Cooking Together is Good for the Hayat (Soul): The United Women of East Africa Support Team


ACTA - Posted on 23 August 2015

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Editor's Note: The United Women of East Africa Support Team (UWEAST) is a nonprofit organization based in San Diego which was established with the goal of responding to the overlooked health needs of their community.  It has been a pipeline of culturally competent health services, education, and advocacy for the improvement of East African women and their families’ health and well-being.

Several years ago, a group of East African refugee mothers felt that they were losing an important link to their daughters because they were not eating the Somali, Ethiopian, or Eritrean cuisine that is traditionally passed on orally through the generations. Instead, their American-raised teenage daughters were eating at the fast food restaurants located around their schools.  To bridge this gap, UWESAT began sponsoring cooking classes.  Applying the theme, "We learn from them; they learn from us; we learn from each other," the gatherings focus on refugee moms teaching their daughters East African culinary traditions, and to also teach the mothers to prepare American favorites. Both mothers and daughters learn to prepare nutritious meals to offset the health problems that are surfacing in the community as new chronic diseases.  The project was supported by ACTA's Living Cultures Grants Program.  Program Manager Lily Kharrazi recently visited this intergenerational cooking program on a bustling Friday night evening of cooking and socializing.

Women Taking the Lead
Recognizing that women are central to the community because of the role they play within the family, mobilizing a cooking project made a lot of sense.  It was a call to action to address some of the acute stressors of the resettlement process, among them a radical shift in diet away from foods like fresh fish, or the availability of halal meat (ritually slaughtered), and other designated foods.  Another issue that the community recognized was that they were living in a “food desert,” an area where there are an estimated four times as many fast food restaurants near schools than in other parts of San Diego.

From her activist background, the tireless Sahra Abdi, executive director of UWEAST, organized the cooking project.  Her bio from the organization website captures her energy and credentials well:  “…she is a community activist and respected advocate for refugees from Somalia which has been wracked by civil war since 1991. She serves as a violence prevention liaison for families accustomed to an environment where fighting is a way of life. Abdi served as a program coordinator at the City Heights Wellness Center, a partnership between Children’s Hospital and Scripps health where she oversaw the Hooya (Somali for mother) Health Program.  The program provided health, nutrition, and safety education for Somali and East African mothers and their families.  She also organized classes to teach parents how to manage stress and discipline and communicate with their children.  She organized peer groups in which teens learned how to better communicate with their parents, handle the dislocations of living in two cultures, and manage anger.  In 2006, the California Wellness Foundation recognized Sahra’s work by naming her a California Peace Prize honoree.”  Sahra is also mother of five young children; when asked how she manages to do it all, she smiled and replied that she is on the computer late at night.

Pizza & Injerra = Girls Night Out
Twice a month since 2011, a group of women and girls ranging in age from six to sixty, spend a Friday evening together preparing a meal, exchanging banter, and sharing traditional foods of East Africa as well as the ubiquitous American-style pizza.    On the day of my site visit, a few of the mothers have arrived earlier to begin cooking the traditional foods which were simmering pots of yellow lentils, chopped greens, cubed meat scented with tumeric, and the spongey, injera bread which is used to scoop the delicious food from plate to mouth.  The yeast dough for the pizza was also prepped and ready for the girls to roll out.

As the girls arrive, Sahra calls them over to introduce me and I learn about each of them.  They are well-spoken and look me directly in the eye, happy to engage with a visitor who does not dress in the same manner as they do. “Why do you come here?,” Sahra asks each of them, motioning them to direct their responses to me. Their comments echo one another around the theme that they come because they feel comfortable here and can relax being together.  When they move away, some of them can't wait to get back to the Friday night gathering.   It is clearly a place they want to be.

Many of the young women are headed into the health field or scientific research. Even the primary school age girls are primed to dream of higher education.  They are proud to tell me of their career aspirations. One of the young women heads her high school chapter of the Muslim Students’ Association and does not have to explain herself to anyone on a Friday night gathering.  It is a place to relax and be themselves.  Later that evening, mothers adept with their iPhones were eager to show me photos of their recent college graduates in cap and gown, diplomas in hand.

As the girls don aprons and work in teams to cut vegetables and finally roll out the dough, the kitchen hums with conversation.  Friendships are apparent and the girls catch up with one another and their busy lives.

The sessions are much more than culinary lessons.  In fact, the major outcome of the cooking program is to create strong social ties.  Food is one way to reinforce this and a natural way for these women to come together, occupy space, and share their stories. The joy evidenced the evening of the site visit was a hard won achievement, considering that the older generations of this Muslim community come from an area of the world that is in constant war.  When I asked one of the mothers about Somalia she was quick to remark that she preferred life here and that her home country had been ruined.

As the food was placed on the long serving table, the youngest children were served their anticipated pizza slices first with older girls helping the younger ones get settled with their plates first. The effortless sense of family and helpfulness to others is reminiscent of how an extended family works.  A few young boys joined the group at that point to find their mothers who also provided them with food.   As we ate in small groups throughout the large community center space, I relayed to the women that I had been to a Somali event almost ten years prior.  It was one of ACTA’s first grants through the Living Cultures program and supported a Somali women’s oral poetry form known as Buranbuur.  This women’s art form is a prized literary form and an accompanying dance spurs on soloists with bursts of movement.  By mentioning Buranbuur, the women began spontaneous singing, clapping, and sounds of ululation to encourage a few minutes of dance. Clearly, the form is alive and well and some of the youngest joined in.  One young girl said she practices in front of the mirror listening to recorded music.

The evening also included prayer after dinner with a transition that was seamless.  A few prayer rugs were rolled out and slowly those who wished to join did so, reciting their prayers and bowing in the traditional Muslim way.

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City Heights in East San Diego has become an area that is home to many immigrant communities.  A ride down the street reveals the mix of businesses and vendors that so many of these kinds of neighborhoods bring to life.  Multiple languages on business fronts cater to Southeast Asian, East African, Mexican, and other multilingual communities.  This is the center of East African Muslim life in San Diego too, with three active mosques, halal food establishments, and the visible presence of strong women in their long dresses and head coverings gracing the streets with color and dignity.

For more information about this cooking program, please watch the following video:

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Women Cooking Together is Good for the Hayat

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The office and cultural center is located in San Diego's diverse City Heights, a neighborhood of 80 languages and many immigrants, including East African populations.

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Some of the mothers preparing in big simmering pots the traditional foods for the evening.

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Girls prepare toppings for the pizza and enjoy posing for the camera.

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More pizza preparation.

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The traditional foods include greens sautéed with onions, cubed beef, yellow lentils, rolls of injerra bread, and a green salad.

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Somali dances associated with the oral poetry Buranbuur was a spontaneous part of the evening, accompanied by singing, clapping, and ululations.

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Sahra Abdi (left), executive director of United Women of East Africa Support Team, with two other mothers and chefs of the evening.