11 July 2012

First of all, I would like to thank the authors of the reviews for taking the time to read my book and share their thoughts on it.

I would also like to thank them for all the work they have done on Somalia, and their depth of knowledge. I would not have been able to write Getting Somalia Wrong? without referring to the works of people like Mark Bradbury, Ken Menkhaus, Alex de Waal and others.

It was both a luxury and a challenge for me to write the book. I am a BBC news journalist responsible for covering all fifty-four countries in Africa, although I have a special interest in Somalia, and have reported from and about the country for the past twenty years. I work in seconds, not numbers of words or pages; most of the pieces I write for broadcast are thirty seconds long. If I am lucky, I will get to go on for about a minute. So writing a book of 60,000 words was for me a new and at times intimidating adventure.

Some of the reviews, such as that by Judy el-Bushra and Judith Gardner, say I missed “a number of opportunities to explain the background more deeply, to present a richer picture of the current situation…” Ken Menkaus goes further, describing how I tried to “condense a complex society and history into 70 pages”, which results, he says, in “a series of general statements, sweeping explanations, and untreated topics that often do not do justice to the importance and complexity of these periods in the country’s recent history”.

In a way, I think he slightly misses the point of my book. As I write in the Author’s Note, “this book is much less a work of scholarship than an attempt to present a picture, or series of pictures, of the situation, in the hope that it might improve understanding”. I was not trying to write a comprehensive academic study, rather I hoped to write something that was accessible and readable for anybody interested in Somalia.

I liberally quoted academic works in my book, pointing readers in the direction of more in-depth studies by those who have the luxury of spending years of their lives researching particular periods of Somalia’s history, or specific subjects related to the country. It is in some ways frustrating that all the excellent academic work on Somalia remains largely in university libraries or on the bookshelves of those able to afford and/ or understand it.

Ken Menkhaus writes that “many Somali readers will find Harper’s treatment of clannism and traditional Somali culture somewhat objectionable and reductionist”. Many Somalis have read my book and, so far, they have not attacked me about this, although of course some have criticised other things I have written. I have been overwhelmed by the way in which Somalis have engaged with the book, perhaps especially young people in the diaspora who say the chapters on ‘Clan and Country’ and ‘History’ have taught them things they never knew, and helped explain things the older generation speaks and argues about. I stand by my argument about the clan. Of course lots of other things shape and influence Somali society, but from my observations, the role of the clan remains central

Some of the reviews say I place too much emphasis on the US as being behind much of what has ‘gone wrong’ in Somalia. It may perhaps have been a mistake on my part to single out the US so often, when in fact I often meant the US, the UN, Europe, African regional bodies and others.

I made it a rule not to use the word ‘international community’ in my book because I think this is a lazy, almost meaningless term. I tried as often as I could to write ‘foreign powers such as the US’, ‘Western powers’, or ‘the US, the UN and others’, but perhaps too often used ‘the US’ as a shorthand. I do however believe that it was largely the US and Ethiopia that oversaw the destruction of the Union of Islamic Courts in late 2006, which I believe led to the rise to dominance of the far more extreme Islamist group, Al Shabaab.

Ken Menkahus writes that I do not do enough to describe the way Somalis themselves have messed up their country. This view has been echoed by several Somalis who have read the book, and they are right. I should have given more attention to this.

Another failing of my book was rightly pointed out by Judy el-Bushra and Judith Gardner. They describe how there is “a concerning gap area… in relation to women.” I fully acknowledge this, and have been criticised about this by a number of Somali women. In discussions with my Editor, I explained how I did not want to have a specific sub-chapter on Women as I felt this would marginalise them. I said I wanted to talk about them throughout the book, to give them their proper place. It is perhaps an indication of how rarely women’s voices are heard in Somalia, that I failed to do them justice

I am writing this response from Somalia, where in a few days time a new parliament is due to be sworn in, with 30 per cent of seats allocated to women. If indeed this happens, perhaps women’s views will be heard more clearly and maybe acted upon.

Judy el-Bushra and Judith Gardner also write that I do not say enough about youth. I regret this. Since completing the book, I have been saying that if I ever get to write a second edition, I will definitely give more attention to the positive aspects of Somali youth. Like women, many of them have brave and refreshing ideas about how to make Somalia work.

As Ken Menkahus points out, “books that attempt to cover contemporary crises – especially fast-moving ones – inevitably run the problem of being rendered partially out of date by events”. This has definitely happened with Getting Somalia Wrong? Since I completed the final draft, Al Shabaab has been largely driven out of the capital, Mogadishu, and other important towns, Turkey has taken a central role in Somalia’s future, and the more than twenty years of political transition appear to be nearing an end (although what will replace them may be another form of ‘transition’ with the same old players, just with a different name).

Yesterday I flew from Nairobi to Mogadishu. Although I arrived at the airport in plenty of time and had a ticket, I was told I would have to take a later plane as the one I was scheduled to take was already full. I managed to wheedle my way onto the flight, which was jam-packed with Somalis, many of them from the diaspora going home for the first time in years. Some for a holiday, others to return permanently.

There was a party atmosphere on the plane. As we approached Mogadishu, women and girls put on fresh make-up, giggling with excitement. Teenagers told me how they were looking forward to going to the beach. People took photos of the shiny new roofs on the buildings as we came in to land, the plane sweeping down along the Indian Ocean, waves crashing a few metres from the windows.

The airport was freshly painted and far more organised than my last visit in January last year. The concrete bollards were painted alternatively with the sky blue and five-pointed white star of the Somali flag, and the white star and crescent against the red background of Turkey, a country that definitely deserves more than a passing mention if I ever have the opportunity to update my book.

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One Response to Response to reviews of Getting Somalia Wrong?

  1. [...] organised my book tour and asked no less than five academics to review my book. I also wrote a response to those reviews. I would like to thank Alex de Waal, Bridget Conley-Zilkic and Lisa Avery of The [...]

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