Mama Djenaba Wants to Bring African Folklore to Florida Schools

Djenaba Gregory-Faal wants to school kids in African folklore. To achieve this, she is trying to raise money to produce Sundiata, a theatrical piece about Maghan Mari Djata Keita (AKA Sundiata Keita) -- a crippled youth who overcame adversity in order to rule the 13th century Mali Empire.

Her goal is to be able to bring the full-scale production free of charge to students in grades three through twelve. But this isn't the first time she has tried to learn youngsters about classic folktales.

As a high school drama teacher, school administrator, and principal, "Mama Djenaba" worked in partnership with educational and cultural organizations in the U.S., Belize, and West Africa to further multicultural education. Her previous work includes Haiti Meets Africa: A Griot Love Story, which she also wrote and directed. Mama Djenaba chatted with us about the project and her passion for inspiring today's youth.

New Times: What inspired the idea?

Djenaba Gregory-Faal: As a teacher, writer, and storyteller, I have wanted to find a platform to present the Sundiata epic to youth using engaging theatrical elements. My relocation to Florida and subsequent work with community artists convinced me that now would be a good time to consider moving forward with a project. Conversations with Njeri Plato-Dioubate, artistic director of the Delou Africa Dance Ensemble revealed her desire to expand African artistic expressions and provide outreach to young audiences. We decided Sundiata would provide the perfect collaboration to meet our objectives.


Why is this an important story for today's youth?
Before the benefits of electronic communication became a part of our world, societies relied on the special talent and knowledge of oral historians to impart history and culture. Throughout Florida, underserved communities seldom have access to traditional expressions such as African storytelling and young people often lack an appreciation of cultural art. According to the Journal of Adolescent Health, research suggests that ethnic identity can be best thought of as protective factors, whereas a lack of knowledge or appreciation of the role of cultural tradition can be a potential risk factor for youth--often leading to inappropriate and dangerous decision making.


What do you hope to achieve with this production?
This is widespread concern is exacerbated by tight school budgets that have forced schools to discontinue art experiences such as artist residencies and cultural field trips. A key focus of the Sundiata project is to provide a rich cultural experience with a poignant message of hope to youth in Florida's underserved communities in venues they would not otherwise have the opportunity to attend. The presentations of the Sundiata folktale will be available at no charge to attendees in grades 3 -12 in Dade County, Palm Beach County, Hillsborough County, and Broward County. Study guides and activities that are based on Florida standards of learning and readily incorporated into the classroom for students in grades 3 -12 will support the presentations.

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