With all the tragedy in recent weeks along with our daily busyness, it can often be hard to stop, reflect, and be present. Our overstimulated minds from aggressive advertising, multitasking and the illusion of needing more, constantly robs us of our inner calm and natural, spiritual place of wholeness.
We belong in nature, and when I give myself permission to take a power pause and reconnect to the earth, I remember how easy it is to attune to my Higher Power, especially around trees. The glorious weather in London has been the perfect excuse to wander barefoot in the park and recharge my melanoid soul.
Being outdoors during the summer has always been an important family event and I’ve taken my daughter camping at music festivals ever since 2010 (when she was 2). Despite enjoying the time we spent at these festivals, there was always a longing to experience it at a deeper, cultural level with other black people. Last year, I could hardly contain my excitement at discovering a wonderful organisation who flipped the ‘black folks don’t camp’ myth on its head. I finally found a space where melanin rich folks could celebrate our culture through the power of storytelling.
I know there’ll be those who whine that having black only spaces is ‘reverse racism.’ P.S.A. Black people cannot be racist, because our choices do not affect white people as a group, e.g. we can hate racist white folks all we want, but it won’t stop your whiteness being prioritised for a job, bank loan, housing etc. but I digress and that conversation is for another blog post. The truth is, these black spaces are needed in response to, and having some respite from the ongoing everyday racism we experience. Also, with all the recent racial trauma and deaths, it is even more difficult for us to grieve and heal as a community, so it’s actually as healthy boundary, and act of self love to take time out from the people and structures which enforce and enable the abuse. It’s important just to spend time with each other in our shared experience to recharge.
My first experience at the African Storytelling festival when I arrived, was excitement in the car park as brotha’s and sistah’s pulled up in over packed cars, with children hungry for woodland freedom. There was a warm sense of family from the beginning, I had offers to help build my tent, and Zuri (my daughter) was off in a flash exploring and chatting to other children as they arrived. The storytelling workshops were a wonderful opportunity to share and identify, we learn history, our values, spirituality and the importance of community. The performances were also powerful tools for connection that had me initially terrified of speaking amongst strangers, to embracing a childlike joy as I embraced the freedom of engagement. We must never underestimate the glory of hearing stories about us, told by us. Mirroring is a powerful tool for building our identity and raising self esteem.
I cannot even begin to convey how healing it was to absorb the power of the drum which echoed through the woods the whole weekend. I remember thinking, despite the traumatic journey of my ancestors from Africa, to Jamaica and then onto the UK, my soul remembers it’s source, the rhythms, the fyah and ancestral energy ricochet straight back from the Motherland.
One of my favorite memories last year, was when a large group of us were strewn over the grass outside my tent, reasoning, sharing and laughing as we shared food and snacks. My pot became became their pot. I arrived a stranger and became an sistah to many, the auntie to a beautiful little girl who was happy popping by to explore my tent and play with my daughter. The campfire at night was a delicious space for chatter and song, I even saw a breadfruit being roasted and devoured with abandon. I felt right at home, here is a sneak peak from last year.
As the year has flown past and the countdown begins before to unpack my tent again, I just had to grab the founder and powerful warrior for a chat about how this project was brought to life and what to expect this year.
JA: Tell us about yourself and your movement?
GC: My name is Griot Chinyere, and I’m a storyteller and the artistic director to ashanti-chi which is a company whose main aim is to promote, preserve and celebrate the oral tradition of African storytelling. I use it as a leadership tool to train and empower people. I use it with children, adults, prisoners, young people, the suited and booted, the rough and ready, domestic violence victims, the homeless etc. It’s a powerful tool that was introduced to me at 10 years old and I love the healing power it gives when used correctly.
JA: How did the festival project come about?
GC: I come from a long line of storytellers and I wanted to find another way to preserve the tradition. I have also been to lots of others festivals where I’ve been the minority and loved being outdoors, but always wondered where my community was? I’m not one to complain about things so I wanted to do something about it. I began by doing some expedition leadership training where I learned how to build fires, map & compass reading, food foraging etc. and then I worked to combine the things I love about the old traditions and nature, together for people who looked like me. When I was 10, I went home to my mother’s village and it was an amazing feeling to experience being in a village, to be surrounded by people who look like me and recognise me. There are many (Africans) who live in the UK who may never have that experience, so I wanted to create a space for us to be who we are, where we are. This is how the Nne Agwu Afrakan storytelling festival was born.
JA: How has the festival evolved over the years since it started?
GC: When I first started it was just an evening with a few storytellers walking through the woods. It then progressed to an overnight event from 6pm till 6am, then 2 nights and it grew from there.
JA: Why do you think black folks don’t camp?
GC: When I first started, I heard a lot of people saying that they didn’t want to do the camping thing, but I’ve noticed over the years that more people are willing to give camping a try. There is also the option to attend the day’s events and not camp overnight, the venue is accessible via the tube.
JA: What can campers expect from the festival this year?
GC:It’s the first year that we are using the festival to honour someone. It was mentioned that it was the 10 anniversary of Louise Bennett (Miss Lou’s) death on 27 July and how did I feel about honouring her this time which was a no brainer. She was a storyteller, a poet, a folklorist, an oral traditionalist more than anything. She went to RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) in England, and although they spoke BBC English, she was an advocate for her authentic, Jamaican voice. She probably stopped a lot of Jamaican children getting clipped around the ear for speaking patois, as they became familiar with her work. The way that she told her stories, as well as the stories themselves encouraged Jamaicans to be proud of who they are, it was an acceptance of self. She also revealed the connection between patois and some of the African languages, for example in Igbo language, we say ndeewu means, greetings to you (one person) but if there were many people it’s ndeewunu and unu in Jamaican patois means you many. She was able to make those important connections across our journey.
Linton Kwesi Johnson is a massive fan of Louise Bennett and has recently become our patron. His poetry tells stories which transforms the negative to the positive. He provokes thought with ways of moving forward, giving us jokes so we feel good about who we are. We are having our opening ceremony with him on the Friday. I am also hoping that one of Louise Bennett’s relatives will also attend. We want to set the right tone so we can enjoy the space and support each other and any newcomers.
Throughout the weekend we have musicians, yoga, night walks and the best storytellers from around the country. We have a wonderful vegan chef, a wellbeing area, a herbalist, and a small African market with actor Chris Tummings who will be sharing his hand made bamboo saxophones. It’s our way of connecting with and honouring our ancestors. We give thanks and listen in order for us to rise and shine in our greatness.
Whether you’re able to make the festival or not, make some time to get outdoors and explore Ra’s glorious creation, it’s great for your health and an amazing opportunity for family self care. For my melanoid family in the US, I found this gorgeous site which organises inspiring camping events for black people. http://www.outdoorafro.com/
The Nne Agwu storytelling festival runs from Friday 29th July, to Monday 1 August 2016 Full details and the line up can be found below. Don’t miss it!