Celebrating Africa at City Hall Plaza

Boston Globe, July 15, 2011

The first time around, it was a gamble – one woman’s labor of love to make visible the Boston area’s scattered African communities and to present African music to the widest possible audience, not in pricey concert venues or out-of-the-way immigrant social halls, but free, in City Hall Plaza, on a sun-splashed summer afternoon.

A year later, the African Festival of Boston is back for its second edition, with longer hours and a strong roster of under-the-radar performers with roots from Senegal to Mozambique. If last year’s event is an indication, expect a strong turnout of area Africans and their families, many sporting traditional dress and waving national flags, alongside vendors, sightseers, world-music heads, and Peace Corps returnees.

The musical program for tomorrow’s festival emphasizes North America-based artists – long-time residents and others from the younger generation that has grown up here – who perform everything from traditional percussion and dance to multiple strains of Afro-pop, gospel, and R&B.

Some, like Rumbafrica, Akwaaba Ensemble, Offiong Bassey and Kina Zori, are old stalwarts or new arrivals on the New England African scene. Others, like Cameroon’s Naomi Achu, Gabon’s Gael Amour, or the Congolese gospel trio Krystaal, are visiting from the Washington, D.C., area and Canada.

“These are the new generation; they grew up here but they still go back to their roots,” says Mireille Tushiminina, the festival’s lead organizer. “And that is what I am excited to hear, their mixed flavors.”

Tushiminina, who comes from Congo, is an activist and general force of nature who, in addition to carrying most of the burden of putting the festival together, is also organizing a conference (also this weekend) for African women in the diaspora seeking to make productive social investments back on the continent.

She also runs with her mother, Maman Jeanne Kasongo, the Shalupe Foundation, which supports orphans and female victims of the war in Eastern Congo, and which operates a home for 54 young people in the Congo capital, Kinshasa. Tushiminina is also a mother – and holds down a full-time job.

She has made it her project to wrangle the area’s disparate African population, which she estimates at 80,000 in Massachusetts, into joining together for a celebration of the entire continent – not just as a show of solidarity but also to demonstrate the social and economic clout of a growing community.

With the exception of the Cape Verdean community, Africans in Massachusetts are more recent arrivals and less established than in, say, Maryland, Houston, or Atlanta. Tushiminina says she was surprised not just by the inaugural festival’s turnout – which she estimates at 6,000 people, a decent start – but by the countries that were represented in force.

“I have to give a great shout-out to my Sierra Leonean brothers and sisters,” she says. “The other strong communities here are the Ghanaians, and we cannot forget the Nigerians.” She says she made a special outreach effort this year – through e-mails, social media, and visits to shops, meetings, and parties – to reach people from countries that were less represented last time, including Ethiopia and the countries of North Africa.

She has picked up allies, like Valerie Ugolini, a French baker and former adventure travel agent from Watertown who stumbled on the festival last year and was so impressed that she joined its committee. And Karen Weber, founder of the annual Boston GreenFest, has shared pointers from one who has been in this position before.

They all admit that this is hard work – not least in mobilizing the target community and organizing vendors and other logistics to meet deadlines and attract sponsors.

“We established huge momentum last year, but there are still issues within the community,” Tushiminina says. “Everybody wants leeway. People don’t seem to understand that if we really want to reach out to big corporations … we have to bring them demographics.”

Still, the festival has attracted sponsors such as cellphone and phone-card companies that are attuned to immigrant markets. And unlike well-established Caribbean or Cape Verdean events, this one is still in its infancy. The early struggles are normal, suggests Boston GreenFest’s Weber, especially since the African community is so disparate and diverse to begin with.

“Africa as a continent is very complex,” Weber says, even within individual countries. “Ivory Coast has 70 different ethnic groups. Congo has been split by wars. You bring that and transpose it here where people are trying to figure out how to manage, and you start making a festival, it’s not so simple.”

Tushiminina, for her part, strives to take the long view.

“This is a long-term goal,” she says. “We are setting a stage for our children. If we do not plant something now there will be no diaspora working toward something productive, toward a vision of the African countries or of the diaspora here in the [US]. God is big, and along the way we will pick up people who share the same vision. I believe in us.”