Baobab Sankofa, pandemic style!

Last Thursday night, we held a an outdoor physically distanced ceremony for the Sankofa ending to Baobab Community, as August is the end of our final fiscal year and 25th Season. And also, since we did not get to do our celebration concert in June, nor our trip to Ghana in July. It was a modest but very special evening. Much love and gratitude all around!

We toasted the current Baobab Youth, who received the coveted bottles of Fanta, and masks made of Ghanaian cloth.

We thanked our wonderful Board of Directors under the leadership of Evie Gray and Kerry Gogush Cule: Dalton Holloway, Dave Hennessy, Nadine Powers & Cathy Sandiford, and welcomed past Board members to join us for the photo. Our awesome Hayley de Bie greeted guests at the gate which included alumni and friends.

We had two very special video presentations, first the pouring of libations and greeting from the one and only Kwasi Dunyo (via Toronto, thanks to Kofi & Andrew)

We also premiered our Virtual Gahu Pandemic Project, which you can see here:

There was some drumming, including a Drum Talk procession down the street and a large Gahu with alumni! So fun!

The Board and Youth & families presented me with a wonderful gift for my garden, a decorative garden ornament, a tree where the roots are as big as the branches…a great metaphor! So beautiful! I was so grateful to have my family with me as well, Rory, Iris and my mom. All my family has been so supportive of this incredible and unexpected path I have taken. This was not the ending we had planned, but it was a very special night, and I think we all felt some much needed closure.

I usually speak off the cuff at events, but for this momentous occasion I wrote down a few thoughts to share with everyone and I have posted them here:

Baobab was born out of a desire to share the amazing music and community context of the vibrant culture in Ghana that I had been introduced to in the late 1980s. This music, my experience in a drum/dance group in Toronto and trips to Ghana were the initial points of connection between Rory and myself. It seemed natural when we moved from Toronto to Ottawa to begin something together in 1995, as I was committed to teaching music in some way and had been inspired by many Choral community groups I had already worked with, and Rory and I had been playing this music together for several years by then.  He started giving adult lessons for $5, at Arts Court, which led to the formation of Akpokli, our adult group. I began with 7 kids in the youth group, meeting Wednesday afternoons, a timeslot we kept for all of our 25 years!  Our first gig was at the Black Sheep Inn, a venue that we continued to perform at annually and have close ties to.

During our history, Baobab expanded and contracted in response to the needs of the Ottawa community, and our own capacity. We added the younger Roots class and summer Rhythm Trek camp, the public adult classes, a parent and toddler class, seniors sessions and dozens of performances and workshops each year. We collaborated with many other artists and groups, and learned from many Ghanaian master musicians and dancers.  For the performing groups, there were trips to Banff, Syracuse, Washington DC, Woodstock NY and Woodstock Ontario, and London, Waterloo, Kingston and Toronto. The 2001 youth crew (some of whom are here tonight) recorded a CD and were the first group to go to Ghana. Some parents told me later they thought I was crazy, but that trip brought into focus all that we stood for: intercultural learning, mentoring, multi-age groupings and being in community, through the lens of artistic excellence. Our regular trips every few years became a hallmark for the program and have given many youth, their parents, and our adult students unforgettable experiences that in some cases have changed the course of their lives. The 30 year reciprocal relationship we have with the village of Dagbamete, our teacher Kwasi Dunyo and his family there makes it seem like we are visiting our second home when we go. As a direct result of our longtime connection, there are now more than six members of the Dunyos who have immigrated to Canada, and are making families and putting down roots here.

All this wonderful activity and growth has had its challenging moments, as you can imagine! We had no blueprint for building an organization such as this. After our family grew to include our lovely Iris, Rory and I figured out that we would be better off not working so closely together anymore, as I wanted to take the organization into a more formalized direction. We have continued an artistic partnership and Rory has taught Baobab classes and is responsible for turning on a whole generation of kids to Ghanaian food at our summer Rhythm Trek camp. Iris was in Roots and the youth group, and has helped out with the summer camp a few times. Both Rory and Iris remain a strong inspiration for me for this work.

Over the years, Baobab Community heavily depended on our fantastic volunteer Board of Directors, many of whom are here tonight. Their careful and dedicated commitment to our larger goals ensured that we could steer through both positive and troubling times with support and love. Our Board members were always game for rolling up their sleeves and getting things done, along with all of our terrific parent volunteers, which was so important to our success.  In our 11th year we received grant money to hire an operations manager, who was Hayley de Bie. As most of you know, that was a game changer for our organization! There is nothing that Hayley didn’t tackle, from helping us find our new studio at St Georges, to organizing systems for EVERYTHING and somehow getting an airline to fly us home from Ghana in business class. She remains our finance manager today, and a dear friend to us all.

Our grants and programming income have been augmented by our wonderful donors, all of whom have some kind of personal connection to us and our members. We have held grassroots fundraising events and received personal donations both small and large. They have contributed immensely to our efforts and I want to take a moment to acknowledge those donors who are here this evening. Thank You!

A few years ago, I became aware that our goals and programming were not working as well as they had in the past. Perhaps this was due to social changes in the world around us.  Perhaps it was me looking for new expressions for my work. I felt that I was not as effective as I had been and a sense of community was harder to build in a fast-paced world. After a few specific roadblocks, it became clear to me that the Baobab model had reached capacity and it was time for new voices to be heard. Given the social changes in the world right now, perhaps we were the canary in the coalmine. In consultation with our current Board, we thought through a viable ending and dreamed up a fabulous 25th and final season, which we are closing now, not exactly as planned, but special all the same.

It is difficult to put 25 years into words (although I just tried, didn’t I?). I can say that the people I have met through Baobab, and the experiences we have shared together have shaped me personally, my family life and the work I do.  This unique path was certainly not expected, but somehow feels like a destiny and I feel so very blessed to be here with you right now.

KA August 27th, 2020
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