Journalists now risk crucifixion on social media if they offend the sensibilities of Africans – maybe that’s a good thing.
As famous as the oral tradition of the Somalis is, that doesn’t mean that they don’t occasionally commit things to paper. As it transpires, and in spite of high (although mainly rural) levels of illiteracy, there is actually a voracious appetite for seeing the Somali language in print.
Riding on the back of the success of the long-running and internationally recognised Hargeisa International Book Festival, a local activist, Diini, decided Mogadishu needed its own book festival. So, on a rainy morning in late August (it rains in Mogadishu – not a lot of people know that) at the City Palace Hotel, books perched like birds on the hand and the poets and authors of the city strutted their stuff in front of an audience of hundreds. (On the two subsequent days of the festival, that became thousands: people waiting for the weekend, people waiting to see if it’s worth the risk.)
The President attends: as an academic, he is obviously a book lover. Ugaaso Abukar Boocow, made internationally famous by her jocular Instagram miniatures of life for a Diaspora returner (@ugaasada), is also there. (Another surprise: she’s quite small. And bossy. And very good looking.) The wifi, generously provided by the telecoms company, Hormuud, buckles under the weight of postings.
And then, amidst all exuberance and the superlatives, the #mogadishurising and #theafricathemedianevershowsyou: a bomb blast.
Not an actual bomb blast. The City Palace Hotel is right beside the headquarters of the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA), and couldn’t be safer. The BBC provide the bomb blast. Mary Harper, a known Somaliphile and author of ‘Getting Somalia Wrong’, publishes a positive piece about the festival. So far so good. But the image attached to the article is the stereotype of Mogadishu: a street desolated by an explosion.
A new hashtag appears, started by Mohamed Ahmed Cantoobo (@cantoobo), another activist, who runs Act for Somalia: #someonetellmaryharper.
#someonetellmaryharper #Somalia is moving forward regardless of how @mary_harper and BBC chooses to portray
#someonetellmaryharper enough is enough, Somalis are defining their own narrative, and stereotypes won’t define us
And, after the successful conclusion of the Book Fair without incident, still further:
In Mogadishu, ricocheting bullets and bouncing bazookas is replaced by retractable and quill pens #someonetellmaryharper
Abdihakim Ainte spreads the word:
Hello Kenyans: this hashtag #someonetellmaryharper is equivalent to #someonetellcnn. Speaks of Somali narrative. Please use and promote.
#someonetellmaryharper is a development of another hashtag, developed during another case of western-media-offends-African-sensibilities-and-gets-hashtagged-to-death, #someonetellcnn. In the run up to the Obama visit to Kenya. CNN ran a feature (from the US, not from its Nairobi bureau), noting that POTUS was headed to ‘a region that’s a hotbed of terror’ – provoking a ferocious response from Kenyans on Twitter (#KOT) using the hashtag #someonetellcnn and eventually forcing an apology from CNN in the face of cancelled advertising contracts.
The BBC response was diversionary, muted. ‘An editor chose the photo,’ claims Mary Harper, ‘not me.’ That’s quite possible: the BBC has resisted pestering (mainly from this callsign, but also from BBC Africa staff) to update the map of the country it uses online, a map shows al-Shabaab controlling most of southern and central Somalia. It did: until 2012. Even last month the BBC used the out of date map for stories detailing the fall of towns like Baardheere and Dinsoor, deep in the heart of what used to be al-Shabaab territory. But the BBC doesn’t need to worry about big advertising contracts in the way CNN does. So the out-of-date map continues to appear. They are the BBC, after all.
The BBC map of Somalia – al-Shabaab controlled territory in green
What al-Shabaab actually controls (in red)
After six days, use of the #someonetellmaryharper dwindles. (That’s double the normal duration for a ‘Trending’ hashtag. Somalis are persistent.)
But BBC or not, western journalists beware: young, articulate, connected Africans, brought up on Binyavanga Wainaina’s ‘How to Write About Africa’, are watching out for the next stereotype, the next attempt to use Africa to prove your adventure-journalist creds. And they have a hashtag with your name on it.