Ottawa's Somali community celebrates birth of a new festival

Ottawa’s Somali community has a new annual festival to call its own, one that launched at Ottawa City Hall on Saturday.

The Somali Cultural Festival featured food such as meat-filled sambusas, performances on the Kaban guitar, poetry and a fashion show, along with panel discussions.

Omar Kabaan Somali Cultural Festival

Musician Omar plays the Kaban, a traditional Somali guitar, at Ottawa City Hall. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

The Somali Centre for Family Services, which organized the event with the city, said the process of getting Ottawa-Gatineau’s 20,000 Somalis their own version of the Greek, Ukranian or Lebanese festival started with the death of Abdirahman Abdi and the meetings that came after it.

“As tragic as that incident was, there were some positive outcomes from discussions between city, police and community,” said Mohamoud Hagi-Aden, who helped found the centre.

“One of the byproducts is this event.”

Mohamoud Hagi-Aden Somali Cultural Festival

Mohamoud Hagi-Aden says a popular Somali saying asks people to engage with each other the same way animals greet by smelling each other. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

While there was much talk of justice and mourning at a vigil on Monday marking one year since Abdi died after a violent confrontation with Ottawa police, Hagi-Aden said the festival was a chance to focus on celebration and inclusion, not problems.

“I think having this cultural festival at city hall … conveys a strong message that the Somali community is an integral part of our society in Ottawa,” he said.

Somali Cultural Festival Fashion Show

People in the crowd cheer during a Somali fashion show, part of the debut of the new Somali Cultural Festival on July 29, 2017. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

The hope for many of the people at the festival was that it would help people understand and appreciate their culture.

“Education is one of the keys to push away ignorance. This is education,” said Abdi Bileh, the director general of L’Association canadienne pour la promotion des héritages africains, an organization that promotes African heritage.

“We have to keep teaching people about other cultures and the diversity in Ottawa. We’re very lucky we have so many different cultures.”

Suad Ali Somali Cultural Festival

Suad Ali was handing out samples of traditional Somali tea on Saturday, saying it’s her way to teach Canadians about Somali traditions. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

But people from different cultures often need to be educated about each other’s customs.

“What [people] don’t know, they’re afraid of,” said Suad Ali, who was handing out samples of her traditional Somali tea from a table near the window.

“Once you get to know the person and they get to know you, they’re open and they’re nice to you, you’re nice to them and that’s it. We just want to open this door.”

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