|From Mogadishu to Minneapolis:
Minnesota Somalis find a television home in the studios of MTN
Minnesota, and specifically the Twin Cities metropolitan area, is home to one of the largest settlements of Somali people outside of Somalia. But you would never know this if broadcast television was your only window into the community, for you rarely see Somali culture represented there. Programming in the Somali language is completely absent from local commercial television.
But on cable TV, particularly in the city of Minneapolis, on any night you will hear Somali voices and see the faces of Somalis reporting about their community, performing Somali music, and passing on religious instruction, something vitally important to the deeply religious Somali community. The Minneapolis Television Network (MTN), which provides public access TV for the city of Minneapolis, programs eight hours of Somali language programs each week. Together, programs on the African immigrant and Muslim experience represent over 5% of the programming on MTN's three public access channels.
Abdulkadir Osman fled Somalia in 1993 to escape the civil war. Now he lives far from Somalia, in Columbia Heights, a suburb just over the border of Northeast Minneapolis. When he leaves his house in the morning to go to work, his eight children are still all sleeping. Getting to his job at the St. Paul Elementary School where he works as a bilingual educator means taking off at 6:00 am. When he gets back home from his second job, teaching adult high school at the Volunteers of America in Minneapolis, it is nearly 11 p.m., and his youngest children are already in bed.
Holding down two jobs is not unusual for members of the Twin Cities Somali community. But what Osman does between his jobs, from noon to 5 p.m. almost every weekday, is unique. He spends that time working on the two one hour Somali TV shows that he produces as a volunteer every week.
In 1997 he was working at the Hennepin County Medical Center as an interpreter and cultural consultant. While there he helped members of the Twin Cities Somali community navigate the health care system, but he was only able to work with maybe four people a day. That was just a drop in the bucket for a local Somali community that official estimates put at over 20,000 members. According to Osman, the real number of local Somalis is more than twice that number.
It was when he was visiting a friend's house that he saw a peculiar grey box that had "MTN" stenciled on it. Inside the box was some kind of video camera. Osman asked his friend where the box was from, and that is how he discovered public access television. When he visited the studios of MTN a few days later, he knew that he had discovered a way he could help thousands of people bridge the cultural gap.
Almost as soon as he finished his first class at MTN, Osman was producing a weekly show called Somali TV. For the first year, he made the shows working alone. In his second year he started building a crew of local Somali residents who liked what they saw and wanted to help. One of those early crewmembers, Abdi Abdiaar, went on to make another show, Somali Life.
"One hour wasn't enough for our community," Abdi explains. Not long after Abdi started producing Somali Life, Osman began producing a second hour of Somali TV every week. Osman works with a strong volunteer crew now, and that makes the work easier, though all members of the crew work hard. Siad Said Salah is a regular at many Somali events recording field video, while Mohamed Shino and Mohamud Mas'ade share the job of anchoring and writing the news casts.
A regular feature of Somali Life is the comedy of Padri. Abdi calls Padri "the Somali Chris Rock," and Padri explains that he joined the show when he told Abdi that a comedian featured on Somali Life wasn't very funny, and he could do better. Padri fashions his jokes and stories on the challenges that Somalis have coping with U.S. and Minnesota culture.
Osman says that callers to the Somali TV voice mail often find that they can't leave comments because the mailbox is full. "The community relies on us and expects the programs to keep coming," he explains. He gets complaints if he re-runs a program, so he always has pressure to keep things fresh.
The importance of the Somali community programs both for the local Somali community and also Minneapolis was recognized earlier this year when the City Pages, an alternative newspaper, named Somali TV the "Best Public Access Cable TV Program" in its "Best of the Twin Cities" issue. In the article about the honor, the City Pages said, "For some, public access is an early, inspiring lesson in democracy and free media."
Some of the programs are made with the assistance of Somali mutual assistance organizations. Osman produces Somali TV with the assistance of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, an organization that provides social services like language classes and employment counseling. The Somali Mai Community of Minnesota is an organization that produces a weekly show in the Somali Mai language. The Somali Bantu people, who speak this language, represent some of the most recent immigration to Minnesota.
Both Abdi and Osman say that the single most important reason that they do their work at MTN, and not at another access center, is the MTN staff. They both claim that the MTN staff is particularly understanding of the needs of immigrant producers, and goes out of its way to welcome them.
In fact, two members of the MTN staff who originally helped the Somali producers get started are also from Islamic countries. J.C. Bagdadi, Senior Production Manager at MTN, left Libya when he was a young man. Mustafa Tell, who taught Osman's first studio production class, is from Jordan, where he now once again lives and works.
MTN Executive Director Pam Colby says, "Sensitivity to the cultural traditions, language and background of new immigrant producers is something that MTN has attempted to build into its staff." Bagdadi regularly informs the non-Islamic members of the staff about upcoming Islamic holidays, like Ramadan, and traditions, like the importance of prayer and the need Islamic producers may have for a place and time to pray. Bagdadi also helps staff understand some of the content of the Somali programs which, after all, are in the Somali language.
"MTN has a wonderful staff ready to help you, any minute, any second, whether you are alone or with a group," Osman says.
Bagdadi calls Saturdays at MTN "Mogadishu Day" after the capital city of Somalia. On Saturday afternoons, MTN's two studios are often both filled with Somali production activity. A Somali singer, maybe from the local area, sometimes from Somalia, might perform in front of a blue screen scene from Somali. One of the local Somali anchors, dressed in a suit as nice as any worn by a commercial TV personality, might be reading a Somali language recap of local news. A religious leader might be giving advice and instruction in front of a blue screen temple. And the Somali crews, giving instructions in the Somali language, set up the lighting, camera shots and effects, and direct the shows.
Producers representing a number of different Somali programs collaborated recently on a special Ramadan call-in show. Bagdadi helped bring the Somali producers together for this two hour live extravaganza, and Osman, recognized as the senior member of the local Somali television community, directed the show. Liban Hussein, on the crew of the Somali Mai Community program, developed the content of the show together with Abdi and Somali TV's Mohamed Shino. Although they may be from clans fighting against each other in Somalia's civil war, they were able to joke and work together under the pressure and excitement of putting together a live TV show at MTN.
"To do these shows would cost us thousands of dollars, but here we make them for no money, for our community," Osman says.
A TV station that isn't controlled by government or big business. A TV station of immigrants, artists, neighbors and you. A TV station dedicated to community and free speech. A TV station without commercials. A TV station that treats you like a citizen, not like a consumer. MTN - Where the People Speak.