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17th Development Dialogue| Communicating research differently: how a comic strip is bringing the everyday struggles of Somaliland’s Uffo to life

Researchers and non-researchers alike can learn much about and draw inspiration from the everyday struggles of ordinary people in difficult contexts. Yet such stories that we hear when working with communities engaged in the pursuit of social justice or emancipation often go untold or are overlooked. A comic strip about acts of civil resistance in Somaliland shows just how powerful such visual imagery can be in communicating lived experiences of struggles, writes Ebba Tellander.

Illustration: Pat Masioni, PositiveNegatives

In the early 1980s, the people of Hargeisa, Somaliland suffered greatly. The negligence of the Siad Barre regime and the 1977/78 war with Ethiopia meant that the city’s residents did not have adequate access to basic services such as electricity, sanitation, and health care. At the same time, political oppression dominated life in northwest Somalia. Despite the possible consequences of blatantly opposing the government, a group of young professionals, including teachers, engineers, and doctors, set out to change the state of things by volunteering to help the people of Somaliland. They started in 1981 by cleaning and refurbishing the Hargeisa Group Hospital – at their own expense and in their own time. They saw it both as a form of humanitarian assistance responding to the acute suffering of patients due to the lack of a properly functioning hospital, and as a way of resisting the oppressive policies of the regime. Through their humanitarian action they were illuminating the negligence of the government in the health sector, mobilising people in the community to take care of themselves when the government wouldn’t, and showing them that they could act independently from the government.

To create more awareness about the oppressive polices, two of the professionals also wrote a newsletter called ‘Uffo’, which means ‘the sweet-smelling wind before the rain’. The meaning seemed to have foreshadowed what happened next. When the professionals were arrested a few months later and faced the risk of execution, this became the spark that ignited and inspired others, especially secondary school students and women, to oppose the regime openly on the streets. Today, the protests that took place are remembered as the Dhagax Tuur, which means ‘stone throwing’, and are regarded as the beginning of the resistance movement that continued for years afterward and eventually led to downfall of the authoritarian regime.

Despite the Uffo story’s historical importance, it is not widely known; instead, narratives of crisis, conflict, and violence dominate reports on the situation in the Horn of Africa, where Somaliland lies. These narratives are perpetuated by journalists, NGO personnel, and researchers alike. Reports on the Somali region in particular are typically focused on themes such as piracy, terrorism, war, and state failure. One consequence of such a limited focus is that ordinary people are portrayed either as perpetrators or as passive victims. This gives a flawed picture that downplays essential parts of the human experience, including those that provide a glimmer of hope, such as the courage and creativity of those who struggle, as well as their care for others. For my doctoral research I therefore chose to focus on the case of Uffo to highlight the tales and self-awareness of those people who act collectively to counter violence and oppression. I found a story that should not go unheard. And so I sought a way to make sure that it would be heard.

To communicate this story to new and larger audiences, I have been part of a production team of producers, storytellers, artists, and researchers who over the past years have created a comic in five parts. The comic is available in both English and Somali (read it here). I am part of a larger research team at Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) that is committed to exploring the power of visual storytelling in research through a collaboration with the organisation PositiveNegatives that produces educational comics to raise awareness about social and humanitarian issues across the globe.

Comics and animations are particularly suitable for communicating lived experiences and sensitive themes, including topics such as love, torture, and mental health. It is easier for a larger group of people to recognise themselves in animated characters when compared to other visual formats such as photographs and films. In addition, comics can easily be translated into many different languages and spread on social media. Thus, they can reach people who normally do not read academic texts or policy reports.

How did we create this comic strip?

These comics were created in a collaborative manner that allowed the professionals and other research participants to tell their stories. The production team met the Uffo professionals in Hargeisa to discuss the comic before it was developed into a first draft. They were then given the opportunity to provide feedback during several crucial steps in the production process. The Uffo professionals have been very enthusiastic about the project throughout the process.

The artwork was created by established Congolese artist Pat Masioni who was personally inspired by the story. His 1980s comic style was a perfect fit with the Uffo story. To stay true to the story, Pat Masioni used historical photographs and pictures that I had taken during my fieldwork to create the artwork.

