1/2013
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Muna Ali

Connecting the dots

The start of my journey with the Somali Diaspora.

Click to see Muna Ali's presentation at Somali Week Festival, London, October 2012.

It’s been two decades since I became part of the Somali diaspora. Birthed into the city of Hargeysa, raised in Mogadishu and Cairo for a few years, and eventually brought to Toronto by my Hooyo (mother), I have now lived as a member of the diaspora longer than I have lived in my homeland. And still, both my homeland and my “host” country have helped shape who I am; they’ve both birthed the woman I am growing into.

Growing up in Toronto as a young Somali woman was a journey of its own, taking me up onto many hills and down into many valleys, all the while teaching me about myself and prepping me for my purpose. Along those countless paths, I realized one crucial truth about myself; I am a Somali woman, anchored in my culture(s) and focused on my future. In that light, I also learned through my lessons that I hope to inspire that feeling in other young Somali women.

In 2007, I came together with my sisters and friends to form Gashanti Unity, a group focused on forming bonds and building bridges with other Somali women. Recognizing the need for spaces devoted and dedicated to young Somali women in Toronto, including ourselves, we came together as our mothers had before us. Eventually, “Anchored In Our Culture, Focused On Our Future” became our motto. Honoring where we came from and where we were currently at, we made it our focus to make sure that we could support what was to come for us – all of us.

For five years, we consistently conceptualized and created programming catered to young Somali women. We worked with teenage girls, newcomers, and even our own mothers. In many ways, this was a gestation period for us. We created a safe space in which we could learn about our community, our women, and ourselves. We came in direct contact with inevitable challenges, unpredictable learning curves, and unmatchable memories. In this time, I learned that our work was not confined to the city borders of Toronto. With Gashanti Unity, I learned that our work could move beyond the boundaries of our neighborhoods, our cities, and our own minds.

In June of 2012, I travelled back to Hargeysa. This would become the next leg of my diasporic journey: a return to the place where my limbs took their first steps, a return to my homeland. Here, I witnessed the beauty of my people yet again. Their ability to rise from the roar of war, their unmatched desire to build back up from the “bottom”, their unwillingness to let history hold the fate of their future. I witnessed the work of elders, who rebirthed the country from its roots; I connected with youth who were creating their own spaces and sharing their own stories, just like us; and I spent time with my family who helped me unearth a part of me that would always belong to my motherland.

In a turn of events that I can only attribute to fate, I was invited to the Somali Week Festival in London, England, only a few months following my first return home. In October of 2012, I attended the festival, where I was able to bring both our stories from Toronto and my stories from Hargeysa, and share them with the wider Somali community. Sharing the film and photography work of Gashanti Unity, I was able to bridge a new gap with a part of the diaspora that was new to me. The occurrence of an Arts and Culture festival completely dedicated to Somali people was beautiful; it transcended time, space, age and background. As a Somali-Canadian, I was inspired and energized to continue the progression of this movement.

As I reflect back, I remember my main reasons and impetuses for going to London for Somali Week. I was driven primarily by two key motives: first, a chance to build with Ayan Mohamoud, the Managing Director of Kayd, and second, to connect with the whole Kayd team behind the festival. I had already the pleasure of meeting Ayan at the Hargeisa Book Fair in Somaliland in 2012. From that moment, I knew we needed to meet again. Ayan has played a key role in spearheading the evolution of a movement that later became a powerful and highly efficient organization, which coordinates regular artistic and cultural activities in the Horn of Africa. Being granted the privilege to see this powerful woman in action provided me with a wealth of information and knowledge. I was thus not only inspired by her work but by the woman herself. The entire experience ignited me into new action, and I am now engaged in the process of seeing how to participate and facilitate a similar cultural revolution here in Toronto, home to some 100,000 Somalis.

I have always had the hunger to learn more about my identity, which stems from my Hooyo, who as we were growing up continually instilled in us our rich Somali Heritage. However, growing up in Toronto had at times made the retention of my cultural identity a bit difficult to navigate, given the fact I do not have access to the rich tapestry and sense of community afforded to my peers growing up in the Horn. In a way I have had to navigate and negotiate several identities as a result of growing up in the west. During this unique festival I was able to witness how other Somalis in the Diaspora were working hard to maintain their cultural links to the homeland. They gave a new meaning to “anchored in our culture, focused on our future.” I truly felt enlightened and fulfilled by the level of talent and energy that came together in London. I was inspired by the multitude of speakers sharing multiple narratives, and taking the audience on a cultural journey through their own eyes. The Somali week festival brought the best of Somali arts and culture, both old and new.

As a contributor to Somali week, I represented the new generation and was given the opportunity to address a mixed audience of academics, professionals, artists, and historians, to name a few. I was thrilled to share space with all those people, which also allowed me to open up dialogue about young women through the screening of some of our films from Gashanti Unity.

Building for tomorrow

As a Somali-Canadian woman, I have been re-inspired to join this movement of celebrating and revitalizing the Somali culture. When I first got to London, I did not know what to expect. It was such an unfamiliar place. There was a cultivated space of networking, sharing, exchanging knowledge, reigniting community pride, and celebrating openness. It was more beautiful to me because it was about Somalis organizing for Somalis, without the permission of anyone else. The Somali Week Festival brought together the best of Somali arts and culture, both old and new. It showcased a mix of mediums including poetry, literature, music, film, theatre, and dance. It was inclusive, inspiring and invaluable; it was an exchange unlike anything I have ever seen before, focused on revitalizing and restructuring the Somali identity.

As I reflect on my journey to the Somali Week Festival in London, which was preceded by my journey back to Hargeysa, which itself was preceded by my journey of living and growing up in Toronto, I am reminded of some critical and crucial truths. We have been born to a homeland and moved into a diaspora that has been through its own hills and valleys. But as a people, we have always kept moving forward, inspiring new movements within ourselves and amongst each other. We were born to mothers who carried our communities in invaluable and indescribable ways. In honor of those truths, I know that my purpose is to continue to nurture new movements; to build on the ones that already exist; to support the Somali women I stand in solidarity with; and to keep bridging the gap with our elders, who are the carriers of our people’s histories, which form the foundation of our own stories.

Muna Ali is a Toronto based community organizer, storyteller, and entrepreneur.

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The camera man and editor of the video: Gary McQuiggin from Camden Creative