If you happened to walk by the first floor computer lab in the Union last Thursday night, your body would have been possessed by the sound of the African drum. I didn’t know what to expect because it was the first African Culture Night event at UW-Milwaukee but I was very excited and hoped there would be amazing African food and excellent African dancing. Although I arrived on time, the show hadn’t started yet. I found an empty seat in the front and waited. After 15 minutes, the announcer, Miela Fetaw, asked the audience to eat some of the free African food while we waited for the performers to be ready.
There was a nice spread of food. The first was a stew made with groundnuts (peanuts). Like many students I was reluctant to try this dish, mainly because it was goopy, chunky and orange. I’m sure you’re all thinking the same thing everyone thought when they saw it. And I’m sure I don’t I have to mention the fact that it was made with peanuts at this point. I took a spoonful of it which I quickly regretted doing because it turned out to be my favorite dish. After a couple bites, I wished I had filled my entire plate with it. The peanut flavor was mild, giving the stew a nutty hint. It blended well with the savory flavor of the meat and sweetness of the tomatoes.
Second in line was a rice dish called Jollof rice, popular in West Africa. The rice was rather spicy and the veggies in it were fresh. It had tomatoes, green beans, and green peppers mixed in. Compared to the groundnut stew, this was not one of my favorites. It was a good dish but personally, I didn’t like it very much.
For dessert, the event provided plantain chips with dipping sauce. This dish really reminded me of home and my African roots. In Puerto Rico, this is a regular snack. When I was little I would run to the corner store often and buy a lot of plantain chip bags for 10 cents each. Years after my family moved to the states, my mom found Mexican plantain chips. They weren’t Puerto Rican but they tasted almost the same.
It was 8:32 p.m. when the event finally started. Miela greeted the audience, which had doubled by now and thanked their sponsors, the African Student Association and Sociocultural Programming. The crowd, excited to see some dancing, welcomed the first performers. They were a group called Jam Ak Jam. This group was amazing. The drummers played continuously through the entire performance with passion, energy and smiles on their faces. One of the drummers called multiple people, including myself to participate in a drumming competition with him on his drum. He was such an encouraging and welcoming individual that even a small child walked up and challenged him on the drums. It warmed the audience’s hearts. The three female dancers loved what they were doing and even through exhaustion, they delivered a strong and lively performance. The audience was fully engaged in their cohesive and extraordinary movements. The male dancing and leading the group was very enthusiastic and interacted with the audience by asking them to clap. Before they finished their performance, the male dancer jumped on top of the giant wheeled speakers. The shocked faces they expressed after his stunt were of awe, I’m sure, particularly from the staff and Miela.
Next in line was a fashion show, presented by Fatima who wore a dress from Gambia. I was excited to see many of the traditional African clothing. The fashion show presented clothing from Ethiopia, Somalia, Nigeria, Gambia, Guinea, Godsend, Rwanda and Eritrea. Many of the clothing were very beautiful and colorful. They looked comfortable and airy. Still, I was only mildly satisfied. Some of the volunteer models didn’t look too happy to be part of the fashion show. Others didn’t show much of their clothing because they either, stopped on stage for a second and left or simply walked through very quickly. Perhaps it was the nerves of having a lot of people stare or stress from school; regardless, some of the audience shared my thoughts.
For the third performance, a band called Kikeh Mato was introduced. It was a somewhat peculiar band. Their music seemed like a mixture of funky pop African music. It was hard to get used to but their music was so upbeat and catchy, the audience began to groove to the beat. However, the co-singer in the band, turned off most of the audience’s excitement, myself included. The woman was very energetic and passionate but it was hard to enjoy the music while she exaggeratedly swung her hips and thrust her pelvis. At times, she would incorporate a lovely African dancing, the only part I didn’t find disturbing. The audience came back to life once a few of the African students started dancing. I was really happy to see them having fun and trying to entertain the crowd.
The last performance was by the students of the African Student Association. They danced to two modern hip hop African songs. The crowd was very supportive. Many of the audience were cheering for their friends, who for the most part were happy for all the attention.
The event ended with closing remarks by Fatima and the event organizers who thanked all of their volunteers, their sponsors and the audience. I left the event that night happy that I attended. There was great food and good performances. They even played some the songs by my favorite African singers, Wizkid and Iyanya.
I look forward to next year’s African Culture Night but for now, I’ll focus on perfecting the recipe for groundnut stew, a definite new addition to my multicultural cookbook.