Rebuilding with books
Ahmed Dahir Elmi, the Director of Silanyo National Library in Somaliland first returned to Hargeisa in 2001, 13 years after he and his family left in 1988 during the civil war. He was delighted to find the country making great strides in rebuilding but noticed there was not a single library. Here Ahmed shares the inspiring story of how he went about setting up Somaliland’s very first national library.
Tell us a bit about you.
I come from Hargeisa in Somaliland. There was a civil war between 1988 and 1991. The whole country was destroyed. Every sector was affected. Most of the schools and hospitals were destroyed, too. Cities were deserted. The whole economy collapsed.
I came to the UK in 1990 as a young man. I worked as a youth worker after I finished my education in the UK. Then I started another job where I worked with secondary schools as a Home School Liaison Officer. Then I worked for Social Services. I was working with British schools and I saw so many libraries.
Is that what inspired you to start a library in Hargeisa?
Yes. I went back to Hargeisa for the first time in 2001. We had started rebuilding from scratch and have made a lot of progress – most of the schools had been rebuilt. The country had now universities, some hospitals, too. But we didn’t have a single library in the whole country except one which is small room – and reading is important.
Then in 2009, the Somaliland people who live in the UK elected me as the Chairman of the Somaliland Society in the UK. I said we should do something about our country and my first idea was a national library – to build the first library in Hargeisa, the city where I’m from.
Tell us about the library.
It’s in the middle of Hargeisa and opened in 2017. Now more than 4,000 people come to visit every month.
This library isn’t just for books and reading; it is a community hub, too.
We do so many different programmes because this is the first library for the whole city. We are not just a national library but a public library, too, because there is no public library. There is also no children’s library in the whole city, so, now we have established a children’s section. We do a reading club and a book club for the children – we want to create a reading culture. We also invite lecturers in to make speeches and share knowledge with the library users. University students come in too – this is the only place they can find good books and a place where they can study. And every day different schools visit us.
How has Book Aid International supported your work?
The first books donated for the library were from the Somaliland diaspora, but they were individual donations of their own reading books. But the first new and large scale book donations we had were donated by Book Aid International and they helped us a lot, especially with the children’s section. Without those books, we wouldn’t have had a children’s section. It’s fantastic that we are getting another shipment of books coming to help us expand it and also donate more books to schools.
What are your hopes for the future?
The future of Somaliland is very bright and there is a lot of development going on. So, we say NOW it’s time for Africa, especially East Africa and Somaliland is the gate to Africa. A lot of diaspora are coming back to rebuild their country, to establish their businesses and we are doing very well. Some people say Somaliland is an example for Africa in terms of how it has adopted a hybrid democracy and is a very stable country in a turbulent region –it’s the ‘best-kept secret in Africa’!
How do you think books can help Somaliland rebuild and pursue that bright future?
Education is important. Without books, you cannot learn anything. If you do not read, you cannot learn anything; you cannot get any knowledge. Reading books opens your eyes and broadens your knowledge. Reading is important in every culture, too.
What’s next for your library?
Now we have an established children’s section, we are planning to do a ‘camel library’ carrying children’s books. It will visit villages and towns to reach the young people outside the city who don’t have access to schools, who don’t have libraries at all and some of them maybe have never seen a book at all. So, allowing them to sit with a book and build that love of stories and learn how to read, maybe setting up a library in each village even would be very beneficial to the rural areas of Somaliland.
We are also planning to have a lecture hall in the library where adults and students can hold debates and discussions.
And we are encouraging every region and every city to build a library. Some of the regions have started and already completed. In Somaliland people copy each other – when you see a community or region doing a good thing, the other regions follow in their footsteps. It is a good thing and we want to do good things people can emulate.
Everybody who supports Book Aid International – the books and the money which you are donating is helping so many. Please continue to support this organisation, which is making a big difference for our country and other countries in Africa!