A hands-on kids' camp enlivens the Kunta Kinte fest.

From Africa to Arundel

August 12, 2005|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

As about a dozen boys and girls painted spongy material that is to serve as the brown walls of an African hut at this weekend's Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival, Renee Spears offered guidance.

"Use your painting skills and strokes," Spears told those participating in the Chesapeake Children's Museum camp session, of which she is program director. "Be very creative. In Africa, we would use berries and mud. We're going to create huts and put these up at the Kunta Kinte Festival."

Within moments, green handprints and footprints livened up the sponge.

"This is much better than mud," said Brennan Kizer-Ball, 8, as he smeared brown paint on the spongy fabric.

It was all in keeping with the camp's four-day mission: making arts and crafts to enliven the children's tent of the cultural event, being held tomorrow and Sunday on the Anne Arundel County Fairgrounds in Crownsville and expected to attract up to 100 vendors and 20,000 people.

The two-day event features jazz, gospel and R&B performances; arts and crafts; traditional and ethnic food vendors; African dance and drumming; mask-making; storytelling; and educational seminars.

The festival moved from St. John's College in Annapolis to the fairgrounds in 2001 because of construction in and around the campus. Though there's been talk of returning to St. John's, the event's Web site describes the fairgrounds as the "new home" of the festival, in its 18th year.

Deborah Wood, the museum's executive director and a festival board member, said the children's tent theme centers on Kunta Kinte's childhood in Gambia, West Africa, before he was captured and sold into slavery at age 17.

His descendant, the late author Alex Haley, researched the passage and wrote of his life in the 1970s bestselling book Roots.

A glimpse of history

Destiny Spears, who is about to enter fourth grade, knew some of that life story. "We're remembering Kunta Kinte, who came on a slave ship to the City Dock," she said. "Then he was bought and transported to Virginia."

The year, she guessed, was 1764 - but her mother corrected her gently: "1767."

The children's tent will offer a glimpse of the years leading up to that date, when Kunta Kinte disembarked in Annapolis.

"The children's focus will be on what he might have experienced growing up in the village of Juffere in Gambia, like drum-making," Wood said. "Boys herded goats in the village, so we're working on finding some goats."

Focus on children

Leonard Blackshear, president of the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation and a festival founder, said children are a key component of the audience that the festival aims to reach.

"We have had an emphasis on children from the beginning, because they could begin to understand African culture in a fun and an educational environment," he said. "It's what we call `edu-tainment,' using face masks, cultural games and artifacts.

"It's an experience all children - European, Asian - enjoy, but it's especially important for African-American children."

The children's tent became so over-subscribed that a similar adult tent was eventually established, he added.

Hidden on Silopanna Lane, a wooded pocket of Annapolis, the museum is a cheerfully informal institution dedicated to children's hands-on learning about the Chesapeake Bay, the environment and their own talents.

Four-day camp

The Kunta Kinte camp is a four-morning workshop designed to give enrichment and a sense of creating something artistic behind the scenes. Other African camp activities included cultural skits, dance, beading and weaving.

Drum-making was especially popular and a simple skill to acquire, Wood and Spears said, a matter of stretching brown paper over coffee cans - and soaking them in the sun.

Blackshear said the children's tent can leave a profound mark on children. He remembered a boy from Baltimore who came home from Annapolis and said, "Grandma, I have been to Africa."

The 18th annual Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival will be open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. tomorrow and from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday at the Anne Arundel County Fairgrounds on Generals Highway. Admission is $7 for adults and $3 for ages 4 to 12. Children 3 and under are free. Information: www. kuntakinte.org.

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