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Somali Filmmaker Shows Real Lives of Africans in China



ZHEJIANG, East China — Hodan Osman Abdi swiftly strings together a few phrases to describe herself: a woman, a black woman, a black African woman. She pauses for a second before completing the sentence: “I’m a black, African, Muslim woman who wears a hijab and teaches at one of the leading Chinese universities.”

“You don’t find that every day,” says Abdi with a smile. The Somali native is currently a researcher and lecturer on African film and TV at the Institute of African Studies of Zhejiang Normal University (ZNU) in the city of Jinhua. “A person like me breaks so many stereotypes, not just in China but across the world,” she says. “But in China, I’m breaking even more stereotypes.”

The Chinese media often links Africa and its people to war, famine, and poverty, she says, while positive stories are usually left untold. A new documentary titled “Africans in Yiwu” aims to change that. Abdi co-directed the film with her colleague, filmmaker Zhang Yong, and also features in the film alongside 18 others, who share their experiences in China — from facing discrimination to finding love.

Yiwu, a manufacturing city about two hours from Shanghai by train, is popular among migrants due to its business prospects — it boasts the world’s largest small commodities market — and its multiculturalism. In recent years, people from various African countries have settled in the city for business or education. At a Mauritanian restaurant popular with ZNU’s African students, Abdi dishes out details of her China story over beef kofta: It all started in Yiwu 12 years ago when her uncle, who has lived in the country since the 1980s, persuaded her to study there while her cousins traveled in the West. Since then, Abdi has mastered the Chinese language; received undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral degrees; and witnessed the nation’s sweeping changes, which she describes in the documentary.

Hodan Osman Abdi records her voice in the studio, Zhejiang province, May 7, 2017. Courtesy of Hodan Osman Abdi

“Since I came, one thing that hasn’t changed — with regard to being African or foreign — is curiosity,” she says. “People are curious about your identity, who you are, and where you come from.”

With their new film, Abdi and her co-director aim to counter stereotypes and bring African voices to the forefront. The filmmakers describe the documentary as an effort to shine a spotlight on African communities in China other than those in the southern port city of Guangzhou, home to 16,000 people from across Africa, according to official estimates.

“Africans in Yiwu” has been shown at cultural and film festivals in London, Zambia, and Tanzania, and will debut on state-run China Central Television in January.

Sixth Tone sat down with Abdi in her office at ZNU’s African Film and TV Research Center, where she spoke about the documentary, being black in China, and the role media can play in breaking out of conventional narratives. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Sixth Tone: How is “Africans in Yiwu” taking a different approach to typical depictions of Africa and Africans?

Hodan Osman Abdi: One of the core concepts of our film is getting African stories out in African voices. It’s allowing people to tell their own stories from their point of view. They are speaking to the Chinese audience and telling them who they are, what their culture is, how they assimilate, and what are the difficulties they face.

At the same time, they are telling people in their own countries in Africa and the rest of the world what kind of lives they are living in China — it’s a balanced [depiction]. This is the message we wanted [to send], and we didn’t want to tarnish it with our opinions and voices.

Sixth Tone: All the characters in the film speak fluent Chinese. Did you choose them to better reach Chinese audiences?

Hodan Osman Abdi: Most of our characters do speak Chinese, and as film directors, we have to think about our audience. Our [target] audience is the Chinese people, and we want our characters to be able to connect with them. So it was intentional to try to find characters who spoke fluent Chinese. But at the same time, we also wanted to find people who had lived in China for different [lengths of time]. Through their eyes, we can see changing patterns in behavior, treatment, and communication.

Sixth Tone: As one of the characters in the film, what’s the most important message you wanted to convey?

Hodan Osman Abdi: I wanted to address the racial stereotypes we face as African women [in China]. I wanted to tell other African women that their identities do not restrict them; it’s only their minds that restrict them. So if they set their minds to achieving something, their hijabs will not stop them, their religion will not stop them, and their skin color will not stop them. As long as they have the knowledge and the ability, they can walk into any space and demand respect.

I am very bubbly and open to conversation. I portray myself as a fun character in the film who is giving out [relevant] information in a way that would allow people to watch, enjoy, and — in the end — get [to know more about Africa and Africans].

