For the past two decades, Somalia’s shredded and shell-shocked capital of Mogadishu has shown the world little more than recycled failures. Bad ideas, policies, and governments replaced by worse ones. Unmitigated piracy on its high seas, brutal civil war and tribal divisions, a governance system that has become almost synonymous with anarchy, Islamic extremists, kidnappings, and humanitarian catastrophes.
Most people would assume that one of the most dangerous places on earth, where both man and nature’s worst elements have destroyed and demoralized the population, would be a hopeless place to scour for good “ideas worth spreading.” But an independent group of Somalis see things differently.
Today, the TEDxMogadishu conference with the theme of "rebirth," aims to showcase the brighter side of Somalia.
An offshoot of TED – the global conference that holds powerful, inspiring, and “riveting talks” by the worlds most remarkable people, from former presidents to Nobel Prize winners – TEDx’s are independently organized conferences that stimulate dialogue and bring “TED-like experiences” to the local level. While they have been held in places from Baghdad to Bogotá, Harare to Hanoi, Mogadishu is perhaps the most daring – and risky.
Wave of optimism
“Rebirth” rides on the heels of a budding wave of optimism that the city is turning around, undergoing its own bizarre renaissance.
The Al Qaeda-linked terrorist network Al Shabab vanished from the capital city, the African Union’s 17,000 troops have brought a level of peace and security that was once unimaginable – helping expand the control of the Transitional Federal Government to more than just a city block – and the city is reveling in its longest period of sustained peace since 1991. Even Turkish Airlines has opened up direct flights to Mogadishu’s Aden Adde International Airport.
There’s no doubt the city is improving, and thousands of Somalis are returning home to open businesses, invest, and move their country forward.
Yet given Somalia’s unpredictability, any optimism must be measured. There hasn’t been a functioning government in decades, and things can change quickly. The day after The New York Times published a feature chronicling a “Taste of Hope in Somalia’s Battered Capital,” the newly reopened National Theater was attacked by a suicide bomber, killing 10, wounding dozens, and delivering a significant emotional blow to the city’s “rebirthing.”
While TEDx is being held in a secure location in Mogadishu at an address given only to participants, it is also being live streamed on the Web.
The conference is hosting a wide range of speakers from Mogadishu’s “higher society” – a chef, real estate developer, university founder, camel farmer, healthcare specialist, and journalist, are among those offering 15-minute talks in hopes of inspiring a nation. The only voices missing are perhaps the ones who control the throttle on the rest of society: pirates, politicians, extremists, and warlords, who often one and the same.
The organizers, like Liban Egal, a Somali emigrant to America who recently returned to found the First Somali Bank, the first commercial bank in the city since the country spiraled into chaos 21 years ago, are energized. “Just having this event is a success, no matter how the speakers or the audience turns out,” he says in an interview with the Monitor.
Clash of civilizations
Yet it’s hard to ignore the evident clash of civilizations. While TEDx exemplifies and promotes a world of optimism, embracing the limitless possibilities of technology, innovation, and inspiration to improve our world, one can only note that these things have been seemingly absent in Somalia.
For many Somalis, optimism is hoping there’s enough food to feed your family. There is barely enough infrastructure to power much in the way of technological advancements, and innovation is typically not a venture-backed effort to improve society, but a crudely hacked necessity to survive.
In fact, given the longstanding absence of a central bank, Mogadishu’s booming black market economy is probably the greatest sea of innovation in the country. But it’s likely you won’t find those innovators giving a TED Talk.
When explaining TEDxMogadishu, Liban says “surprise” is the most common response he receives. Somalia has offered the world no shortage of “surprises” over the years, yet more often then not they haven’t been pleasant ones. TEDx’s arrival in town – simply the fact that it can happen – shows that perhaps a “Rebirth” isn’t as far fetched as it may seem, and the tides may really, finally, be ebbing in Somalia’s favor.