A Young Woman’s Instagram Feed Reveals Beautiful Side of Somalia

Sharing lighthearted photos and videos, a Somali native finds the funny and the positive in everyday life.

(Photo: Ugaaso A. Boocow/Instagram)

Mar 30, 2015· 2 MIN READ
David McNair is an award-winning reporter and editor based in Charlottesville, Va. He runs the hyper-local news site The DTM and his fiction has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review.

Life is beautiful—yes, even in war-torn Somalia.

Armed with an Instagram account, young Somali native Ugaaso Abukar Boocow is on a mission to change the public perception of a country ravaged by decades of civil war and chaos. Boocow, 27, escaped with her father and grandmother to Canada after the Siad Barre regime was overthrown by rebels in 1991, but she is one of a number of Somalis who have returned to the country since the Islamist militant group Al-Shabaab was expelled from the capital city of Mogadishu in 2011.

Boocow’s mother, divorced from her father, had stayed behind when two-year-old Boocow left for a new life in Toronto. But last year, the two were finally reunited in Mogadishu after being apart for more than two decades. Almost immediately, Boocow, now a Web-savvy Western millennial, began posting photos and videos to Instagram, mostly to let relatives know she was safe and to make her friends laugh. But the world of social media had other plans for her.

Nearly 70,000 followers later, Boocow has become an Internet celebrity, known to people on the street in Mogadishu and higher-ups in the Somali government, and has found growing fame in recent months after being featured in Le Monde and The Guardian, and recently on NPR.

“I did not know that there were so many other people who were hungry for those positive pictures, those beautiful pictures, those random sometimes irrelevant pictures of everyday life in Somalia,” she told NPR. “So now it’s become a responsibility to continue showing the world the beauty Somalia is.”

Boocow’s photos, videos, and comments are a kind of VH1 meets CNN meets Comedy Central meets E! Television. She’ll post glamorous selfies, tour Mogadishu cribs, and poke fun at Somali cultural traditions—all while referencing rappers such as Drake.

She’s not afraid to be dark and sarcastic either. A video titled “When the Side Chick Moves to Your Hood” features Boocow playing the scorned woman and footage of an armed security raid on an apartment. Then, describing a place of prayer, she turns poetic: “The azan—call to prayer—is spellbindingly peaceful. Verily with every hardship comes ease.” Or how about an architectural review, Boocow-style: “Like yo, peep this crib tho—the immaculate sharpness in its edges, the elegant softness of its arches, the cajoling details of its balustrade. It’s a favor from God that this stunning, colossal house is amid the archeological-like ruins of Mogadishu—to serve as a friendly reminder, a measure of hope, a persuasive nod at Mogadishu’s estimated three-point-something million people to have courage.”

(Photo: Ugaaso A. Boocow/Instagram)

Some critics have suggested that Boocow is whitewashing reality in Mogadishu. She shares glamour shots and images of pristine beaches and new construction when much of the city is still dangerous and unstable, and Al-Shabaab is still roaming the streets. “A lot of condescending people believe I’m shrouding the ‘reality’ in Mogadishu with ‘insignificant’ photos of an exquisite beach and newly paved streets,” she responds in one post. “Well, for one: we have a beach! Secondly: we have streets! We are progressing every single day, and I’m immensely grateful to those who work diligently to keep us safe.”

In a country where women are still expected to confine their activities to the home, Boocow told The Guardian in February that she feels it’s important to encourage women in Somalia to speak out.

“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,’ ” she said. “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.”

(Photo: Ugaaso A. Boocow/Instagram)