From Africa with love, celebrating Congo’s Independence Day June 30 with fun and flair

Australia’s Manning Valley held its first African festival May 25-31, organized by HandUp Congo in collaboration with many community groups. The festival generated intriguing scents and sounds, as well as happy memories for retired nurses Sue McKenzie and Theresa Callanan.  “Because we’ve both lived and worked in Africa,” says Sue, “we loved all the events – especially the Oz Afrique kids [pictured at right].”  More than 20 refugee students from Cabramatta High School (Sydney) travelled to the Mid North Coast of New South Wales to participate in the image002festival. Called Oz Afrique to symbolise belonging to Australia yet acknowledging their roots on the African continent, the students drummed and danced with zest, capturing everyone’s hearts.

Local families Liz Gray and Justin Wallis, Merlin and Bill Freeman and Richard and Lolita Reddel provided home stays for the Oz Afrique students and their adult supervisors, and PCYC Taree’s basketball court and pool tables were a draw for the energetic kids between performances. The students were in the area less than 24 hours. “Invite us back!” they called to the appreciative audience in Bent on Food Café’s garden.  They also performed at Manning Uniting Church, where one Congolese teenager shared her personal story of heartache and hope with the congregation.

image009Others who enjoyed the non-profit festival were Biripi Indigenous elders.  They exchanged cultural gifts with African elders from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. “We’ve never met African brothers and sisters before,” notes Tracey Anderson (right), Aboriginal Community Officer for Greater Taree City Council (pictured presenting a gift to Congolese leader Theophile Elongo).

image006The festival was kicked off with a lively launch at Wingham’s Bent on Food Café with Oz Afrique performances as well as an African cooking class featuring local migrants Linguere Bischofberger  from Senegal (left) and Lioba Bonda from Zimbabwe.

“I really enjoyed sharing my cultural heritage through African food,” Lioba says. The pharmacist moved to the area in 2011 with her husband and daughter. Linguere, who moved to the Manning Valley in 2001 with her husband, works at Taree Community College as a French teacher and at Manning Rural Referral Hospital as a sterilisation technician. Using her cooking skills has been great, she notes, adding, “I think everyone had fun at the class, helping us cook, eating and meeting one another.”

Samira Farah, Somali refugee and founder of the Africa Film Festival in Australia, was also been on hand to show African documentaries and lead discussions at a wide range of venues, from a local high school to TAFE as well as a church and community college“This is the first time we’ve shown films outside Sydney and Melbourne,” Samira says.  “What a vibrant area this is. I’d love to come back with more films.”

Taree Library, which hosted a viewing of award-winning documentary “Kinshasa Symphony,” was pleased that their festival exhibit and film drew a large crowd. Senior Leader, Cultural Services Margie Wallis states, “What an exciting concept to have the Africa Comes to the Manning Valley festival.  We love promoting programs around inclusiveness, and libraries are such a great space for events like this.”

image008Special exhibits of artefacts, photographs and paintings were open to the public in Wingham’s Historical Society Museum, Satu’s Framing and Renewed Treasures shop and Bent on Food Café in Wingham. Also drawing many visitors were additional exhibits at Taree Library, Taree Community College and the Manning Regional Art Gallery (left, with African refugee delegation).

Thought-provoking talks by social documentary photographer Louise Whelan, who has been commissioned by the State and National Libraries to photograph NSW’s ethnic communities, and ActionAid’s senior program coordinator for violence against women initiatives, Carol Angir, also engaged many community members.  Born in Kenya, Carol reflects, “The pastoral Manning Valley looks like home.”

“Our team of volunteers couldn’t have organised this festival without all the local support,” points out Lucy Hobgood-Brown, a HandUp Congo director and Manning Valley-based community development consultant who works as a volunteer with refugees and migrants on peace building initiatives. “The African elders who joined us this week were touched by the warm welcome they received.”

These elders are leaders in a fledgling non-profit, Africa’s Great Lakes Agency for Peace and Development Based in Sydney NSW, GLAPD aims to promote conflict resolution and peace building amongst refugees and migrants from Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and the DRC. As part of their relationship building activities, GLAPD has collaborated with the Manning Valley’s Neighbourhood Services and Rotary on weekend bus trips that introduce African refugees to the delights of rural NSW as well as Refugee Week and Harmony Day school visits.

Principal festival sponsors were Manning Valley Neighbourhood Services, Taree Community College, Greater Taree Council and Libraries, Bent on Food Café, FLOW Espresso Bar, Clay International Partners, HandUp Congo, Rotary Hunters Hill and the Institute for Cultural Affairs Australia.

In addition, representing education, government, business and civil society, supporters  included Golf Club Motor Inn, Louise Whelan Photography, Manning Valley Historical Society, Manning Uniting Church, Manning Valley Business Chamber, McKeough’s Betta Electrical of Wingham, PCYC Taree, Red Tail Wines, Rotary District 9650, Satu’s Framing and Renewed Treasures, TSG Wingham, Taree High School, Taree TAFE, Taree West Plaza Butchery, Wingham Chamber of Commerce and Wingham Gourmet Meat and Chicken.

© All images copyrighted. Images courtesy of Louise Whelan