When Kofi Osel Bonsu was a student in Canberra, he noticed a lack of unity and engagement amongst the African community. So he founded the Africa Festival in the Park and turned that sense of disconnection into a labour of love.
Now in it fourth edition, the organisers run an action-packed event that starts mid morning and continues through into the night.
“Africa is diverse and it is not limited to safaris. There is more to Africa, so I thought there was a need to have a day, whereby we bring all the community together to celebrate the diverse cultures of the African continent,” says Bonsu.
Like me, most Canberrans hadn’t made the early start and the numbers were thin by the time the first dignitaries made their speeches. Local politicians were abound and took the opportunity to wear colourful African shirts and welcome the crowd.
I joined the festival about midday on Sat 22 April, and as is typical of Canberra, the autumn weather was gorgeous for a day out – warm, sunny and very pleasurable. The venue, Stage 88 in Centennial Park, was lit up with bright coloured lights so everyone could see where the action was. There were plenty of tables, chairs, umbrellas, African cushions or the grass for people sit on, or they could choose to wander around the circle of stalls.
The real stars of the Festival were the musicians, performers and DJs, who despite occasional breaks to acknowledge important civic supporters, kept the crowd entertained throughout the day.
The posters and social media advertising hadn’t really done justice to these acts, considering how much effort the team of volunteers put into attracting really interesting performers.
As a result, I gave the musicians less attention than they deserved and focused more on the Festival as a family day out. However, for a volunteer-run festival, demanding perfection from them would be unreasonable.
Elijah Mahama talked about his role with the line-up on stage.
“I like events, and when I came to Canberra in 2016, everybody said there’s nothing happening, it’s dead. So you have to make your own events, [and] that’s how I got involved in today’s event,” he said.
“I thought it was better for us to do what we can do to enjoy Canberra. My role is to be the manager – I bring the musicians together, I bring the DJs together, I bring whatever is needed to make the event happen.
“It is a big job, but the point is that it is also fun, right? If you don’t enjoy it, it’s going to be hell for you. But because it is fun, it is my pastime,” he said.
There were twelve acts for the festival — music, drums, dancers and entertainment, with Sydney’s Afro Moses as the headliner.
What was really obvious were the children, who immersed themselves 100 percent into everything that was going on.
There were plenty of activities to engage the children, including arts and crafts, drumming workshops, bubble toys, outdoor games and the popular tug-of-war.
The atmosphere was colourful, musical, and immersive, and there was a subtle undercurrent of anticipation gradually building up over the day for the night time event.
The stall holders
Stall holders bring interest and variety to an event, and there was a good range of products, clothing, financial services, access to sponsors, fun for the kids and more.
“The festival is all about celebration of our diversity, literally bringing Africa to Australia for Canberrans to experience the authentic African through our food, music, dance, arts & crafts and everything else,” says Bonsu.
One of the features of the festival was the opportunity to try different foods. For the most part, I’m sure most of the food stalls were only occasional providers, but they were enthusiastic about preparing a beautiful variety of tasty treats to sample.
To put food in the spotlight, Bonsu led a jollof rice battle on stage: Nigeria vs Ghana. Jollof is a traditional West African rice dish which varies from region to region.
“Relatives” from around the world — and the occasional Minister, including Tara Cheyne MLA — were picked out from the crowd to be judges. The tasting competition highlighted the point and what to look for in the food offerings.
Another strong theme was philanthropy, and many stall holders held ethical values behind their activities. Rebecca and Patrick Lubilanji and their friends ran a stall selling hand made clothing and bags. All the proceeds go to their charity, Harvest Hope Africa, which equips vulnerable women and children with skills they can use to earn a living. Rebecca was a teacher in Africa for many years, and she and Patrick moved to Canberra to raise their family. The couple studied Social Enterprise at the Mill House Ventures, UC.
The professionalism that Kofi and his team brought to this event is a credit to them. The organisers are warm and inviting as they drew in Canberra community members and sponsors from multiple links. The festival can only get more popular — as long as their enthusiasm doesn’t fade.
“We are all volunteers, we love the community and this is our contribution,” says Bonsu.
The Africa Festival in the Park was a vibrant, colourful and musically exciting event. The adults were slow to join the children in the dancing, but darkness and the opportunity to kick on at the Transit Bar in Civic would ensure there was something for everyone.
Photos by Jenna Gray