Who is the Somali diaspora?

This post is contributed by Maimuna Mohamud, a current graduate student at Oxford. Reflecting on the London Conference on Somalia of 23 February, 2012, and a follow-up seminar on reactions to the conference held by Dr. Laura Hammond of SOAS on 3 May, 2012, Maimuna shares her thoughts on the challenging role and definitions of the Somali diaspora.

From the perspective of a Somali-diasporan-young-woman, the London conference on Somalia was already a failure long before February 23rd.  Not only that I felt a general sense of pessimism, there were also initial sentiments of anger and frustration.  For some unknown reason, my state of ‘conference fatigue’, which has conveniently served me in the past, was replaced by an unprecedented desire to act.  So I resolved to do something—finally.  Armed with a hot latte, I sent urgent Facebook messages to my ‘comrades’ asking them to join me in a demonstration in London. Our mantra would surely be: NO MORE CONFERENCES.  Unfortunately, there were no replies.  My generation, except for two Bulgarian friends, was in a state of conference fatigue.

Yet, there was a glimpse of hope. Prior to the conference, a series of consultative meetings with the Somali diaspora were held as part of an initiative “to elicit their thoughts on the way forward for the country”, wrote Dr. Laura Hammond in an article for the Guardian.  At the 3 May seminar, Dr. Hammond also shared the reflection that the “level of consultation with diaspora was unprecedented.” But was this a remarkable shift, a departure from business-as-usual and conference politics often associated with Somalia?

I held my breath and waited.  As I followed the developments I recalled the role my father played in many previous conferences. Years ago, he would often travel to attend numerous meetings and conferences in Nairobi and Djibouti.  During the 1990s, our habitual residence in Cairo served as a location from which my father would patiently wait for the next conference to consult. To apply a classic scholarly definition of diasporas, he maintained imagined as well as material links with ‘the homeland’.

Surely, then, he was a diasporan who travelled to attend consultation meetings.  So, wasn’t he part of diaspora consultative processes? Diaspora interests and politics have always been represented and this informs a powerful discourse, which shapes processes and outcomes of these Somali conferences even today.  Befitting the theme of Dr. Hammond’s seminar, this represents continuity and not an innovation.

Despite this, I was still hopeful that February’s pre-conference meetings would formally recognize the diversity within the diaspora. A real engagement with non-traditional conference- goers would have served as a symbolic departure from the monopolization of the old and the elite, often with traditional Somali privileges and/or Western entitlements.  Non-Xamarawiis (non-Southerners), women, young women and men, and the so-called ‘minority’ groups were severely underrepresented at these meetings.

In this instance, I am reminded with the recent remarkable work of Dr. Hammond in which she examined the role of Somaliland diaspora in the 2010 Somaliland presidential elections.  Though she didn’t elaborate on her emerging work in her seminar presentation, Dr. Hammond’s contribution sets the tone for broader debates on the diversity within London’s wider Somali diasporas.

Yet, prevailing assumptions that the Somali diaspora is a cohesive category, in my opinion, has served a purpose.  I reckon that Somali diaspora communities have been homogenized, politicized and mobilized in order to legitimize the London Conference.  Oddly enough, reactions from the Muslim world also indicated a need to render London legitimate. The Imam of Al-Azhar sent an unprecedented message to the Somali “brothers and sisters” hailing the conference as well intentioned and that Cameron’s measures were in good faith.

Legitimacy and trust, Dr. Hammond suggested, are crucial for any action in Somalia—whether humanitarian or political, keeping in mind the convergences. I agree.  I propose to build on this thought.  Both in the ‘far’ and ‘near’ diasporic sites, Somalis will need to be re-imagined as diverse and complex groups of people; each with different agendas and aspirations.  We often ask, “what role does the diaspora play?” Let us contemplate the question, “who is the Somali diaspora?”

As a Somali-diasporan-young-woman, I aspire to have my complexities fully acknowledged—even if symbolically.  Perhaps this explains a diasporic sense of conference fatigue at a time when the dispora is increasingly seen as an important game changer for Somali regions’ future.

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Filed under London Conference on Somalia, Somali diaspora, Somalia

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