reclamation and reconstruction of their Country and she said “…don’t destroy the heritage! Try to restore it.” I believe it can be done only if Somalis abandoned their inter-clan wars and unite for the greater good of a greater united Somalia.

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