Africa Day opened its doors around 5 p.m. and welcomed guests until well past its planned conclusion of 9 p.m. Saturday night in Newcomb Ballroom. Over 300 people dressed their best for this showcase, one of the Organization of African Students’ most spectacular annual events.
The ballroom was dimly lit, save for the bright spotlights that cast beams upon a narrow catwalk at the center of the room. Two expansive black curtains concealed the student artists until they strutted out onto a narrow catwalk to showcase African heritage and culture through a fashionable performance.
Third-year College student and president of OAS Danielle Johnson served as the co-director of Africa Day this year.
“This event brings together students at University,” Johnson said. “It really brings a community of students [together] and it's just a fun event where people can see what Africa is.”
This year, all celebrations centered on the theme of African Futurism. OAS leadership defines such a theme in the words of Nigerian-American writer Nnedi Okorafor.
“[African futurism] is a sub-category of science fiction that is directly rooted in African culture, history, mythology and point-of-view and does not privilege or center the West,” a program distributed during the event read. “It is centered with optimistic visions of the future and is written — and centered — on people of African descent.”
To spotlight this theme, the event featured eight fashion show scenes — The Motherland, Femme Forte, African Sexuality, African Deities, Black Diaspora, Afroelegance, Enchanted and Afropunk — interspersed with three dance performances from AfroHoos, a Virginia Commonwealth University-based group called Les Fiyettes et Fils D’Afrique and the Ethiopian Eritrean Student Association and two poetry readings by third-year College students Vanessa Joachim and Abena Sekum Appiah-Ofori and a musical performance by Fadda Bless.
Models rocked the runway with power and grace, striking powerful postures and crossing arms, flexing muscles, putting up finger guns and salutes and tossing bills into the air. They often broke out into short dance moves and feats of flexibility as part of an astonishingly synchronized performance timed with audio and visual effects that elicited the crowd’s thunderous applause.
Jonathan Taye, first-year College student and Africa Day dance performer, said he appreciated such diverse representation and chose to participate as a dancer because of this representative mission.
“I really liked the mission of uniting all the different sides of Africa,” Taye said. “Since OAS, which is primarily West African, is showcasing this event, I wanted to represent the east side, so people can know that all of Africa was represented during Africa Day.”
This unity among such a diverse community and the sheer energy of people sharing a common interest was bursting and reverberated throughout the night. Such a community was especially touching for William Adu-Jamfi, second-year Engineering student and member of Africa Day’s logistics committee.
“Growing up, I didn’t have access to things like Africa Day where we could all come together as one community and really show appreciation for every country in every different culture that exists in Africa,” Adu-Jamfi said. “[In OAS], I feel like I’ve met more and more Africans from different cultures that have helped form my community at U.Va. and shaped my college experience so far.”
The event’s organization was not without its challenges, however, including funding and development. In all, OAS’ budget for Africa Day totaled $23,000. The group received $10,000 from Student Council and applied to several grants elsewhere to fund the remaining cost. As last year’s Africa Day was held virtually due to the pandemic, leadership had to rely on documents from three years ago and frequent calls to previous executive team members as guidance.
Nevertheless, as OAS looks to the future after a very successful event, some want even more events and outreach. For example, Adu-Jamfi suggested hosting smaller events throughout the year.
“Throughout the school-year, maybe [we] have smaller events for each country that people come from,” Adu-Jamfi said. “I think stuff like that can help other Africans learn about different cultures, but also help bring people together from the same country.”
In all, many have a single story of Africa, but the purpose of Africa Day and of OAS in general is to cross the bounds of the Western perception of what it means to be African.
“We have this event to bring together students at the University, but also to educate the wider community because — as it says in our mission statement — a lot of people have a certain perception of Africa,” Johnson said. “I think, with Africa Day, we do that successfully because it just showcases what Africa really is.”