I wrote a book.
I’ve actually written many books, from the cloth-covered book about animals running a race I wrote in elementary school, to the several novels that are completed and gathering dust on my hard drives (for very good reasons!), to my self-published books the Djiboutilicious cookbook, Finding Home, and two editions of Welcome to Djibouti.
This coming book has been the work of my heart for almost five years. It is the biography of Annalena Tonelli, a woman who faced disease, terrorism, massacres, lonely isolation, and chose love over fear.
“People would call her a doctor, a missionary, and a nun. And they would call her a saint… Should Annalena be made into a saint? That was how I thought of her, at first. I only knew the high points in Annalena’s life. I knew nothing of the dark valleys, her secret and controversial compromise. I knew she had accomplished something remarkable, something about tuberculosis but also about love and faith…”
It is the product of collaboration with Matt Erickson, so many people I interviewed all over the world, those I followed and pestered, and the Plough Publishing team.
A few months ago I shared the book cover in my Stories from the Horn newsletter.
Now, I want to share the cover here, too.
You may have already seen it, if you’ve visited the Plough, Indiebound, or Amazon, but let’s make this the formal “cover reveal”.
Are cover reveal parties a thing? Like for pregnant moms and gender reveal parties? I feel like they should be, with balloons and a cake a fireworks. Well…oh well.
There is so much I want to tell you about the book, like who endorsed it and some behind the scenes stuff. Like how I’ve been changed through this project. Like how it feels to write a book while dealing with cancer. Like all the ways this book connects to current issues from Ebola to cross cultural relationships and humanitarian aid, to conquering fear and talking about race and faith. I love the way this woman turns these conversations upside down in surprising, even shocking ways.
But for now, here’s the cover! No drama, no explosions, no band playing in the background. Just me and my excited little heart.
(Number 1 new release in Kenyan History!)
You can preorder it here
What could be stronger than death? Only a love bigger than fear and bigger than hate. We need this message more than ever.
Quick link: The Most Unlikely Marathoners
*photo by Mustafa Said
HARGEISA, SOMALILAND— A cement wall topped with barbed wire surrounds the soccer field where girls gather once a week to play. Boys climb trees or scramble up the wall to peer inside and armed guards chase them away. Here, girls can run.
Across town is a basketball court, not quite regulation-size, also inside a protective wall with a locked front gate. About a dozen girls, most of whom have never played basketball before, are learning ball-handling skills and how to shoot. Here, too, girls can run.
A women-only fitness center downtown has treadmills, but most girls can’t afford the time or money to join, and the hours are limited. For those who can run here, the treadmills are wired to shut down after 15 minutes, to protect the women from injuring themselves.
Female Somali athletes have yet to make any kind of splash in the international running scene. Mo Farah, a Somalia-born Brit, is a four-time Olympic gold medalist and the most well-known Somali runner. Ayanleh Souleiman, a Somali from Djibouti, is one of the best active middle-distance runner in the world. Mumin Guelleh, another Somali Djiboutian, placed 12th in his first-ever marathon at the Rio Olympics.
But the most famous Somali runner on the women’s side is probably Samia Yusuf Omar, who is known more for her death than for her life. She competed in the 400 meters in the 2008 Olympics then, in 2012, worked her way from Mogadishu to Djibouti, then across northern Africa. She boarded a boat, hoping to reach Europe and a life where she could live without fear of being shot by terrorists. On the way, the boat capsized and Samia drowned. She was 21 years old…”
How the heck do writers get people to care about other parts of the world?
Editors often tell me (in my many rejection letters) that North Americans don’t care about the Horn of Africa.
Unless I can come up with a salacious or titillating angle (both intriguing words), why would a reader in, say, Minnesota, care about Djiboutian girls making bead jewelry? Maybe they like working their hands to create beautiful things. Maybe they are serving their families by earning extra income, maybe they are developing math, business, negotiation, marketing, and general work ethic skills, maybe they are forming a beautiful community.
Clearly, I do. And clearly, I hope you do. But writing about community, creativity, and beauty isn’t click-bait the way other things are.
Stories of hope and joy out of a far away region and culture, struggle to capture the attention of a general reader.
This is why Syrians are crying out for people to care but few respond. It is why many have not even heard of the war in Yemen, what has recently been called the worst humanitarian crisis in 50 years, even with Syria in the picture.
How do writers up the readership on stories from this part of the world which I find inherently fascinating and which I love, but about which few outsiders care?
Here’s what I came up with (while on a run with a friend who also cares about this part of the world):
It has to be about FGM. Female Genital Mutilation. Or pirates, poverty, war.
So here are some possible headlines, to get clicks, readers, and attention. Whether or not they actually represent reality is highly debatable.
