Camp ANV Spotlight: Connecting to Ancestors with Afia Walking Tree

In the shade-dappled meeting circle of Acta Non Verba’s community garden, a group of thirty children sit, focused intently on a story being told by world-renowned percussionist Afia Walking Tree. The tall, stately woman tells the tale of spirit of the Kakilambe, a beloved protector and messenger to the Baga people of West Africa.

It’s all part of a very special African drumming class held at Camp ANV this Summer, combining music and story-telling, respect for the self, the earth, and spirituality. Afia Walking Tree commands the children’s attention with her expressive voice, movements, and drums. Weaving together stories and songs from ancient Africa as well as her native Jamaica, she connects the children to our Ancestors and a time long ago when Spirit and daily life intertwined.

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“The goal,” Walking Tree reveals, “is to integrate African culture into this urban environment and reconnect the children — not just to planting — but to our ancestors, and that when they planted, they did it in a way that was ritualistic. So we’re always doing spiritual things together, as part of the bigger picture.”

“We’re Building Reconnective Tissue Here.”

Walking Tree holds her class outside in ANV’s vibrant garden, rather than in a typical classroom setting, so that campers may integrate musical, cultural, gardening, and even spiritual experiences. “We specifically had the drumming out here,” she explains, “because then they’re hearing it all day, for three hours nonstop.  Whether they’re in the class or not, they’re getting it. It’s an infusion that you can’t see, but it’s felt. We’re building reconnective tissue here—that’s how I feel. The ritual of coming every day and doing the same thing, three days a week, has had its impact.”

Drumming, planting, gardening, and harvesting all combined to support ancestral connections. “Some of the kids would be planting with (ANV gardening teacher) Ms. Kana,” Walker Tree continues, “and I would be drumming and singing to some of the children, and there were moments where we would intersect. So there’s a holistic picture of how I might be able to integrate my love of the earth, my love of myself, my love of music, in one setting. It’s not disconnected. As African people, we weren’t disconnected from the plants, from the food, from the music, from the healing.”

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Camper Jonathan, aged 10, loves everything about his drumming class.  “I’m very good at it. I like the drumming and the funny part when she put on the mask and acted like the spirit (Kakilambe).”

If drumming isn’t a camper’s cup of tea, Walker Tree finds ways to engage them in the learning as well, including costumes and interesting props. “Sometimes I bring books, I bring feathers. I brought a turtle shell even once and that became the satellite that day. I had the wing today, and we were talking about it and I was cleansing them all. I’m bringing it in but in a magical way, not in a scary way. So our spirituality gets normalized. When are we going to normalize our spirituality?”

Children Discover African Peoples’ Strong Culture

“What I’IMG_1803m doing here,” Walker Tree reveals, “I call recalibrating. There’s an activating of these ancient stories for the children—just pieces for them to understand that African people were free at one point and we had a strong culture.”

By Summer’s end, it’s evident that the children have incorporated much of Walker Tree’s teachings. At Camp ANV’s graduation ceremony, camper Tariyah, aged 8, shares with parents the history of Africans known as the Maroon people, who long ago escaped British enslavement in Jamaica.  “They got to the top of this mountain” Tariyah recounts, “and the British people couldn’t find their way through. (They) said that the African people can have the mountain because the British people didn’t know their way up there.”

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After sharing the story of the Maroon people with the audience, Tariyah and the rest of the drumming students perform “Maroon Gone,” a beautiful piece which tells the tale of a cooking pot left untended. The campers were fascinated by the story of the Maroon people, who survived and thrive in Jamaica to this day. The song “Maroon Gone,” with its memorable percussion and lyrics, quickly became one of the children’s favorites.

About Afia Walking Tree

Afia Walking Tree, M.Ed, is an internationally acclaimed percussionist and visionary facilitator.  Born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, she is currently based in the California Bay Area. Walking Tree’s drumsongs are prayers of gratitude for the generosity of spirit. Her lyrics are evolutionary teachings, addressing present day issues of social justice, freedom, healing and self-love.

Walking Tree began her drumming studies in her tiny Harlem apartment share in 1990 listening to the music of Edwina Lee Tyler and Babatunde Olatunji. She immersed herself in the study of African Diasporic drum, dance, culture, and shamanism in West Africa (Guinea/Ghana), Canada, Alaska, Hawaii, Philippines, Bali, Thailand, London, and the US.  She has shared the stage with activists and artists such as: Alice Walker, Jennifer Berezan, Patti Cathart (of Tuck & Patti), Olympia Dukakis, Gloria Steinem, Chief Wilma Mankiller, and countless others.

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Walking Tree’s wildness inspires authentic edutainment performances, lectures, garden and landscape design and life coaching.  She currently serves as adjunct professor at Holy Names University, California Institute for Integral Studies, Sophia University, and Edna Manley College for the Performing Arts in Jamaica.