The process of creating a comic based on research and in such a collaborative manner is time-consuming, but the whole team stayed committed to the importance of communicating this story in a nuanced way that resonated with the stories of the professionals.[1]

What’s the comic about?

The comic strip powerfully illustrates the role of agency in challenging circumstances. Those who read all five chapters will know how Uffo invented astonishing ways to survive and stay sane during their harsh prison sentences (note: Tolstoy’s fans will be pleasantly surprised). There are many such smaller parts of the story that capture the professionals’ care for each other as well as their capacity to create light in the dark, which is a common thread throughout the whole series. These stories can be transformative in themselves, as they have the power to inspire and show us what is possible in otherwise bleak situations.

When the comics were launched, Dr Tani from the Uffo group was interviewed by BBC Africa. Several of the Uffo professionals were later granted political asylum in countries such as the UK, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, and the US. I therefore wish for the comic to be read by people living in those countries, as it will give us a better understanding of the lives of fellow citizens with refugee backgrounds.

I also wish for the comics to be read by youth in Somaliland and by diaspora. While I was conducting the research in Somaliland, I got involved in the process of creating a 13-episode TV program about Uffo in Hargeisa in 2018 together with Star TV. I followed journalists to universities and other public spaces where they were asking people on the street whether they had heard of Uffo. Very few had. One contributing reason is the country’s cautious approach to bringing up painful memories from the past, which could contribute to division. However, the story of Uffo is not only a painful one, but also carries messages of hope and strength, which I noticed inspired the young women and men I worked with in Hargeisa, most of whom had not heard the Uffo story before.[2]

All in all, this exercise has shown that engaged researchers not only can contribute to social change through the findings and insights generated by their research, but also through the ripple effects of the research process itself and from the stories that are being illuminated. It’s up to researchers to find out how to do this and to actively seek to create waves through their research.


[1] The production of the comic was informed by rigorous research, including in-depth interviews with the Uffo professionals and people who participated in the protests, many of them women. As part of the research process, the interview data has been triangulated with archival data such as human rights reports, political poetry and the trial protocol from 1982.

[2] Thanks go to Nasra Daahir Raage, Shukri Sagal Ali, Yasmin Gedi, Abdifatah Omar, Wahiba Ismail, Mohamud Ismail, Nasra Sagal, Hadiya Sayid Ali and Hassan Sayid Ali Daoud for their excellent research assistance.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question

About the author:

Ebba Tellander is a doctoral researcher at the Peace Research Institute of Oslo and International Institute of Social Studies within the TRANSFORM project. She researches people’s motivations and actions when initiating collective action and civil resistance in repressive settings, focusing on the case of Uffo. For her research, she also took part in the production of a 13-episode TV series about the Uffo.

 

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How Europe’s (anti-)migration policies are fuelling a humanitarian crisis

When some one million people crossed the Mediterranean in the course of 2015 to seek refuge, European countries called it a crisis. Yet the real crisis was created by European immigration and asylum policies and by the challenges they posed for aid providers. We discussed these issues at the  conference of the International Humanitarian Studies Association (IHSA) in August 2018 that was held at the ISS in The Hague. In this blog we highlight some of the key issues from our just-published conference special issue and show how the issues raised back then are still of concern today.  The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened the violence experienced by people seeking safety in countries such as Italy, Greece, France, Belgium, Germany, Norway, and the UK.

Photo: European Commission DG ECHO. Available at: https://euobserver.com/opinion/136333

Back in 2018, the humanitarian consequences of Europe’s migration policies were a key theme at the IHSA conference. We’ve just published some of the conference contributions in a special issue of International Migration entitled ‘Politics, humanitarianism and migration to Europe’. The issue seeks to unpack how European governments and the EU are creating a policy-induced humanitarian crisis, how this works in the micro-practices of migration politics, and what this means for humanitarian and political action. This blog article provides a brief overview of the key themes in the special issue.

