Somali Social Media Users Offer the World a Glimpse Into Their Daily Lives

A Mogadishu resident checks his Facebook at a cyber cafe. (AU UN IST PHOTO/ David Mutua)

A Mogadishu resident checks his Facebook at a cyber cafe. (AU UN IST PHOTO/ David Mutua)

Zahra Qorane Omar had made a decision. In a Facebook post in late October, she lashed out at the users of social media who “stole” some of her photos and published them as their own. Omar, a blogger based in Mogadishu, had recently become synonymous with her impressive collection of photos – posted both on Instagram and Facebook – documenting the intricacies of everyday life in the Somali capital and its outskirts.

“Sharing is not a bad thing,” she wrote in her post, “but why can’t you acknowledge the person who went at lengths to take the picture?” She then promised to resume posting the photos only after she had made a signature watermark to ascertain her ownership of the photos.

However, even though the lack of acknowledging ownership was a testament to the fluidity of Internet sharing practices, the interesting issue here was the wild outburst of social media usage among Somalis. Over the last three years, the use of social media has trickled into every corner of the Somali society – both within the country and in the diaspora.

Popular social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have enabled Somalis to connect, discuss issues and, most of all, to celebrate the success stories coming in the heel of the country’s return of normalcy.

“Nowadays it takes a snap with your smartphone to tell a story about life in Somalia,” says Alinoor Moulid, a social media strategist.

And those stories, whether positive or negative, whether political or cultural, are being told. As a result, every success story is celebrated through a Facebook post, every car explosion immediately posted on Twitter, and every new business enterprise boasted about on Instagram. Journalists use it to break stories; businesses employ it to promote their brands; humorists use it to share their 15-second jokes; and ordinary citizens use it to showcase the new face of their country.

This upsurge in social media usage has also caught on with the Somali government and foreign countries’ representatives working in Somalia. Since the beginning of 2013, the Somali president, prime minister and the foreign minister have all had active Twitter feeds, according to Twiplomacy, the organization that documents the use of Twitter by governments and international organizations. The UN envoy to Somalia, diplomats from Britain, Netherlands, Turkey and the European Union also regularly engage with tweeps about their countries’ involvement in Somalia, creating a vast network of digital diplomacy.

In short, social media has become the platform that ultimately aims to bring Somalia to the world and the world to Somalia.

The “clear proliferation of telecommunication services and the availability of the Internet to private citizens” has probably contributed to the rise is social media users in Somalia, according to Laura Hammond, a specialist on development studies, diaspora and conflict at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

Statistics support that assertion: one in four Somalis, a whooping 25 percent of the population, accessed the Internet every week in 2013, according to a Broadcasting Board of Governors and Gallup poll. The poll also indicated that “one-third of the country’s mobile phone owners say they go online using their phone.” In the capital, Mogadishu, slightly more than half of the residents said they went online each week.

Besides, even though many within the country are still struggling with the vagaries of using these media handles, Hammond says that the return of many people from the diaspora to Somalia since 2012, and their desire to share their experiences of living in Somalia, fuels the conversation on social media.

Many of the people from the diaspora, she says, “are interested in sharing different images of Somalia than those found in the Western-dominated press, or put forward by humanitarian organizations, of Somalia being in a state of constant crisis.”

Hashtag Activism

So far, the most important conversations about Somalia is taking place on Twitter. And the first thread of that conversation started in 2011, when a record famine hit the country. Back then, Somalis in the diaspora rallied to collect aid money for the millions of drought-struck Somalis. Hashtags like #FeedSomalia trended on Twitter, and became a rallying point for celebrities, aid organizations and the international community to join in the campaign.

The conversation was also amplified during the Somali presidential elections in September 2012, when the country’s first elections in 40 years were held in the capital, Mogadishu. Since then, the Somali population has been able to hold the government accountable by using hashtags such as #YouKnowHeIsSomaliMP or #OnlyInSomalia or #MyKindOfGovernment. As a result, the political process has had the veneer of being more participatory and democratic than ever before.

“Social media has a strong transformative power,” Hammond says. “And the politicians and people charged with serving the public interest must be answerable to the citizenry in a different way now that they know that they are being watched through social media.”

More recently, as the Kenyan government detained ethnic Somalis in Nairobi in the excuse of weeding out terrorists, many took to Twitter to protest the inhumane treatment of the detainees at the Kasarani Stadium. Using the #KasaraniConcentrationCamp hashtag, Somalis in Kenya, Somalia and the larger diaspora criticized the police raids in Somali-dominated neighborhoods like Eastleigh.

“It was more than just a mere online protest,” Moulid says, “but [the] ability to challenge a state-sponsored campaign of intimidation and violence meted out on a single ethnic group.”

But the most important social campaign carried by Somalis was to mobilize large banks not cut support to the Somali money transfer services famously known as hawalas. The campaign’s petition drew signatures from over 100,000 people and got famous figures like Mo Farah to raise awareness about the issue. In this case, the larger money institutions like Barclays decided to close the money transfer services’ accounts for fear that they would inadvertently violate regulations and possibly let money get into the hands of money launderers or terrorists.

“I think that the Somali diaspora’s use of social media to raise awareness and support for the money transfer crisis in 2013-14 has been their biggest success,” Hammond says.

Tool for storytelling

Social media has also been used as a tool for storytelling and for launching creative projects. One such initiative is the “Somali Sideways” project started by Mohamed Mohamud. The project, now in its sixth month, features photos of Somalis from all over the world standing to their sides, sharing intimate stories about their childhood, careers, migration and what the loss of their nation has taught them about the world. Mohamud, a resident of London, says the first photo was taken by chance, after which the photo project gained popularity, with people sending their photos from across the world.

The project, he says, creates a sense of solidarity and helps connect the unique experiences of Somalis all over the world.

“I’ve learned that Somalis are very supportive towards the people I post on Somali Sideways: expressing encouraging words, making supplications and telling them you are not alone,” Mohamud said via email. “I felt that was very heartwarming to witness and it helps bring people together which is lovely to see.”

This type of connection, says Abdirashid Hashi, the deputy director of the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies, is the only way for Somalis both within the country and in the diaspora to stay connected to all things Somalia. And it will keep growing as “socially conscious, media savvy and educated Somalis often join forces to push [for] issues of common interest.”

For now, as Zahra watermarks her photos, she hopes that, more than acknowledging her efforts, she will inspire many people to appreciate the beauty of Somalia.

“The most important thing I have learned since I started taking photos is that I recognized my ability to do some good things for my country,” she said from her home in Mogadishu. “At least I take part in changing the appalling image which the world has always portrayed us in.”

Abdi Latif Dahir is a writer and editor for Sahan Journal. Follow him on Twitter @Lattif

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