Charles Ahovissi, founder of African Culture Connection (ACC), and ACC youth participant Victoria Beaugard accept a 2012 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from First Lady Michelle Obama. Photo by Steven E. Purcell
When Charles Ahovissi emigrated from Benin, West Africa, to Omaha, Nebraska in 2000, he quickly noticed a major divide between people’s perceptions of his homeland and what he knew to be a richly diverse landscape of art, culture, and history. To correct this, he launched African Culture Connection in 2006, a not-for-profit that uses visual art, dance, and drumming to teach schoolchildren about African history and culture. The organization---the only one of its kind in Nebraska---offers in-school residencies, dance and drumming classes, school assembly programs, and summer camps. Last week, Ahovissi was at the White House to receive a 2012 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award on behalf of the organization he created.
“Kids in this state, when they hear about Africa, they have a negative view,” said Ahovissi, who has performed as a member of the Ballet National of Benin and the Super Anges Dance Troupe. “Our programs start with a question: what do you know about Africa? The descriptions we hear from [kids] are like war, famine, animals, jungle, poverty.”
For African-American children in particular, these misperceptions can take a personal toll. “Some of them deny their identity because of all these negative things they see on TV,” Ahovissi said. “That's why I think it is so important for them to have this program, to build their self-esteem, to be aware of this culture, to connect with their ancestors.”
According to Ahovissi, much of the history and artistry he teaches has been passed down through the oral tradition, and can’t be found in books or on the internet. This includes an appreciation for physical health---necessary for drumming and dancing---as well as for respect, a value that’s as important in modern-day Omaha as it was in traditional African society. Ahovissi said teachers regularly tell him that the organization’s emphasis on good behavior and teamwork has had a positive impact in the classroom.
Although African Culture Connection focuses on students, Ahovissi believes that the effects of the organization extend beyond schoolhouse walls. “The work that we do does bring together people [and] bridges gaps between Americans and Africans,” he said. “The program not only teaches kids culture and history, but it helps them to be more open-minded, helps their parents, their communities to accept [and] to learn.”