Early Wednesday morning, a Somali hut stood near the front gate of the Nairobi National Museum. It was circled by women dressed in guntiino, a long stretch of cloth draped under the arm and tied over one shoulder.
Around them were traditional artifacts – wooden bells, bowls – and spears. Some men wore macawis, a sarong-like garment fastened around the waist, and a white garb wrapped around the upper part of the body. The women danced.
Then came calm, harmonic music from the Louis Leakey Auditorium. It was the Kenyan national anthem. The Somali Heritage Week kicked off.
The event, which is centrally coordinated by the Awjaama Omar Cultural and Reading Centre with the support of the Heinrich Boll Foundation, celebrates the rich and diverse culture of Somali people and the contributions they have made to the abounding Kenyan culture.
Kamukunji MP Yusuf Hassan made the opening remarks. “The Somali national is everywhere and is easily visible, yet invisible because little is known about us. It’s now important to engage with other Kenyans,” he said.
There was music, dance, food, poetry and books on display. High ranking Somali leaders were also present, among them former Deputy Speaker Faarah Maalim and Somali Ambassador to Kenya Gamal Mohamed Hassan.
A panel that included Mr Maalim, Prof Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamad and Dr Ibrahim Farah engaged in a discussion on the current situation and the complex Somali identity, also reflecting on the history of the people.
“The Bantus found us here; the Nilotes, too. We have a rich history. All the major cities in Kenya, except Kisumu perhaps, were started by Somali traders. The ‘Somali Kenyan’ is a misplaced notion,” Mr Maalim said.
The event is the first of its kind in Kenya and brings together Somali leaders, writers, thinkers and entertainers to shed light on the challenges facing the community and perhaps find solutions.
“We want to put out a counter-narrative to the mainstream stories about Somalis, which are generally negative,” Ms Nanjala Nyabola, the moderator, said.
“Our quest is not to create one story about Somalia and Somalis, but to tell the different stories,” Prof Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamad, a panellist who spoke at the event, said, echoing the famed Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
There were storytelling sessions for children, a live performance by Somali musician Khadija Fodeey and many talks on security, ethnicity and religion. The main aim was to directly engage ordinary Kenyans and challenge their perceptions of Somalis.
Students, professionals, activists and ordinary Kenyans attended the event. “I came along with my friends and I am here just to motivate myself. I was inspired by people who spoke at the event. I am happy to learn more about the history and culture of my people,” said Ms Hafsa Irshad, a a fourth year political science student at the University of Nairobi.
Many Somalis born and brought up in Kenya know very little about their history and culture. Some struggle to speak Somali and understand only Kiswahili and English. The Somali Heritage Week is an opportunity for young Somalis and other Kenyans to learn more about Somali culture.
“I went to the New Pumwani Primary School near Eastleigh and some of my best friends were Somalis. The media tells us many negative stories about Somalis, but when we interact with them, we find out they are actually good people,” Mr Edwin Alinyo, a volunteer with the International Youth Fellowship, said.
On Thursday, Ms Nyabola moderated a panel discussion on extremism, radicalisation and the government’s approach to ethnic diversity. Among the panellists were Wajir West MP Abdulkadir Ore, Mustafe Ali and journalist John-Allan Namu.
Ahmed Farah Idaaja, a popular Somali writer and literature expert, on Friday spoke about Somali poetry and how it was different from that of other cultures. In addition, he raised concern about the Somali language, which he said was slowly fading.
Sessions on poetry, storytelling and discussions on gender, literature, language and fiction took place. On the same day, Scarred: The Anatomy of a Massacre, a documentary on the Wagalla Massacre of 1984 by filmmaker Judy Kibinge, was screened.
On Friday, there was a discussion on climate change and another one on the intersection of security and identity.
On the last day, Saturday, the discussion was to move back to the issue of identity, knowledge and cultural production.
Mr Sheikh Ibrahim Lethome and Mr Mohammed Dini were to facilitate talks on religion.
Experts were also to discuss financial innovation and the regional impact of Somalis. Also lined up was a fashion show and live performances from contemporary artistes such as Rayzak, Jua Cali, and Octopizzo.