Baobab Cultural Center thriving

05:00 AM, Feb 24, 2013

Damoni Amil Glasgow, right, and Ciera Elizabeth McBride, 11, both of Rochester play the drums before a dancing rehearsal in preparation for Kwanzaa, Sat., Dec. 22, 2012. (Marie De Jesus/staff photographer)/

Written By Jim Memmott

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On a recent cold Tuesday night at the Baobab Cultural Center in Rochester, Kiah Nyame reminds his students that black history, the history that’s celebrated all this month, began a long, long time ago.

It started before the civil rights movement in the United States. It began before Frederick Douglass, before slavery, before the United States became a place on the map.

Go back thousands of years, says Nyame, who is African-American. Go back thousands of years to Africa.

There you will find a rich and complex civilization, one with builders, farmers, doctors, architects, strong men, strong women.

That history is neglected, forgotten, even hidden, suggests Nyame, a graduate of St. John Fisher College and a doctoral candidate at the University of Rochester who works with at-risk youths and their families.

That history needs to be shared, told and retold, says Nyame, who began teaching the once-a-week African history class at Baobab in November.

We need to know this information,” he tells the 30 or so people, most of them adults, who are listening. “We need to teach our children, our grandchildren.”

Which is why Baobab, 728 University Ave. in the Neighborhood of the Arts, came about.

The husband and wife team of Cheryl Kodjo, a pediatrician, and Moka Lantum, a physician and pharmacologist who was born in the west-African nation of Cameroon, founded the center in 2005. It was on Gregory Street for a while before moving to University Avenue.

Named after the African trees that are said to be sacred and long-lived, their roots sunk hundreds of years ago, their branches sheltering people who gather for celebrations and conversations, the center was created as place to learn about and to appreciate African art, culture and history.

The small nonprofit institution has survived, indeed thrived, through a combination of private funds, and foundation government grants. Besides its educational mission, it hosts art exhibitions, drumming and dancing and other events.

Center officials estimate conservatively that yearly attendance has reached 5,500. Lately, attendance for individual programs has increased, as well.

Countering myths

Baobab has always been an institution that functions as a kind of truth squad, a home for the correction of prevailing myths about Africa.

We all went to the same schools, we all have been mis-educated about Africa,” says Terry Chaka, a member of the center’s board who also serves as the curator at Baobab. “We all heard that Africa needed to be civilized. What they didn’t tell us was it was the first civilization on earth.”

And even if Africa was depicted as the cradle of civilization, educators did not stress the connections between then and now, Chaka and Nyame say. African-Americans were denied a sense of their cultural origins, of their ancestors’ achievements.

There was, of course, a reason why Africa and Africans were portrayed as uncivilized over the centuries, she and Nyame say.

That message gave license to the conquerors, allowed England, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and other countries to colonize Africa and take advantage of its natural resources. It also provided a rationale for enslaving supposedly “uncivilized” Africans.

Study African history and it’s apparent that its people were enslaved for a reason, Chaka says: “It’s no wonder they were stolen. Look at their building skills, their agricultural skills. It made sense to bring the most talented people. Don’t tell me they didn’t know anything.”

Just as Africa was portrayed as uncivilized, most maps still show it smaller than it is.

On one map at Baobab — the Mercator projection that graces most school walls — Greenland and Europe are inflated, with Africa a small version of itself.

Another map at Baobab shows African in a truer scale. Europe looks smaller, less imposing. There are maps, too, that show Africa’s many countries, another way of underscoring the continent’s complexity.

People from West Africa can be different in culture, in religion, from those in east Africa, Chaka says, just as people from within the same country can be different.

Reclaiming Egypt

On this evening, Nyame is focusing on Egypt.

Egypt?” some people might say. “Egypt is in Africa?”

Of course it is, Nyame stresses, not just on the map, right up there in the northeast corner. It’s more than location, he adds. Egypt is very much part of Africa’s culture and its history.

In a sense, Nyame wants it back from those who say it really should be sliced off the map and amputated on to the Mideast. For proof, Nyame turns to ancient drawings found on walls and rock in the Sahara Dessert when Egypt when it was know as Kemet, long before the birth of Christ.

Those drawings show are kings and pharaohs who are clearly black-skinned, clearly “African,” Nyame says.

There is proof, too, of the accomplishments of these people.

They domesticated animals; built irrigation systems. Imhotep, one of Nyame’s favorites, was a doctor, just as he was an architect who built pyramids.

Ah, the pyramids. “No cranes, no dump trucks, no bulldozers,” Nyame says, emphasizing the skill it took to build the pyramids.

Stressing the positive

Nyame uses charts, words, videos, to tell his stories out of Africa, always stressing the importance of research, of getting the facts straight.

And he emphasizes the importance of getting the word out to counteract stories of low-achieving urban schools, of urban crime.

We look at the positive pieces because we hear about the negative all the time,” he says.

On this night, there are about 30 people at the class. There are some young people, as school is out for the week, but the regulars are mainly older African-Americans who are fascinated by a history that didn’t get taught when they were growing up.

This means a lot,” says Kim Archie of Rochester. “I’m glad to learn about my culture. When I was in school, when the class came to African history, the teacher said, ‘We’ll get to that later.’ And we never did. … I wanted to know where we fit in.”

Michelle Molefe of Rochester, who also went to school, had a similar experience.

I always felt like we were written out of history,” she says.

As the weeks go on, Nyame and his students will explore other parts of Africa, moving down the Nile. He emphasizes that it’s a never-ending process, as the continent is so big, the history so extensive.

Hub of activity

All the while, there will be other activities at Baobab, art exhibits, drumming and yoga classes, discussions and lectures.

On Thursday starting at 7 p.m., there will be a dialogue facilitated by members of the Rochester Black Bar Association on the effect of race upon relationships with law enforcement. The evening is part on the on-going Community Dialogue Series on Race in Civic Circles.

Yoga classes are on Tuesday. Drumming and dancing sessions take place almost every weekend.

Students, generally sixth-graders, visit the center every year through an arrangement with the City School District. Chaka hopes to bring in high school classes in the future and, in general, add more programs for young people, showing them the connections between their lives and the lives of Africans thousands of years ago.

All we do is close up some of the (gaps),” she says. “The kids are amazed.”