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Kenya National Theatre hosts annual Somali Heritage festival

Saturday October 19 2019

Somali Heritage Week

A Somali youth group performs during Somali Heritage Week at the Nairobi National Museum in 2015. PHOTO | COURTESY 

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In the wake of the Nairobi International Book Fair and the Macondo Literary Festival comes the annual Somali Heritage Week, organised by the Awjaama Omar Cultural, Research and Reading Centre.

This festival brings together the Kenyan Somali community to celebrate their culture, not as a separate group but as part of the collective Kenyan heritage, and to share with other Kenyans what makes them who they are.


This year’s festival started on Friday at the Kenya National Theatre in Nairobi and will end Sunday. Entry is free.

Among the events scheduled for the three days are an exhibition and a mural project; a photography exhibition; poetry sessions; a book fair; crafts sales; interactive storytelling, with performances by Zamaleo and Awjama Storytellers; screening of a film and performance of a play; and a series of panel discussions on various topics.

The panels include local and international speakers from academia, authors, journalists, the corporate world, civil society, politicians and artists.


Some of the subjects of discussion are: What is the role of traditional leadership in the modern world?; Somali corporate boardrooms: What is the representation of women and youth?; What are the challenges and opportunities?; and the role of youth in sociopolitical change and community development.

The Saturday Nation’s Tom Odhiambo spoke to Hafsa Aden, a programme officer at the Awjaama Omar Cultural, Research and Reading Centre, about the festival.

Tom Odhiambo: Explain to the reader and potential attendee what the Annual Somali Heritage Week is all about.

Hafsa Aden: Somali Heritage Week is a cultural festival meant to shed light on the positive aspects of the Somali culture and who the Somali people are, unlike the negative image that has long been portrayed about the community.

Why is it worth attending? Because of the general feeling you get from experiencing genuine Somali culture through exhibitions highlighting traditional Somali artefacts and clothing, Somali foods, music, poetry, live arts, panel discussions touching on various important topics and critical conversations on the issues that concern the community at large; and if you are an art and cultural enthusiast, you are bound to love it.

How did the festival begin, when and who initiated it?

Somali Heritage Week was first conducted in 2015 and its goal is to build positive connections among Kenyan communities through art and culture, to address the challenges faced by the Somali community in Kenya and to celebrate Kenya’s diversity.

It was initiated by the Awjaama Omar Cultural, Research and Reading Centre with the support of the Heinrich Boll Foundation.

What is the theme/objective of the 2019 festival?

The festival has a theme every year and this year our theme is ‘Dialogue — Sharing Our Stories and Building Hope.’ It is largely touching on how the youth and women can play an active role on political issues affecting them directly.

Our first objective is to offer different trainings for the youth, women and the hearing-impaired community before the actual festival whereby they showcase their work at the festival. The second objective is to bring people together and give them a platform to share their art and skills.

There has always been the stereotype of the ‘Somali question’ in Kenya. How does the festival engage with this subject?

Through showing the active role that Somalis have played in nation-building and telling our history and how much they are contributing to the country’s economic development through panel discussions.

How do the organisers see it as fitting in the larger Kenyan cultural and art events in the year?

It brings together cultural enthusiasts and also showcases the true African creativity. People come to the festival to learn more in it and our panel discussions are meant to educate and inform the larger Kenyan communities to get rid of stereotypes that mostly divide us.

Do the organisers of the festival plan to take it to the ‘grassroots’ — to the regions with a bigger population of Somalis?

Yes. In future we hope to go to the grassroots, with the support of the counties. So we have invited leaders, from especially the northern counties, to partake in our discussions.

What is or who are the star attractions in this year’s festival?

The open mic sessions, which are meant to be a platform for young Somali artists who seem to lack public performance space to showcase their art and get their art to a larger audience.

We also hope that Somali intellectuals, who will be involved in our panel discussions and public lectures, will be of interest to the audience.

Does this festival seek to connect/bring together just local Somalis and other Kenyans, or does it have cross-border connections too?

Yes, it has cross-border connections. Different intellectuals from across the world come to participate in the festival.

How can this Festival encourage cross-cultural conversations in Kenya and the region?

By provoking conversations about how we Africans have lost our culture, it challenges people to really look at their cultures, languages, etc and seek to re-engage with them or even revive those that have been totally lost.

Your last word on the festival?

The festival is a cultural festival that has impacted so many people. We have engaged the youth, women and hearing-impaired individuals. We believe that we have impacted these individuals positively, and changed their lives for a better future.

We have generated and helped to spread critical conversations about issues that affect our community at large. The festival seeks to connect Kenyans of all shades, not just Somalis.

We look forward to having many more Kenyans come and learn about the Somali people as well as be entertained by the art and culture on show.

Tom Odhiambo teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]