Sunday, September 19, 2010

Akwasidae Festival Celebrates Fordham's Developing Relationship to The Bronx’s African Immigrant Communities

On Saturday, September 18, a historic event took place in the McGinley Center Ballroom on Fordham’s Rose Hill Campus. A cultural festival of the Ashanti people of Ghana called Akwasidae, held at 40 day intervals throughout the year, was brought to the Fordham Campus, to honor the University’s decision to offer a course on the Ghanaian language Twi during its 2010 Summer Session. More than two hundred people came to this event, from as far away as Ghana and Florida, most in traditional Ashanti dress, to celebrate the coming of age of the Bronx Ghanaian community- the nation’s largest- and to affirm Fordham’s ties to the growing African immigrant population living in the neighborhoods adjacent to the school.

This event, which included traditional rulers of the Ashanti people from New York State and Washington , a representative of the Asantafuohene ( Ashanti king) in Ghana, an extraordinary group of drummers and dancers, and an inspiring speech by a Ghanaian presidential aspirant, brought African culture, political discourse and the arts to the Fordham campus with a majesty and force that this writer has never witnessed during his 40 years at the school.

This event is the culmination of four years of work by the faculty of Fordham’s Department of African and African American Studies and the Bronx African American History Project to build ties with the African immigrant population of the Bronx, which comes from more than twenty countries and very likely consists of over 100,000 people if you count children of these immigrants born in the US. When our faculty realized, as a result of our research and community outreach, we hired Dr Jani Kani Edward, a sociologist and ethnographer who wrote a book on Sudanese women in exile, to coordinate oral histories with this population, culminating in a grant from the Carnegie Corportion of New York to fund this research. In the course of our research, we met a Ghanaian scholar, Dr Ben Hayford, who we quickly incorporated into a research team as a consultant. Through Dr Hayford’s contacts we began developing strong ties with Bronx Ghanaian religious leaders, educators,professionals. and business owners, resulting in a number of ground breaking interviews that gave us invaluable information about this highly skilled and energetic component of the Bronx’s population

Then, a little more than a year ago, a Ghanaian radio personality and cultural organizer named Kojo Ampah showed up on the Fordham campus as a student and immediately spawned plans to increase the African presence on the Fordham campus. He joined the Bronx African American History project research team as an interviewer and community liason and organized a new student group on campus called the African Cultural Exchange. All of a sudden, African musicians, artists and political leaders began appearing on the Fordham campus, some to be interviewed by the BAAHP, others to speak or make presentations to the larger campus community

The enthusiastic response of Fordham students and faculty to these events, along with the University’s decision to offer Dr Hayford a position teaching Twi, led Kojo Ampah and his associates, Mike Mohigh and Nana Anabel Brenyah, to try to bring the largest and most important Ashanti Cultural Festival to the Fordham campus.

After months of hard work, they managed to find a space for the event, locate community sponors who would help fund it, and gain valuable support from Fordham’s Office of Student Leadership.

But the most gratifying aspect of their work was the incredible response from Ghanaians in the New York Metropolitan area and indeed, up and down the East Coast. The fact that a major university was willing to open doors to this community, to recognize its language, to celebrate its culture, and affirm how important its role was in revitalizing communities in the borough of the Bronx had a powerful effect, both on ordinary Ghanaians and leaders of Ghanaian organizations.

The result was there for all to see in McGinley ballroom Saturday. Rarely has Fordham seen a more innovative and powerful display of traditional drumming and dance, more interesting ceremonies which honored heroes and ancestors, and more powerful speeches on the future of Ghana and other African nations. This was a moment when the power of and potentiality of the Bronx’s African immigrant communities was there to see for anyone lucky enough to be present

It was also a moment when this great Jesuit institution, where a social conscience is still honored, was recognized for reaching out in friendship and respect to an immigrant population which, for understandable reasons, is still fearful of how Americans will treat them in a post 9/11 world.

This was a great day to be Ghanaian, it was a great day to be African, and it was a great day to be at Fordham University in the heart of the Bronx

May there be many more occasions like this at Fordham in coming years.

Mark D Naison
September 19, 2010