Like many who initially got here from Somalia, Abdurrahman Mahmud usually refers to his nation of origin as “the poet nation.”
For the final three years, he’s been working to make use of that in style Somali artform—oral storytelling—to convey consciousness to the massive public well being points affecting East African communities within the Twin Cities and throughout Minnesota.
Within the coming weeks, Abdu and Blended Blood Theatre Firm, a longtime performing arts venue in Minneapolis’ Cedar–Riverside neighborhood, will start an bold venture aimed toward sparking public conversations on three matters largely stored personal inside these communities: psychological well being, sexual well being, and substance abuse.
All three points should be talked about entrance and heart to supply higher public well being outcomes, Abdu mentioned.
The venture, known as Abdu’s Metropolis of Nations Storytelling Studio, goals to carry month-to-month “storytelling circles” on the three matters, beginning in both mid-December or early January. Roughly a half-dozen folks will take part in every storytelling circle.
These discussions shall be filmed, edited, and finally distributed by on-line platforms like YouTube and the Somali American TV net channel. They’ll additionally display in public occasions at Blended Blood as soon as the COVID-19 pandemic is below management, mentioned Jack Reuler, the theater’s creative director.
East African communities really feel snug with this type of communication, Abdu mentioned, making it a super strategy to unfold consciousness of the three matters.
Abdu, a public well being specialist who as soon as labored on human rights points for the United Nations, hopes that the visibility of individuals sharing their tales “will ignite a dialogue” on these topics.
The Storytelling Studio venture may also share the outcomes with well being care professionals to provide them insights into serving East African communities, he added.
A sequel to Undertaking 154
The Storytelling Studio venture follows the same Undertaking 154 public well being initiative, additionally led by Abdu and Blended Blood. Named after the cross streets for Blended Blood’s transformed firehouse house—fifteenth Avenue South and South 4th Road—Undertaking 154 drew greater than 300 contributors over the course of its three-year run.
Undertaking 154 was looser in its focus and aimed toward enhancing public well being disparities in East African communities. The venture discovered folks to take part by working by elected officers and with organizations just like the College of Minnesota. Members wouldn’t have to provide their names or share their info publicly in the event that they didn’t need to.
“Of the 300 individuals who participated, solely 17 agreed to be photographed,” Abdu mentioned. “That’s how discreet it was.”
Abdullahi Sheikh, a public well being specialist who at present works as a coordinator for African Group Providers, led a few of the dialogue circles for Undertaking 154. For one dialogue, Abdullahi requested contributors to suppose again to a time once they have been wholesome.
“They imagined a time at dwelling when the solar was shining, when there was loads of milk and meat, and folks might go to each other, and there was no battle,” Abdullahi mentioned.
When he requested the contributors to think about a time they weren’t wholesome, many cited the cruel days of Minnesota winters and the way the climate triggered them to remain indoors, eat extra, and placed on weight.
One of many greatest takeaways, Abdullahi mentioned, got here when neighborhood members spoke of their expertise navigating care suppliers in Minnesota. Members spoke about having hassle with medical interpreters who didn’t translate for them properly. And so they described their shock that nurses and docs may spend simply 15 or 20 minutes with them throughout affected person appointments.
On the optimistic aspect, a few of the elders who had surgical procedures like a hip alternative, a lung transplant, or laser eye surgical procedure spoke of know-how in U.S. healthcare as miraculous.
“Some had good experiences, some had unhealthy,” Abdullahi mentioned. “They provided an expression of each gratitude and outrage at how they skilled well being care.”
Blended Blood didn’t movie any of the storytelling circles from Undertaking 154; as a substitute one of many coordinators took notes. However afterward, the venture did produce video profiles of some contributors describing details from the discussions. These appeared on Mixed Blood’s YouTube page in late 2019.
Undiscussed matters: psychological well being, sexual well being, and substance abuse
As a substitute of focusing broadly on well being, Storytelling Studio will intention completely to interrupt the stigma surrounding psychological well being, sexual well being, and substance abuse.
Abdu emphasised that each one three points are linked. The matters are additionally clouded by a niche between the youthful generations and their dad and mom, a lot of whom grew up in Africa with totally different cultural norms. He gave one hypothetical instance.
