Explainer: How Somalia Theatre has Thrived Through its 30 Year Civil War

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Built in 1967 as a gift from Chinese then-leader Mao Zedong, the Somalia National Theatre was meant to be a key driver for Somalia’s cultural development in the 1970s and 80s: but things changed with the start of the civil war in 1991. The theatre was closed and reappropriated as a war base. It was reopened in 2012 after repairs carried out by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) but was immediately blown up by al-Shabab militants who considered live entertainment and films morally corrupt.

Although the theatre has been destroyed many times, the Somalis never lose hope that one day it will be rebuilt and safe so they can go there without fear and be entertained. This belief is encapsulated by the eagerness to restore it whenever its the subject of terrorism. In 2012, the Somali National Theatre in Mogadishu re-opened its doors for the first time in 20 years after ordinary citizens and local businesses partnered with the first transitional federal government to raise funds required to restore the theatre.

The Somalis love the theatre because its stage has been where most social issues have been deliberated on. Taboos have been tackled and have continued to play a crucial role in initiating peace talks and promoting social healing. The theatre holds a treasure for Somalis, poetry because poetry symbolizes immense national and linguistic pride, and this theatre has helped preserve that.

In 2019, according to Farah Omer, the Somali National Theatre attempted a reconstruction; large crowds once again gathered to see if they do their part and build to entertain themselves despite the terror they and their city are frequently subjected to. The persistence of theatre and poetry to govern the daily conversations of wounded people shows faith in the theatre, the resilience of the Somali people and the unwavering democratic spirit within them.

This September 2021, Two short film screenings by Somali director Ibrahim CM drew hungry audiences back to the theatre like they did when the theatre first opened years ago. Although there was a heavy security presence because of the country’s security condition, the screening was welcomed with the excited claps and chatter of the crowd.

This short film is Somalia’s first public film screening in 30 years, raising hopes of a cultural revival in the war-ravaged country.

Theatre director Abdikadir Abdi Yusuf tells BBC it was a “historic night for the Somali people”.

“It shows how hopes have been revived… after so many years of challenges,” he told the AFP news agency.

“It’s a platform that provides an opportunity to… Somali songwriters, storytellers, movie directors and actors present their talent openly,” he added.

This theatre is a place of healing and succor for a country that has been traumatized by long years of war.

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