29 June 2012

Reemerging Somalia: The Story Told Through Women

Somalia is rapidly shifting in response to stabilize a nation that has experienced two decades of unrest. Once a place where the only stories that made it to a western audience were of famine and warn, Somalia has quickly evolved from the home of pirates to a place of growth. Though it is still dealing with the problem of al Shabaab, malnutrition in the south and a very fragile government, reporters are telling new stories about the country.

This past April, Jeffrey Gettleman wrote in the New York Times on how some people are returning back to the capital city of Mogadishu.
But people here are sensing the moment and seizing it. More than 300,000 residents have come back to the city in the past six months, local aid groups say, and many are cheerfully carting away chunks of rubble and resurrecting their bullet-riddled homes. The economic boom, fueled by an infusion of tens of millions of dollars, much of it from Somalis flocking home from overseas, is spawning thousands of jobs that are beginning to absorb young militiamen eager to get out of the killing business. 
Given Mogadishu’s importance to the country, it all adds up to a huge opportunity. And though Somalia has self-destructed numerous times before, Augustine Mahiga, the head of the United Nations political office for Somalia, along with so many others here, insisted that this time really is different. Somalia, they contend, is finally turning around.
Tristan McConnell picked up on the same trend earlier this month in the GlobalPost by profiling the town of Hudur. Once a bastion for the Shabaab rebels, life in Hudur is returning to a more normal state.
As soon as the militants left, 19-year-old Hussein Abdi went to the market to buy a pair of jeans, dusted off his soccer ball and started hanging out with his friends again at the tea shops that line the uneven streets of Hudur, the regional capital of Bakool province with about 40,000 people. 
“Life was hard then but now it’s good. We dress how we want, play football, walk with our friends,” said Abdi. He was back at school again, too, and hoped, eventually, to make it to university. 
Abdulkadir Nur, the regional education officer, is responsible for reopening schools and getting pupils back on the standard curriculum after years of learning nothing but Arabic and Quranic studies. 
“We had made something here and Al Shabaab broke it,” he said. “Now we need to build their minds again.”

There is much more to be told, say Eunice Lau and Arthur Nazaryan. Lau, a former Al Jazeera producer, and Nazaryan, a photographer, want to tell the stories of Somali women who are finding ways to thrive despite the many challenges in their lives. Through the Fire will be a documentary and photo series that documents some of these women.

I had the chance to chat with Arthur about the project, what it entails and why he thinks it is a story worth telling.

AVFTC: Somalia is often popular for reporting with stories of famine, war, and pirates. Why make a documentary there?
AN: Well, its difficult to talk about Somalia without mention of the anarchy its been experiencing for over two decades. The problem is that there isn't much reporting about what Somalis themselves have done to strive through all of that, the resilience they've shown. That's the purpose of this documentary: to give some exposure to what people, especially women, are doing to reestablish the stability that Somalia once had.
AVFTC: What role can a documentary play in raising awareness of a given topic?
AN: For a lot of people, it can be an introduction to an issue that they've never heard of before. For others, who may be aware of an issue, it can give them a deeper understanding of the issue's complexity. Most of all, it can put a human face to it, so that (ideally) people can connect to it on a personal level.
AVFTC: What stories do you think are missing from your documentary?
AN: Stories pertaining to the Somalia diaspora. We hear plenty about foreign aid organizations, but the diaspora has also been a major source of funding and expertise for Somalia's redevelopment. A recent report sanctioned by the UNDP estimated that over $130 million dollars are sent back by members of the Somali diaspora, for humanitarian aid and development.

We are working to include that angle in my documentary.
AVFTC: Why focus on women?
AN: Women have been severely marginalized in Somali society, by a combination of tradition and culture. Yet the ongoing war has removed so many men from society, putting a tremendous responsibility on women to step up as bread-winners and leaders in their communities. There are some truly remarkable stories we want to tell: from women who run thriving businesses to Dr. Hawa Abdi, who runs a major IDP camp outside of Mogadishu - and is a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, by the way.

Well, greater exposure can do a lot. There may be many donors and organizations out there with the resources and desire to support these women, but who are not aware of their projects. So, hopefully more exposure will be followed by more support and resources. That is why we've partnered with non-profits like Vital Voices and Common Language Project - to get the word out to as many people as possible.
AVFTC: What makes Somaliland different from other countries in the Horn of Africa?
AN: Somaliland is a fascinating case in general, because it's a positive story out of Africa that does not involve foreign intervention (with the notable exception of Ethiopia) There are NGOs operating there now, but the region was initially stabilized and developed by Somalis themselves.

So I think this case may have a lot of implications and even set precedents, not only for Somalia, but for other countries in Africa: that they can achieve stability on their own. I'll be spending a lot of time investigating Somaliland's story in this documentary.
AVFTC: More issue-based documentaries are tying the film to action for the audience. Will this trend continue? Why is it being done?
AN: I'm sure it will continue, because these kind of documentaries are potent, they move people. Plus YouTube and social media allow them to reach such a large audience.

However, I think a documentary - insofar as it's journalism - needs to be done from a neutral perspective. I mean, not taking sides or promoting any specific point of view. When you start pushing a certain narrative, instead of reporting what you find, it threatens the integrity of the piece. 
Having said that, of course I want a project like this to have a positive affect on the people I document. It's just that it needs to happen after, and separately from, the documentary itself.
AVFTC: Tell me more about your partnerships.
AN: Vital Voices is an organization that works to empower women all over the world, and a major contributor to Dr. Hawa Abdi's foundation. In addition to promoting the project, they're going to host an opening event and photo-exhibition in Washington, DC once it is complete.

The Common Language Project, which is an online news magazine out of Seattle, is our media partner. They give a lot of attention to stories concerning human rights issues and humanitarian affairs, so we thought they would be the perfect outlet to partner with. They were very supportive in planning the documentary and helping us with the Kickstarter campaign.
AVFTC: Why are you using Kickstarter?
AN: Because Kickstarter is not only a way to raise funds for independent documentaries like this, it's also a way to get other people invested in these kinds of issues. I find that when people contribute to a project, they're more likely to follow up on what's going on and where their money went - which is crucial, because it means people will be more connected to the issues we are covering.

Also, Kickstarter is the only way we can possibly get the funding in the very short time we have to get to Somalia - now is an essential time to make this film.
AVFTC: Why is it so important to do this film now?
AN: Well, for the first time in 21 years, Somalia has a real chance to finally become stable. African Union and Somali Transitional Government troops have pushed out Al-Qaeda linked-militants from almost all their strongholds, particularly the capital of Mogadishu. As Somali society is getting back on its feet, women are beginning to take part in education, government, and development.

We think that if there is any time to highlight this change, and support the efforts of these women, it is now.