, Intercontinental Hotels and Resorts Africa,Vol.12 No. 2


The Hotel Inter-Continental Leipzip is buzzing.  As one appreciative guest put it: “Kenya has given us a wonderful surprise.  It has been some time, if ever, since we have seen any show of this quality and beauty.”  Yet another vibrant African Heritage Festival performance is drawing to a close.  The audience, perhaps more used to the negative images of Africa so often portrayed by the media, has been almost overwhelmed by the array of delicious food, the joyous music and dance, the superb fashions, fabrics and artifacts presented during an evening of celebration of things African.

During May and June this year, the African Heritage Festival toured nine major cities in Germany and Austria in probably the most ambitious and most successful attempt to promote Africa as a tourist venue yet seen in Europe.  With the support of the Kenya Tourist Office and the relevant Embassies, and with sponsorship from Inter-Continental and Forum Hotels and Lufthansa, the models of African Heritage, the singers and dancers of Jabali Afrika and the chefs from the Hotel Inter-Continental Nairobi took their extravaganza on the road.

Accompanying them in a caravan of buses and lorries were 3,000 kg of costumes, textiles, exotic trees and plants, scenic backdrops, lighting, catwalks, banners, musical instruments, art and artefacts.  Special supplies of food and drink were constantly being flown in for the chefs to prepare the freshest of buffets for each performance.

Although the tour is now over and Jabali Africa went on alone to conquer America - the full African Heritage Festival will regroup for the celebrations of the 50th Anniversary of the United Nations to be held at the world headquarters for Habitat, Nairobi.  The following eye witness account of the Festival on tour, however, gives a good idea of the impact it had on an unsuspecting Europe.

“This is the first time I’ve been in Germany when it wasn’t grey and raining.  We have brought you the sunshine and colour of Kenya.”  Standing in front of a huge mural of Mount Kenya, Jennifer Opondo, the spokesperson for the Kenyan Tourist Office in Bonn, entices visitors to the Hotel Inter-Continental Leipzip to enter into the spirit of the African Heritage Festival.  She is surrounded by other beautiful depictions of game parks and beaches with swaying palm trees, set off by an exotic collection of real Kenyan plants.

“Try our food,” she invites the guests.  “It’s not packaged, but made fresh every day.”  The chefs open steaming silver dishes of Swahili fish cooked in coconut milk, Molo lamb, roast eland and crocodile.  Behind the buffet tables are banks of exotic flowers and mouth watering desserts and fresh fruits.  Roseabela Ashiruka flips freshly cooked chapatis while Titus Kalulu stirs prawns pili pili in front of the waiting quests.

When everyone has eaten their fill and the Kenyan Ambassador to Germany and the Kenyan Minister of Wildlife and Tourism have welcomed their guests, the audience begins to settle.  The huge ballroom is draped in African textiles and banners and decorated with more scenes of Africa painted by the artist Omondi Sospeter.

Now Jabali Africa files on the stage wearing spectacular traditional costumes and headgear, followed by the lovely Lois Mutua in a hand-painted gown of Ghanaian Adinkira cloth, with a towering turban by designer Nike Seven Seven of Nigeria.  As Lois sings, the last clatter of cutlery dies away as her voice begins to cast an African spell.

The lights dim and change from the red of morning to the evening hues of purple and gold. Jabali Afrika’s mournful flutes give way to a crescendo of percussion to announce the African Heritage herald with his ivory horn from Guinea.  Eighteen models, accompanied only by slow, sombre drumbeats, process through the room in magnificent creations in Kente and Adinkira cloth.

Suddenly the mood changes: lights redden and Mickey Ragos, the longest reigning Mt. Kenya of all time, leaps on to the stage in an astonishing beaded elephant mask from Cameroon and begins to flex his muscles.  He is rapidly joined by two other male dancers in brilliant red feathered headdresses. The audience gasps at first before breaking into loud and spontaneous applause.  Now “plastic Boy” Maina takes over to perform unbelievable contortions while other acrobats and jugglers cavort around him.

The Festival continues through a fantasy of Pan African costumes and fashions, using the hand-woven and hand-printed fabrics of Africa, which are true works of art and worthy of the museum it is hoped will be built to house them.  Jabali Afrika reappear to close the first half of the show with a frenzied dance, during which the costumes flap and swoop around them like large winged birds.

The second half opens with a collection of patchwork by Sheila Murumbi and Alan Donovan of African Heritage, followed by a group of models wearing beautiful hand dyed indigo garments, accented with red, from Phoebe Ayuko.  Erica Boswell, the founder of Jax, contributes a sassy group of printed, beaded, bark-cloth garments and these are followed by a sensational grass gown, worn by top model Catherine Karl, and some more contemporary wear by graphic award winner Makena.

Two Maasai warriors in towering ostrich feather headdresses escort the model PJ on to the stage wearing a spectacular wedding dress of bark-cloth trimmed with porcupine quills. The design team of Sally Macharia and Carol Wahome won the Smirnoff fashion award with this entry.  When not designing clothes, Carol is an avid rally driver and is one of the few women ever to have finished the grueling East African Safari Rally.

Now seven gorgeous Kenyan models reappear in gowns of leather, suede, silk and satin, hand beaded by the Kikuyu, Wakamba and Maasai women of Kenya. They are followed by the dancers Rodido and Diana in an exuberant rendition of the Luo dance, Orutu, before stilt dancer Mohammed Hussein clambers on to the catwalk, only avoiding the banks of spotlights with some difficulty.

For the finale, Mickey Ragos, Justo and Josek Aseko come to the fore in red costumes. Daggers and spears glinting, they stalk into the audience and return to the stage with their prey - enthusiastic guests who join the entire trope that is now assembled..  Jennifer Opondo introduces everyone and the audience launches into the umpteenth standing ovation of the evening.

The shows were, understandably, well attended throughout the tour and besides the live audience who were lucky enough to witness the African Heritage Festival in Leipzip, Frankfurt, Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Vienna, Baden and Salzburg, many, many more were reached through radio and television shows, newspaper and magazine coverage. 

Although the name African Heritage had long been recognized by the fashion world as being at the vanguard of fabric and jewellery design, and their products are on sale in the finest shops in New York, London and Tokyo, this was not purely a showcase for them, nor just for Kenya.  Many countries around the African continent were represented.  Europe was, at last, being given an insight into just some of the dynamic creativity of African people.  
Quite apart from this, and the obvious, positive impact on the tourist trade, the money raised during the Gala Nights held throughout the tour has been donated to the flying doctor service AMREF, which takes vital medical advice and supplies to the remoter parts of Africa.  The whole exercise was, then, a resounding success and one that Inter-Continental Hotels and Resorts and Forum Hotels were proud to play a part in.

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