It was sheer luck that on July 4th, I went to see Kenya at the Smithsonian. From what I saw that day, Kenya accomplished a great feat.

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival (held on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.) had begun a week earlier featuring China and Kenya. But, in my opinion, the East African nation stood out — maybe because most things are already made in China.

Each Kenyan exhibit conveyed culture so detailed, one was forced to pause and reflect. Dance groups moved with glee. Voices and indigenous instruments soared. Performers embodied their home country, reminding me of a concert by Kenyan artist Makadem, a day before at the Kennedy Center — it was his conga drummer, Kasiva Mutua, who told me that there was more of Kenya at the National Mall.

Life-size sculpture made from used foam slippers
Made with foam slippers. Photo: VeryLoudYouth/Flickr

The atmosphere was festive. There were cooking lessons; masquerades engaged the crowd; artisans displayed their creations; and children could try their hands at making their own clay products.

On the issue of sustainability, it was stimulating to see a movement of artists, who with their hands, turn unwanted items into marketable products. One group create toys out of used foam slippers. Another produce handbags from discarded plastic bags. There was even a structure built and decorated with recycled bottles; and to highlight the horrors of poaching, one collaboration showcased an array of stone carvings that read, “Leave Our Elephants Alone.”

Thousands of people looked and looked — many in awe. You could feel the pull, especially to the display straw hut that keep dwellers cool under the hot sun; it stood firm, as if built one grass at a time.

At the Smithsonian, Kenya (fatherland of America’s current president) displayed African ingenuity. I hope such exhibits continue year after year in more cities.

Just blocks away in the White House, I wonder if Mr. Obama caught a glimpse of the colorful display. You could not miss the fashion either. Amongst the variety, there were men in gorgeous feathered head wraps. Women in intricately beaded hand-made cloth. Mrs. Obama would undoubtedly look stunning in a native Kenyan dress.

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Kem Megwalu

Kem runs programs to empower youth in the D.C. Metro Area (United States). She grew up in a low income community in Southeast Nigeria and believes that every young person can be a valuable member of their community. Her writing explores development in education, the arts, and culture of Africa.
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