Bantu Fest Wants to Change Perceptions of Africa—and the South Side

Photo credit: Tesnim Hassan

Silvain Songo, 34, often opens his workshops with Chicago Public School students with a simple question: “What comes to mind when you think of Africa?”

Poverty. War. Safari. According to Songo, the children’s responses are based on images they have seen circulating on television—their perceptions are mostly negative and often misinformed. He says: “People are kind of ‘put to sleep’ by the media.”

Songo says it’s similar to how outsiders perceive South Side neighborhoods. As an African immigrant and South Side resident, Songo rejects this media representation. His goal is to challenge people’s assumptions about his former continent—and his current home—to promote a more positive and realistic picture. That’s why his event planning and promotions company, Bantu Entertainment, runs the annual Bantu Festival, a celebration of diversity and unity focused around African and Caribbean nations.

“We have to do the work to make sure that people understand that there is not one narrative,” says Songo.

Now in its third year, the July 29 event will feature more vendors and performances than ever before: More than 20 mini-villages representing countries ranging from Nigeria to the Dominican Republic will be set up from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on the Midway Plaisance in Hyde Park, ready to serve attendees hungry to learn more about these cultures.

An avid traveler, Songo—who moved here from Cameroon in 2010— says he’s been to over 15 different countries across the continent, including Mali and Senegal. Travel opened the door for a new understanding of cultures and expanded his worldview, he explains. Over the years, he has become known for hosting community events that bridge gaps of cultural understanding, whether it’s Bantu Fest or cultural nights and workshops featuring countries throughout the diaspora.

Afro-Caribbean artist Kendra “Kendro” Tate, owner of KLTArt, cohosted one such event focusing on Jamaica earlier this year. At last year’s Bantu Festival at the Kleo Center in Washington Park, she sold artwork and offered arts and crafts lessons for children: “[There was] so much joy in the room. [There was] much love in the room. And you just feel it,” she says.

Bantu Fest also hosts community organizations, which can use the platform to educate attendees on how to invest in their communities. Tate notes that’s a unique element of the festival: its ability to bridge Chicago communities despite tensions between neighborhoods.

“The purpose of it is unity. It’s about pan-Africanism. It’s about circulating the Black dollar. It’s about finding solutions and coming together as a people,” she says. “This isn’t just a South Side thing. This isn’t just a West Side thing. This is a city thing.”

Songo hopes one day Bantu Fest will be the city’s largest free cultural festival. But the main barrier, he says is that: “a lot of people are afraid of the South Side because of the negative image that is always like we are in a war zone, like we are somewhere in Iraq.” But the larger the event becomes, Songo hopes to change more and more people’s perceptions of the South Side and Africa.

After all, Bantu Fest is a community festival for the people, says Songo. He took inspiration from the history of the word “bantu,” which—in its many variations—means “people” in hundreds of African languages. He envisions people savoring plates of thiebou dienn, Senegal’s national dish of rice and fish, or Jamaican curry goat; and kids dancing to the rhythms from international artists like Malian jazz vocalist Pamela Badjogo and Haitian kompa artist Alan Cavé. He wants attendees to be able to touch, feel and taste the African diaspora without the costly barrier of a plane ticket.

“Imagine the difference it can make in a child,” he says. “One of my daughters is five years old, [and] she knows different cultures from different countries: fufu from Nigeria, and jollof from Senegal. It’s not just that she read it in a book, but she has seen it at Bantu Fest.”

This report was produced by City Bureau, a Chicago-based journalism lab.

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