By Nancy Schatz Alton
Published in Seattle Woman, February 2011
Growing up in a diverse Beacon Hill neighborhood in the 1970s, Marcia Tate Arunga was part of a strong and gregarious family. All of her relatives lived within a mile of her home, and the extended family frequently gathered together. Sharing food was often at the center of that togetherness.
When she moved to Kenya with her husband in 1982, the community and culture of her youth came into sharp focus.
“There was a strong sense of people-to-people or relational values,” says Arunga. “[In Africa] people moved in packs and we were never alone. Everyone ate together. I realized we [African Americans] are not some new species. There was a direct connection to Africa. We are still Africans.”
Arunga returned to Seattle in 1993 with her four children and opened Seaweed International in the Central District. It was an African clothing store, but it was about more than selling apparel. Arunga educated her customers about the ancient symbols found on the African prints and fabrics. She also taught them about African culture and languages and about the global nature of consumerism. In the process, she initiated a dialogue among African American women about cultural pride and about the importance of reclaiming heritage as a way of saving culture and humanity.
In 1998 she hosted a tea party for her sister-in-law, Kenyan activist Phelgona Okundi. At the gathering, Okundi talked about how women in Kenya had the same issues, needs, passions and concerns as the African American women she met. “You have sisters in Kenya who are just like you,” Arunga recalls Okundi saying.
When Okundi invited the women to Kenya to experience this similarity firsthand, it was quickly agreed they would come, and that Arunga would arrange the trip.
So began Cultural Reconnection, an organization founded by Arunga and Okundi with the mission of sending delegations of African American women to Kenya to become reacquainted with their African ancestry. Since 2000, 75 women have made the journey, and some have returned several times. Sadly, in 2003, Okundi died in a car accident shortly before the group’s second mission.
Each trip organized by Cultural Reconnection is about inquiry as well as sisterhood. The women from both countries focus on learning as much as they can from each other as a way to strengthen their own communities. While most of the trips have been made by American women to Kenya, some Kenyan women have also traveled to Seattle.
A CLEAR VISION
Arunga and the organization’s nine-person vision and planning board have established four principles that now guide every aspect of each mission, from organizing and educating participants beforehand to planning the itinerary and each day’s activities once they arrive. They also inform the activities that take place in Seattle following the delegates’ return. These guiding principles are:
Collective Action Each delegate contributes her own knowledge and skills to the mission, whether it is speaking at a forum, creating a drama presentation, consulting with educators, filming or keeping the laptops charged.
Ongoing Shared Dialogue While on their journey, regular debriefing sessions allow the delegates and their African counterparts to share the new experiences and knowledge they have acquired. The dialogue continues when they return as they apply what is learned here at home.
Culturally Respected Rites and Practices The delegates learn about African-centered rituals and customs before the trip, and they participate in these rites while in Kenya. For example, Kenyan women pay homage to the graves of those who have passed every time they enter a village, and the visiting Americans join them in this practice.
Gender Specificity Cultural Reconnection views women as the carriers of culture, which they pass on through their children. The delegates believe it is crucial to work together with women on the African continent and in the Diaspora to keep their culture intact.
The women who sign up for a mission to Kenya take a sixteen-hour orientation class, similar to a college course.
“It wasn’t just about being there but about the process of getting there,” says Yvette Dioubate, a delegate on the 2010 trip and program coordinator at Open Arms Perinatal Services. “We developed relationships before we even got on the plane. I learned about myself, the others and the history of the places we were going, as well as how this history relates to us in this country.”
Former Washington State Legislator Dawn Mason had traveled to other parts of Africa, but her first trip to Kenya with Cultural Reconnection was a different kind of experience, thanks to the preparatory course and relationships she formed with her fellow delegates.
“This trip was very much about me as an accomplished African American woman being introduced to Kenyan women accomplished in caring for themselves and their children and working together,” says Mason. “I saw that I have a home. I didn’t come out of slavery. I came out of a rich tradition of the world. I could see the natural beauty and it strengthened my spirit and my confidence,” she says.
Until she was in Kenya, Carol Peoples-Procter, a 2007 delegate and manager of learning, development and diversity at the United States Postal Service, didn’t realize how much her ancestry connected her to who she was as a person. Seeing the beauty of the African people and coming in contact with individuals who looked like people she knew at home had a profound effect on her. She also felt empowered seeing how innovative Kenyans have built their economy.
Mason seconds the power of witnessing African enterprise at work. “Seeing an all-black nation taking care of itself — with black people as gas attendants, newscasters, nurses, doctors and college professors — makes a real difference. Excellence is not determined by the color of the skin,” adds Mason, who has been on Cultural Reconnection missions five times.
Arunga sees this kind of cultural reconnection as vital to the lives of all African Americans. “Without it, we are operating in the dark. Our humanity is our culture and how we connect as human beings,” she says. “If you don’t fully understand your culture, it is easy to be unintentional about your life.”
Each delegation also travels with a specific focus. For example, the 2011 trip is called the “Zakiya Stewart Education Mission,” and delegates will visit educators, students and classrooms in metropolitan cities, larger provincial towns and small villages. The women will look at best practices in education, concentrating on faculty, administration and board development.
Participants believe the experiences gained on each mission are transforming, and they bring home a newfound confidence that arises from reconnecting with their culture. “I have told people it’s like food for the soul,” says Dioubate. “Whatever kind of day I might be having, I go back to that place within myself where I felt welcomed, at home and at peace.”
Dioubate applies knowledge from the mission to her work as a birth doula. She had already used singing and dancing in her practice, but saw in Kenya how singing and dancing, performed at a very different level, created a stronger connection between midwives and the women they were caring for. She also realized that beyond using tools and techniques to assist a woman in labor, something as simple as an embrace helps too.
Mason believes that Cultural Reconnection journeys have had a profound effect on the area’s African American community as a whole. “When you see something positive happening in Seattle, one of those delegates or someone close to a delegate has a hand in it,” says Mason. She has seen delegates or their relatives at events such as the Langston Hughes Festival and community programs like the Saturday Math Academy.
As a visiting faculty member in the BA Completion Program and Liberal Studies Program at Antioch University Seattle, the 52-year-old Arunga brings her experiences to students who can’t join her on trips.
“Marcia is really great at taking her personal experience and integrating it into learning so our students can achieve their full potential,” says Antioch University Seattle President Cassandra Manuelito-Kerkvliet. “She sits on our diversity leadership team and helps shape how we want to embrace diversity on our campus.”
Arunga has also volunteered in prisons for years, first in the University Behind Bars Program and now in the Black Prisoners Caucus at Monroe State Penitentiary. On top of all of her professional and volunteer work, she is an artist, children’s book author and mother of four grown children. Most Seattleites who know her see her as someone who unites people from all avenues of life.
“When you get Marcia, you get the whole community,” says Mason.
THE STOLEN ONES
“The Stolen Ones and How They Were Missed,” Marcia Tate Arunga’s first children’s book, was published last May. Through this tale of a woman named Nia, the reader learns how Africans have never forgotten the generations lost to slavery in the United States. The book contains Kiswahili words, all described in language a child can understand.
In her introduction, Arunga shares that the genesis for the book dates back to 2000 when African American women on a Cultural Reconnection mission told their hostess at an event that they had no idea where they came from in Africa. In response, the hostess exclaimed, “Oh! You must be the Stolen Ones!”
“What is missing on the shelves of libraries and classrooms is a book that tells black children that like any family of a kidnapped child there were people who looked for them, that they were never forgotten, and most importantly that they continue to be missed by millions of people in the land from which they were taken,” writes Arunga.