A mother is justifying her son’s divorce, absolving him from all blame. “These girls of 2014 are wasteful youths,” she says, talking on the phone and shaking her head. “The one my son Weheliye was married to, all that one knew of cooking was cornflakes. I told him: ‘Divorce this one, she’s garbage!’ Now you should see how he’s put on weight and has gotten more handsome.”
The comedy video cuts to a singing, dancing young man with model looks and a six pack. The humour is universal but also very specific: the sketch, “How Somali mother-in-laws justify their son’s divorce”, is the work of a young Somali woman bringing light relief to a country traumatised by war.
Ugaaso Boocow, 27, is becoming one of the country’s first social media stars with more than 50,000 followers on Instagram. She posts everything from social satires of Somali family life to photos of Mogadishu’s buildings, beaches and restaurants as the city slowly heals. There are also glamorous pictures of Boocow herself in brightly coloured hijabs, including a recent one from Valentine’s Day featuring her husband with flowers and teddy bear.
“Comedy, like any form of art, is a way to tell a story,” she said. “I’m just telling a lighthearted story but comedy has a way of showing you your flaws and what’s wrong with society. You’re laughing at it knowingly because it’s true.”
Boocow is among thousands of Somali expats who have returned home since the Islamist militant group al-Shabaab was prised from Mogadishu in 2011. She was two years old when she left for Canada with her grandmother in the early 1990s as the country descended into two decades of civil war and chaos. Her parents divorced at a young age and, while her father also moved to Canada, her mother stayed behind.
Boocow grew up in Toronto, gained a geography degree, and lived in Colombia for two years but still felt the tug of her birthplace. On returning to Canada, she met an uncle who assured her Somalia’s security was much improved. She decided to go back last year and see her mother for the first time in almost a quarter of a century, though the two had kept in contact by phone.
“I thought I’d feel hurt, like I would have an outburst, making her feel ashamed for abandoning me,” Boocow recalled. “But I was so tired after the journey that I just felt relieved. It was like: ‘Can we go home now?’”
Then there was the impact of Somalia itself. “I was very happy to come back. I’d decided to come and see it with my own eyes. When I saw the ruined buildings, I felt hope that we could rebuild them. I had zero memories but storytelling has a way of putting pictures in your head. I felt like I belonged. I did not feel like an outsider. Even though I didn’t know the streets, I felt like I knew where I was going.”
Mogadishu is in the throes of a construction boom with money pouring in from Turkey and other donors and a dawning sense of hope, despite recent setbacks such as the suicide bombing of a hotel.
“It’s a moment where you have to take advantage of what’s happening here,” mused Boocow, who fell in love and married soon after arriving. “Since I arrived here I haven’t heard a single bullet go off and I’ve only heard one explosion. But my father has a completely different perspective. He’s really scared and doesn’t want to come to Somalia.”
When Boocow searched for Somalia on Instagram, she would be met by images of cows, sheep and grass. She took up her camera and set about showing a different side, snapping dishes of food and the haunting beauty of Mogadishu’s many half-collapsed buildings. “I think people are hungry for these things, like me.
“Al-Shabaab are still roaming around freely and people generally don’t like to have their faces photographed, so I take pictures of the ruins. They make me nostalgic. I remember my grandmother’s stories: this used to be a university or that used to be a prominent edifice. It makes me imagine how the city would have looked if the war didn’t happen.”
If I don’t think it’s right, I have a responsibility to speak against it, for example by using comedy
She is also making the tongue-in-cheek videos in which she performs in Somali sprinkled with Arabic, Italian and English. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. “It makes me happy that I make people laugh. They write to me and say they can relate to it. I was so surprised I have an audience here in Mogadishu. Quite recently a girl here contacted me to ask if I could be her wedding photographer. The minister of finance came up to my husband and said, ‘I love your wife’s videos, tell her to keep up the good work!’”
Yet Boocow, who works as a civil servant, admitted: “I’m extremely reserved in real life and very shy. I get very embarrassed when people come up and say: ‘I love that video you did.’”
Many of the sketches focus on the character of a Somali mother and say something about the role of women in society. Boocow explained: “Inside the household the woman is revered but the moment she gets ambitious and wants to go into the political sphere, it’s: ‘No, you can’t do that.’
“They think women have a certain place in the culture. If I don’t think it’s right, I have a responsibility to speak against it, for example by using comedy. I’m not banging a drum; it’s always goofy and silly and not serious, but it should be taken seriously.”
Her next ambition is to organise a comedy night. Laughter is a much-needed medicine in Somalia, she believes, after the long years when all roads led to despair. “Somalis have a great sense of humour. They’re able to laugh at each other and with each other. Somalis will make fun of you but they don’t want you to take it in a vicious way. If you have a big nose, for instance, they’ll give a nickname like ‘Mr Longnose’ and use it every time they see you.”