After more than 60 years of analogue storage in an inadequate environment, the Radio Mogadishu audio archive is being digitized in order to save it from deterioration and introduce the unique Somali historical recordings to new audience.
Colonel Abshir Hashi Ali has a long day ahead, he moves as fast as his old legs can carry him, as he carries the weight of Somalia’s history on his shoulders. Tucked in a little corner behind the Somali Ministry of information, lies Somalia’s hidden treasure, the archives of Radio Mogadishu and what’s left of the country’s oral history.
The dark room contains thousands of reels with folk songs, political speeches, drama, poetry and religious programs that were saved from various clan militias who took control of areas of the city after the ousting of then Somali president Siad Barre in 1991.
As the country plunged into civil war, there were various attempts to destroy the archives and loot its contents. It was during this time that Col. Ali, then a Police officer decided to protect the archives with his life and save Somalia’s history.
“There were attempts to take the keys from me and once a man came with the a grenade and removed the pin,” said Col. Abshir Hasshi Ali, the archive manager
“but I held on to the man and said we will die together if you try to destroy the archives. So he left without blowing the place up.”
The national radio archive was established with the radio station in 1951 and estimated to have about 35,000 reels in its collection, most of which survived an American bombardment in 1993, as they chased down warlords in the city. The bombardment destroyed almost all of the foreign language section of the archive but the Somali section was not hit. The archive and radio station was also a target for the Al Qaeda linked group al Shabaab when they controlled Mogadishu. They banned the listening of music and often-fired mortars into the station to silence it.
“The thought to protect the archives come out of the hope that someday Somalis will be united and be able to appreciate this.” Added Col. Abshir Hasshi Ali.
Although the archive survived the two decade long civil war, it is still in danger. Cramped up in the small room, some of the quarter inch tapes have been destroyed due to humidity and poor storage. But now, with the support of the AU/UN Information Support Team, French Government and other International partners, the ministry of information of the Federal Government of Somalia is digitizing the vast archive of tapes to preserve them, and make the recordings available to a modern audience, a generation that do not remember how vibrant Somalia was prior to the war.
The archive has material from Somalia’s independence, as well as speeches from the African Union Summit in Mogadishu in 1974 among others.
“We have always discussed the idea of expediting the digitization and just the fact that the government is very keen to complete this task,” says Abdullahi Elmoge Hersi, the Somali Minister of Information, Post, Telecommunication and Transport.
Although the digitization process is underway, there is still has a long way to go, but Col. Ali and his team are up to the task. While the process is cumbersome with each reel taking up to two to three hours to process, Ali says that their efforts will leave its mark in the history of their country.
“I know that all Somali youth no matter where they are love the arts, they love to listen to music. Most of them like this modern type of music, which is electronic while other people like to listen to the old music. We have both,” says Col. Ali “so I would like to urge them not to let go of the music and the culture and the identity of the Somalis and also to keep coming up with new works.”
This digitization is being carried out using six digitization units, which will be installed in the newly allocated digitalization room at Radio Mogadishu. The playback units are hard to source and radio Mogadishu is looking for more machines in order to increase the digitization capacity and soon have Somalis across the world plug into their oral roots and a history almost lost.