Photo depicting Mama Afua standing in traditional African clothing with her arms and palms extended out towards the viewer.

Adefua’s Legacy of African Dance and Culture

by Kathya Alexander

The Odunde Festival is an annual harvest festival that celebrates the fruits of labor of the Yoruba people of Nigeria. The word itself means “New Year,” and Adefua Cultural Education Workshop has been celebrating the event here in Seattle for the past 36 years. The theme this year is Reunion, an opportunity to come together and give thanks for life as the city comes out of COVID-19 restrictions. 

The two-day event begins Friday, Nov. 19, at 6 p.m. with a community dance party at the Rainier Arts Center and continues Saturday, Nov. 20, with an African marketplace that opens at 3 p.m. and culminates with a symposium and performance from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Saturday also marks the official launch of the Rainier Valley Creative District (RVCD), with a ribbon-cutting ceremony from 3 to 3:30 p.m. Adefua’s efforts have created Seattle’s first designated creative district, a geographically defined area of cultural and economic activity along Rainier Avenue from Columbia City to Rainier Beach. Mayor-elect Bruce Harrell will be on hand, as well as representatives from the Washington State Arts Commission (ArtsWA). Afua Kouyate, Adefua’s executive director, is proud of her efforts to spearhead the project. 

Born and raised in Capitol Hill, Mama Afua (as she is commonly known) moved to the Rainier Valley as an adult and has lived there ever since. It was her father who kindled her desire to know more about the continent where African Americans originally came from. She says her father “was like Malcolm X.” When he came home from the military, he would “shed his uniform, put on his goatee, his medallion, and his Malcolm X beret thing. It would be his ‘Black power’ look.” 

Finding disparities in the way Africa was portrayed on television and in the movies — as opposed to the way the people she knew who were born or had visited Africa described it — awakened a curiosity in her and compelled her to seek out people from whom she could learn the truth of this place where her ancestral roots lie.

“You always saw [on television] that people were poor in Africa, and then you would hear other people talk about ‘that’s not really how it is in Africa,’” Mama Afua said. It was this difference in the depiction of the continent that awakened her curiosity. 

“I was always in cultural groups in the community. I remember I was a part of Black Arts/West when that was happening up on 34th and Union. Back then, I wanted to be an actress. But my mother told me that those are a dime a dozen. So I said, ‘Well, let me go be an African dancer,’” Mama Afua said. However, she never envisioned that her whole life would be committed to teaching African dance and about African culture.

Looking back on it, she sees her journey separated into five phases. Dr. Maxine Mimms, her mentor at Antioch University, helped her identify the journeys that shaped her direction:

“When I was a child, when I first started this journey, I was about 9 years old. So that phase, I identified as ‘identity.’ And then I moved into ‘recruitment’ because I wanted all my friends when I was a teenager to do what I was doing. And then I went into ‘implementation.’ That’s when I created Adefua [in 1985]. And then we went into ‘programming’ and ‘cultivation.’ And right now I’m in ‘preservation.’” 

She says her goal now is focused on preserving the legacy she has created, and she is proud that her youngest daughter, Nailah Bulley, is taking over as associate director of the festival production for the first time this year. 

“For 35 years, I directed this production. And so this is the first year of passing that legacy on. So we are really looking at this as a legacy-building celebration,” Mama Afua said.

When Adefua first started out, it was a family-based organization. As a foster parent for 19 years, Mama Afua put all of her foster care placements on stage with her. She says if children didn’t want to dance, they drummed or they did costuming or they performed. And if they didn’t want to do any of those, they helped backstage. Mama Afua explains that involving her foster children in Adefua’s programs allowed her to provide a lot of guidance and helped them to set and reach goals, including working toward incentives, such as monetary rewards. She says they had different ways of coming together and engaging as more than just as a family unit, and she cultivated in them the concept of giving back and providing for the community. In the past 10 years, however, the organization has changed from family-based to artist-based and has grown around four key programs.

The first is called “African Arts for All to See” and is an education-based program that goes into schools to provide assemblies and residencies. This year, because of COVID-19, that program has been replaced by community-based programming at the Rainier Arts Center. Part of “African Arts for All to See” included a 20-day annual excursion to West Africa to learn about the area’s arts and culture that Adefua practices and performs. That, too, has been canceled due to COVID-19. 

The second program is the Youth and Family Empowerment Program that, this year, focused on rites of passage initiations for young Girls of Color between the ages of 10 and 20. Adefua adapted that program into five intensives that have been very successful. The third program is Summer Camps, which used to be five or seven days in the mountains to study all day and then drum and dance at night around a campfire. Adefua previously held day camps in the summer as well. These programs existed for over 27 years, linked with the City of Seattle’s Arts in Parks Program. Now, it does Summer Saturdays, one project that encompasses all its summer programming. And, finally, its fourth program is the Odunde Festival.

In a typical year, before COVID-19, it was not unusual for Adefua to serve up to 14,000 people between the weekly classes, the school residencies and assemblies, and the family and community engagement projects, like its prison programs. The past two years have drastically changed all that. But what keeps Mama Afua going is the love for what she does. 

“Because, you know, kids grew up. They’ve got their own families now, got grandkids. So now we’re artist-based. And we have some of the finest artists that are working with us. I’m very proud to say that. And we continue to thrive. And I will honestly say we [have stood] tall through it all for 36 years.”

All program attendees at Adefua are required to wear masks. Adefua will provide a mask at the door if needed.

Kathya Alexander is a writer, actor, storyteller, and teaching artist. Her writing has appeared in various publications like ColorsNW Magazine and Arkana Magazine. She has won multiple awards including the Jack Straw Artist Support Program Award. Her collection of short stories, Angel In The Outhouse, is available on Amazon.

📸 Featured Image: Mama Afua. Photo courtesy of the Adefua Cultural Education Workshop.

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