Five-year-old Heather Keogan smiles at the reflection in the mirror. Pushing her blonde hair off her face, she touches her blue nose and red cheeks. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! The sound of African drums draws Heather’s attention away from the mirror.
Heather goes to a corner of the room in the YMCA-YWCA in Ottawa [Ontario, Canada]. She joins about 14 other painted faces that were also lured to the same spot by the drums. The rhythms touch the children’s feet and slowly they begin to dance. The children shake wildly, trying to follow the beat. Some children hold hands while dancing. White hands hold yellow hands, brown hands hold red hands and black hands hold white hands.
The children, aged 5 to 10, are part of a workshop called African Cultures: Multi-Media Workshop Series. The workshop explores the history, culture and social organization of specific ethnic groups in Africa through performing and visual arts. Music, dance and mask making are a few of the techniques used to explore African culture. The workshop is focused to broaden children’s awareness of Canada’s diverse cultures in order to prevent racist behaviour. “Some 16- and 17-year-olds are racist because they weren’t taught to prevent that behaviour at 8- and 9-years-old,” says Susan Ship, a coordinator of the workshop series. “You can’t confront racism if you don’t’ know other cultures. We give children a chance to do things and be things in another culture.”
In February of 1993, the children spent their Saturday afternoons at the YMCA-YWCA. With prompting from a workshop volunteer to remember the names, 7-year-old Elizabeth Cummergen says she has learned about Somalia, Ghana and Tanzania. On a Saturday in March of the same year, 15 children learn about Zaire. “Hello every,” says Taki E’bwenza, pointing to his nametag. “My name is Taki and I’m from Zaire.”
“Hi, Taki!” the children shout.
A coordinator of the workshop series, Gifty Serbeh says contacts with the African community get culture specialists like Taki to teach the children. “The kids also get to look at the inter-cultural aspects of Africa,” says Serbeh. “They get to discover that people within Africa are not all the same.”
The children follow Taki to a slide projector in the corner of the room and crowd in front of it. Taki talks about each slide in French and a workshop volunteer translates in English.
“How long does it take for a hut to be built?” asks a girl, point to the slide of a hut resting on hard, brown earth. “With lots of help, two days,” replies Taki, ready to take another question.
The slides are meant to give children a chance to see Zaire and learn about what life is like there, says Ship. In one slide, a Zairese girl, about 10-years-old, wears a festive costume at a ceremony that would initiate her into womanhood. Five-year-old Anna Cummergen remembered the slide. “In Zeer,” she says, meaning Zaire, “girls have separate dances and sometimes boys get together with girls to get dances.”
After the slides, Taki brings out several pictures of masks he has recreated on his computer. He gives one to each child. The children colour the masks with scented markers. The smells of orange, grape and chocolate fill the air. “I’m going to put a string on my mask and put it on my face,” says Heather, grinning at her mask. Heather brings her orange, purple and brown mask to Taki. “This is a Kakungu mask,” Taki tells Heather, encouraging her to pronounce “Kakungu” correctly on her own. “It’s the name of a group of people who live in Zaire.”
After the kids paint masks on paper, they all sit in a circle. Pictures of painted masks on faces of Zairese people are passed around. Ethnomusicologist John Rudel begins to play the drums in the corner of the room. Taki goes to play the drums beside Rudel and the sound fills the room.
The children disengage themselves from the mirror images and start to dance and clap. The adults who organize the workshop dance and clap with the children.
To increase the effectiveness of the workshop, Ship says the adults get just as involved as the children and try to set examples of good behaviour. The adults are from different races. Ship says she hopes the interaction among the adults has a positive effect on the children. “It’s hard to measure the success of something like this, on preventing racist behaviour,” says ship. “You don’t see the results right away. The influence that it has on the children comes through observing the interaction among the children here, who are from many different races. Also by things children do at home.”
Heather runs to her mother, Beth Keogan, after the workshop. “Look at my face,” she says. “It’s an Africa thing.” Keogan, who has two children in the workshop, says she’s pleased her children enjoy it and hopes they learn a lot. “I want my children to dislike people because of their character, not because of their colour or culture. I want them to experience multiculturalism and not be ignorant of other people.”
Michelle Sewanuku says she wishes more children were involved in culture workshops. “When I was in the third grade, kids would ask me if my parents were monkeys. They didn’t seem to know anything about Africa except that monkeys lived there. They made me feel bad about coming from there.”
Ship says, in the upcoming sessions, the workshop will teach the children about the experiences of Africans who live in Canada. Depending on finances, she would like to see a larger project with more children involved in exploring other cultures. The Panicaro Foundation, a non-profit foundation that gives money to charities and pilot projects, contributed $6,000 to the program and the government gave $5,000. “We’ve been working on a shoestring budget,” says Serbeh. “Kids’ can’t get treats because we don’t’ have the money.”
The workshop had space to register 25 children, although the demand was greater. The workshop costs $10.00. Bill 21 amended the Education Act that required that all the boards have a policy on anti-racism, says June Girvan, a former education officer of the Ministry of Education office in Ottawa. Girvan is now working with a group of young people on celebrating the 200-year anniversary of the anti-slave bill in Canada. The commemoration will take place Black History Month in 2001. Among her other projects are working with a group in Quebec to develop an anti-racism policy. She has also set up an endowment fun at Carleton University to help young Canadians of African ancestry to become more attached to their identity as Canadians. This scholarship will begin for first-year graduate students in the fall of 1999.
One way that schools began practicing the anti-racism policy that Girvan spoke of is through programs like the Multicultural Arts for Schools and Communities, a program that is still running today. The program brings creative artists from different cultures into the classroom.
Ship says she wants to see the workshop expanded into the school system. Serbia says the Ottawa Board of Education doesn’t like organizations that are not a part of the school system to do activities for the children. “We’ll keep trying,” says Serbia.
The African Cultures: Multi-Media Workshop series continued until 1995. The focus turned more on some of the racial tensions around Somali children who make up a large population of the area around the Centre. Obtaining funding to continue the program because difficult, but the Panicaro Foundation continually supported the project and encourages and would support any future efforts.
As Heather smiles at her reflection, she also smiles at the other faces of the children in the mirror. “Your face is different than mine,” she says, point to the painted face of 5-year-old Adam Sarumi.
When the drums play, Heather grabs Adam’s hand and they dance together.