“One, two, three” says Ben Ofori to a neat pile of fifth graders sitting cross-legged in front of him at the Eastmont Library. They squirm a little, but mostly stare in wide-eyed wonder at the man in brightly colored clothes.
Ofori teaches the kids a simple West African dance in four steps. He takes them through each step as a group, and gradually adds more movements.
The fifth graders go to E.C. Reems Academy in East Oakland. They’ve come to the library on a Black History Month field trip. Ofori, their guide, is a master percussionist from Ghana who’s teaching them about West African rhythms and culture. Today’s West African drumming event is free and open to the public, so it’s an affordable way for schools with lean operating budgets to celebrate Black History month and teach African American students about their heritage.
“The second time we’re going to roll our waists,” says Ofori.
The kids erupt in laughter.
“Shakey, shakey,” he says as the kids experiment with swiveling their hips.
“Ready? Go! And you push, you push,” says Ofori, as the kids push their arms frantically to a fast-paced drumbeat.
“Ok, I’m going to make a fourth step,” says Ofori.
“Ugh!” cry the kids in unison.
He quickly reroutes their attention with a repeat of the “Shakey, shakey” step.
“Ok,” says Ofori, “the fourth step is we’re going to open our mouths and shout ‘Ah ya ya ya yi.”
This is too much for one little girl, who has bits of blond in her dark hair. She squeals with laughter; she can’t believe a grown-up is telling her to shout.
Children’s librarian Amy Martin says that there’s been a lot of demand for this kind of dynamic Black History Month programming in East Oakland, but before her arrival last March, there was no one to coordinate it. She plans events on school days so classes can come in and visit and she can pull books for teachers to take back to their classrooms.
“Without a children’s librarian, those things aren’t possible,” she says.
For the most part, the kids dance along to Ofori’s beats without question; they sway their hips and push out their arms according to his lead. Except for one little girl. She has big, distracted eyes. She’s faking the moves. While the other kids fully extend their arms, she waves them about, often in the wrong direction.
“Oh! My daddy!” she exclaims, losing the rhythm entirely.
She waves at a man dressed in a dark coat. He hides behind his phone and takes some pictures of his daughter and her friends. When he moves behind a shelf of books for a different view, she strains to find him.
“I only saw the end,” says Stanford Anderson, the girl’s father, after the show is over. “I think this kind of interaction is good for the kids. This is part of their heritage.”
The kids’ fifth grade teacher, Arlene Hollis agrees. “Of course they love it,” she says. “They sit at a desk all day long. They need this.”
Ben Ofori will be back at Eastmont Library on February 26.