Willamette University, Students at the Mill Stream

Africa Week explores often-unrecognized cultural variation

Discussion of politics in Sudan, a giant handmade puzzle, an African music sale, an evening of spoken word — the Willamette University Africa Club worked for months to bring these and many more exciting events to campus for last month's Africa Week, a celebration of art, film, literature and dance.

The week consisted of a variety of events, including traditional lectures and documentaries, but also more interactive opportunities, such as an open mic night and an African market.

According to Africa Club co-president Carley Kwiatkowski ’13, the purpose of Africa Week is to provide a counter-image to frequently negative portrayals of Africa, and to emphasize the diversity among Africa’s countries that often go unrecognized. This year’s theme was “Voices and Visuals: Diversity in Africa,” with a focus on expressive culture coming out of many areas of the continent.

“The main thing I would hope students take away is that Africa is huge — it is a continent of 54, soon to be 55, countries, and the experiences are so diverse,” Kwiatkowski says. “Not only because of the different countries, but the geographic locations, the amount of international support, the presence of war — all of these things create extremely different experiences.

“Come to these events assuming what you know about Africa may be challenged. The dominant narrative isn’t always accurate.”

The club worked extensively to reinforce this idea throughout all of the week’s events. Timbuktunes, for example, a Portland-based African music vendor visited campus and organized his music by country and ethnic group, a method that shows the vast diversity even within a single country.

On Tuesday night, Professors Bianca Murillo and Andries Fourie showcased expressive cultural aspects from two countries in an event called “Coffee & Conversation: Creative Explorations of West Africa.”

Murillo, who teaches history, discussed the Ghanaian Concert Party Theater and its impact on the modern Ghanaian cultural development in the 20th century. Fourie, a native South African who teaches art, addressed the distinctive, traditional Dogan ethnic group of Mali, and his personal experience with their rituals and artwork.

The festival culminated with an African Market that, according to Kwiatkowski, was not just a retail opportunity, but an entire cultural encounter. Alongside the souvenir and cuisine vendors were information booths from organizations involved abroad, a “kids’ corner” featuring a giant 16-piece puzzle of the continent and an animated film, and opportunities for discussion and appreciation.

See the entire schedule