East African artists seek to raise their voices while still respecting their heritage

There are many East African artists living in the Twin Cities, but you don’t often hear about them. Why? Quite frankly, mainstream media doesn’t make enough of an effort to seek out these artists and share their stories.

Cultural differences have a role to play, too. It’s considered rude for a Somali, for instance, to speak of his or her own accomplishments. So much for doing your own PR work.

Recently a group of Somali and Ethiopian artists and art lovers sat down for a conversation about art and culture, and to talk about what they wish they heard on MPR’s airwaves. Among them was educator, poet, playwright and filmmaker Said Salah Ahmed.  Ahmed fled Somalia during the Somalian Civil War and immigrated to the Twin Cities in the early 1990s.

Ahmed spoke of the difficulties sharing one’s art and ideas when language remains a barrier.

Said Salah Ahmed  (MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel)

If you ask me what you (MPR) should cover, I’m going to say “all that we have and everything we do” but I realize that’s not possible. We have such a presence here in Minnesota. That presence deserves coverage. We, particularly the Somali community, came here as a result of war. We lost so many things, but we brought our culture – that was not lost.

I am not a symbol of war, famine, or a pirate – but some other human positivity that is different from this.

Related story: Somali Artifact and Cultural Museum fills void for those who left country

Ahmed Ismail Yusuf (MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel)

Writer Ahmed Ismail Yusuf was also at the table. He says when he first came to Minnesota, he traveled to Rochester, because he was told that Somalis were facing serious racism there.

And as I got to the city, the first thing I saw was a Somali woman dressed in traditional Somali clothing and a child who is about nine or ten, blonde, white. This child has her arm around this middle aged woman, and I was just struck by that picture.

It said to me – look at the innocence here, both in the Somali woman and the child. Later it occurred to me that this picture is not talked about, but it is representative of what Minnesota is about. And hearing a story of that capacity would enrich us all.

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Zuhur Ahmed  (MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel)

Community organizer Zuhur Ahmed is part of a young, activist generation. She says social media has changed how people both report and consume the news.

Fortunately a lot of people are now able to tell their stories through social media. But in immigrant communities there’s a literacy issue.

As a community organizer, when you’re inside the community and you see all that’s happening, you realize that people are so different from each other, with so many different stories. It would be a challenge to cover that, but it’s a good start to have these dialogues to talk about how we can cover these communities better.

The mainstream media have done some work … MPR more than other mainstream media organizations, but there’s still a long way to go. So realize that uniqueness, rather than putting us together in a lump sum. It’s that human connection.

If these sorts of stories were covered that make us feel united, then the headline stories about terrorism and gangs wouldn’t have the same effect.

Related story: Somali-American photographer presents a new view of his community

Dawit Asfaw  (MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel)

Minnesota is home to not just a large Somali population, but also an increasing number of Ethiopians. Dawit Asfaw is both a writer and a chemist. He says it’s time for mainstream media organizations to reflect their growing presence.

We have been here for a long time, we call it home, and then we have our kids who have been raised here. For the past ten years we’ve been active in the arts, but I haven’t seen it covered. If there’s any coverage of our community, Ethiopians feel like “Oh, this is home! We’re starting to be recognized here!” But that relationship still needs to be built.

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Nimo Farah (MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel)

Nimo Farah
(MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel)

Spoken word artist and community organizer Nimo Farah says she would love to hear more stories of immigrants coming to the U.S. and the challenges they face starting over.

 I know, just from my community, that there are a lot of people who just walk around who are a big deal. There are a lot of individuals, especially elders, and their lives are so interesting! You’ll see a singer who was a huge deal in Somalia just sitting by you at the bus stop. And many of us young Somalis in the community are not familiar with those stories, either.

In Greater Minnesota – I work for the African Development Center and we visit cities around the state. And I’m curious to know how Minnesotans who have lived for a very long time in Marshall or Willmar feel when a woman in full hijab shows up in their downtown.

I look at that woman and think “this is the boondocks, I’d be terrified to be in this tiny city. This woman is brave!” What’s going through her head, how does she empower herself?  And how does a person in Marshall, with a population of less than 20,000, how does that person feel, especially when they are not aware of the existence of Somalia as a country?

Related story: Young Minn. Somali collects stories of famine victims

Surafel Wondimu   (MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel)

Back home in Ethiopia, Surafel Wondimu hosted his own radio show. He says it’s challenging for Ethiopians to build a sense of community in Minnesota, when so many of them are working multiple jobs.

The Ethiopian community is not one community, it is multifaceted, because Ethiopia has 80-plus ethnic groups and languages. So how do we make the best out of such cultural riches?

In order to recognize and respect each other, we have to know each other. That’s one of the challenges we’re facing, and this has economic implications as well as other implications.

It’s great that you’re having these conversations, but it should not be confined to the cultural elite of these communities. You have to reach out to the bigger community and you have to tap into the wisdom of our elders.

In media it’s not about “giving a voice” it’s about amplifying the voice, and at the same time letting the people speak for themselves. Will you be brave enough to give time to these communities on your radio? And not just five or ten minutes?

Many thanks to all the participants for sharing their insights.

Interested in hearing more? You can listen to the entire conversation below: