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Africa’s cultural diversity on display at Harvard bash

Victor Kakulu
Africa’s cultural diversity on display at Harvard bash

One of the highlights of the “Africa Night: Letha Umlilo — Bring the Fire!” celebration, held Sunday, April 12, 2009 at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, was a fashion show that highlighted beautiful native attire from West Africa and South Africa. The event capped Harvard’s Africa Week showcase. (Victor Kakulu photos)

Harvard University concluded its Africa Week showcase on Sunday with the “Africa Night: Letha Umlilo — Bring the Fire!” celebration, which brought a near-sellout crowd of about 1,000 students and other event-goers to the school’s famed Sanders Theatre.

This year’s “Letha Umlilo” event — named for the words for “bring the fire” in Ndebele, one of Zimbabwe’s primary languages — marked the first-ever collaboration between the Harvard African Students Association, the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s African Caucus and the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Voices of Africa student organization. The night’s organizers wanted to spotlight some of the positive elements of African culture, hoping to counterbalance the unpleasant parts that are often publicized, according to Chioma Achebe, president of the Harvard African Student Association.

“A lot of times, the things we hear about Africa are very negative, such as wide[spread] cases of disease and poverty,” said Achebe, a Nigerian American majoring in economics, scheduled to graduate in 2010.

“At the same time, there are so many good things coming out of the continent as a whole, and I saw a collaboration between the undergraduate and graduate schools as a great way to express that,” she added.

Expression was a recurring theme throughout the evening, which showcased a lively blend of African-themed dance, music, comedy, storytelling and fashion.

Among the event’s biggest attractions were the Zimbabwean hip-hop artists Comrade Fatso, backed by his band Chabvondoka, and Outspoken, backed by The Essence. Both groups were making their Boston performing debut.

Musician and political activist Samm Farai Monro, a.k.a. Comrade Fatso, has been hailed as revolutionary for his politically charged poetry and music, which mixes hip-hop with traditional African sounds. His messages have garnered him global recognition — his poems have been designated as required reading at universities in the U.K. and South Africa. In addition, CNN featured him as a guest blogger on its Web site during the summer of 2008 to discuss unfolding events in his volatile homeland of Zimbabwe.

For their part, hip-hop spoken word artist Outspoken, whose real name is Leslie Tongai Makawa, and The Essence offered a well-crafted blend of Afro-soul instrumentation backed by hip-hop beats that delighted the crowd, many of whom were witnessing them for the first time. Both groups, who are seen as leaders in the artistic expression of political viewpoints in modern Zimbabwe, delivered invigorating sets.

Senegalese percussionist Lamine Touré and the Harvard College Pan-African Dance and Music Ensemble also gave memorable performances. However, it was the self-proclaimed “African king of comedy,” Ghana-born comic Michael Blackson, who brought the house down with his no-holds-barred style of stand-up.

The evening concluded with a fashion show that highlighted beautiful native attire from West Africa and South Africa.

One noteworthy element of Africa Night was its ability to celebrate a vast array of African cultures, of which there are scores — Nigeria alone boasts over 250 unique ethnic groups. As a result, the preparation involved in celebrating the entire African continent’s cultural diversity was extensive.

“We’ve been planning since January for this,” said Osub Ahmed, vice president of the Harvard African Students Association. A Somalian American, Ahmed is studying organismic and evolutionary biology. Like Achebe, she is scheduled to graduate in 2010.

 “We knew how big we wanted it to be, and so it was real important to unite the other organizations and schools under one umbrella to make this a success.”

“It was a lot of planning, but I really believe anyone can do this,” echoed Achebe.

Former Bunker Hill Community College student Charles Ehizuelen, a Nigerian American living in Cambridge, said he hopes the show leads to more events that highlight Africa’s rich cultural history and diversity.

“The show was terrific — I only wish it had been longer,” said Ehizuelen, 28, who is an elder services volunteer. “There is a strong need for additional programs and events that speak to Africa and her people abroad. I truly hope this continues.”