by Lisa Mackay
If you ever speak with Wunmi Idowu, you will immediately be struck by her passionate belief in the power of community, art, and collaboration, and her boundless energy. Her many efforts to celebrate and consolidate the Black communities in Calgary have recently been recognized by Immigrants Services Calgary, who in October 2020 awarded Wunmi the Immigrants of Distinction Award for Arts and Culture. As you read more about her many projects, and how she fulfilled her Action Learning Plan (ALP) as part of her work for the Rozsa Arts Management Program (RAMP), which she completed in 2019, you will quickly see why.
Arriving to Calgary in 2012 from Edmonton, Wunmi discovered that the Black community here was fractured, dispersed into small unconnected groups. “Everybody was in their little silos, and you couldn’t find Black people!” she recalls. “So, I decided to basically find a way to bring ourselves together.”
Wunmi had already been running Woezo Africa Music & Dance Theatre Inc, a performing arts organization that she brought with her to Calgary. As a dancer herself, Wunmi founded Woezo Africa to ignite an appreciation and love for the cultural values of African music, dance, and performing arts. ‘Woezo Africa’ means ‘welcome to the land of perfection,’ and Wunmi explains “We want to enrich the global dance community through the infusion and celebration of African dance and share our knowledge of the history and evolution of African dance with many communities in the African diaspora.” The team consists of an advisory board, member’s at large collective, Black dancers, creative services manager, social media coordinators, communications & outreach coordinator, choreographers, and more.
“We want to enrich the global dance community through the infusion and celebration of African dance and share our knowledge of the history and evolution of African dance with many communities in the African diaspora.”
In 2018, Wunmi began producing Unganisha, a now-annual event that combines dance, theatre, documentaries, and a cultural fair to celebrate African and Caribbean cultures and traditions during Black History month. The high-impact large-scale performance explores the African diaspora through Western colonial expansion to the present day, and its influence on several modes of modern dance. Unganisha, which translates from Swahili to “Connection,” invites Albertans to celebrate Black History Month by recognizing the presence and ongoing cultural contributions of thriving African Canadian communities.
In 2018, Wunmi enrolled in the Rozsa Arts Management Program (RAMP), where she saw the ALP (Action Learning Plan) as an opportunity to launch an idea that she had been considering for a while: the UNGANISHA Diaspora and Community Engagement (UDCE) Project. Through her previous projects, Wunmi had seen the value and impact of bringing diverse Black communities in Calgary together and the greater impact they could have as a broader group than as individual communities. Her ALP project would be to form UDCE steering committee team made up of Black leaders from different African and Caribbean communities to co-develop initiatives collaboratively in order to better support strategic cultural priorities towards inclusive events.
Wunmi’s presentation described her ALP in the following words: “UDCE is a full-year multi-faceted action plan from April 2019 to March 2020, during which time members from Calgary's 40+ Caribbean and African Community Associations will be invited to participate in opportunities for cross-cultural activities leading to greater intercultural understanding, empathy and inclusion."
The UDCE project will promote further understanding and appreciation of the contribution that Africans, Caribbean's and other marginalized people have made and continue to make to our culture and society. It offers participants and the public insight on a number of distinct African and Caribbean cultural traditions that contribute to our uniqueness within a broader network through a familiar Calgary mantra of being "stronger together.“”
Almost immediately upon receiving her RAMP certificate in April 2019, Wunmi managed to gather several community leaders to form a working advisory group. They meet every month to share events, activities, and challenges with each other and bring each others news and events to their communities. Their first large-scale event, and fruit of the ALP, was a professional networking mixer, funded by CADA and the Government of Canada Department of Canadian Heritage in January of 2020. It was a sold-out event, with a gathering of 140 professionals and 15 students from the various universities in Calgary.
There were 22 Black owned businesses in various sectors ranging from arts and entertainment, business and marketing, beauty and cosmetics, fashion and design, media and photography and restaurant services in attendance. An engaging panel discussion on the topic of “Building Alliance for Excellence” featuring Michèle Moss, Charles Osuji, Dr. Samuel Iwar and Akolisa Ufodike concluded with anonymous question and answer period via an app. The evening showcased local Black talent including a spoken word artist and keyboardist pairing by Priscille & Zenas Bukasa, singer Jared Tobias Herring and dancers from Woezo Africa Music & Dance Theatre Inc amongst an array of authentic African and Caribbean food from local restaurants.
