Somalia’s next generation of storytellers

“Sheeko Sheeko” says the storyteller. The students respond: “Sheeko Xariir.”

And so the teacher began the story and students listened, reminiscent of the way Somali children have gathered around storytellers for centuries, ready to learn.

The call and response — “Sheeko” means “story” and “Xariir” means “tell us” — started this year’s Mogadishu Book Fair (MBF) with a nod to past cultural traditions and a reach to a promising future.

This was the fourth year of the Somali-driven campaign for literacy and learning supported by the United States Agency for International Development. As many as 2,000 people each day participated in the three-day event in the Waberi district of Mogadishu.

Teacher standing over a student's desk in a classroom (© Sebastain Rich/UNICEF)
A community teacher provides instruction to students in Somalia’s Gedo, Bay and Bakool regions under USAID’s Alternative Basic Education (ABE) project. (© Sebastian Rich/UNICEF)

“What is striking about the MBF is that its audience is young and part of a generation that has never known anything but conflict,” says U.S. Embassy Mogadishu Deputy Chief of Mission Brian Neubert. “The United States government supports Somali-led initiatives, like the MBF, launched by and for this generation to define themselves beyond conflict — to debate, collaborate and sustain Somalia’s new narrative and identity.”

Only 33% of Somali children ages 6 to 13 are enrolled in primary school, drastically below the 74% average of low-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Schooling opportunities tend to be available in more secure, urban areas, thus disadvantaging rural, poor students from accessing an education. Literacy is critical for building skills to obtain jobs, but also to build a sense of a Somali shared identity and purpose, vital for Somalia’s stability.

“With 3 million school-aged kids out of school, we need a collective effort and commitment to reach all of Somalia’s children,” says Brian Frantz, USAID deputy mission director in Somalia.

Storytelling as a communal bond

Two school children drawing on paper on the ground (© USAID/UNICEF)
Two children draw together inside the Mogadishu Book Fair storytelling tent. (@ USAID/UNICEF)

In the storytelling tent at the MBF, Somali children sit cross-legged, their faces full of amazement, as the Somali folktale “Dawaco Iyo Yaxaas” (The Fox and the Crocodile) comes to life with the beating of drums and the clapping of hands.

The children hear about a crocodile that lends her large tongue to a fox that refuses to return it because she wants to forever taste delicious foods. The crocodile learns that good deeds are not always rewarded. This folktale was printed under an education project USAID previously funded for dissemination in classrooms across Somalia.

A longer version of this article is available from USAID.