“A younger girl who goes to highschool in Minnesota might expertise a reproductive-related difficulty, and when she goes dwelling she doesn’t have the consolation to inform what occurred to her dad and mom,” Abdu mentioned. “That may result in stress or despair or anxiousness, which may result in substance abuse, which is a really prevalent factor within the East African neighborhood now. That then results in catastrophe, and an unproductive future for that child.”
Undertaking 154 discovered related actual life examples. One video shows participant Bosteya Jama, a social employee, talking a few teenage Somali girl who acquired pregnant however by no means informed her dad and mom. The girl determined to get an abortion.
In the video, Bosteya mentioned youngsters act this fashion partially as a result of “as Somali dad and mom, we don’t talk about such points with our youth. We don’t have open communication with our youth, with our girls and boys.”
It is perhaps more durable to search out prepared contributors for Storytelling Studio than for Undertaking 154 as a result of the discussions shall be filmed and made public. However Maryam Nur, who’s consulting with Abdu on the venture and works as affiliate director for the Somali American Mother and father Affiliation, mentioned she and others shall be in search of contributors by going by their trusted circles.
“In my neighborhood, they must belief you earlier than they even discuss to you,” Maryam mentioned. “You can not simply go to somebody you have no idea. If I need to method a household, I discuss to somebody who is aware of them.”
Addressing delicate points by oral storytelling, she mentioned, helps dad and mom and households really feel that they don’t seem to be being focused.
“You’re telling a narrative for a bunch of individuals, the entire neighborhood, so nobody will really feel such as you’re offending them,” Maryam mentioned. “As a substitute of me going to a household and saying, ‘I need to discuss with you about AIDS.’ They may let you know, ‘Why are you coming to me? Do you suppose I’m sick? Do you suppose one thing is fallacious with me?’”
‘Folks have seen intercourse as a personal difficulty’
Open communication between the 2 generations is likely one of the huge objectives of the Storytelling Studio. Abdullahi, who’s planning to participate within the new venture, has some expertise getting his neighborhood to deal with delicate points within the open. Since 2001, he’s labored to unfold consciousness on HIV and AIDS prevention inside native African immigrant communities. A lot of this work, he mentioned, included overcoming his personal preliminary biases on the topic.
“We come from a background the place, usually, folks have seen intercourse as a personal difficulty,” he mentioned. “The place a sexual encounter is between two people who find themselves married, with specific consent of the neighborhood.”
Islam values abstinence earlier than marriage and constancy inside marriage, Abdullahi mentioned. And the widespread notion of HIV and AIDS has been that individuals contracted the illness by failing to observe these social expectations.
“Folks now know they will get it different methods, and persons are extra knowledgeable now,” he mentioned.
With the Storytelling Studio venture, organizers are hoping to interrupt related stigmas in psychological well being. Psychological well being issues may be misunderstood by older generations, as a result of therapy might have barely existed of their nation of origin, Abdu mentioned.
“Should you had despair or have been feeling down, folks would let you know simply go to the mosque,” Abdu mentioned. “Search God, seek the advice of with God, or learn the Qu’ran. Now what we’re encouraging folks to do is to hunt assist, to hunt remedy, to talk up, and share their tales.”
A altering sort of theater for a altering neighborhood
Blended Blood will act as a kind of producer for the Storytelling Studio: Abdu mentioned he’s trying to lease a studio for the engagements.
Blended Blood, which Reuler based in 1976, acquired concerned in each Undertaking 154 and the upcoming Storytelling Studio partially to serve the altering neighborhood the place the theater has operated for greater than 40 years
Within the final 20 years, Blended Blood has sought to incorporate Cedar-–Riverside’s rising East African neighborhood in its programming. Initially, that meant making an attempt to get extra folks from the neighborhood to return to reveals and reveals on the theater. However prior to now 5 years, the theater modified its focus to have interaction extra straight with the neighborhood.
“We’ve spent 15 years making an attempt to make use of Western theater to affect issues, and now we’re really taking the Somali artform of storytelling to perform it,” Reuler mentioned. “And it’s been rather more efficient.”