Sixth Tone: Both you and your co-director are academics who work in and research media. How did your background in these fields affect your decision to make the film?

Hodan Osman Abdi: As scholars, our mission is to deliver our message to the widest range of audiences. [Presenting it visually] gives it access to a lot of people. You can spend two years writing a report, and you wouldn’t get 10 people to read it. But if you spend a month making a short video, that message could be viewed by billions of people.

Sixth Tone: Do you think Chinese people’s perception of Africans has changed since you first arrived in China?

Hodan Osman Abdi: Within the last 12 years, China has been on a very fast track of [development] and change, but there is still widespread ignorance within society. They don’t know much about Africa and what it’s like other than what they see in media, which isn’t produced by Africans. So there are misconceptions that are still there. And through this film, we are trying to address these misconceptions and bring out our human side and our efforts to change those ideas.

Sixth Tone: Why do you think Chinese media depictions of Africans are often inaccurate? How does this reflect the general perception of black people in China?

Hodan Osman Abdi: The media do reaffirm the stereotypes but can also dispel the stereotypes and change the conversation — this is what our documentary is trying to do. We are trying to show the African community in China as human beings who suffer loss; who feel happy; who want to get married, fall in love, and obtain Ph.D.s. These are common things that people from all around the world share. We are presenting them as human beings, not as sensationalized or exoticized images.

The issue with media is that they have sensationalized or exoticized the African image, and it’s because of a simple reason: Though China has different ethnic minorities, it’s still a monolithic society. Diversity does not exist.

Awareness of these issues within the Chinese community has not been raised to the extent that it should. If there were more conversations about these issues, I’m sure a lot of people would reach a consensus on what is appropriate and what’s not politically correct.

Sixth Tone: Why is this awareness still low, and how long will it take to change inaccurate perceptions of Africans in China?

Hodan Osman Abdi: It’s a subject so far and remote from [Chinese people’s] lives, and people don’t tend to be curious about or research issues that are removed from their everyday lives.

Right now, as China is becoming one of the biggest powers in the world, we see a huge influx of people from all around the world. So there is change, and it’s a lot better than 12 years ago. As China engages more with Africa and the rest of the world, people are opening to a lot of opportunities [in education and business]. Now, some Chinese people know more about my country than I do. There is that interest right now as China opens up. We can’t expect [the changes] to happen within a day. It will take time, and I do see signs of change.


Crate-digging millennials are seeking out classic East African music



Tucked between butchers and hair braiders in Nairobi’s Kenyatta Market is the Real Vinyl Guru, a shabby stall that has become a mecca for vinyl lovers.

James ‘Jimmy’ Rugami has sold second-hand records from stall 570 since 1989. In the cramped space, hundreds of seven and 12-inch vinyls are tightly packed. Among hit Motown albums is a veritable trove of East African music.

Among them is the Kenyan-based Tanzanian duo Simba Wanyika and the recently re-discovered “Sweet as Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa.” They’re all mementos of a bygone era, when Nairobi’s record presses created a hub for the regions musicians in the 70s and 80s. Many flocked to Nairobi to lay down their tracks and stayed to become part of a vibrant local scene.

Rugami entered that scene in 1986 when he left his life selling clothes in the town of Meru at the foot of Mount Kenya, and became a DJ in Nairobi. When the fast life became too much, he opted to sell music instead of spinning it, obsessively collecting records and tapes, wherever he could find them.

“I used to drive all the way to Dar es Salaam, then take a boat to Zanzibar and buy tapes there,” he recalls. “That’s where people were supplying the best stuff, especially jazz, which in Nairobi was either unavailable or very expensive.”

When the stall became almost exclusively vinyl, people thought he was mad for holding on to an outdated technology, he told the Associated Press. Still, they nicknamed him Mr. Records.

“It is not once or twice I have been labelled insane, very many times,” he said. “Well, I couldn’t stop.”

Rugami’s devotion to vinyl outlasted the cassette, CDs and streaming to welcome crate-digging millennials craving the rich tone of a record. In the few years, his stall has attracted tourists from around the world, and young Nairobians rediscovering their country’s pop roots.

Now the Real Vinyl Guru makes enough money to employ five people and Rugami’s loyalty to the distinctive crackle of a record is paying off.

