EDITORIAL: Three cheers on recovery of the National theatre, but don’t grab popcorn yet

Somalia hosted its first film screening in 30 years, raising hopes for a cultural renewal in the country [Photo: AFP]

EDITORIAL | Somalia has this week celebrated an important event in its cultural journey: The National theatre screened a film to the public for the first time in three decades. This is an important milestone, for those who aren’t aware that only a few years ago, it was a no-go zone.

For Somalia, the gathering at the National Theatre reflected the journey the country has made, both in its security scene and the rediscovery of talent. The Theatre’s building was renovated, of course on donor’s funding, erasing the scenery of bullet-riddled walls and shells that wounded the iconic structure over the years. In fact, at one time, the National Theatre was the hideout for warlords. To be fair, the entire Mogadishu was a broken city, fallen among warlords.

It is no wonder that Abdikadir Abdi Yusuf, the Director of the National Theatre admitted Somalis’ hopes had been revived. The ceremony, he argued, signaled new opportunities for Somalia’s performance artists; singers, thespians, poets, dancers, and film actors.

Built by the Chinese in the 60s, as a ‘gift’ from Chairman Mao Zedong, it had outlasted many of the Somali politicians. It just appeared to have run out of attraction as many talented Somalis either died in the war or were displaced by its violence. It had reopened briefly in 2012 but al-Shabaab militants forced its closure with a string of shelling on it.

Yet the opening of the National Theatre was also full of warning signs for what we haven’t done. The guests attending the screening of two films were under a heavy security guard. Of course, Mogadishu, being one of the most troubled cities in Africa, has always had heavy guards in most facilities. Perhaps this was an indicator that al-Shabaab liked targeting gatherings so no chance had to be left.

But it signaled that unless Somalia’s leaders face insecurity as one, events such as the harmless screening of films will continue to be a matter of life and death. In the past, attending plays or films in the theatre was a pastime activity for Somalis. It rebuilt their cultural connection and created ties among film lovers and filmgoers.

In the current situation, it is difficult to gauge whether people can attend shows without looking over their shoulders. And as long as we continue to face gaps in our laws and fail to rebuild institutions, even the National Theatre will fail to put smiles back on Somalis’ faces.

On other days, the National Theatre can be a good weapon against al-Shabaab. If it offers those opportunities, it can dissuade the youth from joining the terrorist group. Somalia’s politicians often admit that more than 80 percent of those who join al-Shabaab are disgruntled youth who feel they are marginalized and left to suffer their poverty. They feel a distance from their leaders and have built no reconnection to serve their country under their leadership.

This is why it would be premature for Somalis to grab popcorn now. The National Theatre is a good project that can deliver many out of squalor and be the center for Somalia’s cultural renewal. But it is going to take more than just a reopening of the building.


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