Under the motto “anchored in our culture, focused on our future”, Gashanti Unity, a trail-blazing, Toronto-based group of young Somali-Canadian women is taking girl empowerment, leadership development and cultural production to new heights.
According to its mission statement, Gashanti Unity provides girls and young women a safe atmosphere to develop their gifts, abilities, and positive relationship through leadership and mentoring programs, consultation and information services; and through community capacity building and training and education.
In an exclusive interview with the Digital Journal’s Farid Omar, Gashanti Unity’s Muna Ali and Khadra Ali sat with the Toronto-based writer at the Tiff Bell Lightbox in the heart of downtown Toronto to discuss the group’s mission and its vision for the future. The beautiful, multi-talented, brilliant and highly articulate Gashanti duo highlighted the movement’s progress since its inception in 2007 to its ongoing work on the international arena.
Gashanti’s powerful motto, speaks volumes to the group’s innovative work that is redefining the Somali cultural landscape. The motto was hatched during a visioning retreat of the highly dynamic, girls-led initiative.
“It was during a retreat of eight young Somali women, co-founders of Gashanti working with Deqa Farah, a Toronto-based consultant and a close mentor to Gashanti that our motto was conceived. In this instance, working with a Somali person (consultant) who understands our culture and heritage was important. As Gashanti, we are basically Canadian women representing two identities now settled in the Diaspora. Thus the choice of the terms Gashanti (Somali for girls), and the Queen Latifah - inspired ideals of U.N.I.T.Y, represents a banner that demonstrates the essence of our dual identity” said Muna Ali.
Photo: Gashanti Unity
Beautiful and talented: The inspirational girls of Gashanti Unity posing in a group photo.
Gashanti Unity may be a product of a local reality but its overall mandate is both Canadian and globalist in nature.
“We are seeking to make an imprint in Canadian life, build a future for ourselves here and know where we came from and at the same time, be global citizens” said Khadra Ali.
As Gashanti Unity ambassadors, Muna and Khadra went on a trip down to the Horn of Africa in the summer of 2012, to their family roots in Hargeysa, followed by a London UK cultural tour of last October’s Somali Week Festival held at the English capital. In the Horn, they represented their organization at the annual Hargeysa International Book Fair (HIBF) that brought together writers, poets and filmmakers from around the world.
HIBF is organized by Redsea Online, a Cultural Foundation based in Italy and in Somaliland which promotes the culture of reading and creative writing in Somali speaking society, with particular focus on youth. Jama Musse Jama, a prominent Somali authour, is the director of the Book Fair. HIBF’s mandate of promoting Somali cultural, artistic and literary awareness is of direct relevance to Gashanti Unity’s work and hence the Book Fair was an ideal setting for the young and powerful Ali sisters to share their stories and learn from its enriching and rewarding experience.
“In display at the Hargeysa International Book Fair was literature from all over the world including the Somali Diaspora. It provided a platform for local authours to intermingle with and share their works with international writers. In attendance were Somali literary icons like Mohamed Ibrahim Warsame (Hadraawi), acclaimed authors like Nadhifa, author of Black Mamba, Jama Musse Jama, popularly known for his English language work, The Serpent, Mary Harper, BBC reporter and author of the book Getting Somalia Wrong, a Minnesota-based Somali writer, who in one of his works, reminisced over past experiences with friends and how they used to play soccer in the City of Burao as well as many other writers, poets, composers and playwrights” recounted Muna.
Photo: Gashanti Unity.
The vibrant and colourful Hargeysa International Book Fair (HIBF).
The Book Fair is a significantly important platform that can inspire the younger generation to engage in cultural and literary production.
“For so long, the Somali people have largely been identified as an oral society. While our oral tradition is there to stay, the Hargeysa International Book Fair is an illustration that our people are now writing books. We would like to do the same by demonstrating to our young Canadian generation that we can equally work as cultural and literary producers. Writing is so important because there is too much power in the pen” noted Khadra.
According to Muna, the Hargeysa International Book Fair went beyond the literary realm as local activists used the occasion to promote community development initiatives, advocating for establishment of public libraries in various municipalities. For example, a local action in the Municipality of Burao that culminated in the setting up of a public library, inspired similar fruitful actions in other Municipalities including Hargeysa, Berbera etc.
Apart from creating spaces for girls, Gashanti Unity is sharing its stories and experiences in Canada and across borders. Muna states that Gashanti intends to use film to tell stories and that for every project undertaken, her organization would document it.
Photo: Gashanti Unity
Muna Ali (left) and Khadra Ali (right) standing beside a traditional hut during their trip to the Horn.
