Healing the past, directing the future

I moved to Asheville from Tombstone, Ariz., after searching the Net and coming upon the YMI Cultural Center’s Web site and information about the historic Block. “Wow,” I thought, “a town in the South where the black community still owns property. Got to see that!”

I trace my roots to a black town called Pelham, Texas. There my Scotch-Irish ancestors from Mecklenburg County, N.C., and Ireland took my Yoruba and Ibo ancestors—stolen from Nigeria—to a land grant in Navarro County, Texas, after the Civil War. They were joined there by the other line of my family—Choctaw and Cherokee survivors of the Trail of Tears. Together they strove to make a better life for themselves. I have a keen awareness of the importance of reconciling one’s ancestry and building a healthy self-image by embracing the past.

Asheville has a laudable reputation for celebrating diversity and working to bridge divides. Part of that reputation is based on our involvement in Sister Cities International. The nonprofit citizen-diplomacy group seeks to motivate and empower private citizens, municipal officials and business leaders in linked cities to conduct mutually beneficial long-term programs. Asheville Sister Cities honors our diverse roots by having sister cities in France, Russia, Greece, two in Mexico and now our newest: Osogbo, Nigeria. The time has come to honor our African roots and thereby continue the process of healing the wounds from our past.

I joined Asheville Sister Cities to explore the vision I have of a bridge to Africa. I envision a cultural exchange that is part Pritchard Park drum circle, part Goombay and part Block party, merged into a personal commitment to meeting our brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers in Africa face to face. The Sister City relationship gives us the opportunity to help a school, hospital or orphanage and to build long-term friendships both abroad and at home.

This August, an Asheville delegation will travel to Osogbo to finalize a document recognizing our Sister City relationship. We’ll be introduced to government officials and local community leaders. The fact that Prince Olagunsoye Oyinlola, the governor of Osun state, and the king of Osogbo, Oba Iyiola Oyewale Matanmi III, will be in attendance is an indication of the importance the government is attaching to this trip.

Osogbo, the state capital, is a city of 350,000 people in southwestern Nigeria. Legend has it that two hunters settled Osogbo about 300 years ago. The deity Osun offered to protect all their descendants in exchange for their promise not to hunt near her sacred river. No foreign army has ever invaded Osogbo, which is known as the “City of Peace.” Today the colorful Osun Festival draws tourists from all over the world to the Osun Grove nature preserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Osogbo is the ancestral home of all of us; Africa is the cradle of humankind. The Osun Grove was saved from developers by an Austrian artist, Suzanne Wenger. She moved to Osogbo in the 1950s with German linguist Ulli Beier. There they established an art school working with the local sculptors and dyers. Our delegation will be meeting Ms. Wenger, now in her 90s and lovingly known as Iya Adunni by the locals. We’ll also be making a stop at The Shrine, the nightclub in Lagos begun by activist, musician and Afro-beat pioneer Fela Kuti and maintained today by his son, Femi Kuti. Fela, who died of AIDS in 1997, was a fierce critic of corrupt politics in Nigeria and corrupt international corporations bleeding his country.

For this visit, our delegation will consist of UNCA professors and community members. Each member of the delegation must cover their own travel expenses to and from Nigeria. Once there, all expenses will be covered by the Osogbo Sister City organization. Our delegation must raise the needed funds by the end of June. To this end, we’re planning several fund-raising events that we hope the community will come out and support.

I have a vision of Asheville playing an active part in maintaining the historic Osun Grove, helping the locals meet the U.N. Millennium Development Goals and bringing green tourism to the area. And as an adjunct to Goombay, I also see Asheville having its own Osun Festival on the French Broad River, complete with indigenous Nigerians, spiritual leaders and a carnival as never seen before.

In August 2008, the histories of these two peoples and cultures will merge. Asheville has the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a Sister City relationship with the “City of Peace”: Osogbo, Nigeria. I invite all area residents to help make it happen.

For more information, call Valeria at 515-0740.

[Valeria Watson-Doost/Yeye Siju Osunyemi is the founder of Zamani Refuge African Culture Center. She has co-produced many programs on URTV designed to help bridge cultural divides.]

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