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Arts & Culture

First-ever Somali exhibit at Minnesota History Center opens in June



STAR TRIBUNE — The Minnesota History Center will throw open the doors to “Somalis + Minnesota” in June, the first long-term exhibit about the east African nation’s culture, heritage and diaspora at the state’s premier history museum.

Minnesota is home to the largest Somali population in the United States, and their stories need to be told, said Steve Elliott, CEO of the Minnesota Historical Society, which operates the History Center. The U.S. Census reports the Somali population in Minnesota at 57,000, though the actual number is believed to be much higher.

“With Somali people in almost every sector of Minnesota’s workforce, now is the time to celebrate the strength and resilience of the Somali people and to help build bridges in understanding what it means to be an immigrant,” Elliott said.

The exhibit is being created in partnership with the Somali Museum of Minnesota, which opened on Lake Street in Minneapolis in 2013.

“We see this as a big honor,” said Osman Mohamed Ali, founder of the Somali Museum. “The Somali community is proud that they will have their stories told at the Minnesota History Center.”

Ali said Minnesotans are curious about their neighbors’ history and that there’s a need in the Somali community to teach the younger generation about their heritage. Many Somalis arrived in Minnesota as refugees fleeing civil war, and families have been more focused on rebuilding their lives than exploring family histories.

“There are a lot of Somalis who don’t know their history,” Ali said. “It will be educational for all Minnesotans — whether they are Somali-Americans or non-Somali-Americans.”

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Arts & Culture

Invisibilia: Inspired By ‘American Idol,’ Somali TV Show Aimed To Change The World



Welcome to Invisibilia Season 4! The NPR program and podcast explores the invisible forces that shape human behavior, and we here at Goats and Soda are joining in for the podcast’s look at how a reality show in Somalia tried to do far more than crown a winning singer. The ultimate goal: to change human behavior.

Once upon a time there was music in Somalia, but then the music started fading out. First one music radio station, then another, then another, until there was almost no music to hear and people started MacGyvering workarounds.

One of the people who came up with a workaround was Xawa Abdi Hassan, a young woman who lived in a village outside Mogadishu.

“We used to use a memory card, fill the memory card with music and listen to it from our phones,” Xawa says. In her house, as she cooked and cleaned, Hassan would sing along with the great Somali singers. But even in this private space she says she was careful. “I used to turn the volume down low, so no one could hear it.”

The problem was al-Shabab, the Islamic extremist group that dominated large parts of the country. Al-Shabab didn’t like music. In 2009 it banned music at weddings, banished musical ringtones and starting punishing people who listened to music on their mobile phones by making them swallow their memory cards.

Eventually the musicians themselves were targeted. The famous soloist Aden Hasan Salad was shot and killed in a tea shop, and others were murdered in the street.

Through all of that, Xawa Abdi Hassan kept listening and practicing. Because she had a dream: “I just wanted to sing and become an entertainer.”

For most of her life though — because of al-Shabab — this was a pretty far-fetched dream. Then in 2013 an unexpected and interesting opportunity emerged: There was going to be a new reality television show in Somalia, an American Idol-style show with singers competing.

“As soon as I heard about it I knew I wanted to join,” Hassan says.

What she didn’t know — what she couldn’t possibly know — was that this reality show was part of a much larger political plan.

Using reality TV to change the world

The plan was to create a musical reality show that could undermine the power of al-Shabab, or, in the language of the memo distributed to the people involved in the show’s creation, “undercut the messaging and brand appeal of armed extremist groups.”

The United Nations, which was providing the money and support for the show, had concluded that a vivid display of Somali musical culture could serve “as a kind of inoculation against the austerity of Shabab,” Ben Parker told me. Parker was the head of communications for the U.N. in Mogadishu. He says that at this point — 2013 — al-Shabab had finally been pushed out of the capital, Mogadishu. But the situation in Somalia was far from stable. There were still regular attacks, so the new government (which had U.N. backing) needed to prove to Somalis that the power of the extremist group really was fading. This is why, Parker says, a musical reality show that challenged the power of the music-hating group was so appealing.

“The beauty of a reality show is that the form itself achieves some of your goals,” he explains.