Crisis-creating policy developments

In the issue, we observe many policy developments that are of humanitarian concern. European governments view migration as economically driven or as a threat to their national security. As such, migration has been criminalised for years. Policies such as strengthening border controls, the externalisation of borders, and a focus on smuggling and trafficking rather than on the causes of forced migration all result in humanitarian crisis. In addition, the EU or its member states (and the UK) have made agreements with Libya, Turkey, and Sudan to contain those seeking protection, which risks violating the human rights of those who flee. Support for Libyan coastguards or for Sudanese paramilitary border forces leaves migrants stuck in conflict- and crisis-ridden countries and/or in appalling conditions in migrant detention centres. The UK’s externalised border in France leaves those seeking asylum in the UK stuck in France without basic assistance and vulnerable to police violence. Border restrictions on the Italy-France border have a similar effect. And the closure of legal routes means migrants have to take more dangerous routes and use smugglers or traffickers. Preventing people from leaving or from coming to Europe amounts to a policy of letting die.

Micro-practices and the politics of exhaustion

Border restrictions, mass detention, and forced returns are complemented by a number of less visible deterrence tactics and strategies. The humanitarian crisis in Europe is characterised by these regimes of micro-practices, which include 1) migrants sleeping rough or in makeshift camps with little or no shelter, food and health care, 2) regular police violence, confiscation of possessions, and evictions, and 3) slow, confusing, and inconsistent asylum procedures. The latter make it difficult or undesirable to claim asylum. Migrants who are ‘illegalised’ in this way can be exposed to more violence and can be deported.

Combined with constant uncertainty, these regimes of micro-practices lead to a politics of exhaustion aimed at influencing people’s resolve to claim asylum or to make them leave. Camps and migrants stuck on borders in desperate conditions itself also acts as a deterrent and at the same time highlights action to defend national security for domestic audiences.  Another advantage is that regimes of less visible forms of violence make it difficult to identify intent or overtly illegal practices.

The restriction of humanitarian response and a shift to political action

In terms of humanitarian response, we identify a number of issues, including the criminalisation of assistance provision and the constraints faced by traditional organisations in Europe, as well as the rise in resistance and activism by newly created volunteer groups.

Here’s what been happening in the European countries covered in the special issue: In Italy, accusations by far-right organisations that NGOs are assisting in trafficking made it possible to develop legislation against the docking of ships carrying migrants and to restrict their protection once they have reached land. In Calais, France, local authorities have repeatedly tried to restrict assistance to refugees. In both the Italy and the France cases, providing assistance is deemed illegal and showing solidarity with refugees has become a crime. Examples can be found in many other European countries. As a result, new volunteer groups quickly became politically engaged – not only through assistance as a political act, but also by providing legal assistance, preventing police raids (for example in Belgium), gathering information, and lobbying politicians.

The politicisation of humanitarian action has complicated the role of more established organisations, who are bound by principles of neutrality and impartiality. In Germany, for example, room for manoeuvre for traditional state and non-state actors was legally restricted, but different political narratives enabled some flexibility. In Norway, some volunteer groups shifted to political action and others found ways of working with more established organisations. The greatest frictions between established agencies and volunteer activist groups are often found in humanitarian advocacy. An examination of the activities of these groups in Greece, Turkey and Libya, however, shows that complementarity between negotiating and confrontational strategies is required.

More unwelcome than ever

In the Europe we are living in today, security and political concerns continue to override obligations to respect human rights and to address humanitarian concerns. Crises among migrants and asylum seekers in Europe continue to unfold as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, Brexit, and the new EU Migration and Asylum pact. Covid-19 is by now known to have a disproportionate impact on displaced people. Even in Europe, many migrants live in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, in informal camps, on the streets, or in detention and asylum centres where the health risks are acute and conditions abysmal.  But besides the exacerbation of the appalling living conditions a number of other pandemic-related measures make the current asylum procedure more alienating than ever. These include:

Can the trend be reversed? We hope so. As Europe’s humanitarian crisis continues and worsens, the political nature of humanitarian action is becoming ever more apparent. It will require a concerted effort by all concerned actors to monitor, research, advocate, and resist crisis-inducing policies, and to demand that states uphold international human rights and humanitarian laws.

Opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the ISS or members of the Bliss team.

About the authors:

Dr Susanne Jaspars is an independent researcher and a Research Associate at SOAS, University of London.  She has researched the social and political dynamics of famine, conflict and humanitarian crises for over thirty years, focussing particularly on issues of food security, livelihoods, and forced migration.

Dorothea HilhorstDorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.