A nation of poets

Young Somalis turn to age-old art form to build peace

July 2, 2024
Woman reaching for a book

Zahra Abdihagi uses poetry to change the narrative of 'violence and chaos' surrounding Somalia by sharing positive stories.

Photo: UNDP Somalia/Said Musse

Zahra Abdihagi is an emerging Somali poet and a storyteller. She leads a team of 30 young Somali storytellers who were trained in digital skills with the support of UNDP to generate powerful stories about peace, reconciliation and development initiatives in their communities. She and her team represent the new generation who have found meaning and are passionate about reviving the rich oral traditions of their culture, long buried under the rubble of inter-clan conflict. And with digital tools, the ancient Somali art gets a touch of modernity. 

Zahra’s interest in poetry began early on, but she realized the power more when she started performing poetry in Mogadishu. Her first public poetry was about women in mine action in Somalia at a function organized by the United Nations. Her interest in Somali poetry, music and storytelling grew deeper in the post-conflict years following the transitional government set up in Mogadishu, when many Somalis started returning home to reconnect with their community. In this interview, Zahra shares insights into her creative process, her partnership with UNDP, and how she and her friends are harnessing the power of poetry and storytelling in promoting peace and reconciliation. 

Can you share your journey into poetry?

Poetry has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. As a young girl, I was captivated by the rich oral tradition of my culture and I found myself drawn deeper into this art form, using it as a way to express my thoughts, emotions, and experiences.

What inspired you to start poetry and storytelling?

Somalia is a nation of poets, and this is what truly inspired me. The Somali people have long used poetry and storytelling as a way to preserve their history and convey their values. It is a tradition that has endured through times of war, displacement and conflict.

Tell us something about why poetry and stories are deeply connected to Somali culture?

Poetry and storytelling are deeply woven into the cultural fabric of Somalia. They are not just forms of artistic expression, but rather a means of passing down knowledge and preserving cultural identity.

Can you describe some of the interesting works you are doing with UNDP? 

Somali Storytellers have collaborated with UNDP on numerous projects and videos like the school for the blind in Hargeisa, The Salahley Dam and the MPI Documentary in Somalia. The very founding of our Somali Storytellers groups and its campaign to use poetry to build peace is liked closely to UNDP Somalia. We established this group with the support of UNDP during a national storytelling workshop in Mogadishu, where participants gathered from across the country. We have now become well-known trainers on digital storytelling.

How do you believe poetry can be used as a vehicle for peace and reconciliation?

Poetry has the power to connect people on a deep, emotional level. It provides a safe and expressive outlet for people to process their trauma, share their stories, and work towards forgiveness and understanding.

Can you share specific examples or experiences where poetry and storytelling have had a tangible impact on promoting peace?

In the past, our elders used poetry to resolve clan conflicts. Each clan had a poet who would engage in a verbal battle with the poet from the opposing clan. The clan with the best poetry would be considered the winner, and afterward, they would shake hands and make reconciliation, bringing peace between the clans.

What themes do you focus on in your poetry and storytelling that align with the goals of peace and reconciliation?

Much of my poetry and storytelling work centers around themes of peacebuilding, resilience and hope. I aim to highlight the shared experiences and aspirations of the Somali people, while also exploring the complex realities of conflict, displacement, and the challenges of rebuilding. I hope to inspire Somalis to come together, heal, and work towards a more just and peaceful society.

How do you approach writing about sensitive topics like conflict and social justice?

When addressing sensitive topics like conflict and social justice, I use digital storytelling, the arts and poetry to address these issues, as it as a soft approach to the situation and it’s more effective.

Who is your primary audience, and how do they react to your work?

My primary audience is the Somali people, particularly the young people who are shaping the future of our nation. I'm deeply encouraged by the way they've responded to my poetry and storytelling work, often expressing a sense of pride and inspiration.

Woman with phone

Zahra Abdihagi leads a team of 20 young Somali storytellers who were trained by UNDP on digital skills to generate powerful stories about development initiatives in their local communities

Photo: UNDP Somalia/Said Musse
How important is it for peace builders and leaders to engage with the community through poetry and stories?

I believe it is absolutely essential for peace builders and leaders to engage with their communities through poetry, storytelling, and other forms of cultural expression. Poetry and storytelling bring people together, and it would be to their own advantage to use entertaining ways to engage with their communities instead of using a direct approach which can often lead to failure.

What advice would you give to young poets who want to use their work for social change?

Stay true to your authentic voice and experiences. Don't be afraid to tackle difficult, complex issues, but do so with compassion and a deep respect for the humanity in all people. Remember that your poetry has the power to inspire, to heal, and to bring people together, so use that power wisely.

Looking back on your collaborations with UNDP, what are you most proud of?

I am most proud of our digital storytelling workshop with UNDP. We received over 400 applicants from across the nation, all dedicated to finding their voice and contributing to our community by creating stories that drive impact and change. We have trained 35 new storytellers and aim to train more in the upcoming years.

How do you hope to continue contributing to these efforts through your art?

My goal is to continue expanding the reach and impact of my poetry and storytelling work, both within Somalia and on the global stage.