Sitting in a small, windowless room in a government building in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, Mohamed Yusuf Mohamed loops another audio tape onto the dilapidated machine and presses a few buttons.
He’s beginning a time-intensive process to digitize some seven decades of unique historical recordings belonging to the government-run Radio Mogadishu.
One down, a couple of hundred thousand to go
After a few clicks, the antiquated device starts to whir, and its wheels spin. One tape down and another couple of hundred thousand or so to go. In the adjoining room, there are shelves more than three metres high which teeter under a layer of dust and thousands of audio reels.
Given the decrepit equipment and limited staffing at hand, the project Mr. Mohamed and other colleagues are embarking on will take many decades to complete.
“I arrive here at 8am and work until 4pm, digitizing around 30 to 40 audio tracks per day with very limited equipment,” he said.
At stake are the only remaining audio recordings of much of Somalia’s history, with thousands of reels of music, poetry, religious texts, political speeches and drama shows going all the way back to the station’s creation in 1951. Much of it is in a poor state.
“I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to participate in improving the history of my country,” he said, adding that he is conscious of the task’s importance.
Radio Mogadishu was established during the period when Somalia was held under the trusteeship of the United Nations and administered by its former colonial power, Italy.
It began broadcasting news in Italian, and Somali programming followed soon afterwards.
In the 1960s, Radio Mogadishu was modernized with assistance from the Soviet Union, and began broadcasting in Amharic, Oromo, Somali and Italian.
War breaks out
The station closed soon after the start of Somalia’s civil war in 1991, and its premises fell into the hands of warring factions. Two years later, the archives sustained some damage during clashes between one of the factions and international peacekeepers deployed in the city at the time.
The violence that engulfed the country led to the destruction of much of Somalia’s cultural heritage. Museums were stripped of their collections, with items destroyed or sold on the black market, and the material in Radio Mogadishu’s vaults was targeted.
The majority of the magnetic, reel-to-reel tape recordings in the Radio Mogadishu archives – made up of Somali-language tapes, records and limited manuscripts – survived the war, although most of its foreign language collection was not so fortunate.
The introduction of digital technology has breathed new life into Radio Mogadishu, but its analogue archives have been rapidly deteriorating.
The fragile reel-to-reel tapes made from acetate, polyester or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) are at risk of distortion and degradation, according to Daud Aweis, Somalia’s federal Minister of Information, Culture and Tourism.
“This is the only archive for this nation after the civil war,” he said. “As time passes, if we do not preserve it, it will only be seen in pictures.”
Radio Mogadishu’s director, Abdifatah Dahir Jeyte, echoed those concerns.
“Urgent action is imperative to safeguard the history, language, culture and literature of the Somali nation stored within these archives, considering the vastness of Radio Mogadishu’s archives, which contain around 225,000 tapes and vinyl records, the digital conversion is currently incomplete, covering less than 30 per cent of the total content,” he said.
Initial attempts at digitization began in 2013, with the support of the French government, African Union, United Nations and Somalia’s information ministry. Staff worked to preserve the collection and make the music, speeches, plays and prayers available to a generation who had never known how vibrant Somalia was prior to the war.
But, the attempt foundered, with less than a third of the items digitized.
UN mission to preserve cultural treasure
Working with the Government’s information ministry, the UN in Somalia has been exploring options for a solution to the urgent digitization needs of Radio Mogadishu’s archives.
“The open-reel tape collection of Radio Mogadishu is a cultural treasure that all Somalis would benefit from,” said Kirsten Young, Chief of the UN Assistance Mission in Somalia’s (UNSOM) Human Rights and Protection Group.
“Radio continues to play an important role in access to information in Somalia,” she said, “and having access to these rich archives would bring recent history into the homes of many Somalis.”