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Somali Filmmaker Shows Real Lives of Africans in China

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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.

Arts & Culture

Khadija Abdullahi Daleys, Mother Of Somali Music, Dies At 82

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One of Somalia’s most legendary singers has died. Khadija Abdullahi Daleys was known as the mother of Somali music, and we have an appreciation.

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Fashion

Storm Management Signs Its First Hijab-Wearing Model, Shahira Yusuf

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Storm Management, the agency which scouted Kate Moss when she was 14, has signed its first hijab-wearing model. Shahira Yusuf is a 20-year-old from London who has broken ground by becoming one of the first hijabi models to be signed to a major agency, following Vogue Arabia cover girl Halima Aden, who joined the IMG family last year. Yusuf joins Storm Management’s wide-ranging roster of models, which also includes Cindy Bruna and Alek Wek. The England-born beauty of Somalian descent, who was scouted at 17 (but didn’t pursue modeling until three years later) admits that although she grew up watching America’s Next Top Model and counts Iman, Tyra Banks, Naomi Campbell, Alek Wek, Liya Kebede, and Lily Cole as inspirations, she was never interested in joining the fashion industry until recently.

Shahira Yusuf photographed by Ronan McKenzie. Courtesy of Storm

“Growing up, being slim and tall, I received the ‘you should model’ comments almost every time I met someone – I’m sure many tall girls can relate,” she tells Vogue Arabia. “I’d say modeling was something I did have an understanding of, in terms of what a model is, but I did not have a passion for the industry nor fashion itself. It kind of just happened for me.”

Despite renowned models like Iman, Yasmin Warsame, and Waris Dirie all hailing from Somalia, modeling is not a traditional career in Yusuf’s culture. Yet she says her friends and family have been super supportive. “I wouldn’t be modeling if it wasn’t for my friends and family constantly asking me to do it. When you have so many of your family, friends, and even strangers approaching you and asking you to consider modeling, it definitely does make you want to pursue it.”

Courtesy of Storm Management

Last November, the Somali beauty went viral on Twitter after posting a series of photographs sporting an oversized gray pantsuit paired with a neatly tied black turban and matching bum bag. “I ain’t [sic] no Kendall Jenner but I’m a black Muslim girl from East London that’s about to finesse the modeling industry,” she captioned it. The pictures garnered more than 57,000 retweets and 122,000 likes. Praise immediately began to pour in from users the world over. “So inspirational. I’m also Somali and from East London, so you’re very inspirational to me,” wrote one user. Another user quipped: “I will do whatever it takes to support you, you’re beautiful Mashallah.”

“I didn’t think the tweet would get that much attention,” Yusuf says. “Especially for it to be reposted so many times and get as much attention on other social media platforms like Instagram, too. I’ve received so much support and I’m glad I tweeted that because it’s very difficult to stand out in such a competitive industry.” Indeed, although the fashion industry has taken major steps to become more inclusive, the number of visibly Muslim models is limited. But Shahira is hopeful. “I do believe that it’s harder to make it as a hijab-wearing model as you have already filtered so many forms of modeling out. So for one, you have fewer opportunities. This is why I feel that it’s up to the fashion industry to create more opportunities for models like me. There is a huge modest fashion market, and more companies are starting to release modest fashion clothing lines.”

Shahira Yusuf photographed by Ronan McKenzie. Courtesy of Storm

She is excited to represent Muslim womanhood in a way she rarely saw growing up. “I’ve become a model at a time when society is more accepting of people of different ethnicities and religions. It’s about time we had an equal representation and moved on from just the majority. We know that there are aspiring models from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, so there’s really no excuse for the lack of diversity.”

Though she has yet to secure her first big gig, Yusuf recounts doing a spread with Marfa Journal as a career highlight. Her biggest goal? “To be the first hijab-wearing model to land the front cover of British Vogue. That would be amazing. Another huge goal of mine is to walk the runway for my favorite designer brands, Chanel and Burberry, in the future.” But most important is keeping true to her values. “It’s so easy to get carried away with the extravagant clothes and makeup in modeling, but I want to make sure I remain true to myself. And in that way I can convey myself in the most genuine way. My portfolio is a reflection of who I am and what I stand for. I love modesty, so I want my work to reflect that.”

Whether she wants to or not, Yusuf serves as a beacon of hope for a more inclusive world, one that offers a seat at the table for everyone, and not just those who conform or blend in.

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Arts & Culture

Somali storytelling takes a new form in Minneapolis: hip-hop

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A group of two dozen young men, many of Somali and East African descent, sit in a makeshift circle of chairs on the first floor of a community theater in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. Some are in school, some have dropped out, but all have come to listen, tell and talk about stories — about being harassed by police, about basketball, about feeling abandoned by politicians both local and national.

They’re all fans of 20-year-old hip-hop artist and poet Abduzarak Omar, known as “Sisco,” who organized the group and arranged the space in an effort to raise “political consciousness” among his community’s youth.

Omar, with his baggy beanie cap and ponytail, is soft-spoken, yet he commands the room with a sense of poise beyond his years.

“Culturally, back home, it’s like an elder sitting down in a circle with his kids or the neighborhood kids and he tells them the story of their land and the good and bad things that have happened,” said Omar, who moved to America at the age of 8 from Ethiopia. “And it’s kind of a similar thing what we do: We sit around and pick out stories either in the news or things that have happened that are on our minds.”

