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By Melanie Sevcenko | The Skanner News
Published: 03 August 2017

Oregon’s inaugural Pan African Festival will kick-off Saturday, Aug. 12 at Pioneer Courthouse Square in downtown Portland. From noon to 8:30 p.m., Portlanders can celebrate the music, dance, food and fashion from across the African continent.

Initiated by Nafisa Fai, a Somalian immigrant and rookie event organizer, the one-day festival has been in the works for close to a year, as a means to “really illuminate the treasures that exist in our community,” said Fai.

“I always wanted to a have a pan African festival for foreign Africans, Afro-Caribbeans, and African Americans, similar to Festa Italiana at Pioneer Square,” Fai told The Skanner. “So I shopped the idea around last year and wanted to see if it was of interest to the Black community.”

It’s an idea that stuck. With a small team of organizers and support from the offices of Rep. Janelle Bynum and Sens. Lew Frederick and James Manning – as well as Africa House, under the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, and the Oregon Health Authority's Office of Equity and Inclusion – Fai has managed to wrangle an influential group to kick start her effort.

The festival – which is free to enter – will offer live entertainment, art and crafts, African cuisine, panel discussions and even storytelling. But it also aims to showcase African entrepreneurship – and its strategic location will likely pull in curious passerby.

“I picked Pioneer Square because I wanted to make a statement about showing the magnitude of the Black community’s presence in Oregon,” said Fai.

Drawing around 30,000 visitors on any given day, the plaza is one of the most visited public sites in Oregon.  So the festival is hoping to boost profits for local business vendors.

The event’s largest sponsors, however, are a number of health organizations, including Kaiser Permanente and Providence. The providers will be on-hand during the festival to offer health screenings as well as information on programs, careers and educational opportunities for the Black community.

Coming from a professional background in public health and policy, Fai said that health services are often under-utilized in the Black populations.

“We invited the health organizations because there’s a lot of health disparity in our communities,” said Fai. “One way to address this is to provide the platform for these organizations to reach out to people directly.”

With close to 18,000 Africans in the Multnomah County, the majority comes from Somalia, Egypt and Sierra Leone.

According to 2013 report from the Coalition of Communities of Color, while the county’s African population is highly educated, most of the attained degrees were earned overseas and are minimally recognized in Oregon, leading to low incomes and poverty.

Moreover, the report found that the African community is uninsured at a rate almost double that of white people.

It’s why Fai is looking at the festival as a cultural vehicle to unify and strengthen the African community in Oregon, both socially and economically.

“We as Africans believe that people who are closest to the problem are closest to the solution,” said Fai, who landed in Portland as a refugee 20 years ago, after fleeing war-torn Somalia with her family. “So the festival is a way to say, let’s come up with our own solutions and address our own issues.”

For future installments, Fai is hoping the festival will grow into a three-day event, eventually migrating to the waterfront, much like the Portland Cinco de Mayo Fiesta.

“We’re really in a pilot phase,” she said. “It’s going to take a few years to mature.”


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