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Sunday 14 July 2024

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Taming the buzz: Hargeisans and telecommunication

1 July, 2024
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Broadband
Broadband internet access to homes and businesses in tribal areas is lower than elsewhere in the country, where the density of customers makes broadband service a more attractive business proposition. (Photo by Theophilos Papadopoulous/Creative Commons)
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Somalis, with their ingrained love for communication, have eagerly embraced each new device to facilitate it, transforming it into an extension of their vibrant culture

The oral nature of Somali society has elevated the importance of communication to a level almost as vital as water and air. Consequently, Somalis are acutely attuned to receiving and giving information. Since the advent of the radio, communication technology has held a more central place in Somali life than any other. I will briefly explore my observations on how people in Hargeisa have reacted to and interacted with different kinds of telecommunication technology, from my earliest memories of radiophones and landline centres, through the initial awe of mobile phones and then to the social media revolution.

The Raucous legacy of radiophones and substations  1990S – Early 2000S

Some of my earliest memories involve the noisy, chaotic centres for radiotelephones, known locally as Fooniye or Taar. These centres resembled scenes from war films on MBC2, with young men pressing buttons and shouting into wired walkie-talkies. Although my experiences coincide with the final days of these centres, I was later informed about how they operated. Radio calls were routed from one centre to another based on the client’s request. The receiving centre would then be tasked with finding a specific person and arranging a call. People from rural and remote areas often came to these RT (radiotelephony) centres to make calls, sometimes waiting longer than planned if the person they sought wasn't easily found.

Eventually, small landline centres, locally called substations, began to spread rapidly throughout the city. These substations were a stark contrast to the RT centres. Clean and relatively well-furnished, they boasted a few working telephones and several non-functional ones, creating the illusion of being well-equipped. Privacy was offered through small soundproof booths. Started by young men with experience in the Fooniye business, these substations gradually replaced the older RT centres. However, radiophones remained active until the mid-2000s due to their affordability, catering primarily to less wealthy callers.

A tiny buzzing thing early 2000s - 2010

The arrival of mobile phones dealt a death blow to the era of radiophones and threatened the dominance of substations. The first mobile phone to make appearance was the brick like and black device which,  with its antenna spearing up its top, resembled a real walkie talkie, locally known as MADOOBE DHEER, it did not last long before being replaced by the The Nokia 3310 by the early 2000s. This later, adorned with green or grey wavy lines, exuded a mesmerising sophistication for its size. My father owned one, and I vividly remember watching it vibrate on the drawer. Its movement seemed almost animate, a foreign entity pulsing with life. We were oblivious to the potential caller on the other end, captivated by the sheer novelty.

This felt like a miracle, imbued with a sense of the sacred, giving me a sense of what British science fiction author, Arthur C. Clarke meant when he said any “sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” And, as with anything sacred, it only required a curious hand to bring it down to the realm of the mechanical. Enter the rebels of the majlis (chewing sessions), who, dissatisfied with the preloaded foreign melodies, embarked on a mission to manipulate the system and adapt it to resemble the local culture in any way possible. They achieved this by rearranging the notes into local and familiar melodies, like those from famous Qasiidos and Qaraam songs. This tendency of Hargeisans to adapt foreign technology to their cultural context before indulging in its use seems to be a recurrent theme in how they approach foreign technologies as a whole.

Later on, in the late 2000s and the beginning of 2010s, the introduction of phones with memory cards caused some hesitation. However, among those who embraced these advancements and purchased these devices, there was a noticeable trend of immediately filling them with Quranic recitations. This, I believe, could be interpreted as a compensatory act, reflecting an attempt to balance the embrace of such progressive technology with a conservationist approach (another recurring theme). However, an unforeseen issue arose: phones with Quranic ringtones ringing in the restroom, where reciting scripture is forbidden, sparked debate during fatwa sessions. Some argued for “the corn tree in the acorn,” questioning the validity of owning such phones altogether, given that one can carry them anywhere while there is a Quran stored in them. Thankfully, the counter-argument, which compared memory cards with men who know the Quran by heart, prevailed and saved the memory cards from the clutches of mayhem.

Interestingly, it is worth mentioning how merchants back then, as if aware of this need for localisation, began requesting and bringing in phones with pre-loaded start-up tones that reflected trending local sounds. This, one could say, led to the total openness of Hargeisans towards purchasing and using these more advanced mobile phones.

Social media 2008 - present

From 2008 onwards, with the influx of affordable Chinese phones, the internet, once confined to elite cafes, became accessible to all. Facebook emerged and remains a dominant platform. Here, once again, I observed the recurring act of balancing openness with reservation. From the moment people signed up, they flooded their profiles with religious calligraphy, verses, and declarations of “needing Allah in their lives.” This often still resides in the work section of many Hargeisan and Somali users’ profiles, highlighting the complex negotiation between faith and online identity. This pattern repeated with other platforms as well: initial hesitancy followed by a wave of adoption fuelled by the desire to localize and participate.

TikTok and cyber clannism 

One might speculate that social media fosters individualism, but the reality in Somaliland appears to be the opposite. It seems traditional clannism has simply been digitised, its dynamics projected onto the cyber realm. Technologies are always localised in strange ways but TikTok has amplified the worst excesses of Somali culture. Firstly, hostile exchanges between TikTokers representing different clans are escalating, sometimes with tragic consequences. Secondly, TikTok “battles” where creators compete for views and gifts, see their audiences swell when they invoke clan loyalty, effectively transforming the competition into a battle between clans. Thirdly, the need for raw talent is diminishing, as clan loyalty translates online, with subclans and entire clans rallying behind their own to inflate follower counts. Even in the digital sphere, elections seem to be mirroring real life, with users following creators based solely on clan affiliation. 

Redefining work and the new cool 

As it is globally, the monetisation of content on platforms like YouTube and TikTok has sparked a generational shift in perceptions of work and success. Witnessing influencers achieve a seemingly comfortable life without traditional jobs creates a powerful allure, but also traps unrealistic expectations. This desperation for views can lead users to engage in self-harm or exploit others. Furthermore, Somali creators face the additional hurdle of being excluded from monetisation programmes due to regional restrictions.

The pursuit of online fame extends beyond monetisation for many. Even those with no financial interest become captivated by online popularity, a coveted status in Somali society. This fuels the rise of a new paparazzi culture, one that idolises online influencers and compels young people to chase fleeting internet fame and imitate the “cool” personas they see online, regardless of the consequences.

In conclusion 

Witnessing Hargeisa's journey through these technological leaps has been like watching a familiar melody remixed with a modern beat. Somalis, with their ingrained love for communication, have eagerly embraced each new device, transforming it into an extension of their vibrant culture. From the Fooniye centres echoing with clan greetings to personalised ringtones pulsating with Qaraami melodies, the act of localisation has been chaotic and unpredictable.

However, social media presents a unique challenge. While it fosters connections across the diaspora, it can also exacerbate existing clan tensions. The TikTok battles feel like a jarring echo of age-old rivalries, transposed onto the digital stage. Yet, amidst these concerns, there is a sense of hope. The entrepreneurial spirit that hums through Hargeisa’s streets is finding new expressions online. Young people, captivated by the allure of online fame, are brimming with creativity. Perhaps, with time, they will find ways to navigate the complexities of the digital world, weaving their stories and talents into the ever-evolving tapestry of Somali culture.

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