Chihamba Festival Celebrates African-American Culture

Aug 3, 2016

Chihamba's 27th African-American cultural arts festival just ended in Charlottesville last week. If you missed it, that's okay: WMRA’s Marguerite Gallorini was there and has this report on the annual gathering that mixes social activism with good fun.

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Friends gather around music, food and a common African-American heritage.  This is essentially the vibe at this year's edition of the Chihamba festival, which took place on the last weekend in July.

On the way in to the Jefferson School's African American Heritage Center, I spot a huge table displaying a dozen containers with traditional food, prepared by chefs from Ghana.

Wearing red lipstick and a green African dress, Ruby Boston is at the entrance, greeting everyone with a bright smile and a hug. She is one of the coordinators of the festival.

RUBY BOSTON: The meaning of Chihamba is the light, and the light that we can shine on this community. And today more than ever with so many things going on in the community and around the world, and the nation, it's important that we connect our true story with history, because so much has been left out.

And a way to make history is, first, to recognize one's roots and celebrate them everyday. For that, Chihamba offers various events designed to celebrate, and educate about, the heritage of people of African ancestry.

MADELEINE : They do a lot of events here. Last time I came, it was amazing.  There were a bunch of tables set up, and they had different rooms opened, and there were auctions... It was amazing.

That’s 11-year-old Madeleine, enthusiastic about the festival’s opening day on Thursday.

CHARLES LEWIS: Tonight is A Taste of Ghana; Friday is the Ladies Night Fashion and Hair Show, here at the Jefferson again; and Saturday, from 10 to 7, is going to be the cultural arts festival.

Charles Lewis served as the host of the main day of the festival on Saturday at Washington Park – a day shared with the 9th annual community health fair. The day opened with a morning prayer, before continuing with storytelling, scholarships, contests and live bands – such as the All For Christ Male Chorus:

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Lewis serves on Chihamba's executive board, and mentors at the 100 Black Men of Central Virginia. I asked him what Chihamba means to him.

LEWIS: Chihamba represents a beautiful connection of African-Americans connecting to their homeland by memorializing, celebrating the rich culture and heritage, and how we can still take part in that here, and how we can celebrate it here, and experience here.

Lewis took the opportunity to get the crowd excited about another event, coming up this weekend. 

LEWIS (on microphone): Ladies and gentlemen. As y'all know, I'm a member of the 100 Black Men, and of course, well, people have been saying "What about the 100 Black Women? Do y'all mentor the young girls as well? They need help as well!" Right? Very true.

The 100 Black Women interest group will meet in downtown Charlottesville on Sunday, August 7th, from 4p.m. to 6p.m. at 101 East Main Street.

This kind of project directed to Black youth is a central part of Chihamba's goal, as Lillie Williams, co-chair of the festival's board, explains.

LILLIE WILLIAMS: We try to be mentors to the younger people, and just try to keep it peaceful, family-oriented. We're teaching the younger people more about the African culture, what it means ; teaching them where they come from and what their ancestors went through ; and what they can grow up to be, because they can grow up to be anybody, and do anything. So we're one big happy family.

The festival this year was a reminder that it is above all a sort of big family reunion, an occasion for everyone to meet and keep in touch. Under the big marquee at the center of the square, parents and elders sit for a chat, keeping an eye on the children playing on the grass.

[People talking]

Anthony and his daughter Emma are enjoying the event for the second time.

ANTHONY: My daughter and I are here, she's getting a cheeseburger and we're just kind of walking around and hanging out, having a lot of fun.

EMMA: I think this festival is nice and really arty, and I'm enjoying it.

Co-chair Lillie Williams has been involved with Chihamba for 15 years, and has seen it change over the years. To her, it is more than just a festival – it’s family.

WILLIAMS: This festival has grown by leaps and bounds. It started out in a smaller venue, it started out just being one or two days, now we've got three days, we have more sponsors... When I started, it was a smaller group, but you know, people go, people come... But we're very close-knit. Chihamba means a great deal to me.