Shortly after entering the gymnasium of the William Ramsay Recreation Center in Alexandria, Virginia, on Saturday, Amanuel Belaye, an Alexandria resident of Ethiopian descent, and his friends clapped and cheered a quintet dressed in traditional garb as they danced to the tunes of his native country and mesmerized audience members, many of whom tapped their feet and recorded the performance.
The more than 20-minute demonstration counted among a host of performances and artist showcases as part of Africa FEST, a celebration of African music, culture and food sponsored by the U.S. Mission to the African Union and partner organizations.
For Belaye, an 18-year-old student at Northern Virginia Community College, the cultural exchange bolstered his belief that all Africans, regardless of nationality and tribal affiliation, can share the spotlight. He said it also brought to mind the experiences of those who descended from enslaved Africans brought to the Western hemisphere.
“I wanted to see African culture,” he said while observing the representation from the other regions of the African continent. “I like the fact that everyone gets to participate, not only East Africa.
“Africans who were brought here as slaves weren’t allowed to celebrate their culture, ” said Belaye, wearing a Black shirt bearing the image of Emperor Haile Selassie I, a founding member of the Organization of African Unity and prominent Pan-African figure. “If you’ve lived there, or even been to Africa once, then you would want to be a part of the culture. [Africans in the West] don’t have a clear image [of the continent] because they’re being taught in schools that we’re poor in Africa.”
Throughout much of Saturday afternoon, hundreds of people of various races, cultures and nationalities took refuge from the rain, partaking in authentic African culture and cuisine.
For five hours, they tasted African dishes from Ethiopia and Senegal and conversed with vendors selling African fabrics, jewelry, sculpture and other materials. Professionals of various industries from the continental and diasporic African communities also presented specialized services at booths set up throughout the lobby of the recreation center.
Sponsors of the Sept. 8 event included the Alexandria Department of Recreation, Parks, and Cultural Activities, the U.S. Mission to the African Union, Alexandria Black History Museum, Pan African Diaspora Women’s Association (PADWA) and Marta Ali Studios.
The U.S. Mission to the African Union supplied the flags used in the opening processional of the 54 African nations.
“There’s a spirit of unity and this is just the beginning,” said Adele Benjamin, a representative of PADWA and local pastor.
“I liked the dancing and the vendors, but the best part is when the continent is honored, ” she said of the processional during which drummers and dancers accompanied guests waving the flags of each African nation.
Benjamin, dressed in a turquoise lappa suit and matching headwrap, often worn in parts of West Africa, explained her adoption of a perspective rooted in cross-cultural understanding between Africans of different nationalities.
A yearning to the see Africans embrace each other, regardless of birthplace, compelled Benjamin, a native of Cameroon, to walk around with a flag of Burkina Faso hanging out of her headwrap.
“There’s no place like home even though I’ve been [in the United States] for 30 years,” the Mt. Rainier, Maryland, resident said. “People need to see the unity that’s born here and pick up a flag. Africa is a united continent and I believe in that.”
A few feet away, Southeast resident Tambra Raye Stevenson showcased Little WANDA, a doll and fictional book character with which she has been able to convey the importance of healthy, traditional African food in curbing chronic illnesses plaguing African Americans living in food deserts.
In an upcoming edition of the “Where’s WANDA?” book series, the main character grows a legacy garden in honor of her father, who died from a heart attack.
“Today is about sharing healthy African food with our children and [showing how] our heritage is our medicine,” said Stevenson, founder and CEO of Women Advancing Nutrition Dietetics and Agriculture (WANDA).
Since 2016, through WANDA, Stevenson, also a board member of the DC Food Policy Council, has placed a spotlight on the scarcity of opportunities across the diaspora for women of African descent to enter food entrepreneurship, and pushed for scholarship that explores the health benefits of the African diet for African Americans.
Later this year, WANDA members will travel to Ethiopia for a two-week study tour centered around the production of grains.
“As an African American from Oklahoma, I understand how some people don’t feel connected [to Africa], but the negative [health] statistics aren’t part of our heritage,” Stevenson said. “I didn’t like the direction we went in public health and wanted to see how that connection [to Africa] could bring together communities that have been deprecated. We need to challenge what research is done and focus on the African diaspora community.”
For some people, such as Alexandria Councilman John T. Chapman, Africa FEST became part of a much-needed break from electoral politics and an opportunity to reflect on the richness of the city’s African enclaves.
Chapman, one of several participants in Saturday’s festivities, perused the wide selection of African jewelry and garb while speaking with constituents.
“More than 75 percent of the African nations are covered in Alexandra. These events are important because you can get a sense of different cultures,” said Chapman, a lifelong Alexandria resident. “We had a lot of these [events] when I was growing up and I’m glad to see them coming back. With Africa Fest, we can reintroduce arts and cultures, and give our people a well-rounded view of our community.”
The U.S. Mission to the African Union, based in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, materialized out of the relationship between the United States and the African Union (AU) that started in 2006. In 2010, representatives of both groups held their first high-profile bilateral meeting during which they committed to deepening their engagement with one another, including the AU’s support of global initiatives and the U.S.’s financing of peacekeeping missions in Darfur and Somalia.
However, when it comes to matters involving descendants of enslaved Africans brought to the United States, some such as Jezmin Daniels of District Heights, Maryland, said more can be done to engage this group.
On Saturday, Daniels, 24, attended Africa FEST with her infant child and friend, eager to immerse herself in various African cultures but curious about outreach efforts to people in her community.
“It’s never been hard to connect with Africans because they’re great storytellers,” she said. “It’s good to see where African and African-American culture come together because we’re all African.”
However, she lamented the lack of promotion the event received.
“I don’t see much advertising,” Daniels said. “Who’s the audience for these things? I don’t see flyers in the ‘hood. I knew people who would’ve come had they known about it.”