Independent filmmaking is an important avenue of communication that can accurately document a people’s reality, including the experiences of Somali women.
“The images we have about Somali women are the ones determined and shaped by mainstream media with tendency to focus on among other things- the world famous Somali models. There is more to the Somali women’s’ story than is portrayed in mainstream media and that’s why we want to do it ourselves by making our own films” said Khadra.
In October, last year, Muna and Khadra took Gashanti Unity’s work to the Somali Week Festival in London where they showcased some of their films. An annual event that brings together Somali writers, poets, filmmakers, musicians, comedians and other personalities in the artistic and literary world, the London Festival is organized by Kayd Somali Arts and Culture, in collaboration with Redsea Online Cultural Foundation and other partners. In creating linkages with like-minded groups, Gashanti Unity has built a working partnership with the Hargeysa and London-based organizations that all share common goals and objectives.
According to Kayd, the vibrant London Somali Week Festival “is an integral part of Black History Month and offers the best of Somali arts and culture, both old and new. The festival offers a mix of events including poetry, literature, panel discussions, documentary film screenings, music and theatre.”
Photo: Gashanti Unity
A breathtaking view of the Laas Gaal region located at the outskirts of Hargeysa. The area is home to some of the earliest known cave paintings in Africa.
Toronto and Canada in general, can learn from the world famous, all-inclusive London Somali Week Festival.
“The art space is the most inclusive. It doesn’t matter where you come from. In London’s Somali Week Festival, all Somali identities were represented. It was an arena where the Somali culture and heritage was extensively showcased. We would like to bring such a festival to Toronto, which has a large Somali population but lags behind London on the cultural scene" observed Muna while Khadra said she would like one day "to see an integrated flag that represents all the diverse elements of Somali communities."
In terms of film production, Muna said that her organization is doing collaboration work with the National Theatre of Wales, located in the City of Cardiff, known to be home to the oldest Somali Diaspora in the West. The De Gabay project spearheaded by local young Somalis is an important cultural endeavor that highlights immigrant stories. De Gabay means "the poem" in Somali, and this production from National Theatre of Wales celebrates Somali-Welsh residents and its thriving young poets. Gashanti Unity was one of the groups from around the world that participated in this project.
“The young Somali men whom we met in London took the initiative to approach the Theatre. De Gabay wanted people from different cities in the Diaspora including the UK, US and Canada to submit recorded footages. I interviewed girls in Toronto covering questions on their thoughts on belonging and what they wanted for themselves and their community. We submitted this footage and we would like to do more of these short stories” said Muna.
“We would like to write and produce our own stories before they are portrayed for us by others. From producing to directing we want to be in charge of our cultural production. In Somali plays, our parents’ experiences are depicted but our generation is not represented. We would like to refocus attention on our generation too. Overall, we plan to bring the Somali cultural life into the big stage. We would like to see Somali-specific festivals in public places like Dundas Square and the Harbourfront” said Muna and Khadra.
Photo: Gashanti Unity
Gashanti Unity's Muna Ali (right) and Khadra Ali (left).
Muna says young Somalis can learn more from established scholars who advance Somali-centred intellectual discourses. Last April, Somali-American writer, Abdi Latif Ega was in Toronto for a two day event to promote his newly-released book, Guban. Speaking to audiences at York University and in downtown Toronto, Abdi Latif’s lecture and book reading sessions focused on deconstructing and de-mystifying negative portrayals of Somalis prevalent in the media, calling for counter narratives to challenge such negative depictions. In building relations between scholars and young people, Muna envisions a literary gateway bringing together Somali scholars and the younger generation.
“I would like to see the possibility of a residency program that would immerse young folks in intense two week residency with scholars like Abdi Latif in an intellectually stimulating environment. They would definitely learn a lot from his wealth of knowledge” said Muna.
Apart from filmmaking, creating spaces and sharing stories, social entrepreneurship is another important field Gashanti Unity has venturing into.
“In respect to social enterprise, we have ventured into the wedding business with our girls engaging in photography, videography and DJing. The wedding industry is huge, but in our community, things are still done at an informal level. We want to take it to a five star professional level complete with wedding planning and all other related functions” said Muna.
In Canada, the Somali cultural fraternity lacks its own physical space to stage important functions. Khadra says this has to change.
“We would like to see ourselves run our own banquet halls where the community can host its cultural events.”
Gashanti Unity is heralding a new era that is enriching the Somali cultural scene through leadership and innovation, collaboration, entrepreneurship and film production to inspire cultural awareness among the younger generation and to effectively showcase the Somali culture and its rich heritage to a world audience.
For more info: www.gashantiunity.ca