Somali folktales travel to St. Paul

Said Salah Ahmed
Said Salah Ahmed works in the Minneapolis schools teaching science and Somali language. He has been active in the arts both in Somalia and the United States.
MPR Photo/Roseanne Pereira

Excitement mounts backstage before a rehearsal of "A Lion's Tale."

"Okay you guys, listen up," calls the director. "Someone have all their props pre-set? Everything they have is pre-set? Places, please! "

"Lion's Tale" scene
In "A Lion's Tale" two Somali children try to come to grips with cultural differences during an American birthday party.
MPR Photo/Roseanne Pereira

"Thank you, Josie!" the cast replies, in chorus.

The theater is in downtown St. Paul, but to get here, the story had to travel across continents, and mediums.

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It started as an oral tale, became a book, then a script, and now a performance.

One person who helped this transformation is Said Salah Ahmed. He wrote the play. He's a science and Somali language teacher in the Minneapolis schools. He's been involved in the field of education for over four decades.

"We are in one well-known classroom in Sanford Middle School," chuckles Ahmed.

He's been in the same classroom for 11 years. On the wall hang pictures of letters and animals designed to teach Somali language skills. There is no 'c' for cat, but there is 'n' - for nirig, the Somali word for baby camel.

Ahmed has graying hair and wears a big tan suit jacket over his small frame. As the school day draws to a close, children come in from the hallways to hug him before they go home. Ahmed teaches many refugees from war-torn countries. He says his students help one another, in whatever language works.

"And it goes like that-- English, Somali, Arabic, Oromo, Swahili, all those languages spoken in this small room," he says.

Ahmed has put what he's seen at school into his play, "A Lion's Tale."

The play opens with two Somali children, Ali and Aasha, attending their first American birthday party. They're shocked when the American twins hosting the party want two presents instead of sharing one. The kids then magically travel to Somalia, where folktales about lions teach them about sharing.

Cast members
Castmembers from "A Lion's Tale" get excited before a performance.
MPR Photo/Roseanne Pereira

Ahmed says, to understand the storytelling tradition, you have to understand the nomadic Somali lifestyle. After a day of taking care of animals, everyone would be exhausted. At night, adults would still be milking animals. To keep the children awake for their dinner, family members would gather round a fire and tell them stories.

When Ahmed describes it, he conjures up images you might not normally hear in our pop culture filled society.

"So you look at the stars and when such and such a star goes to that level, it's the time when you will milk the sheep or the cattle or the camel. For the camel, it is the latest, and the evening star should set down, and therefore children have to wait, " remembers Ahmed.

The Somali language was not written until 1972, so telling stories also served as an informal education for children.

"So adults will talk to them and teach them through these stories, different fables, or even about history or about their families. That is how we learned," Ahmed says.

Hassan Sankoh
Hassan Sankoh was born in Sierra Leone. He says he's learned a lot about Somali culture by acting in "A Lion's Tale."
MPR Photo

According to Ahmed the tradition continues in some of the living rooms of Somali homes in the Twin Cities. Now, it's moving to the stage at the Landmark Center.

Backstage, the kids are as rambunctious as ever.

"Malay wanaagsan! It means 'hello' in Somali," one boy says. "We're learning a lot of Somali."

"Sixteen-year-old Elmi plays a neighborhood kid, a hyena, and a sheep in the show.

In addition to managing three roles, Elmi balances two cultures: Somali and American. She first heard the lion folktales from her grandmother. Elmi grew up in the U.S., but recognizes the confusion of the Ali and Aasha characters at the birthday party. Many of her friends had similar experiences when they arrived.

"You do feel the conflict in cultures when you come from a different country, especially a war-torn country, when you come to a country that has everything. It is kind of hard, actually," says Elmi.

But, Elmi believes that little by little newcomers can feel like they fit in, and work together on things like, well, plays....

"You shouldn't worry so much about birthdays and such, these American traditions and Somali superstitions," 14-year-old Hassan Sankoh leads the group in song.

SteppingStone Theatre will present "A Lion's Tale: Somali Folktales" at the Landmark Center in St. Paul through May 20th.