An aspiring entrepreneur Hodan Nalayeh felt Western media lacked nuance on Somalia and launched her own YouTube channel to counter oversimplified or exaggerated media coverage.
When Hodan Nalayeh was growing up she didn’t feel connected to her Somali culture and lamented the lack of a space where Somali culture, stories and art could be celebrated and find expression. INTEGRATION TV, Hodan’s brainchild, is a YouTube channel that emerged out of that cultural void many diasporic Somalis feel, with the aim of “connecting Somalis worldwide.”
With over 49,000 subscribers, her channel is gaining viewership, bringing in-depth, nuanced and compelling coverage to a community whose representation in the media doesn’t drift too far from unflattering and tragic discussions about war, famine, crime, terrorism or piracy.
“The idea initially started out as a TV show celebrating the success of Somali-Canadians” Hodan told me. “But as we found more stories, everything snowballed and my own journey of self-discovery ended up bringing millions of people with me”.
The problem goes back to the early 90s when the Somali government collapsed. Dramatic headlines which you might argue reflected the seriousness of the situation on the ground took over US and to a lesser extent global media.
Various studies have since unpacked the oversimplifications that characterised many of those reports. According to Professor Catherine Besteman they relied too heavily on “racist assumptions, anthropological models and a popular craving for simplicity,” which worked to boost America's self-image rather than accurately represent what was happening in Somalia.
Following the failure of Operation Restore Hope in December 1992, a US-led UN supported humanitarian intervention in Somalia, US media widely circulated images of people suffering from famine, and dead US troops being dragged through Mogadishu. This created a recurring association between Somalis and violence, which has largely endured to this day.
It also gave birth to the first Hollywood blockbuster about Somalia in 2001 called Black Hawk Down, a film about Operation Restore Hope. Made with the full cooperation of the US military, Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz would describe it as a “powerful film.” For many Somalis, however, the reception wasn’t so warm.
The film glorified US militarism and the apparently benign US mission to alleviate the suffering of the Somali people. It didn’t accurately attempt to raise awareness of the root causes of the violence or the crimes committed by US and UN forces against civilians.
Captain Phillips, a film about piracy off the Somali coast followed almost a decade and a half later. It had similar shortcomings such as a lack of context, and a stereotypical depiction of the Somali as violent, rough and savage. Both films relied on narrative arcs that coded the American characters as the benign victims of Somali bandits and vandals, bent on a congenital commitment to violence.
“At the time, I didn’t really understand the narrative in those films” Hodan says. “But when I became more conscious of the media, and the messages delivered about certain countries and certain cultures, it made me realize that movies like that can do so much damage.”
“That is the image people have of us today,” she continues. “A chaotic country, with pirates and maniacs and all the other negative images that came from those movies. Unfortunately, those messages have played a major role in shaping our narrative.”
“A lot was lost because of the civil war,” Hodan says pensively.
Prior to the civil war the early post-independence euphoria, slowly sobered when faced with the momentous task of creating a new country and society. Early governments attempted to tackle the task with mixed success before a military coup in 1969 brought Major General Mohamed Siad Barre to power soon after which Somalia adopted communism.
Development gathered a renewed impetus but as the Cold War drew to a conclusion, and Somalia’s economic situation worsened tensions began to rise.
External debt rose from 24 percent GDP in 1970 to 111 percent by 1980. A drought earlier in the 70s undermined food security as livestock died. And a war with neighbouring Ethiopia, provoked a refugee influx, in a country already struggling to manage domestic issues.
Her family like many other Somali families at the end of the 1980s and 1990s decided the country was no longer safe. Hodan says her father saw in advance that Barre’s military regime, weakened by the failed Ogaden War, and increasingly repressive domestically, wasn’t heading in a good direction.
In 1984 her father packed up and decided to move their family from the sunny shores of the Indian Ocean in Somalia to cold and snowy Canada. Her memory of resettling in Canada she says is a good one, as the numbers of people arriving in Canada were relatively small but as she adapted to her new surroundings another challenge emerged.
“We didn’t have any connection to our country or culture prior to the civil war anymore. That part of our lives became a chapter we closed the book on. Everything that we know about our country are the narratives that emerged after,” Hodan tells TRT World.
