“Sankofa” is a word in the Twi language of Ghana that translates to ‘go back and fetch it.’ On Feb. 26, it meant that and more to the massive audience at the Claremont College’s first ever Sankofa Festival. Held on the north patio of Big Bridges auditorium at Pomona College, the festival of African art allowed students of the diaspora to ‘go back,’ to reclaim, and to celebrate their cultural heritage.
The festival featured everything from African poetry and film to dance and food. The biggest event was a fashion show showcasing student models in various African styles of clothing. Student dance groups from Cal Poly Pomona’s Habesha Group and the Nigerian Student Association from the University of California, Riverside, were represented, but ultimately this was a celebration by and for Claremont’s own Pan-African community.
“I think the goal was to celebrate our culture and show our culture, but also just to get good vibes and center blackness, to show that we can come together and celebrate each other in the good times and not just when there’s a protest or something really bad happens on campus,” said Maabena Debrah PO ’18, one of the creators and committee members of the festival.
Many in attendance praised the event for its unique focus on African culture.
“This is a predominantly white institution,” said Tim Woods PO ’18. “Everything is white whether it be the professors, the classrooms, the pedagogy. Everything is centered on whiteness so it was great to have an event specific to my identity, specific to my culture, specific to my people—to bring not only black people together but bring the 5C community together.”
The event was hugely successful with higher-than-expected turnout, and an overwhelmingly positive response from both black students and other groups on campus. Ellington Bramwell PO ’19, one of the models in the fashion show, noted the significance of the event for the Pan-African community on campus.
“Just having this agency and creating an event and telling people ‘This is how we want to be seen’ is empowering. Just saying we are tired of being put in this light that you created,” said Bramwell.
The impact of the festival extended beyond the scope of what Debrah and her co-coordinators originally imagined. Debrah reported that several students expressed interest in hosting similar events to celebrate their own cultures outside of the American context in which they often appear in campus conversation.
While ultimately a great success, Sankofa Festival came at a price to the students involved in its planning over the past year. Although the event received funding from Ashé Africa (a two-year program of events financed by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation centered on Africa), the President’s Office, and the Office of Black Student Affairs (OBSA), the processing of money has been slow, with students still awaiting reimbursements after being forced to go into personal savings to finance the event. Furthermore, the festival was entirely coordinated by a committee of only seven students who often felt that there was not enough organizational or emotional assistance for their efforts.
“There was no support for us. We had to support each other,” said Debrah of herself and her fellow committee members. “Even though it was such an incredible experience and such an incredible event, I’m still recovering academically and emotionally from it and I think a lot of the committee members are too. It shouldn’t be like that. We shouldn’t have to put ourselves at risk in order to do something positive for our community.”
Despite the taxing planning process, the Sankofa committee managed to create a positive event on campus that garnered genuine excitement and awe from spectators and participants alike. Reflecting on the anticipation of the final moments leading up to the fashion show, Bramwell said, “It was 20 or 30 models all squished together waiting to go on and there was just this feeling of getting ready to do something amazing.”