How a young Somali artist who left home as a child used comics as a medium to re-narrate Somali stories.
“Children and young people more generally love imaginary super heroes, and I appreciated that these super heroes come to life through them, but I asked myself once, what would a young Somali person need to see, know and learn through a Somali super hero”, says Mohamed Ahmed Sheikh.
A Minnesota based Somali poet, actor and writer, Sheikh is commonly known as Ahmed. He’s now completed what he calls the first Somali comic book written under the pen name M. Hajji Ahmed.
“Growing up I didn’t see many stories that could speak to my experience, and the experiences of other Somalis, so my ambition to enter acting, write poetry and create art in general comes from that,” 25-year-old Ahmed tells TRT World.
“I want to use this medium as a tool not only to entertain young Somali people, but also teach them about our culture, our history and religion and from our perspective which is something that isn’t widely available” he continues.
Ahmed was born in the southern city of Kismayo in the 90s in the midst a violent civil war that ravaged Somalia after Siad Barre’s military dictatorship collapsed in 1991. The country descended into civil war, an experience which had a big impact on him.
“I remember all the violence vividly” he said, “I saw dead bodies, and even recall an encounter between my grandma and a group of armed men, where I overheard her asking them not to kill her in front of the children.”
Kismayo was unsafe, and at the age of 10 he would move to South Africa where he lived for the next decade.
“I’ve been an immigrant, in exile basically for as long as I can remember,” he says.
But South Africa wasn’t exactly the safe haven he expected it to be. He moved to the country during a period when the Somali community was being persecuted by locals who would often destroy and loot Somali businesses and murder members of the Somali community.
“I don’t want to paint South Africa with one brush, as this evil place as it will always be home to me, but the government didn’t do enough to protect us.”
He eventually moved to Minnesota, where he pursued acting, taking a role in a Somali film called Siyaasada Maanta (Today’s Politics), and a role in a play called Muhsin at The Southern Theatre. This is where he began developing his ideas for his scripts. The stories in his comics and the characters almost mirror his experiences, and other Somalis who he hopes will be able to relate more to his work.
“I hadn’t really ever seen Somali heroes on TV, Somali action figures and so on. That made me aware of a space where my voice could have an impact and was needed,” he continues. “I drew what I had seen in my life together and told a story.”
He says he always liked comic books growing up as he was much more interested in visual expressions, which eventually persuaded him that the best way to get the attention of young people was to use this medium combined with narratives familiar to Somali people today.
His first comics are set in a fictionalised pre-modern Somalia, and weave in themes that Somalis around the world have become familiar with. Destruction, displacement, war but also the resilient struggle to rebuild and restart life, in the face of all that. The story is centered around Leylo and Bahdoon, two semi-mythical Somali heroes.
“Bahdoon, which literally means the one who was born away from home is one of the protagonists in my comic” says Ahmed. “His kingdom is destroyed, and though he escapes with his companion, a trusted lion, he begins a mission to re-unite and rebuild the world he knew.”
“In this mission, Bahdoon goes from village to village searching out like-minded people to engineer a revolution and put back together his broken kingdom.”=
Bahdoon lives in the same imagined universe as Leylo, the initial protagonist in this story whose village is also burnt down by rogue bandits.
“The story needed this character because when I’m told about Somali history, I hear about these heroic women, who took this important role in the anti-colonial movement like Hawo Taako,” Ahmed say
Somali women were always at the forefront of the anti-colonial struggle, and through Leylo, he fills those voids in our knowledge, and re-normalises their presence through fictive characters. Leylo, herself a competent warrior is denied the opportunity to fight, before her father intervenes and allows her to take part in restoring peace to their world.
“Women lose just as much as men during war, a problem I saw with my own two eyes, so through Leylo I want to show that, but also raise awareness about the taboos of including them in the struggle to rebuild” he continues.
This conversation is current as Somali women from Muna Ahmed Omer who initiated the hashtag JamhuuriyaddaRagga (which translates into The Men’s Republic), to Halimo Omar are raising awareness of the lack of representation of Somali women in Somali politics.
The stories of his characters he says are a metaphor to remind people of the struggle that Somalis went through to acquire their independence from colonial rule. “I want to remind people through this story, that the blue flag wasn’t raised overnight, a fight preceded it and people gave everything to that struggle even their lives and inspire people today through that.”
“Art has a power which is often under-estimated, it’s an amazing tool and we can use it to reframe our experiences and tell our stories in a different way” Ahmed says.
Ahmed is currently developing another comic with some anticipation in his tone. The next series, The Guard is a sci-fi series based in a futuristic, sky-scrapper laden Mogadishu in 2045.
“Xamar (a common nickname for Mogadishu) has healed from its trauma in this story and has really taken off.”
This story has two protagonists, a young man called Aweys, and his guide Erasto. Aweys has the twin abilities to read minds, and move things with his mind, which for Ahmed is an expression of the capacity of the mind to bring worlds into being.
“We should imagine the future because if we don’t we will continue the cycle of the present and the past” he says.
This work is a substrate of the now much more popular genre Afrofuturism in the wake of the much-acclaimed movie Black Panther. Similar to other work in this genre, Ahmed marshals his broad imagination, to design a different kind of future for Somalia and Somalis and shows us that in this comic.
“I’m talking here about characters and protagonists with the name Abdi, Leyla, Khadar, Mohammed and so on, do you get the picture.”