This past week, a three-day-long African heritage festival called Umojafest was held at Judkins Park in Seattle. Primarily a festival to celebrate and empower those of African descent, the festival was open to all people. “‘Umoja’ is the Swahili word for ‘unity’,” said Melantha Jenkins, ASG student president at Bellevue College. “We may be having a festival that’s celebrating the African community, but it’s called the ‘Soul of Seafair’ for a reason.” People of all ages and races could be found at Umojafest, learning and enjoying the various events. According to its website, Umojafest hosted events that ranged from a basketball tournament to appearances from local musicians, such as Darrius Willrich and Zack Bruce, to an appearance made by the Disney Channel’s Marshal Skai Jackson.
According to its website, Umojafest first began as the East Madison Mardi Gras in the 1950s, which in turn derived its origins from the International Festival held in Chinatown at the time. While in part dedicated specifically to Asian cultures, the International Festival carried the idea of unity that inspired Umojafest. While the International Festival was soon discontinued, the various communities began to put on their own festivals which eventually turned into the larger Seafair Festival, a conglomeration of all the smaller festivals. “[Umojafest] is really about uniting the community,” said BCSU coordinator David Joseph. “It showcases musical and artistic talent that might not be as noticed otherwise. It did have an Afrocentric theme to it, though, going back to the word ‘umoja’. It’s a way for the community to retrace its roots.” Umojafest didn’t focus purely on the traditional aspect of African heritage, however. Traditional African drums and dancing were performed only a few feet away from contemporary rap and hip-hop artists.
While enjoyable, Umojafest does have a more serious aspect as well. “On the third day, they have a fashion show as well as speakers,” said Jenkins. “I spoke about social justice issues and the importance of cross-generational education regarding those issues using experiential learning. Experiential learning is all about going to the communities and meeting the people who participated in those events, touching their scars and hearing the stories that they have to tell,” Jenkins continued. “‘Umoja’ means unity, and I believe that it’s important that this community [Seattle and the Eastside] knows that it is more than just one community.”
Overall, Umojafest is considered to be an important event both in and out of the African-American community. “It has extremely strong roots in the community,” said David Joseph. “I think it’s important for the community to get involved, it’s important for people of all colors to be involved in the festival. It’s that involvement that will create social change in the community. I think that it was a great experience, and I think that Bellevue College had a great presence there,” said Jenkins. “Festivals like this allow us to reach out past our boundaries and past our own community. We can do pretty much anything on campus within reason, but why not take it to the next level? Our community is really multicultural, and it needs something to celebrate that.”