Ugaaso Abukar Boocow has become an Instagram sensation by sending out stunning visual messages from an unlikely place: poor, suffering Somalia.
She was just a toddler when her grandmother fled with her to Canada to escape Somalia’s civil war, leaving her mother behind.
Then last year, she decided to go back, moving to the capital, Mogadishu, and reuniting with her mother, whom she hadn’t seen in over two decades.
And she didn’t want her relatives in North America to worry. “When I was posting these pictures, it was just to let my family back in Toronto know that, hey, I’m safe. It’s not, you know, all bad. It’s not all blood and gore,” she told Morning Edition’s Renee Montagne.
It turns out that her family wasn’t the only audience.
“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,” says Boocow, now 27. “So now it’s become a responsibility to continue showing the world the beauty Somalia is.”
Her Instagram feed — full of selfies, pictures of friends, the beach — has nearly 60,000 followers and shows a side of Somalia not often see in the media.
She’ll sometimes use the label #viewsfromthe252 — a tribute to Somalia’s dialing code and to rapper Drake’s album Views from the 6 (referring to his native Toronto’s “416” and “647” area codes).
Among Boocow’s Instagram highlights are pictures of the “exquisite” ruins of Somalia — “it’s nostalgic for [Somalis] because they look at it and they say, ‘This was an edifice that was properly built. And now look at it, it’s just hauntingly beautiful.”
She also features funny videos — monologues and skits in a mixture of Somali and English. She says she uses humor to poke fun at old traditions.
But she’s also carrying on the country’s tradition of storytelling via social media: “You need new forms to keep the old alive,” she says, “and that’s what I’m doing.”
Reaction from Somalis has been positive. “I think they’re really surprised that a young woman who grew up in Canada can speak her language fluently,” she says, “so I am looked upon with awestruck faces and huge smiles.”
She even gets recognized on the street: “I can tell you that I’m a prominent person in the city now. People actually get, you know, out of their seats to say ‘hi’ to me.”