For Centennial College student Francess Cowan, 29, one thing more important than preserving her African culture is making sure her nine-year-old daughter, Acacia, does the same.
When she asked her daughter whether she would like to visit home one day, she was met with a confused and terrified expression. Cowan came from Sierra Leone, but what is known to her as a beautiful country is known to her daughter as a place of poverty and hardship; or, in the words of a child, “boring” and “sad-looking.”
That is when Cowan, who studies at the college’s Story Arts Centre in East York, decided her daughter needed a crash course on her native land. Her search for after-school programs, however, did not end well.
The problem? The programs being offered felt one-sided and too concentrated on African history, something Cowan says her daughter wouldn’t enjoy. To her, a child who knows little about the continent of Africa should not be expected to tackle it all at once.
With that, Cowan did what any mother would. She became her daughter’s teacher.
“I had to start with my daughter,” Cowan said. “She is my inspiration, but she is immersed in her (Western) culture, and I want her to learn the other parts of her and even the culture of others.”
Not long after, the Africentric Arts program was born.
Cowan’s most recent event was held at Centennial College’s Progress Campus on March 16 from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Twenty-three children attended, ranging from age five to 13.
The program is open to all children and teens from all parts of Africa, and non-African children, too.
“This is not just for African kids. This is for everybody,” Cowan said. “Everyone should learn and understand why everybody is different, and learn another perspective other than their own.”
Also in attendance was Centennial College professor Jessica Langer and her daughter, Miranda.
“It’s incredibly important to me that Miranda learns about different cultures, not just in the abstract but also in her everyday life,” Langer said. “It’s not just about learning, though. It’s important to me that my kids spend time in diverse spaces and that diversity is the default, not just an option, for them.”
Langer teaches at the college’s East York campus. She is also Cowan’s professor in the Public Relations Management Program. She was amazed, but not surprised, about news of the project and attended the event in support of her student.
“It’s my goal to help her build Africentric Arts into a self-sustaining non-profit organization so that she can bring her programming to lots more kids,” Langer said. “But she would be successful with or without me, honestly. I’m just a support. She deserves every bit of credit.”
To Cowan, the camp is more than just face painting, storytelling and arts and crafts. It takes African education to a new level by incorporating a more intense, but fun, way for children to learn about themselves and those around them.
The children learn to play the djembe drums, choreograph traditional African dance infused with modern hip-hop, play tug of war (girls vs. boys) and have lessons on the natural resources every African country produces.
“The camp is about preserving our culture,” Cowan said. “I want my daughter to see the Africa that I see.”
Today, if you asked Cowan’s daughter whether she would want to visit her mother’s home land, you would get a different answer. In fact, she is more eager than ever to uncover her roots.
“It’s very satisfying to see her like this; we’re connecting now,” Cowan said. “Before, our different perspectives separated us. But now she’s interested in it and wants to know more. I’m very proud of her.”
There is a trip to Sierra Leone scheduled at the end of the year, Cowan added, and the pair is looking forward to it.