Yoruba bird

The African Immigrant Folklife Study project

Diana Baird N'Diaye and Betty Belanus

New African communities have emerged in the United States since the mid-1960s, joining older African-American populations in several urban centers including the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. Each of these communities comes together in ways that maintain and re-define its identity and sense of tradition. Senegalese organize celebrations and traditional wrestling matches at local parks and invite friends to share barbecued lamb on the Muslim holiday of Tabaski. Over AM radio, communities whose members come from the Horn of Africa (Ethiopians, Eritreans, Somalians, and Sudanese) broadcast poetry about their experience of exile in America. Ghanaians of the Ashanti ethnic group appoint local leaders--an Asantehene and Queen Mother of Washington, D.C.--with the ceremony and regalia of the Akan tradition in Ghana. Nigerians establish houses of worship which are branches of religious institutions back home.

These communities have grown in size and visibility in the urban landscape of metropolitan Washington, but the diversity and richness of their cultures remain largely invisible to most local residents. While the 1990 Census places the overall number of African-born residents of the Washington, area at 36,327, out of a total U.S. African-born population of 363,819, informal estimates indicate that both figures are probably higher. African immigrant communities vary considerably in size, in the length of time they have been in the United States, and in the circumstances that brought them to this country. Some individuals came with scholarships to American universities; others fled oppressive political situations with "only the shirt on their backs," as one Ethiopian educator/cab driver explains. Still others came as businessmen and women.

Some African newcomers to the United States consider their residence temporary and plan to return to live in their countries of origin at a later date. Many actively move between residences in Africa and North America. Others have chosen to reside permanently in the United States but still hold it important to teach their children everything they need to know to maintain ties with relatives in Africa, if only for brief visits "home." As Remi Aluko, founder of a summer camp that teaches children about African culture, says of her own children, "I started teaching them and talking to them [in Yoruba] right from when they were babies, and I saw it worked." When she brought her children to visit Nigeria in 1990, "it was tremendous. When they would go to the people they would understand the language. They could eat the food. Everybody felt as if these kids had been part of them."

In building their community life in the United States, African-born immigrants often create unique cultural forms patterned after but not identical to African forms; they actively and explicitly use cultural traditions--ways of cooking food, of dressing, of dancing--to define themselves as Africans in the context of the United States, to each other and to the world. At the same time, they use telephone communications, frequent and relatively inexpensive flights, and audio and video recording to maintain a closer connection with family and friends at home. In this way the culture of African-born residents of Washington, D.C., is constantly enriched through visits to and from home, while cultures in Africa are influenced by new music, language, and goods from America.

Fieldwork during the past year and a half has hinted at the richness of the African immigrant cultural expression in Washington, D.C.: Ghanaian drumming and Zairian soukous music; ceremonies for eating Nigerian Jollof rice and for drinking Ethiopian coffee; Senegalese hair braiding and Somalian women's songs; South African poetry of invocation and stories of immigrants' first encounters with American culture.

Partnership with Community Scholars

Anna Ceesay, a fabric resist artist from the Gambia, wrote of her reasons for participating in the study: "As Africans we are faced with prejudice and unfair treatment in our everyday immigrant life. This is due to ignorance and lack of understanding. This project will...give us opportunities to reveal and teach something of our traditional ways of life, our culture and therefore make more people know and understand us better."

The African Immigrant Folklife Study was conceived as community-centered research, which places the tools and methods of research and public presentation in the hands of those whose communities are represented. In the West, much of the study and documentation of culture are considered to be within the professional domain of anthropologists, folklorists, and other specialists usually from outside of the communities being studied. But recent thinking in anthropology and folklore stresses the importance of the culture bearers' own perspectives in orienting research and of acknowledging the disciplinary and broader cultural orientations researchers carry with them into the field. The development of this ethical knowledge coincides with cultural communities' growing demands to be agents of their own cultural representation and explication rather than merely objects of study. Researchers from African immigrant communities showed a strong commitment to collecting and preserving their cultures.

A 12-session training seminar began in the spring of 1994 with 16 community scholars. This group, which was to become a research/curatorial team, included Africans born in Nigeria, Ghana, Egypt, Kenya, Senegal, Ethiopia, Somalia, and South Africa. The team members were variously skilled in traditional dressmaking, resist dyeing, and hair braiding. They were college professors, clergy, artists, graduate student and cooks, as well as researchers and community organizers. In the group were Christians, Muslims, people affiliated to other African religious traditions as well as people with different regional and ethnic affiliations from the same nation-state.

A unitary "African immigrant community" does not exist as such, and from the very beginning, we were challenged to find the group boundaries insiders know. Describing people by their nation-state of origin was sometimes problematic. For example, the boundaries of Ethiopia have been a hotly contested issue for those who identify themselves as Oromo, and who consider themselves to be part of a separate country.

In our research we found that religious affiliation unites some African immigrants across ethnic, geographical, and national boundaries and divides others who share cultural and geographical origins. As a group, we decided to divide African immigrant community organizations by region but to focus research on self-identified communities--those whose members share common knowledge and values and interact with each other on a regular basis.

We use the term "African immigrant" to refer to people born on the continent who have recently taken up residence abroad, not African- Americans whose ancestors were forced to emigrate unwillingly from Africa centuries ago. The term refers to people who have come voluntarily from their country of origin and also to those who come as refugees; it refers to those who come permanently and to those who hope for eventual return; and it refers to those who live trans nationally, calling two places home.

