Soft Magic at Drew

By Maïmouna Kanté & Kassel Franco Garibay

On the evening of  October 27, the Malawian writer, sociologist and human rights advocate, Upile Chisala attended Drew’s African Students Association’s event to read some of her work.

Last year, in November 2016, the DASA was granted up to $1000 through the Drew’s Center on Religion, Culture & Conflict (CCRC) as part of a series called Arts of Respect in which they sought to create a platform through which African students at Drew would be able to express their voices through literature and teaching each other about their countries.

The ceremony took place in the lavish Mead Hall where guests were greeted by poster boards with each DASA board member’s name, their choice of African literature and a small paragraph on why it is important to them. Later that evening, DASA presented a video that featured many of the African students at Drew speaking in their people’s language. The highlight of the evening was readings from Upile Chisala.

Upile Chisala, a Malawian self-published author currently working on her second master’s degree at the University of Oxford, flew in for this special night. Her poems came from her two books of prose and poems, “Soft Magic” and “Nectar” that celebrate women, sisterhood, identity and people of color.

In all her humor and grace, she guided the audience through her books and the themes that everyone could relate to. “It felt like a breath of fresh air to hear that my problems and struggles aren’t only mine,” said Akua Asante (‘20), from Ghana. “She put words to feelings in such an honest way. Chisala, with her soft magic, showed us all on Friday evening that we as Africans have a shared experience because of our background.”  It was evident that in that moment everyone had a common experiencethe common experience of feeling foreign in a new place and also feeling foreign when going back home.

During an interview with The Drew Acorn, Science and Technology co-editor Maïmouna Kanté and Opinions editor Kassel Franco asked her how one remains relevant when studying away from home. “If your goal is truly to go back home, I think you have to, first of all, make use of your social media connections. If you are here, this is where your life is right now, but you want to go back to Mali, talk to Malian people back home,” Chisala said before going on to suggest staying informed by watching the news. “A big part of watching the news here is about trying to desensitize you to everything that is not American, which is something that you have to unlearn somehow. So in order to stay relevant, you have to stay informed.”

Chisala’s reading was sponsored by the fellowship of Arts for Respect. “Art can speak loudly. According to the African writer, Chinua Achebe, art for art’s sake ‘is just a piece of deodorized dogshit.’ That is, wherever there is art, there should be a message. Achebe’s argument is that art is supposed to reach people, teach people, empower people, and provoke people,” said Doyin Adeyemi (‘18), from Nigeria, the president of DASA. “We hope that we played a part in reaching, teaching, empowering and provoking the Drew community to understand better and analyze through respectful conversations, what is means to be African.” The goal of Arts of Respect is to promote greater understanding and respect amongst the Drew community using the arts as a medium of communication and expression. The fellowship was established in 2009, endowed by Dr. Paul Drucker C’51, P’83, and facilitated by the Center on Religion, Culture & Conflict (CRCC). Application for next year’s Art of Respect fellowship closes November 15.

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