Traditional African dancers, drummers, poets and a panel of speakers performed at Eastern Kentucky University’s Africa Today event on March 22. The event was hosted by the African Student Association (ASA) and was held in the O’Donnell auditorium in Whitlock.
There was a meal before the event which offered free food from various African countries, and it was open to anyone who is interested in learning about different cultures within Africa.
The main purpose of Africa Today was to get people involved on campus and in the community and to try to show them what the organization has to offer, said Mandera Jackson, a senior international economies major from Tanzania and ASA’s president.
“Basically, we’re trying to bring what’s going on in the continent up to speed with the current events such as improvement in the growth of Africa,” Jackson said.
After the initial cultural meal, the event began with an elaborate display of students marching with flags from various countries in Africa, followed by traditional Burundi dancers and a panel of African speakers from EKU, the University of Kentucky and Berea College.
The speakers focused on the idea of unity among African countries. They wanted to highlight the progress, promises and challenges of the developing African nations and emphasized that despite the challenges, improvements have been made and that it’s no small achievement.
“Our mission statement is to try and bring the true part of Africa that most people might not know about,” Jackson said. “I’m pretty sure you’ve seen some bad images of Africa, right? I mean, some of it is kind of true, but also there’s this other part that the media doesn’t show you about Africa. They just show you the bad image of it.”
The organization aims to take the focus off of the negative stereotypes and to bring awareness to the positive aspects of the culture in African countries and other countries like them.
“Very often, when people think of Africa, all they think about is poverty, disease — you know — a lot of negativity. So the goal of the association is to try to bring some positive light and show that there’s a lot more to Africa than just everything you see or read in the news,” said Kevely Dumay, a senior international business major from Port-au-Prince, Haiti and the organization’s informal advisor.
The panelists emphasized that since so often being African has been defined for them, it is time for them to take pride in their countries and never forget where they came from.
“History matters,” said Iddah Otieno, professor of African and African-American Studies (AFA) and the faculty advisor for ASA.
Otieno and the other panelists said one of the main issues facing Africa today is the dangerous global misconception that Africa is impoverished despite their many advances. They claimed that humanitarian aid often undermines economies in African countries and makes their economy dependent on charity. That, coupled with corruption in government agencies in Africa has caused many bright minds to leave the continent in search of opportunities elsewhere.
They claim that countries that have the most natural resources are the most unstable and have people taking advantage, often outsourcing those resources and jobs to other countries for them to benefit from.
They argued that there needs to be less charity and more outsourcing from other countries into Africa in order to bring in more jobs and people and help repair the economy across the continent.
However, the panel also emphasized going and giving back to Africa.
“Africa is waiting, and Africa needs us,” said Eyouel Mekonnen, 19, sophomore English major from Addis Abeba, Ethiopia.
Overall, the panel wanted to emphasize that the opportunities in America are extremely beneficial for people from other countries and that they are not taken for granted but that the focus needs to shift towards improving countries in Africa.
In addition to Africa Today, the African Student Association has hosted some other events highlighting the culture in Africa, including another panel on January 31.
“Our main focus for that panel was trying to bring both sides of how people view Africa and the truth to it,” Jackson said.
Last spring, Jackson was also part of a class offered by the AFA. Jackson and one of his friends from Kenya were able to teach the class Swahili, a language spoken in many regions of Africa.
“If you want to learn a language, that could be possible. You don’t have to go somewhere far,” Jackson said.
Jackson said ASA is around to offer a home for EKU students from Africa and countries that share a similar culture who are studying in America.
“For me, to be here on the campus is always hard to try and navigate the different way American culture is. That’s always a battle. Whenever I am with my African people, I feel free to be able to express who I am without worrying about what other people might think about me,” Jackson said.
Dumay agreed, and said it is important for all students to learn about the cultures in Africa and understand what people from other situations are going through, because they could potentially end up in positions of influence and make a difference.
“The thing about the association is that anyone is welcome to be involved, you don’t necessarily have to be African,” Dumay said. “For instance, I’m from Haiti, but still I’m involved with it. It’s about creating a diverse environment so everyone can be involved and everyone can learn about Africa and just find ways to help.”
Dumay said the organization has had a lot of support from the community as well as with organizations outside of Richmond. He said he’s been in contact with the ASA at UK to get a broader range of students and faculty involved.
“Their association is extremely successful, so we’ve been able to bounce ideas off of them. Some of them are supposed to come on campus hopefully in the next couple weeks or so and try to show us how to do things or help us if we have any questions and stuff like that. They have folks from literally everywhere, from most African countries — Liberia, Congo, Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon — you just name it,” Dumay said.
Both Jackson and Dumay said that they are hoping to spread the word about ASA and get as many people involved as possible.
“When these students come to the US they have nobody, no family, no friends. So having an association such as this is just like a second family from home,” Dumay said.
They also emphasized the importance of getting outside yourself and understanding people from different cultures and walks of life.
“It’s a globalized world now. Within your lifetime you’ll probably interact with people from every continent, so the more adept you are at that, the more successful you’re going to be. All these interactions with different cultures — I think in the long term makes you a better person and kind of changes the way you view things. It makes us better,” Dumay said.