Spoken Word Poet, Ahmed Ali is Africa!


  • Artist-in-residence at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, Washington USA
  • Winner of the 2012 RISE Award for community involvement in Arts and Culture
  • Named to 2014 Alberta top 30 under 30
  • Winner of Edmonton Arts Council award
  • Winner of the 2011 Canadian Festival of Spoken Word
  • Co-founder of the Breath in Poetry Collective


Ahmed ‘Know.madic’ Ali SOMALIA

Ahmed Ali self-describes as a ‘poem written by God’ and it takes only a few minutes of chatting with him to recognize the truth in those words.

The son of a nomad father and a farmer mother from Mogadishu, Somalia, Ahmed is better known as ‘Knowmadic’, a word loosely coined from his father’s itinerant and mother’s farming background with his love for acquiring and spreading knowledge. In essence, Knowmadic is a brilliant portmanteau of  the words 'knowledge' and 'nomadic.' 

Born and partly raised in Mogadishu, Ahmed grew to know his father and grandfather as nomads but his mother and grandmother were subsistence farmers who sowed seeds in order to feed the family. Since Ahmed’s present state in life means he cannot practise the nomadic and agrarian lifestyles his family survived on in Mogadishu, his innovative side devised a poetic ode of some sort to his forbearers.

As a nod to his parents’ cherished lifestyle, ‘Knowmadic’ now signifies that Ahmed has evolved from being the son of a nomad and a farmer to ‘farming ideas and emotions in people’ in the sense that he is now ‘herding words’.

It is a sort of modernization of his family heritage of nomads and farmers; Ahmed, in essence, is a nomad who herds knowledge. Ahmed, the son of a nomad, has become a celebrated poet and spoken-word performer per excellence!


In the Beginning…

His wasn’t an easy journey: from Africa’s easternmost country – Somalia - to North America’s northernmost country - Canada. It has involved the swapping of one country by the Indian Ocean with another that is surrounded by three oceans. 

His itinerant father left for Italy when he was just a baby after fellow villagers raised money to fund the trip. Ahmed would spend four years without his dad, living with his older brothers and mother. When his father eventually took them to Italy, the family couldn’t afford a home in Rome. For lack of accommodation, the family was split into two: Ahmed and his immediate elder brother were taken to a Catholic Church boarding school while his two older brothers were admitted into a boarding school for adults.

Life in Italy was rough for his parents, for his father in particular. Ahmed captures this in his poem ‘My Father’:

My father is a warrior.
He battled starvation
led decisive campaigns against death
and eventually was exiled by poverty to a foreign land.

Immersed in the difficulty of language
he overcame and eventually conquered Italian...

Finding life difficult in Italy, Ahmed’s family immigrated to Canada on the sponsorship of the Canadian government, and settled among the large Somali community in Edmonton, Alberta when Ahmed was just 8 years old. Ahmed’s relocation from Somalia to Italy and onward to Canada cemented his status as a wandering nomad who – having learned Italian at age 4 – completely lost his mastery of the Somalian language only to re-learn it in Canada, after 8 years!

While he was in Italy, Ahmed had faced immense identity crisis, not knowing where he stood: was he an Italian or a Somalian? What was he, a Moslem, doing in a Catholic school where he was fed pork and denied Islamic praying rights? That experience toughened him for the difficulties that he was to encounter later in life.  According to Ahmed, ‘it was a struggle but it helped me want to search more and that is where the knowledge comes and I want that knowledge.’

In his search for knowledge, he reconnected with Somali history in a way that gave him freedom. In his poem ‘History’, Ahmed writes of the need to understand that history:

Have you heard
about us in history
if not you aren’t
searching careful enough

I am Somali
and if you refuse
to accept the beauty
of my history
don’t talk about
the rough edges
of my present state

The Spoken Word Performer Emerges …

While studying Psychology and Political Science at MacEwan University, Ahmed got a call to headline a show outside Edmonton for a fee that could pay for two of his classes! He accepted the offer and has since not looked back.

He became Edmonton’s first black full time poet thereafter but has had to contend with the social boundaries placed around the title 'full time poet.' Ahmed likens the barrage of questions he receives from people concerning how he survives to going "through customs everyday." Questions he has been asked include ‘so, how much do you make? How do you do it? Are you secure? How about your RRSP?’

Ahmed laments that this level of scrutiny has been his biggest challenge: ‘I am a professional poet. I am insecure about telling them because … I have to take their judgments.’

Nevertheless, Ahmed confidently boasts "I am an entertainer first but my life is a poem. God wrote me; I am that poem God wrote. So if I'm constantly worried about people critiquing the art God wrote ..."

His career path – professional spoken word performance – has brought him fame such that he has headlined several shows in Alberta, and regularly holds workshops for youth on community initiatives and empowerment. Yet, Ahmed remains humble and down to earth in his interraction with people.

An Ambassador for Somalia …

Ahmed acknowledges the issues associated with his Somali ancestry but he regrets that Somalis are less inclined to challenge or struggle through the hardship of becoming 'something'. He reasons that "a lot of the time because we came from war, we default to simplicity. What's easier than working? Welfare is. What's easier than being a poet? Saying you are a poet."

Ahmed is prepared to carry the burden of projecting the Somalis positively by being a role model for Somali youth in Canada. In his words, "I am very proud to be Somali but I understand that other identities contribute to who you are. I am Somali and I am pro-Canada, pro-whatever religion you are ... I can be an administrator for Somalia..."

Views on Africa ...

Ahmed speaks of Africa with palpable, unadulterated passion. On one of his trips to his homeland, he had this to say; "I went back to Somalia when I was 18. I saw death and some kid put a gun to my head. Regardless of that turmoil, the way I felt being amongst my own people was so empowering"

Understandably, of Ahmed's many highly acclaimed poems, his favourite is "I am Africa" for obvious reasons: Ahmed loves Africa. According to him, "we all come from Africa. Africa to me is a collage, a mixture of so many cultures, ethnicity and tribes. I am so inspired by Africa ... Africa to me is that inspiration, that motivation, it is that freedom. It is like ground, back to your root ... it's earth ..." 

Watch Ahmed's rendition of his awe inspiring poem, "I am Africa".

Photos courtesy Ahmed Ali

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