Self portraits

Self portraits

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

One Door Closes; Another Door Opens

After I lost my job as scientist at the University of Minnesota Department of Epidemiology in 2006, an acquaintance asked me to teach an art class for Somali girls at a non-profit organization in Minneapolis. This was on the West Bank, near the apartments which the community calls 'Cedars' -- and, it was organized to help women have a safe place to leave their children (in each others' care, like a co-op), while they went across the street to learn English. 
Portrait of Mohamed

I taught the class for girls, and then I stayed on to volunteer until I found work. And so I had a chance to follow several east African women around the small kitchen at the center to learn about their cuisine. This was especially fun, because a) they were fabulous cooks, and b) they didn't know a lot of English.  So, if there were five women in the kitchen there might be four languages spoken, and lots of laughter.  They didn't have English words for all the ingredients, which meant smelling the spices to guess the names. Chasing after the women with my note pad, I created recipes to try later -- with mixed success.

Learning about Somali cuisine was my entry point to working in the community on health and wellness initiatives, which I have done for the past eight years.  My background in public health and nutrition brought me to work with east African elders in community clinics and other businesses, where I have learned and taught in equal measure. I partnered with UCare to give out free shoes to clients to increase physical activity, taken folks on 'walking tours'. I've worked on a Somali language film and other educational materials concerning public health and nutrition. Assisted by countless amazing colleagues and interpreters (much more than simply translating a language, my Somali interpreters patiently explain cultural and religious customs along the way), I've really come to love Somali language and culture.

Bar ama baro. (Somali proverb, meaning - "Learn or teach") For me, learning Somali language starts with the cuisine.
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