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Photo still via "OkayAfrica Presents: Beeraha Minnesota."

This Somali Farmer Wants To Harvest Her Culture in America's Midwest

Naima Dhore is working to introduce subsistence farming to the Somali community in Minnesota.

Naima Dhore sits on her couch staring at her cellphone. Her son, Warsame, 6, rolls around on the carpet close by chattering about his day.

She's watching an old "PBS Newshour" video about Cuba's leadership in organic farming. And although she rarely denies her son full attention, she makes it clear the video is too important to ignore right now.

Dhore and her husband, Fagas Salah, are farmers from Somalia now living in Minnesota. They're in the early stage of a grand family experiment: They want to transplant some of Somali culture to a rural part of the upper Midwest, and see some important lessons in Cuban-style agriculture.


Dhore looks up from her screen to ask Warsame for five minutes of silence.

She just got back from an educational trip to Cuba. She went to learn about their food choices and organic growing methods to use on her farm.

"One thing that I take away that I think is really important is adding greens to the table and eating healthy. And that's what I'm trying to do—introduce that to the Somali community here," Dhore says. "We consume a lot of meat and bread and they consume a lot of rice and beans, so it's been really inspiring with what they're trying to do. It's community-based and that's the approach I want to take too."

Dhore and her husband consumed a lot of YouTube videos. They spent 1 to 2 days per week of about 3 to 4 hours watching farming techniques for a year. As she says, this is one of millions videos used as inspiration to become an organic farmer. Dhore hopes learning these methods will help her harvest seeds from her home country, Somalia, in her other home, Minnesota.

However, farming is also the second whitest job in the United States, according to data from a 2016 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report. And in Minnesota, 99.5 percent of all principal operators in were white, and 99.3 percent of all farm acreage in the state was operated by white farmers, according to the state's most recent census of agriculture in 2012. But things are starting to change.

A 2015 demographic center report reflects the state's growth in farm operations led by people of color and women.

And in Marine on Saint Croix, Minnesota in the outskirts of the Twin Cities, there is Dhore.

Dhore, 33, is a Somali-American certified organic farmer. She and her husband first started out growing herbs in the bathroom window of her apartment. Now she has an eighth of an acre plot containing carrots, kale and Swiss chard at Big River Farms in Marine on Saint Croix, Minnesota. She and her husband are entering their third year as farmers.

She is focused on trying to grow a specific type of parsley, hot pepper, cabbage and carrot.

"Many farmers do bring seeds or have them sent by family members from their home country. I would say we have something that's brought from another country grown on the farm every season," Laura Hedeen, program manager of Big River Farms, says. "Right now, I don't think any of our Somali farmers are growing their traditional crops, but some that folks have grown in the past include hanchotte (Ethiopian root crop), Raafuu (Ethiopian green), Roselle (Karen sour leaf), Long Beans, Sticky Corn, etc."

Big River Farms offers a hands-on farming training program through the Minnesota Food Association, a local non-profit. The training focuses on supporting beginner farmers, like refugees, immigrants and people of color by providing land and equipment to start an organic wealth-generating farm business.

Through the farm, Dhore has established her own business called Naima's Farm, and has sold her crops to restaurants, in farmers markets and through a weekly subscription service through the Minnesota Food Association.

Others are beginning to take notice too.

"I have received so many calls from the Somali community, and most of them attribute their interest to Naima or one of the other Somali farmers in the program," says Hedeen.

A third of Big River's 17 farmers are Somali-American.

Out of the 74 black or African American farm operators in the state, 17 were women, according to state statistician Dan Lofthus. These numbers don't discourage Dhore from entering a field where she's historically underrepresented. She's affectionately rumored as the first certified organic woman Somali farmer in the State of Minnesota (I could not verify that with the state's department of agriculture).

"The hard work did pay off. It's beautiful to see the response and the love and support that I've been receiving," Dhore says.

Naima's farm is only a fraction of the 150 acres Big River Farm leases out to her, but she has big plans for it.

Not only does she want to work to diversify and regenerate farming in Minnesota, she wants to have a lasting impact on her community. She wants to support them by having access to healthy food through her crops and providing farming education workshops, so they could grow their own. She practices what she preaches with her two sons as well.