For a story about Dreamer and Co, the bead business:
Girls Saved from Pirate Marriages Turn Trash to Treasure
(granted, they were never at risk of getting married to pirates, but I suppose its possible, in the sense of all things are possible)
For a story about the most amazing place I visited in Hargeisa, Somaliland during Marathon week, a place that almost made me cry:
They Don’t Have Clitorises but They Have a Library!
(because who wants to read about a library in Somalia, even if it is the most inspiring place in the entire city)
For a story about the incredible strides Somali women are making in medicine:
Raped in the Middle of the Day, Now a Medical Student
(as if sexual assault has anything to do with her capability as a student or doctor)
For a story about the running club in Djibouti, Girls Run 2:
With No Bras, Underwear, Socks, or Shoes, Girls Still Run
(as if the most important thing about them is what they lack, rather than what they have to offer)
Of course FGM, piracy, poverty, rape, war…all these things are significant issues for the region, for the world. I’m not saying they don’t matter or shouldn’t be written about. I write about them, I talk about them with friends. And there very well could be a place in an article about the first class of medical students to graduate to write about assault and trauma. But using those kinds of troubling details as the main point or a kind of requirement for getting through the editorial doors, skews stories and perpetuates the ‘exotic’ otherness of people, rather than our shared humanity.
We are all broken, broken in unique ways. We can also all celebrate unique stories of healing and beauty, while lamenting the brokenness, without dehumanizing each other.
Maybe it is wishful thinking, to imagine people care about those far away and outside our own borders. There is both too much brokenness and too much beauty to expect anyone to hold it all. I can’t summon the emotional energy to care about all the joys and problems of the world. But at the same time, there are billions of us. Surely there is room for all the stories, surely we can diversify a little bit more, stretch our minds past presidents, past preconceived ideas, past our comfort zones.
Surely we can tell all the stories, in all their dark and beautiful complexity, without insisting on twisting them.
(and no, I will not be using any of those headlines. Preempting the fail of sarcasm online here)
I started following Somali Sideways a while ago on Instagram. I loved the photos and especially, I loved the stories. From Somalis all over the world with all kinds of backgrounds, goals, hopes, ambitions…I love how the photos and stories celebrate each individual and what they bring to the world. The project reveals what should be self-evident – that Somalis are so much more than pirates and terrorists and a failed nation. I was excited to hear the photos and stories are being pulled together into a book and I was really excited when the founder, Mohamed Mahmoud, agreed to answer some questions for me, and for Djibouti Jones readers.
How did you get the idea of sideways photos and stories? (I love what he says about the revealing yet partly hidden nature of a sideways image)
I got the idea of photographing people sideways when I took a sideways photo of a friend of mine (the first photo) by chance as I was taking a photo of a beautiful garden in London. The idea then sort of came about after that, I wanted to take pictures of Somalis standing sideways in London and soon later on, I started receiving photos from around the world. The sideways element also illustrates that a part of you will reveal certain aspects of your life to others and some will remain within you for you to hold on to.
When did people start sending their stories to you and were you surprised by how many came in or where they came from?
People started sending me photos within six months of the project and I was very surprised with not only the amount of photos received but where they were coming from also. I received stories from China and Costa Rica to name a few. I would share different stories each day or week that was different to the previous one. An example would be someone would share a story on travel, the following day or week the next story will be on culture and so on.
Did any particular story really impact you?
I can’t say that one particular story sticks with me as all the stories are inspirational in their own way. Somali Sideways connects with all Somali across the globe and because of the platform, people have been able to connect with people whether it be on Instagram or Facebook so I’m very happy that I was able to facilitate a platform to do that.
What do you hope readers will take away from the photos and the stories?
I hope people who purchase the book and start reading the photos and stories will be able to be inspired and learn from the individuals in the book. It is also to change the negative stereotypes of what are perceived of Somalis and to be able to bring positivism and enlightenment to the Somali people.
Will you continue to post stories and pictures or are you moving on to another project?
Once the book is published, I will be working on new projects in the Somali region. Something that I’m working on at the moment.
How can people find the book?
The publishing company is called Looh Press and they are based in Leicester, United Kingdom. Details on how to purchase the book will be updated soon. Follow the Instagram page @somalisideways and my personal one @moamohamud. Twitter: @moamohamud.
Thank you Mohamed, and congratulations. Waad mahadsantahay iyo hambalyo.
Stay tuned for news about the book’s release.
Check out Djiboutilicious, my award-winning cookbook. If you are moving or traveling to Djibouti, you’ll love the information and tips in Welcome to Djibouti. And if you just want more Djibouti Jones, sign up for my monthly newsletter, Stories from the Horn.