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Chihamba: A Time for Healing

Photo Caption: Co-Chairperson of the Chihamba African American Cultural Festival Lillie Williams dances wearing colorful fabrics arrayed in West African patterns and designs.

by Katrina Spencer

For over 30 years running, the Chihamba African American Cultural Arts Festival, a celebration of Black life, has been held in Charlottesville. That is, until it was rudely interrupted in 2020, when COVID-19 reared its crown and forced us all into a prolonged and unanticipated period of isolation. Now, having community members who are once, twice, thrice, and even quadruply vaccinated, Chihamba, a gathering for healing, rises again. Residents from in town and visitors from beyond Charlottesville will gather for this two-day event starting Friday, July 29th, at 6:30 p.m. for “Ladies’ Night” at the Buford Middle School auditorium and  then all day Saturday, July 30th, from 10:30 a.m.- 7:30 p.m. at Washington Park (1001 Preston Ave, Charlottesville, Virginia 22903). Together attendees will fete the ride we call life and enjoy an ambitious schedule of cultural events that awaits all! The gatherings are free and open to the public. Organizing committee co-chair and Charlottesville native Lillie Williams, pictured above, shared the variety of crowd-pleasing events on deck. At this family-friendly reunion, there will be storytelling, musical performances, dance numbers, a paint party, vaccinations, soul food, and both fashion and car shows! The paint party requires paid registration in advance and attendees are invited to purchase food and other goods from vendors on-site. Culinary delights are expected to represent broad samplings from the African diaspora including the familiar staples of soul food and both Ghanaian and Caribbean cuisine. Guests can also anticipate wares like books, pictures, shoes, and West African garb for sale.

Williams’ 20-years of service, along with other organizing committee members,’ including Von Parrish’s and Ruby Stradford Boston’s, demonstrate a steadfast commitment to community and Black joy. An additional layer of dedication is realized upon learning that the committee members’ labor is unpaid. Williams denies the need for any compensation, suggesting that the enrichment of the community is reward enough. She has worked on the festival long enough to see the event evolve and expand. For example, this year’s car show is the first to be featured in the event’s history. She has also been on board long enough to see at least one enthusiastic and regular attendee, Coumba, a stilt walker, who for many years opened the event, never missing a year of attendance, pass on. Organizers continue to hold him in their memories and paid homage to him and his contributions for several years. This cycle of life underscores that while members of the board have developed practiced hands in making the festival possible, new committee members, too, are being groomed to carry on the torch as we move further into the 21st century. With new generations come new ideas, and this year, a new stilt walker will wow event-goers with his talents.

The event is a continuous success, sponsored by several vendors, including, but not limited to the City of Charlottesville, Albemarle County, Sentara Healthcare, and the University of Virginia’s Medical Center. Fundraising is a year-round undertaking that the eight organizing committee members take seriously. While some sponsors omit fees to contribute to the event’s longevity, others offer donations, and some provide giveaways on-site. While immensely popular, Williams laments that securing the proper financial support each year is more work than it ought to be given how well loved and well attended the festival is. “It’s packed,” she says, recalling the hundreds of visitors who make it out each year, some even scheduling their family reunions around the event so as to be able to attend. A torrential downpour once caused the event to end early, but aside from that, in the event’s 31-year history, it took a global health crisis to pause the momentum of this annual occasion, and now it’s back! When asked about parking at the festival, Williams quipped, “Smart people get dropped off.” So as you can expect a warm welcome and a garden of delights, expect limited parking spaces, too. If you’re interested in becoming a sponsor for this event or want to lend a helping hand, all committee members can be contacted via the event’s website at See you there!

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