Films like Black Hawk Down, for me and likely many other Somalis was the first time we’d seen our former country and its bullet scarred capital city on TV in our lives. Born after the civil war many never knew or saw a peaceful Somalia, or its outstanding natural beauty.
“Some children definitely had hatred passed onto them, a kind of trauma that they inherited because of the war” she continues. “My father was so distraught by everything that happened in Somalia, that it took nearly 25 years to even properly talk about it”.
Many older Somalis today recall their good fortune of growing up in Mogadishu when it was peaceful. A vibrant city stroked by the warm crystal clear, pearl blue waters of the Indian Ocean, washing up on the shores of Lido and Jazeera’s golden beaches where children played until sunset.
“We lost control of our narratives and people started speaking about us and for us, and I didn’t like that. I wanted Somali people to be able to explore their heritage and what it means to them,” she says. “That’s why I chose to make INTEGRATION TV.”
INTEGRATION TV is an eclectic mix of a variety of different types of programs with Somali people, life and culture as the thread holding everything together.
A personal favourite was Hodan’s episode about #CadaanStudies which translates into #WhiteStudies, a hashtag launched to criticise the ways in which Somalis are excluded from knowledge production about themselves. The hashtag began in 2015 following the launch of the Somaliland Journal of African Studies without any Somali scholars or writers.
The problem spun out of control when German anthropologist Markus Hoehne responded to the hashtag by saying that Somali academics don’t exist. Of course they do, but Hodan engaged Safia Aidid, a Somali Studies scholar completing her PhD at Harvard University. She also gave Hoehne a platform in a later episode where he apologised.
From interviews with high-flying Somali rappers like K'naan, to discussions with Somali writers like Fartumo Kusow and Hanna Ali her show explores what it means to be Somali today, by visiting the community, its cities and people. Hodan also has shows on autism, parenting, business, inspiring stories of successful Somalis and even an interview with former Somali president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud in Istanbul.
The most viewed show on her channel is “Turkey in Somalia,” a segment on the relationship that emerged after the Turkish government chose to assist the reconstruction process in Somalia.
“I did my first documentary in Mogadishu in 2014,” Hodan says. “This was the first time many people around the world saw normal life in Mogadishu. They hadn’t seen scenes like that from the city since the civil war broke out.”
“People were surprised to see normal people, youngsters hanging out in the streets and at cafes because all the coverage of Mogadishu left out normal people and their experiences for so long.”
Her time in Somalia and the impressive things young people have been doing in the city also provoked an epiphany. She recalls a shoot she did with a Somali entrepreneur in Tanzania who owns the largest mall in Dar Es Salaam.
“I always used to think Somalis in the diaspora, particularly in North America lived such amazing lives till I met Somalis in other African countries and that made me realise the opportunities that exist for Somalis in Africa.”
“The most successful Somali people aren’t outside Africa in my opinion. They’re all scattered across the continent,” she tells TRT World.
The diaspora she says now finds itself in a more precarious position, as they are now settling in foreign countries, but are having to figure out who they are, and what their place in this world will be. This process has even been complicated for Hodan.
“I think my own story inspires people a lot, because I’m a single mother with two children and I went back to school before launching this channel,” she says. “A lot of young Somalis like the fact that I’m a hustler, that I grind and find my own stories. I’m an entrepreneur to the hard-core and I never back down from a challenge.”
“I didn’t do this because I wanted to become famous though, or to make money. I did this because as a mother I recognised how valuable identity and culture are, and I wanted to leave something like that for my children and other Somalis too.”
“It’s interesting,” she laughs, “a show that started about Somalis in Canada brought me all the way back to Africa.”
But she mainly takes pride in how her channel has reconnected so many people with their Somalinimo, or Somaliness.
“People inside Somalia and outside Somalia want to be connected and see better coverage of the community, which they know doesn’t reflect what they usually see on TV.”
This shouldn’t be a passive experience though, Hodan adds.
For many Somalis, she says, reconnecting with the past and coming to terms with what happened should always have a future-oriented mindset, focused on “how to create a better country for our children.” Changing perspectives is just the start.