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."
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In the next few minutes, we're going to hear about a young woman who has become an Instagram sensation by sending out visual messages from an unlikely place, Mogadishu. Ugaaso Abukar Boocow shows a side of Somalia you don't often see in the media, involving her adventures around the city in flowing dresses and long, colorful scarves. Her Instagram feed has attracted 60,000 followers, including Somalis who left their country long ago. The 27-year-old Ugaaso is one of them. 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. We reached her in Mogadishu.
UGAASO ABUKAR BOOCOW: I ran into an uncle. I was telling him, I want to see my mom so bad. I haven't seen her - a quarter century, you can say, as we fled the war and she was landlocked. So I was telling him, oh, man, I want go back, but is it safe? And he said, yes, you should go.
MONTAGNE: When you look at your Instagram feed and all the images there that you've posted, it does look like a great place. But is that super accurate? I mean, when one thinks of it, again, pirates, a failed state...
BOOCOW: I will be very honest with you. It's super accurate for the average Somali person. You have the beach. Anyone and everyone is free to go to the beach. They are free to go into a restaurant. They are free to buy whatever they want. So yes, it's very accurate.
MONTAGNE: A lot of these pictures - there are a lot of you, and it's typical Instagram. You even take pictures of the food on the table - but a lot of scenic pictures, which I'm wondering if that's partly because it's harder to take pictures of people on the street?
BOOCOW: Oh, it's really difficult to take a photo of an everyday Somali on the street. They just don't know the concept of I'm traveling around the city; can I take a photo of you? So there's a question of you're violating my privacy. You're violating my security. Who are you? There's a huge mistrust.
MONTAGNE: So partly, then, out of necessity but also because it's extraordinarily beautiful, you take pictures of, say, the ruins of Somalia, which are quite elegant-looking, a lot of them.
BOOCOW: You know, the ruins are really exquisite. And I think for Somalis, who know the old Somalia and they know present-day Somalia, it's nostalgic for them because they look at it. And they say, this was an edifice that was properly built before. It was immaculate, and now look at it. It's just hauntingly beautiful.
MONTAGNE: Ugaaso has made up for her lack of people pictures with short, snappy videos depicting scenes of everyday life, often witty caricatures of the culture that star Ugaaso herself.
BOOCOW: My videos tend to mock the huge gap between ex-pat Somali parents and what we like to call diaspora, American-raised children who feel fully American. So of course, huge miscommunications happen between the children and the parents.
MONTAGNE: We have a clip here that we can play. It's a mother telling her daughter how to wash the dishes.
(SOUNDBITE OF INSTAGRAM VIDEO)
BOOCOW: (As mother, foreign language spoken).
(As daughter) But I did wash the dishes.
(As mother, foreign language spoken).
(As daughter) I told you to stop tripping, man, jeez.
(As mother) You need to get the trip to Somalia right now.
So what's going on in that scene is, of course, everything that has to do with ill-manners. The remedy is to go back home. So the young girl forgot to wash a spoon, and the mother had said, whose spoon is this? Does it belong to the neighbors? It's our spoon. Why did you not wash it? And the young lady said, oh, my God, you know, in her hip-hop vernaculars, she said stop trippin', man. And the mother misunderstood. And so she said, no, no, no, no, I'm not tripping. You are the one who needs a trip to Somalia.
MONTAGNE: Ugaaso says she has never even heard a gunshot since coming home to Somalia. But followers of her Instagram feed will see references to the violence that has plagued her country. In this one, Ugaaso plays a Somali housewife chatting on the phone about the events of the day.
(SOUNDBITE OF INSTAGRAM VIDEO)
BOOCOW: (As Somali housewife, foreign language spoken).
That's a personal favorite. Somalis love onomatopoeias. And they love idiophones to help articulate a story. Instead of using the words, you know, I heard a bullet, the mother was filling in the words with sounds.
MONTAGNE: How do these videos go over in Somalia?
BOOCOW: You know, I think they're really surprised that a young woman who grew up in Canada can speak her language fluently. So I'm looked upon with awestruck faces and huge smiles. Generally, every culture believes that when you leave the culture, it's tough to go to other countries. You become less smart or less versed in your culture. So they're really stunned at the fact that I know a lot about the culture. I know the art form of telling a story within the cultural parameters. I know to speak the language fluently. I can speak it in different dialects. They feel like it's a staggering accomplishment.
MONTAGNE: And no one minds that you're poking fun at old traditions?
BOOCOW: No, it's a way to keep the tradition alive. You need new forms to keep the old alive. And that's what I'm doing.
MONTAGNE: As you said earlier, you were away from your mother virtually your entire life.
MONTAGNE: What was it like when you, in a sense, took her in your arms the first time?
BOOCOW: It was relief. It was, thank God. I'm finally here. I'm finally seeing her. I don't even need DNA to prove that this is my mother because when we laugh, I don't know where my laugh just starts and where hers begins (laughter).
MONTAGNE: Well, has your Instagram success led to something of a new life?
BOOCOW: Well, I've become more recognizable. I'm a prominent person in the city now. People actually get off of their seats to say hi to me - old people, young people, kids. When I was posting up these pictures, it was just to let my family back in Toronto know that hey, I'm safe. It's not all bad. It's not, you know, blood and gore. 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. So now it's become a responsibility to continue showing the world the beauty Somalia is.
MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for joining us.
BOOCOW: Thank you so much, Renee. I really appreciate you taking the time to interview me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MONTAGNE: That's Ugaaso Abukar Boocow, the creator of a wildly popular Instagram feed about life in Somalia. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Our theme music was written by B.J. Leiderman and arranged by Jim Pugh. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.