Reflecting upon his personal process of rethinking cultural identity as a result of his experience in the United States, film maker and community scholar Olaniyi Areke comments: "Being an African was not a big thing when I was in Nigeria. I never knew the importance of my culture until I came here. I used to think the cultures of other ethnic groups in Nigeria and other African countries were different. I know now that there are more similarities than differences. My community is not limited to Yoruba, Nigeria, and Africa: the whole world is now my community since African people are all over the world."

Like other recent African-born immigrants, Areke faces many choices and challenges in constructing a new identity -- in naming himself in his new social world.

Works in Progress

Researcher Aristides Pereira credits his lifelong interest in cultural diversity to experiences in his old neighborhood of Santhiaba in the southern region of Senegal, West Africa. "Playing with my pals of my age group, I learned not only their languages (Diola, Mandinka, a little Manjack) but also their culture.... By seeking information about them, by studying them every day, I found myself as a strong part of my community." Aristides has been teaching about African cultures at the National Foreign Affairs Training Center for the past 15 years.

Aristides, a musician himself, interviewed Senegalese kora (Mandinka harp-lute) musician, oral historian, and 15-year Washington resident Djimo Kouyate. Kouyate is a Mandinka jali, also called a griot, the 149th jali in his family and a descendant of the first griot and diplomat in the court of the 13th-century king of the Mali Empire, Kankon Moussa. In his interview Djimo Kouyate noted, "A griot is first an educator, an oral historian; the entertainment part [of kora playing] comes way after the educational aspect of a real griot." Aristides says Kouyate can often be found "at the center of many activities in [Washington's] African community, such as baptisms, religious holidays, and weddings." Kouyate lectures at schools and universities about different aspects of Mandinka history and culture; he also has a dance studio where people learn traditional Senegalese dances.

Nomvula Mashoai Cook is from Lesotho, though born across the border in South Africa. She recalls that growing up in Lesotho she enjoyed traditional dancing and singing. Arriving in the United States in 1981, she soon found herself "swimming in the belly of a new culture." In fear of losing her heritage, she began actively collecting and preserving the music and art of her Basotho ethnic group. She invites Africans and African Americans at her house every year for an "African Marketplace" that features food, music, and dancing and creates a dialog between cultures.

Interviewing a number of South Africans for her research, Nomvula noted that many are making plans to return now that the yoke of apartheid and repression has lifted. Many have had a long, harsh exile. Nomvula interviewed South African poet Mphela Makhoba, whose work was part of a cultural struggle against apartheid. His poetry performances grow out of Sotho ritual invocations. Self-exiled from South Africa in the 1960s, Makhoba came to the United States to continue his art and resistance.

Veronica Abu, who by profession is a private nurse, is considered an excellent cook in the Ghanaian community. She used herself as a resource and interviewed four other cooks with roots in various parts of Ghana. She describes how to prepare fufu, a staple dish, in Ghana and in the U.S. "In Ghana, one has to boil the raw plaint ain and cassava or yam till it's well cooked. Then ... pound it with pestle and mortar till it becomes smooth and soft. This takes about two or three hours.... Preparing fufu here is very easy and fast. The fufu is made in a powder form and is made into a dough by mixing it with water."

Dr. Tonye Victor Erekosima is from the Kalabari region of Nigeria and grew up among Igbo neighbors in the southeastern region of the country. From an early age, he knew the complex worlds created by colonial Nigeria: that of his Western-educated, middle-class parents, members of a Protestant sect; that of the Catholic and Anglican schools he attended; and that of his ancestral culture, from which he felt frustratingly isolated. He won a scholarship in the early 1960s to study in the United States, eventually obtaining his doctorate. His interest in textiles and men's dress in the Kalabari region has resulted in several publications and an extensive collection of photographs. He is also a minister at the Church of the Living God in Hyattsville, a pan-African and African-American congregation.

As part of his fieldwork, Dr. Erekosima interviewed members of the River States Forum, an organization of Nigerian immigrants from the Niger Delta area, Dr. Erekosima's ancestral home. During their third annual dinner banquet in November, 1995, men from the group danced a traditional masquerade, which included a hand-carved shark mask crafted by one of the members living in Maryland. The tradition has changed in the new setting, of course: "more economical" prerecorded music is used instead of live musicians, and the masquerade performer is much younger and from a different social stratum than the elders who dance back in Nigeria.

Dagnewchew "Dany" Abebe grew up in the multiethnic town of Nazareth, Ethiopia. His interest in music began when he was an elementary-school child singing sacred songs in religious classes. He studied in Germany, where he supported himself by playing international music, and then studied music industry management in New York City. Having settled in Washington, he now assists Ethiopian and other African music and cultural groups to plan events.

During his research, Dany visited several Ethiopian markets, which carry not only foods, condiments, and special cooking implements, but also an Ethiopian cookbook, a monthly journal called the Ethiopian Review, audio and video recordings of Ethiopian artists, and even Ethiopian-alphabet computer software. He interviewed Rahel Mekuria, owner and manager of the Addisu Gebeya ("New Market"). In addition to supplying the community with Ethiopian goods, Rahel performs the traditional coffee ceremony, a social occasion that includes roasting, grinding, and making an infusion of the coffee while incense burns and a toasted barley snack is offered to guests.

Research and Cultural Work

The African Immigrant Folklife community scholars say participation in the study has enhanced their awareness and cohesiveness as cultural educators and community workers. They would like to continue to develop exhibit projects and educational programs in many venues around the Washington area. The group continues its work toward creating a living cultural exhibit at Smithsonian's 1997 Festival of American Folklife in addition to its other activities.


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9 March 1996