“Back home” for Omar, whose father is Ethiopian and Somali, is the East African countryside, where traditional storytelling takes a different form. After a day of tilling the land or herding animals, families would gather at night around a bonfire.

Said Salah Ahmed, a Somali poet and playwright who’s also a lecturer at the University of Minnesota, said that the traditional form of storytelling and passing on of folklore and proverbs involved a circle that encompassed multiple generations. It was a way that people learned about their identities, and the stories spanned every aspect of human life, with moral lessons easily transferable to political, social and economic issues. But that tradition and style of storytelling has been lost in large part with migration to the United States and the vast changes in lifestyle that ensued — due to urbanization, the Minneapolis winters and assimilation into American culture.

“In the diaspora, very few people will do the continuation of the telling of stories,” Salah said. “There are no animals to milk and there is gathering in the living room if there is time remaining from homework, but many younger parents that I see on the street will say, ‘How can I tell stories I do not know myself?’ ”

The reality of adjusting to a new country and finding ways to make a living and raise families is a great barrier to the preservation of history and traditions, said Fatuma Mohamed, a student at the University of Minnesota. “My father, as a first immigrant to America, is not going to be thinking, ‘Oh how do I preserve my history?’” she said. “He’s thinking, ‘How do I save the livelihood of my family?’; he’s thinking about securing a good job and making sure we can secure good jobs.”

Omar said he only knows about the traditional form of storytelling from what his older family members have told him. But he sees storytelling as a vital part of his community — and his life. “I feel unhealthy if I don’t let certain things out, and the way I do that is through my art,” said Omar, who spends his days working in the food pantry at the Brian Coyle Community Center and at the Mixed Blood Theatre.

Raised by his grandmother and aunt until he moved out on his own at 16, Omar lost a close cousin, whom he refers to as a brother, to a fatal brain aneurysm, and he lost a close friend to a fatal shooting in 2015. He picked up the name “Sisco,” a reference to an Italian tiger, a few years ago, when he was leading a youth group meeting. He said a few older men walked into the room and said something along the lines of “he is the youngest in the room but has his chest out so far he’s like a tiger in the room.”

His raps and poems touch on a wide range of topics — from love stories to deep struggles and empowering, inspirational songs. One song, “Listen to the Sky,” touches on the death of his close friend Fahmi in 2015 and includes reflections on his life and future.

I’m young with a lot to show… I hope it ain’t my time to head out

Been through madness in my past still a lot for me to let out

I just go to bed with simple thoughts as the world is moving quick …

I say I’m hella proud of me and I say I’m letting out everything

I ain’t holding nothing, take the better route

I probably blow it down I ain’t about to lie

When I’m feeling pain inside I just listen to the sky

“My music is about my everyday life; it’s about the lives of the people I’m around,” Omar said. “People sometimes say that I’m too young to have gone through so many things, but it’s also because I’m trying to put myself in other people’s shoes and tell their stories.”

Singing about values
Salah said that hip-hop has yet to be accepted by the elders in the community, but he does recognize its unifying value among youth.

“The traditional form of storytelling used to bring together the elderly, the middle-aged and the young — the whole family around the fire,” Salah said. “But now it is only among the youth that are together in these places who tell to each other; I see them reciting and singing about their own values.”

“It is not accepted yet, but I hope [the elders] will understand that this is a form of poetry and will accept it one day,” he said.

Omar knows this negative perception among elders well. He decided not to tell his wife’s parents about his poetry and rapping to avoid any difficult conversations. He thinks the lack of respect for hip-hop comes from the prevalence of songs about drugs and guns. “They hear about the guns and the drugs and think it’s negative music and doesn’t have any talent to it,” Omar said. “In a way, I would say that’s a form of expression and there’s nothing wrong with it if you have an open mind and understand there’s a bigger picture behind all the talking about guns and drugs.”

For Omar, that bigger picture is making a difference in his community and helping his fellow young East African men make good decisions. The youth group he started in 2014, which was then called “Teen Voice” while it was grant-supported, is now restarting as a simple weekly discussion and storytelling forum that aims to connect with some youth who may have lost their way or gotten involved with drugs.

“I could be a lot worse off than I am right now,” said Omar. “I’ve been around a lot of bad things, a bad crowd, but music has always been my getaway.”

Omar has a way of connecting with young members of his community that harkens back to his family roots — the core of which is storytelling. “I do come from a family of storytellers, I guess, and truck drivers,” Omar said. “My grandfather and all of his sons were well-known truck drivers and one of the families that did a lot of transportation across borders, so when there needed to be a delivery from Ethiopia to Somalia, it would be my family that would do it.”

He said that his family is bilingual, and fluent in Somali, and that storytelling was how they forged relationships: “It was their connection to people, wherever they’ve gone, they’ve been the family accepted by everyone, the family that’s gotten to know everybody.”

For Omar, storytelling is a powerful part of everyday life — and a broad concept, applicable to his music, his outreach to youth and connecting to his family history. The way he tells stories is far from the traditional East African countryside manner of sitting around a bonfire after a day of working the land, but the theme of using stories to learn about culture, identity and life.

“I try to be flexible in my poetry and music,” Omar said. “That comes from learning from a lot of people.”

This story is part of Crossing the Divide, a cross-country reporting road trip from WGBH and The GroundTruth Project. Eric Bosco is part of a team of five reporters exploring issues that divide us and stories that unite us.

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