Somali museum aims to connect youth with their culture

Minnesota, home to the largest Somali population in the United States, will soon be home to the first Somali cultural and history museum in North America. 

A project spearheaded by Minneapolis businessman Osman Ali, owner of Sanaag Coffee and Restaurant at Cedar Avenue and Lake Street, will include more than 700 artifacts, including hand-woven milk jugs, rugs made from goat skins, paintings, carved stone incense burners and a number of Somali poems and compositions.

Ali is looking to find a place in Minneapolis for the museum, though he has yet to determine an exact location. He says that will depend on a number of factors, including fundraising, something he said he hopes will benefit financially from a Friday event for the museum at Lincoln International High School, 2123 Clinton Ave. S., in Minneapolis.

Friday’s event will follow a series of recent events that are indicative of strengthened ties between Minnesotans and Somalis. In January, the U.S. for the first time in more than 20 years recognized Somalia’s government, spurring a visit to Minneapolis by President Hassan Sheikh Mohomoud in January as well as a reciprocal visit to Mogadishu by Rep. Keith Ellison last month.

Recent U.S. Census Bureau figures estimate that as many as 32,000 Somalis live in Minnesota, more than in any other state.

Ali said he started the project after a trip to visit his ailing father in Somalia also opened his eyes to how disconnected the country’s younger generations are to their own culture.

“They forget the culture,” he said. “They forget artifacts, they forget everything […] I found the young people, they know nothing about this.”

He pointed to urbanization and a host of cheap goods from places like Taiwan as a factor in declining interest, saying no one was interested in taking the time to create handmade pieces.

“Everything’s going to be gone, maybe next 60 or 70 years,” Ali said, indicating his belief in a need to preserve the scattered artifacts – and culture – of Somalia before it’s too late.

“I asked about a museum in Somalia,” he recalled. “Nothing. It collapsed, it was stolen, everything there suffered in Somalia, so everything is gone.”

The news inspired him to start his museum venture.

The endeavor ended up being a difficult one, as the artifacts were no longer preserved in any organized way like they were before the museum was destroyed, and many of the pieces had to be tracked down individually through word-of-mouth. Ali himself covered ground in five of Somalia’s 18 states.

Bringing the items back to Minnesota was a $40,000 effort that found him leaving behind his own luggage and returning with only the artifacts.

“People would ask me what they were,” he said with a laugh, recalling the looks people gave him as he stood in the airport with his carry-on and cargo of traditional objects and nothing else.

A surprise for Ali came in a phone call from Ohioan Mohamoud Mohamed Dirious ( who told Ali he had had heard of his museum aspirations and wanted to contribute his own collection of some 300 items — a contribution he had refused the state of Ohio, which had been willing to pay as much as $7,000 for one of the artifacts, a shield. Dirious had been the last director of the Mogadishu museum before its destruction, Ali said.

Ali said he wants to present poetry and songs, a collection more difficult to put together as Somali was not a written language until a literacy push was undertaken during the 1970s dictatorship.

More than the artifacts, Ali and Sarah Larsson, who is also involved in the project, said they are looking to include workshop rooms.

“As people stop using these things, the art of making them is also passed out of common knowledge,” Larsson said. “It’s both the artifacts themselves and the practice of it.”

Ali remembered showing a number of young Somalis a goat skin used for carrying milk. “They said, ‘Oh we hear about this, they used to put something in it but we don’t know what.’ They forget already.”

“And that was people who had grown up, lived in Somalia their whole life,” Larsson said of the young Somalis. “And then here comes Osman, who grew up outside of Somalia his whole life, and he knows more about [the culture] than they do.”

Ali lived only a short time in Somalia before moving to the United Arab Emirates. He came to Minnesota in April 1996 after having worked in Houston. Once here, his efforts as an interpreter and driving instructor to immigrants, as well as his continued venture at Sanaag, seem to have rooted Ali in the city’s Somali community and its culture more firmly than had he been a young man living in Somalia.

Ali said he had studied his Somali roots while living abroad and felt compelled to continuously supplement his cultural knowledge. He added that as a result people don’t always believe him when he says he did not grow up in Somalia.

Elizabeth Hustad is studying journalism at the University of Minnesota. 




The Somali museum fundraiser starts at 3 p.m. Friday (with an official program at 5 p.m.) at Lincoln International High School, 2123 Clinton Ave. S. Minneapolis. Entrance donations for entrance are $25. Call Osman Ali at 612-998-1166