Somalia, with help from its African neighbors, is trying to re-establish a central government in Mogadishu. But since the state's collapes in 1991, many citizens of the country have had to establish roots elsewhere. A pair of Somalis in Nairobi are trying to establish a film company in neighboring Kenya.
In the Somali neighborhood of Eastleigh, in the eastern suburbs of Nairobi, two businessmen have launched a Somali film production company called Eastleighwood.
Ahmed Shariff, one of the founders, hopes to change people’s impressions of Somali society. “What has been dominant in the mass media outside was an image that represents a people that are violent and extremists, people who are starving to death. With Eastleighwood, what we want to show is the other side of the story," he said.
Eastleighwood aims to fill in the gaps by depicting the everyday lives of Somalis, mainly of those living in the diaspora.
Hassan Abdul, an Eastleighwood actor, fled his Somali hometown of Kismayo in 2003. Still under the control of al-Shabab militants, residents of Kismayo are forbidden from listening to music or watching movies. Now in Nairobi, Hassan is free to pursue his career as an actor and singer. “We are trying [to] make Somali movies, talking about love, talking about culture, Somali culture, talking about the reality, the reality in Somalia," he said.
Love is Blind, a film currently in production, tells the story of a blind girl living in Eastleigh who is courted by three different men. It illustrates key themes in the lives of the diaspora, such as the vital financial remittances sent from the U.S. and Europe that support many in Eastleigh.
With limited funding, almost everyone who works on the films is a volunteer. The production sets are often crewmembers’ homes and the actresses double as singers.
Though Eastleighwood is not turning a profit yet, many see opportunity in Somali-language programming. The audience is global. In Somalia’s two decades of statelessness, millions have fled the country and settled abroad. There are now more Somalis living outside Somalia than within.
Iman Burran, the chairman of Eastleighwood, knows this well. “My mom lives in LA, my brother also lives in California, my other brother lives in the UK, my younger brother lives in Lahore, Pakistan, so you see we are global, so Eastleighwood is targeting a global Somali community," he said.
Four films are currently in production. When complete, they will broadcast on two Somali satellite TV stations reaching Somalis from Mogadishu to Minneapolis.
Somalia is a place that is largely captured by images of war and famine. Eastleighwood hopes to show something markedly different, that there is great diversity in the Somali people and their stories no matter where they are living now.