“It was so successful,” says Wunmi. “It was completely sold out two weeks before the event, and people were still coming the day of trying to buy tickets. And people left so blown away and so empowered. They had never had an opportunity to network with people from other communities, and hear what they have to say, and have all these black people around them that are professionals. And a handful of university student, I think it was about 12 or 15, thought ‘wow, these people can mentor us.’ So that was a nice thing that grew out of the event as well.”
This successful event was quickly followed in February by the Unganisha 2020 event at the Grand Theatre. Building on the ALP, the event included a Cultural Fair that featured 17 black-owned businesses and business owners and four African and Caribbean community association vendors. “We wanted to ensure that those who just watched Unganisha, and learned all this information about the history of the dances, how it connects us, they go downstairs and come into a room with full of black entrepreneurs, business owners, and association members,” describes Wunmi. “This is a way to kind of like tie it in to the community: ‘you just watched something, now support us.’ They see people selling beads, paintings, African-wear, and so much more. Our Servus Credit Union sponsors were giving free swag. We had a bartender. We had a DJ playing music. We have people dancing to just to keep it fresh. And by the end, we sold over $10,000 worth of merchandise within three hours.”
Then of course, we all know what happened next – a global pandemic. By this point, I am sure you are guessing that not even COVID-19 would slow Wunmi down – and you would be correct. “We started meeting on Zoom, discussing how we can support each other, what is happening in our communities, what events are still happening, how can we give more exposure to those events. We speak about how we're building our building community during COVID, what can we do? Because we know that Black people are very social! We like to meet with each other. We like to hang out and laugh and be social, be present, be light. So how are you doing that?”
"We speak about how we're building our building community during COVID, what can we do? Because we know that Black people are very social! We like to meet with each other. We like to hang out and laugh and be social, be present, be light. So how are you doing that?”
Wunmi continues, “Through the ALP advisory group, we learned that one community has game nights on Friday, every Friday at seven o'clock for an hour that we could join. And once a month, another hires a DJ to play music live on zoom, and watch everybody else dancing in their house. Another community started a food drive; they cook Caribbean food and invited the community to come and pick up a take away package home while social distancing. We also live events; the Independence Day for the Jamaican association was live on zoom. So it was really good to hear that, and share that people were still being creative and being social during this whole time. “
Wunmi and her group also digitized the Unganisha presentation from February, and released it in August as a digital Unganisha. In September, they produced a live-streamed and virtual Woezo Africa Cultural Festival, featured as part of the 2020 Alberta Culture Days. This massive undertaking ran three Saturdays in September, from 10:00 or 11:00 am to 9:00 pm each day, and featured “traditional African drum and dance performances, stimulating arts and crafts, moving vocal artists and musicians, spirited comedians and spoken word artists, cooking classes, a screening of an award-winning documentary and a presentation of our 2020 digital UNGANISHA dance theatre production all live-streamed in the comfort of your home! With the theme of “Emerge from the Roots,” the festival intends to engage children and adults alike in activities that showcase unique histories, artistic traditions and cultural expressions to inspire minority groups to find power in their identity.”
“It was the ALP that made me think, I can do this!”
Wunmi credits the ALP with giving her the plan and the confidence to bring this project to life. “It was the ALP that made me think, I can do this!” explains Wunmi. “And so we had the professional networking events and the Unganisha Culture Fair; we had the all-digital three-day Woezo Africa Cultural Festival in September; we digitized Unganisha and re-released it; we’ve had five or six things happen thanks to the ALP. Two or three of those things are new, fresh, never-been-done-before events because we saw that the engagement between communities was needed, and we wanted to continue to grow, and inform people of what they could do with each other and how they can work alongside each other.”
Wunmi laughingly deflects proclamations of awe at her energy and capacity. “I remember at my presentation, Mary Rozsa de Coquet saying that it was a great project, but perhaps overly ambitious,” she laughs. “I remember thinking, ‘you don’t know me very well yet, do you?’”