African Culture Night draws huge crowd

When the doors to the Smith Ballroom in the Smith Memorial Student Union opened for African Culture Night last Friday, there was already a torrent of activity.

People waited impatiently in line, mouths watering at the smells coming from the dinner awaiting them, organizers raced around taking care of last minute details, and volunteers efficiently shuffled people along.

But upon entering the room where dinner was to be served, a whole world opened up.

Both outside and in the entryway to the ballroom were filled with racks and tables of brilliantly colored clothing of all styles, as well as information on specific programs and African communities.

Though the entire room was filled with chairs, people still crammed into the aisles and against the walls to try and catch the show. Two large screens on either side of the stage allowed people in the back of the room to see what was going on and also lent to a feeling of grandeur, while the thunderous African music coming from the sound system created a party atmosphere.

At one point, loud, possible fighting sounds from the back of the room had everyone jumping out of their seats and screaming in fear, but a few short moments revealed Fijian dancers, bare-chested, oiled, brandishing staffs and extremely fierce-looking as they made their way to the stage.

The theme of the event was “unity,” and this theme included the food, the presentations, the awarding of the title of Miss African Cultural Night, and content of the keynote speech. “Unity” is also a reflection of the feel of the event as a diverse group of students, staff, families and community members came together to celebrate African cultures of the world.

After a libation ceremony during which the prayer leader taught the audience prayer responses in his language and poured out water for the ancestors, asking for support, love and unity within the community, the organizers, President of the Association of African Students (AAS), Ali Mohamoud and Vice President Candace Staples thanked several people who contributed to making the event a success.

The next step in the event was received with excitement and support from the audience: the announcement of the winner of the Miss African Cultural Night contest: student Namat Said. This was the first year that this contest was held, and it may become a running tradition for the event.

A tragic experience in Said’s past, the death of an aunt in Africa from breast cancer, motivated her to major in radiation therapy. After she finishes next year at PSU, she plans to go on to OHSU. Her long-term goal is to be able to open up a clinic in African to save women like her aunt and others by using her knowledge.

Though the winning essay Said wrote was about unity for Africans post-Diaspora, she said, “I dream for unity to be beyond Africa and for the world.”

Dance and music performances were started off by a talented group of second to fifth graders from around Portland, the Woodlawn Elementary Kukatonon Dance Troupe.

There was a short interlude between dancers for a keynote from PSU Black Studies professor Darrell Millner.

Millner’s keynote discussed the night’s theme of unity among the African community but also stressed the importance of unity or coalitions between communities.

“It is and always has been the unity of the struggle for justice that matters,” he said.

In an interview after the event, Millner said that despite some difficulties in addressing a speech to an audience at an event with such high energy and such incredible entertainment, he was “glad to do it.” Millner also emphasized the importance of such an event in building unity between African communities since many Africans do not interact much with each other otherwise because their travels tend to take them to European countries or the U.S. rather than other African countries.

“In many cases, it’s the first time African students have a chance to interact with other Africans,” he said.

He noted that this was also helpful in building unity because it celebrated all African cultures but also allowed affirmation of specific cultures, as could be seen by the deafening roars coming from different areas of the room when each dance or music group was introduced along with its country of origin.

“To me, one of the things that was especially noticeable was that each of the countries had their moment on stage,” he said.

After Millner’s keynote, the rest of the dancers and musicians followed: Kumari Lohar-Singh and the Ladidadee Freestyle Crew, Nigerian, Somali, Eritrean, and Fijian dancers, Sebe Kan “Guinea” and the fashion show.