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Last Updated: Friday, 8 July, 2005, 21:05 GMT 22:05 UK
Somali star's road to Eden
By Polly de Blank
BBC African Perspective

Performing at Live 8's Africa Calling concert in a traditional dress in the blue and white colours of her national flag, Somali singer Maryam Mursal is pleased that music is once again putting the spotlight on Africa.

Somali singer Maryam Mursal
Maryam drove a taxi to feed her five children

Her own story is a familiar one in Somalia.

In the early 1990s during the height of the civil war, Maryam - one of Somalia's most enduring stars - fled her country. For more than seven months she and her five children trekked through four countries, until she finally found refuge in the Danish Embassy in Djibouti.

This journey through the East African desert is chronicled in her song Qax (Refugee), and although it is based on her personal experience, it resonates with Somalis all over the world.

"Because so many Somalis are refugees, when they listen to that song they cry. They weep because we all have the same story."

But, before she became a refugee, Maryam lived a very different life.

From the age of 16 she shared a lifestyle with the rich and powerful of Mogadishu as a singer at the National Theatre. It was only after singing her song Ulimada that her life started crashing around her.

Status lost

Ulimada is ostensibly a love song but its hidden meaning - criticising the Somali government - was not lost on her audience.

I want to show Somalis that women can be anything they want, even taxi drivers
Maryam Mursal

Overnight she lost her job, her status, and her livelihood. Still, she does not regret speaking out against the regime that was in power at the time.

"We as artists are responsible if something wrong is taking place in our society. It's very important for us to speak up, even though we may have to do it with a double tongue. We have to speak out for our people."

One of the few assets she managed to salvage from her previous life was a car.

As a single mother, she quickly had to find an alternative source of income in order to feed her children. So she became a taxi driver. In fact she became the first female taxi driver in Somalia.

Unfinished song

"Everyone who got in my taxi used to ask me: 'Why did such a big star like you become a taxi driver?' They thought I must be a very bad, low class person because as we say in Somalia, 'Everyone wants to reach the top of the stairs in their career.' People wanted to know why I'd fallen all the way to the bottom."

Bob Geldof
I thank Bob Geldof for giving me the opportunity to use the power of my music for the good of Africa
Maryam Mursal

Taxi driving is not the first barrier that Ms Mursal has broken through.

"I was always the first woman. I was the first woman singing Somali jazz, I was the first star, and I was the first to drive a taxi! I was the first to drive a lorry, and now I'm the first woman from Somalia to have an international record.

"I want to show Somalis that women can be anything they want, even taxi drivers."

Last weekend, Maryam was at the Eden Project in the south-west of England to take part in Africa Calling, one of the Live 8 concerts which aimed at making poverty, especially in Africa, a thing of the past.

"I thank Bob Geldof and Peter Gabriel for organising Live 8 and giving me the opportunity to use the power of my music for the good of Africa."

She says she hopes to go back to Somalia, as soon as the political and security situation there has stabilised.

"I will be the first person to go back. At the moment my song Qax isn't finished yet. I'm still a refugee. I'm still travelling.

"I don't know where I'll be next year, or in 10 years. It's only when we come back to Somalia that the song will be finished."


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