On Saturday, June 26, Lake Street between Pleasant Avenue and Blaisdell was abuzz with celebration as hundreds of Minnesotans of Somali descent gathered to celebrate Somalia’s independence from the Italians and the British fifty years ago. Minnesota has the nation’s largest Somali population. Estimates of the total number of Minnesota Somalis vary from 30,000 to 60,000 and up.
Teenage girls chat at celebration (Photo by Oliver St. John)
For many Somalis, celebrating independence from European colonists is bittersweet as the country continues to be plagued by civil war. Asha Ali, an Augusburg University student, who was at the weekend celebration explained her conflict, “I am proud of my Somali heritage, but it feels odd celebrating independence when all that Somalia is independent from is the colonialists. We are still at war.”
Somali youths play in the bouncy slide (Photo by Oliver St. John)
Nimco Ahmed, one of the organizers of the event and a policy aide with the Minneapolis City Council, says that for now Somalis in Minnesota need to concentrate on building their lives here. “What is happening in Somalia is mostly out of our reach. We need to come together as a community, talk about issues affecting us here. That should be our priority.”
Two sisters at the Independence Day Celebration (Photo by Oliver St. John)
The pre-colonial and post-colonial political history of Somalia is very complicated. The British ruled the north of present-day Somalia while the Italians colonized the south, with each part of the country getting independence on a different day. At the time, these territories were called British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland. (There were other territories that are now in present-day Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti, a former French colony.) On June 26th, 1960 the north gained its independence from the British, and five days later on July 1st, the south also became independent. On that same day, the two territories united to become the Republic of Somalia. However, after the civil war broke out in 1991, Somaliland (the North) began to talk about secession later becoming a de facto independent state. Somaliland is not yet recognized by international governments.
Voices on the street
Abia Ali, associate director of Somali American Healthcare Foundation, said the day is akin to Americans celebrating the Fourth of July. “It’s really important when you gain your freedom to be as a country rather than being colonized by foreigners,” he said. “It’s a really big day for the country and the people.”
According to Yusuf Abdinasser, a customer service representative who ran the UCare booth at the event, the Lake Street celebration was held so that nobody would have to miss it due to “a working day” on July 1. “That was the day that all Somalis were united,” said Abdinasser.
Fifteen year old Ayan Scheikh said, “It’s important for me because it was the day that my country got to stand up and fight for their own rights and became a nation that had a name.”
Inspector Eddie Frizell with the Minneapolis Police Department counted the day as a success. “It’s been nothing short of outstanding,” he said. “The cooperation that we’ve got from the adjoining communities as well as the businesses on Lake Street and of course the Somali Community itself has really come together and as I stand right now, its peaceful, the children all have smiles and everyone is exactly where they need to be.”
As a result there was controversy in picking June 26th as a day to celebrate Somalia’s independence day in Minneapolis. Ahmed says that the day was simply picked because of logistical purposes, as July 1 falls on a weekday. But she also added, “It does not matter to me what day we picked. We are all Somalis, and should all celebrate each other’s independence as people with one cultural identity.”
It is this cultural celebration that brought Najma Jama and her sons to the festivities. “I brought my sons to see and celebrate music and dance with other Somalis, something they don’t do often enough.”
Performances included music and dance from popular Somali musicians: Hibo Mohamed, Rahma Ruuxi and Fartun Omar who regaled their fans with old Somali folk songs. The Young Achievers, young Somali poets also performed crowd favorites – poems that spoke out against youth violence and family abandonment, while calling for community cohesiveness.
The event was attended by several local politicians including Al Franken, Margaret Kelliher, Robert Lilligren and Jeff Hayden.