2021 Africa Fest at McPike Park: Celebrating Africa’s Great Kingdoms

08092021Africa Fest

Members of the 2021 Africa Fest Committee: Sitting - Vicki Ostern (l) and Anasthasia Vakunta Standing - George Conduah (l-r), Ray Kumapayi and John Tembei Not pictured - Djo Djo Amorin and Chris Jimieson

By Jonathan Gramling

According to Dr. Aliko Songolo, there are approximately 5,000 African immigrants representing 30 countries living in the greater Madison area. Many of these immigrants are invisible in Madison, staying close to people from their country of origin and perhaps participating in a country organization like GHAMA, the Ghanaian organization in Madison. But what brings people from all countries of Africa together is the annual Africa Fest celebration, being held this year on August 21st in McPike Park.

“Africa Fest means celebrating who we are and where we come from because a lot of people look at Africa as a country even though Africa is a very big continent with people from different sections of the continent, west, south, east and north with their traditions and own beliefs,” said Vicki Ostien, an Africa Fest committee member. “It is always good to come to Africa Fest to learn from each other and celebrate our civilization. It is a big gathering of nations. And that’s where most people, when you ask them which item on the Africa Fest agenda that you like the most and they will tell you Parade of Nations. It lets you feel as if you are home when they call out your country. You start thinking about where you come from and where you grew up, and what your people are like. They love carrying that flag and seeing other people who speak the same language as you. It’s always a big, positive thing.”

Africa Fest wasn’t held in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. And this year’s decision

to hold it was touch and go.

“We were kind of nervous,” said Ray Kumapayi, chair of the Africa Fest committee and chair of the African Association which sponsors it. “Should or shouldn’t we do it? But the way things were looking in March and April when more people got vaccinated to starve off the virus threat, we made the conscious decision to go ahead and do the festival. And we are kind of happy that we made that decision because most other producers of outside events and festivals made the same decision too. We’re all kind of in the same ballpark, so-to-speak. We’re trying to get the activities out there going once again.”

Over the past five months, the committee has re-establishing ties with sponsors, performing artists, food vendors, equipment lease companies, the parks department and others to bring a thousand moving parts together that is Africa Fest.

Due to COVID-19, Africa Fest wasn’t able to book an international artist from Africa. But Madison’s hometown African performers are ready to fill the void.

“We will have Atimevu and Limanya,” Kumapayi said. “Limanya has two components to their performances. They will be on twice, once at the beginning of the festival and once in the evening. There is Limanya the dance group and then there is the Afro Pop music group. The two groups will be there this year. The Nigerian Masquerade has been very popular since we started. Their initiation was at Monona Terrace. Then we brought them along to Warner Park. And now to Central Park, renamed McPike Park. This year, they have been enlisted to perform, but there might be some changes because they are trying to prepare now to perform. We are introducing some of our younger artists who have been itching to showcase themselves. Tani and the Afro Funk-Stars will be the headline act. Tani Diakite is very popular in Madison. He has been the lead for many international groups that have come to Madison. Tani will take us through the end of the festival.”

One of the spontaneous beautiful things about Africa Fest is the garments people wear from many parts of Africa, some of which are worn during the fashion show.

“There are all kinds of outfits from different parts of Africa,” Ostien said. “That is really beautiful. It’s always good to see. And people ask questions. That’s what makes it interesting. People ask how it is made and other questions. We enjoyed discussing it with people. People are interested in finding out about what you are wearing and how it is made. It is Africans and non-Africans who ask about what you are wearing. I can look at something that is being worn by someone from Guinea. I’ll say, ‘Ooh, I like this. Where did this come from?’ And they will explain that it is from the tribe of so and so in the northern part of Guinea. The year I wore something with a calabash on my head, people asked where it was from.”

“People express to me all the time, ‘That’s so beautiful!’ when they come and see the adornments of those who aren’t even planning on doing the fashion show,” Kumapayi added. “People wear African adornments and attires. It just makes it so beautiful. Having the clothes vendors there too, we encourage Americans to walk around and buy these clothes. It’s good summer clothing. People enjoy being fashionable and colorful.”

And then there are the food and arts and craft vendors to give Africa Fest a distinctively African flair.

“We have food and craft vendors who line up the perimeter of the park,” Kumapayi said. “That is going well too. We hope that things in regards to the pandemic remain stable. We’re preparing to have masks available. Quartz will have masks and hand sanitizer available at the entrance to the park and will also have them at every station. We will also have Public Health of Madison/Dane County’s mobile clinic that will be situated at the park for those who have not yet received their vaccinations.”

While there will be several African food vendors at Africa Fest, it is just the very tip of the iceberg of African cuisine.

“Nigeria is a big country,” Ostien said. “Each state has their unique cuisine. The people from different states speak different languages and so they have their own cuisine. So if you are travelling in Nigeria, in each section of the country, you will notice the difference in their food. And you could ask for something that you’ve been told to try. They will say, ‘Oh no, we don’t cook that here. If you go to the southeast side of the country, maybe you can get it. That is their food.’ But some people in my generation, we eat everything. We try to eat everything. When you are in school, you learn from your schoolmates and then you try it in your own home. I eat the food from all of the big tribes from Nigeria and can prepare them for myself when I want to.”

With the pent up demand from not being able to hold Africa Fest last year, the McPike Park festival grounds are sure to fill up with beautifully adorned people eager to see other Africans they may only see at Africa Fest and two years is too long.

People often say that no matter their continental background, everyone is African at Africa Fest. Come join the fun.

Africa Fest is August 21, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. It is free and open to the public.