Her oldest son, Abduallahi, 8, doesn't know what he wants to be when he grows up. But he can admit he loves farming. He says farming allows him to make a profit (his mom gives him $1 for his help), get exercise, feel happy and have fun. He's even certain of the crops he wants to grow for the next season. He wants to have a layer of carrots, corn, onions, swiss chard, four to five apple and orange trees. But what gets him super excited is the possibility of the oats he and his father planted.

"This is want an oat looks like up close," he says, as he displayed the oat he yanked from the ground. "They're cool. You can use them for oatmeal. I just want to use them for cereal. I won't add sugar, I'll leave it this way. I'm not saying it's going to be easy making the cereal, but it's going to be fun."

She finds it very rewarding that her children understand growing their own healthy food and giving back to their community. Abduallahi and Warsame have donated food each time they have worked in the farm and they have no plans of stopping that tradition.

"My mission is to contribute something great in America. Now that I have gained new knowledge in farming, I want to encourage and empower young people to consider agriculture and increase land access for immigrants who want to farm," Dhore says.

"My hard work shows that I have a platform that I could use to motivate others to go after their dreams or goals, even if it's not in farming, but never give up and any challenges that comes your way to push yourself until you achieve it."

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Photo: Dancers of the Asociación Cultural Afro Chincha Perú via Wikimedia Commons

After Decades of Erasure, Afro-Peruvians Will Finally be Counted in the National Census

Despite an Afro-Peruvian cultural resurgence not a lot has been done to increase the population's visibility on a political level.

In 2009, Peru became the first Latin American country to issue an official public apology to its afrodescendiente population for centuries of "abuse, exclusion, and discrimination." Since then, many have criticized it as more of a symbolic gesture, especially for its failure to mention slavery. It was also seen as a way for the government to highlight Afro-Peruvian culture over making any substantive improvements to the material conditions of Afro-Peruvian communities.

Enter the census, which can play an important role in compelling the Peruvian government to address systemic inequality related to education, poverty, and health. Unfortunately, the last time Peru made a formal attempt to keep track of its African descended population via the census was in 1940.

"In regards to the [actual] number of Afro-Peruvians, there has always been speculation," says Monica Carrillo, an Afro-Peruvian activist, performer, and founding director of the LUNDU Centro de Estudios y Promoción Afroperuanos, a non-profit organization that works on behalf of Afro-Peruvians.

The results of the 1940 census showed that less than 0.5% of the population identified as Afro-Peruvian. Yet the presence of Afro-Peruvians along the Pacific coast of Peru, both in rural and urban areas, has been both historically and culturally significant for centuries. "There was actually a time during the colonial period when Lima was majority Afro-Peruvian," says Carrillo.

Afro-Peruvians also share a unique experience, according to Carrillo, when compared to that of black communities that formed on the Atlantic side of the continent. The latter was able to maintain a closer connection to African religions and languages, while the latter were further displaced, both literally and figuratively, from their traditions.

Nevertheless, Peruvian culture has strong African influences that became more apparent during the second half of the 20th century, when figures such as Nicomedes and Victoria Santa Cruz led a revival of Afro-Peruvian folklore and footballers such as Teofilo Cubillas, considered Peru's greatest player, led the national team through its first golden era. This movement has carried over to the present, with Afro-Peruvian folklore reaching international audiences via Latin Grammy-winning artists Susana Baca and Eva Ayllón.

Victoria Santa Cruz- Me gritaron negra/ They called me black (woman)- Poem with english subtitles

Yet for all this recognition, something as basic as census data has been overlooked in the same way Afro-Peruvian culture was nearly erased. Since 1940, no official data had been collected by the Peruvian government and the question of race was essentially removed from the census.

This finally changed in 2017, when, for the first time in the history of the national census, Peru's National Institute of Statistics and Informatics (INEI) included a question about race and/or ethnicity that gave respondents an option to identify as African-descended. The latest results released by the INEI this past September represent the first official data on the Afro-Peruvian population in 78 years.

According to those results, roughly four percent of the total population identified as Afro-Peruvian, or about 828,800 individuals. "In general, I think that in some way, this [number] corresponds with what was expected," Carrillo says. Prior to the 2017 census, for example, a national survey conducted by the INEI estimated that Afro-Peruvians represented between five and ten percent of the total population.

