Boston is home to a large population of African immigrants hailing from Somalia, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, and dozens of other countries on the African continent and around the world.
But the city’s African diaspora is “so disconnected as a community,” said Mireille Tushiminina, lead coordinator for the annual African Festival of Boston.
That’s why 12 years ago, Tushiminina decided to start a festival that would “create a common ground” — a place where African Bostonians who speak different languages and have different cultural traditions could come and celebrate together. Tushiminina, together with the Shalupe Foundation, which she has worked with for many years, launched the first African Festival of Boston in 2010. The Shalupe Foundation focuses on supporting refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo fleeing violence, particularly gender-based violence.
This year, organizers for the African Festival of Boston expect more than 25,000 attendees at the Aug. 27 event, which will run from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.
The festival will take place on Boston Common and feature performances from a number of Boston-based and international bands including Kotoko Brass and the Akwaaba Ensemble, dance from the local OrigiNation Dance Troupe, spoken word poetry, acrobatic shows, and kids’ competitions. Local nonprofits such as the International Institute of New England, a refugee aid organization, and the Seven Hills Foundation, a group that supports people with disabilities, will host info booths set up around the festival grounds.
Vendors from the African diaspora will also be at Boston Common on Aug. 27, selling everything from food to jewelry. One of them, fashion brand The House of Nahdra, will present its designs in a fashion show near the end of the festival’s lineup.
Tushiminina, a long-time Boston native, believes the festival provides a crucial opportunity for Boston’s diverse community of African immigrants to “come together,” “unite,” and address the shared issues they face with a louder voice.
Bostonian Africans working together, Tushiminina said, means greater change is possible: “when you bring a critical mass, people tend to shake and move.”
Of course, unifying Boston’s African community is not the same thing as “lumping everybody together,” as the festival’s co-emcee Leonard Tshitenge explains often happens. Tshitenge also serves as one of the festival’s programming managers, and in that role asks himself: “how do you make sure that those that don’t get the spotlight, don’t get to shine, are visible?”
He said this year’s event will provide opportunities for the broader African community in Boston to experience and enjoy food, music, dance, and more from African countries and cultures that are often underrepresented.
For the first time in the festival’s history, a female DJ will preside over its tunes, a change Tushiminina is particularly excited about.
DJ Lady Ly has been coming to the AFOB for about 10 years and plans to bring the “versatility” she is known for to this year’s celebration. She said she’s fond of cross-cultural “blending,” like playing Trinidadian Soca music alongside West African Afrobeats.
Tushiminina said the festival also has a just-announced female co-emcee, Vanessa Silva.
The festival currently has two major sponsors: the Boston Cultural Council and the Massachusetts Cultural Council. (ArtsEmerson has also contributed.) Tushiminina’s volunteer team of 10 raises funds and helps support the event out of their own pockets.
“We ended up, as individuals, supporting the event because we do believe in [it],” Tushiminina said.
First-time attendees, she said, have often told her how excited they are to discover new people, artists, and organizations in their community that they never knew existed. In addition to the local nonprofits that set up information booths throughout the festival, health care providers and community organizers have the chance to come and speak about their work during the festival’s open mic periods.
Collectively, the festival has helped to build a huge “network,” Tushiminina said, that strengthens the entire African community in Greater Boston. Whether a person is looking for pro-bono legal help or a restaurant that offers a taste of home, the festival’s range of vendors and community experts will know someone who can help.