On Hodan Nalayeh (1976 – 2019)
Hodan Nalayeh and I only met once. She was a guest speaker at an event that I was involved in to raise awareness about the increasing presence of anti-Somali rhetoric and activity in Kenya. Prior to that, we had been following each other on Twitter, periodically messaging to celebrate each other’s work and engagement with this complicated region. I knew who she was as soon as I saw her: she had an enormous, welcoming smile that I recognized from social media. She only needed a split second to put a face to the name before she hugged me like we had known each other forever.
Nalayeh was the founder of Integration TV, a YouTube channel that highlights positive stories about Somalia and the diaspora – victims of a nearly 30-year civil war that has displaced one million internally and forced two million to leave. Nalayeh was Canadian as a consequence of the war: her refugee family fled and settled in Ontario in the 1990s. Although she grew up with the image of Somalia as a dangerous place, she sensed – through encounters with other migrants and refugees – that there was something more to the Somali story; she set up Integration TV not to sanitize the war, but to ‘change the narrative’ of Somalis as just victims.
I use the past tense because, on Friday 12 July 2019, al-Shabaab militants killed a heavily pregnant Nalayeh and her husband during an attack on a hotel in the Somali town of Kismayo. At least 26 people died. Today, the war in Somalia is synonymous not with a conflict of ideologies but with well-armed young men paid by shadowy figures to create chaos for the sake of chaos in attacks such as this. There was no logic to Nalayeh’s killing – she was simply out enjoying a cup of tea – and it underscores the darker turn that the war has taken.
It is likely that Nalayeh and her husband were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The hotel where she was enjoying that cup of tea was also the site of a meeting by high-level politicians who were discussing upcoming elections. Negotiations are a distinct part of Somali elections in the region, and elders of various clans in Somalia, Kenya, Djibouti, Ethiopia – really wherever there is a substantial Somali community – often come together to narrow the electoral playing field before any votes are actually cast. In this context, the run-up to the regional elections in Jubaland, the Somali region bordering Kenya where the attack took place, is proving particularly tense.
Nalayeh’s killing has been a devastating blow to a generation that has been using their creativity to will Somalia out of chaos. She was one of the better known of a group of bloggers, writers, photographers, filmmakers, musicians and artists using creativity and social media to reclaim their complexity from a bog-standard narrative. These independent content creators and curators use social media to exist in the public sphere on their own terms.
By the time she moved to Kenya (she later returned to Somalia) Nalayeh had an international audience of thousands. It matters that her second-to-last post on Twitter was taken at the third Kismayo Book Fair, one of five book fairs that take place in Somalia and Somaliland every year despite the conflict. The stream of tributes toward Hodan Nalayeh, in the wake of her death, reflects the major impact that she had on how people saw and interpreted Somalia. May she rest in peace.
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