Elizabeth Forward celebrates African culture

| Friday, Feb. 22, 2013, 10:15 a.m.

Students at Elizabeth Forward Middle School celebrated Africa with dancing, drumming, dining and more on Thursday.

The festivities were part of a visit from members of the UMOJA African Arts Company to coincide with the school's observation of Black History Month. The visit was part of a new initiative at the school to celebrate world cultures on a monthly basis.

Audience participation was the name of the game during lunch periods as students in grades 6-8 learned and participated in traditional African dances taught by percussionists Anthony Mitchell Jr. and Dion Jacob, who played the dundun and djembe drums, respectively.

“We enjoy kids because their hearts are still pure,” said Mitchell, who has performed for people of all ages.

Jacob said seeing students smile and knowing they are enjoying the music makes for a rewarding experience. Jacob, who hails from Trinidad and Tobago but now lives in Pittsburgh, said teaching youth about another culture is very satisfying.

“We know that they'll grasp some of this,” he said.

Sixth-grader Haley Muir was one of the students taking it all in Thursday. Haley, who plays several instruments including snare drum in band, said the rhythms provided by the UMOJA drummers were something new for her.

“It's really cool and it's really different from what we do,” she explained. “I want to learn to do that.”

Apparently, she wasn't the only person who felt that way. Students and staff clapped along with some of the rhythms. Dozens of students congregated around the drummers for the various dances, which came from the West African tradition.

Sixth-grade food class students Bri Skalican and Juria Flournoy were stationed at a table giving away African-style desserts their counterparts in seventh grade baked for the occasion. The sweets capped off a specially prepared meal of African cuisine served by the school's lunch provider, The Nutrition Group, which included South African chicken with yellow rice, and cucumber and zucchini salad. In addition, the cafeteria was decorated with images of the flags of African nations.

UMOJA president Darcel Madkins said the visit was part of an effort by her group to educate students in outlying communities around Pittsburgh. The group regularly performs in the Pittsburgh Public Schools system through a Heinz Endowments grant. The company has also performed in the Moon Area School District and for Propel charter schools.

Middle school assistant principal Trisha Maddas said she is working with Madkins to see if grant funding is available to make visits to Elizabeth Forward a regular occurrence.

Maddas said a celebration of the culture of Ireland is planned for March.

African storyteller Temujin Ekunfeo said his visit to some of the middle school's classrooms was a good one.

“It was a chance to tell the history and culture of a continent they know little about,” he said. “It broadens their view of the world.”

Eric Slagle is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1966, or eslagle@tribweb.com.

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