Still, Carrillo warns, "These results don't necessarily imply that there weren't a lot of people who didn't self-identify [as Afro-Peruvian]." Of the more than 31 million Peruvians counted in the last census, roughly one million either did not indicate any 'race' or 'ethnicity' or selected 'other.'

At the same time, neither word appears in the question. This was done on purpose, according to Carrillo. "There was more emphasis on your cultural background, traditions, and ancestral heritage—race was not asked directly." The same goes for the array of common terms associated with blackness in Peru; such as zambo, moreno, mulatto, and negro; that are listed alongside afrodescendiente and Afro-Peruvian. "It was left open-ended because for us and for the government, it's obvious that it's an ethnic and/or racial question when you see the options," says Carrillo. Similar tactics, it should be noted, were used in Colombia to improve the accuracy of the census question on ethnicity. As a result, the Afro-Colombian population jumped from 1.5% in 1993 to 10.6% in 2005, albeit with criticisms for omitting the term 'moreno' as an option for respondents.

Encouraging self-identification within the framework of the census, moreover, can be controversial for some respondents, if not confusing for others. "It's better to reduce the potential for conflict," says Carrillo. In the case of Peru, this included convening a group of experts to discuss the manner in which race and ethnicity should be incorporated into the census. State-sponsored outreach campaigns, on the other hand, are an area in need of improvement, according to Carrillo. "There wasn't a strong enough campaign on the part of the government so that people would understand why self-identification is important," she asserts. "And well, you know, that takes a lot of time, and they didn't go all in because the resources haven't been adequate."

For its part, Carrillo's organization, LUNDU, created a virtual census to help prepare Peruvians for the questions that would appear on the census. The organization also launched a public awareness campaign called Somos Afrodescendientes that encourages Peruvians to embrace their African heritage. This is in addition to LUNDU's work in combating negative and racist portrayals of Afro-Peruvians in media. Recently, for example, a mattress ad was criticized for implicitly portraying a black woman as unhygienic from the perspective of her condescending white roommate. Carrillo was quoted in a report from NBC News as saying, "The people who run these companies don't have the proximity, experience, or interest in understanding the multiracial public that is contemporary Peru."


Afro-Peruvian women at the El Carmen carnival, 2017 Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Visibility, however, is a byproduct of the census, one that reveals the contemporary Peru to which Carrillo makes reference. So in addition to providing official data on the Afro-Peruvian population, the census results from September showed that one-quarter or roughly six million Peruvians identify as indigenous. Visibility is also an essential feature of the broader regional movement of the past two decades to count the indigenous and Africa-descended populations throughout Latin America. The goals of the movement were highlighted by the United Nations as part of the theme of World Population Day in 2010, which encouraged countries to also improve the material conditions of their marginalized, underrepresented populations. The UN also declared 2011 the year for people of African descent and 2015-2024 the decade for people of African descent.

Since then, Mexico has recognized its population of African descent via the census for the first time ever, while Chile, on the other hand, removed the option for respondents to identify as Afro-Chilean just last year. "You make progress, you reach a certain point, but afterwards, you can't let your guard down," says Carrillo.

For Afro-Peruvians, more recently, displacement has emerged as a threat due to the growing agro-exportation industry, among other factors. "If you look at the discourse of the Afro-Latino movement in the region, it is very much associated with the topic of displacement," says Carrillo. In Peru, this has not always been the case. A major land reform in the 1970s is one such example. "A lot of Afro-Peruvians ended up owning their land, which is something you don't necessarily see in other parts [of Latin America]," explains Carrillo. That, however, is beginning to change—which is why she sees the census results as an opportunity to generate more discussion of collective rights. "Afro-Peruvians are losing their land, so yes, I think the possibility of discussing this topic is interesting."

Looking ahead, much of the advocacy and planning that preceded this last census in Peru remains pertinent to the outcome of the next census, which is scheduled for 2027. "We have to keep strengthening the campaigns so that ten years from now, we could perhaps have a greater number of people that self-identify as afrodescendiente," says Carrillo.

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