Her first solo CD, Soul Affirmationz, has sold over 2,000 copies and is available for sale at afiawalkingtree.com. Join her upcoming DRUM MOBILE Movement—Eco-Resiliency Empowahment through the Drumming Arts, Earth Stewardship, Nutrition for People of Color, Women, Children, Communities! #drummobile

About Camp ANV

Camp ANV is run jointly by Acta Non Verba and Oakland Parks and Recreation. The program provides quality, educational enrichment in an urban farm setting to low-income East Oakland youth during summer and school breaks, year-round. Camp ANV takes place at Acta Non Verba, located at 1001 83rd Avenue, Oakland, CA, United States. For more information call (510)972-FARM (3276) or email info@anvfarm.org

Camp ANV Spotlight: Talking Sticks with Sifu Bill Owens

IMG_1259If, one sunny Summer afternoon, you find yourself near Acta Non Verba youth urban farm, you may hear the sound of sticks clacking together, echoing rhythmically throughout the neighborhood. Bay Area martial arts legends Sifu Bill and Simo Mary Owens are sharing their unique and beautiful martial arts form known as Kusema Vijiti, also called the Talking Sticks, with our campers.

Working in unison with sturdy, short sticks in each hand, the students’ movements are fluid and rhythmic like dancers, yet close observation of each pose reveals the form’s true defensive nature.

Martial Arts as an Art Form

“As a martial arts instructor, you can get tired of teaching aggression,” Sifu Bill reveals. “I want to prepare kids to defend themselves—to ‘go crazy’ if they need to—but I also want them to stay sweet. The Talking Sticks is a martial arts form that allows me to teach self defense, while remaining in the realm of beauty.IMG_1244

“I teach martial arts without the aggression, and more as an art form. I keep it very jovial, rhythmic, musical, and fun. But what you are seeing is a series of blocks, strikes, deflections, and parrying thrusts offensively and defensively. You can take the moves and in an instant, use them in a fight.”

Kusema Vijiti (The Talking Sticks) is a rhythmic stick art form, born out of martial movements, African, and African-American cultural rhythms and sensibility. Sifu Bill Owens and his wife Simo Mary Owens developed this unique form right here in Oakland over 35 years ago. They established the Kusema Vijiti Institute, and have developed a grading system that ranks and gives credibility to its practitioners by levels according to the length of time of study and the knowledge gained.

IMG_1254“Kusema Vijiti develops rhythm, coordination, focus, balance, and timing,” Sifu Bill explains. “Because it is based on a written language of symbols it also promotes reading.” Campers at the day’s instruction quickly spoke up, saying they enjoy the practice, and recognize its combined elements of defense, art, and music.

The class will continue throughout the remainder of Camp ANV 2015, and takes place every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 4:00 to 5:00pm. Parents interested in Kusema Vijiti should contact Sifu Bill Owens or Simo Mary Owens at the Kusema Vijiti Institute in East Oakland (contact information below).

Martial Arts Champions Sifu Bill and Simo Mary Owens

SifuSimoSifu Bill Owens (Sifu meaning Chief Instructor) began his training in 1966 and was awarded his Grand Mastership in 2009. During his years of competition he won over 170 trophies, was rated 5th in the world and #1 in Region One for three consecutive years.*

Sifu Bill was one of ten martial artists invited by the Chinese Wushu Association of Beijing, China to attend the 1985 International Chinese Wushu Championships as a United States martial arts representative. He is presently the Vice President of the Kusema Vijiti Institute and continues to teach his System Blossom Fist at Cascos Martial Art Academy in Oakland.

IMG_1043Simo Mary Owens (Simo meaning wife of the instructor if she practices martial arts) began training in the martial arts under Sifu Bill Owens in 1971. Traveling the tournament circuit, she became the #1-rated fighter in the United States for two consecutive years and #1 in Region One for five years, all while attending school to obtain her nursing degree.

Simo Mary married Sifu Bill and joined him in running Cascos Martial Art Academy. Besides being a business partner at the Academy, Simo Mary specializes in teaching the children’s classes. In addition to her more than 35 years of training in Blossom Fist she has expanded her martial arts training to include Filipino Stick Fighting, Brazilian Capoeira, and Kusema Vijiti (The Talking Sticks). Simo Mary continues to teach and train with her husband Sifu Bill Owens at Cascos Martial Art Academy.

About Kusema Vijiti (The Talking Sticks)

The Kusema Vijiti Institute is located at 7421 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland, CA 94605. For more information, call (510)638-9990 or email sifubill@yahoo.com.

About Camp ANV

Camp ANV is run jointly by Acta Non Verba and Oakland Parks and Recreation. The program provides quality, educational enrichment in an urban farm setting to low-income East Oakland youth during summer and school breaks, year-round. Camp ANV takes place at Acta Non Verba, located at 1001 83rd Avenue, Oakland, CA, United States. For more information call (510)972-FARM (3276) or email info@anvfarm.org

*Martial arts ratings awarded by martial arts industry and enthusiast publications.