Experience an African mosaic (May 23-26)

May 22, 2008

About 10 years ago, my husband came up with the idea of a trip to Africa. Not a safari, mind you, or a visit to one of history’s great civilizations … no, he wanted to go to this little nation that no one (myself included) had ever heard of: Sao Tome and Principe. It’s right on the equator, a few islands sprinkled just off the coast of Gabon. The draw for him was that it was a rare destination for ham radio, his beloved hobby, and while he didn’t mind my companionship, I suspect the real reason he wanted me along was for the luggage allowance my ticket would provide him. Our trip in 1999, in hindsight, was a little comical: He and a German friend holed up in a very nice hotel (the kind frequented, we learned, by cacao company executives and UN representatives) working the radios, while I explored the island. Its main historical relevance was as a stopover where slave ships loaded up on potable water for the Atlantic voyage; due to mosquito-bourne diseases and other factors, it was never populated until the Portuguese imported their own plantation labor in the 1500s.

As a microcosm of Africa, Sao Tome and Principe is pretty relevant today: Its cacao industry has a hard time against the larger ones in Cote de Ivoire and other countries, but  its off-shore oil fields and fishing grounds are rich, making it a highly popular international partner.  When we were there, in 1999 and again in 2000, Taiwan was “sponsoring” all kinds of government buildings — libraries and ministries, for example — in what was rumored to be a quid pro quo for fishing rights. Residents could see the trawlers at night, just on the horizon, and everyone knew the wooden dugouts they still used were simply no match. At that time, the American presence was minimal, just a Voice of America radio station staffed by a few engineers. Today, on the other hand, thanks to Sao Tomean oil, I’ve heard that the American presence is much larger, including a military presence.

What does all this have to do with free events in St. Louis? It’s an introduction to one of the many little pieces that make up the African mosaic, something most of us have almost no knowledge of — to us it’s one large, uniformly mysterious continent, but in fact it has a huge diversity of peoples and histories, and its future is wide open. This weekend’s St. Louis African Arts Festival (May 23 to 26) is a great opportunity to learn a little more, particularly about the arts from various countries and cultures. The schedule on the homepage is full of dance troupes, drummers, musicians and storytellers, as well as a film series (Saturday, May 24 only) and tie-ins at the Saint Louis Art Museum and Zoo. Most of the events take place in Forest Park, centered around the World’s Fair Pavilion.

I’m unfamiliar with most of the performers, but I did note that Coco Soul headlines Saturday’s 6 p.m. show, and I have to say that M. is driving me a little crazy ever since we saw her downtown last Sunday at the Annie Malone Bluesfest. She started off her set there doing a call-and-response that ended with “Somebody scream!” Now he goes around “Wooo-oh”ing and “Da-da-da”ing and SCREAMING as loud as he can.

Be sure to bring cash along for the vendors in the marketplace as well as the food booths, which will have both African-American and straight African dishes. For more info, call 314.935.9676.

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