After all, not only is there music in a musical reality show, there’s democratic voting and individual expression. So even in its form it communicates to its audience a very different way of being.

This kind of indirect political messaging, Parker told me, is increasingly popular in strategic communications: “Those working in conflict … are less and less convinced of the value of weapons and more and more convinced that other approaches can deliver the dividends.”

You get further with songs than with bombs.

So is he right?

Can a reality show actually change reality?

It turns out this question has been systematically studied.

The tricky science of changing what’s normal

How do people come to see the world around them as normal, an unremarkable fact, the way things are and should be? This is the question that interests Betsy Levy Paluck, a psychologist at Princeton University who studies media and how societies change.

Paluck told me that for a long time people assumed the path to political or cultural change depended on crafting the right argument.

“It was all rhetoric and no poetics,” she says.

But starting in the 1990s, according to Paluck, poetics started gaining ground because psychologists realized that people consumed stories in this qualitatively different way.

“Their defensiveness is disabled. Their counterarguing is at rest.”

What Paluck wanted to understand was whether this difference in how we consumed stories translated into any changes in what we thought and how we behaved. So around 2004 she hooked up with an organization in Rwanda that was creating a new radio soap opera that was trying encourage tolerance between different ethnicities.

And what Paluck found after a year of studying communities in Rwanda randomly assigned to listen to the soap opera was that their exposure had a surprising impact.

“What it boiled down to was that despite the fact that people loved this program, it didn’t change their beliefs,” she says. “But it did change their perceptions of norms, and at the same time it changed their behaviors. Which is why I thought this is something significant.”

Let me repeat that: It didn’t change their beliefs; it changed their behaviors by changing what they considered to be the social norm.

That’s a sobering idea.

“It’s a very uncomfortable thought,” Paluck says. “We like to think that all of our behaviors flow from our convictions, and what we do is a reflection of who we are and what we think. But we’re constantly tuning ourselves to fit in with the social world around us.”

So what this work suggests is that if you change someone’s perception of what constitutes the social norm — as you convince people that the world is safe enough to sing in public even though in actual fact singing in public is incredibly dangerous — then you just might be able to move the needle on the ground.

She took on extremists with her song

Which brings us back to Xawa Abdi Hassan, the young woman who quietly listened to music off a memory card and dreamed of being a singer.

It took her some time to convince her family that it would be OK to compete in the show, called Inspire Somalia. Her mother was afraid that participating would turn her into a target, but ultimately she got permission.

Hassan says when she first took the stage to compete, her hands were shaking, and not just because this could be a big break. There was another reason: Because of al-Shabab, she had never sung in public before.

It was too dangerous.

“That was my first time,” she says. “Before that, I did not sing in public places.”

After Hassan two other contestants had their turns, both men. One had a famous musician father; the second, a man named Mustafa, had composed his own song.

Mustafa Haji Ismail competes in the TV show Inspire Somalia.

Credit: Clips from Inspire Somalia, courtesy of the U.N.
Once they finished came the part of the show supposed to serve as a democracy demonstration: the voting. Ballots were distributed to the audience and judges, and for a minute the room was quiet. In this small conference room in the middle of Mogadishu people bent over their ballots and considered the options before them.

The son of the famous musician.

The girl who practiced at home with the volume turned low.

The boy who wrote his own song.

In that room they consulted their hearts, weighed strengths and weaknesses, then marked the paper in their laps.

It was Mustafa who ended up winning, but Hassan says she was honestly not upset. For her just the act of singing in public for the first time was enough. “I was happy as … like I was born that day.” she told me.

In fact, Hassan is now a bit famous. People occasionally recognize her on the street, and even more important, she’s part of a professional singing group. As al-Shabab remains a force in Somalia, this means she is still at risk. She says she tries not to worry too much but is often spooked when she sees a car slow down when she’s walking. Still, she is committed to keep making music.

“Yes, it is dangerous,” Hassan says. “But if the young person doesn’t stand up for his country and do what’s right, how is he helping his country?”

Which brings us to this question: Did this reality show actually change reality in any way?

It would be impossible to make the case that Somalia is a completely different country now. It isn’t.

But there is at least one undeniable change since 2013. Music is back in the streets. Brought back, slowly and painfully, through a complicated combination of political strategy and personal courage.

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