Dr Glenville Ashby, Contributor
Riding the subway on a steamy hot summer day is never quite inviting. Yet, I am exhilarated about my destination. 'Grounding' with the African diaspora is never a dull moment.
Assetove Sy and husband Mama Dou are buoyed by my arrival. Maybe, it's due to Assetove's becoming a naturalised United States citizen that morning, or they have something to share to the world.
After all, Mali has been on the front burner after a French invasion to oust Islamic extremists from destroying that country's storied artefacts and heritage sites.
Assetove is the director of the Malian Cultural Center, housed in a mere 600 sq. ft. space that belies its cultural, linguistic and artistic reach and significance.
She is an affable, disarming woman in her 50s, who established the centre three years ago. It has already been awarded a citation by the city, garnering praise by a neighbourhood fast becoming a distinct Malian enclave.
Located on Villa Avenue in the Grand Concourse area of the Bronx, the centre has emerged as a cultural hub for thousands of Malian immigrants.
"It disturbed me to see so many of our young people losing their sense of identity," Assetove noted, explaining her decision to open the centre.
"New York does not allow parents the time to sit with their children and teach them their culture and traditional values. This was a thorn in my side and although I am not a rich woman, I had to sacrifice my time and finances to make this a reality."
The success of the school has attracted children from Senegal, the Ivory Coast and Guinea, and there is now a waiting list - testament to the centre's invaluable work.
As tiring as it is, Assetove finds comfort in believing that her endeavours "are pleasing to Allah".
Whereas the French embassy has paid for a tutor to teach a Saturday French-language class, there is little in the way of grants or wealthy private donors.
This has not deterred Assetove and her husband.
"When you have children returning to Mali, and unable to communicate with their grandparents and village elders, you know your people are in trouble," Mama Dou added.
"A sense of cultural identity goes a long way in shaping productive and respectable young people. Our children should be not be educated in the streets. We want them to be proud citizens of the world."
In addition to learning French, enrollees between the ages of six and 13 are also taught Bambara, their dialect, that is sometimes "erroneously called Mandingo".
Learning Bambara is a priority, according to the director. Students also learn to play traditional Malian instruments, such as the balafon, the kora, and the jimbe (djembe), and graduate with a fair knowledge of home economics.
Mali is a land of many tribes and religious practices. Mama Dou referred to the animism of the Dogon peoples, Catholics and Evangelicals, although orthodox Muslims and Sufis are in the majority.
Culture, Assetove noted, is the lifeline and very blood of this centre. Its walls are draped with masks, figurines, artefacts, the Malian flag, African maps, and colourful embroidery. Malian instruments complement this pulsating cultural tapestry.
Assetove diligently searched for the Bazin, Mali's signature clothing material.
"You must feel its rich texture," she said. She came up empty at first and settled for a picture of four Malians fitted in exquisite colourful wear. "Ah, I found it ... feel," she gesticulated. She then posed with a dashiki-shaped piece of clothing.The material is made of cotton, with a leathery feel. It is easy to understand its importance in Malian fashion.
Caribbean Culinary connection
Assetove is equally enthused with mention of Malian cuisine with dishes that seem lifted from Caribbean recipes.
"Cornmeal and okra, accompanied with chicken or beef," she identified as delectable. She explained her country's reputation for more elaborate culinary creations, such as Fonio - "a kind of wheat, used with an array of meats". Just as tasty is "a specially prepared peanut butter sauce over rice".
As the exchange veered to religion, Mama Dou was eager to know more about the Caribbean's cultural ties with 'the continent'. He has heard of the loas and the orishas (the pantheon of African gods in the Vodun and Orisha faiths). He was thrilled that his enquiry proved true. He looked at his wife, and as if vindicated, reassuringly said, "You see, we are all Africans, no matter where we are."
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