“I’m just doing what I’m doing,” Vera Oyé Yaa-Anna said. “It’s what I would be doing back home. We never get away from our true selves.”
“Whatever we see people doing, that is what they are.”
Auntie Oyé, as she is known to hundreds of the District’s school-aged children and their parents, has been sharing cultural education here since 1996.
Born in Liberia, Yaa-Anna came to the United States in 1970 and to the District in 1996. After working for a health organization, she decided to share the importance of culture with young African Americans in the District.
Yaa-Anna runs a not-for-profit cultural arts organization called Oyé Palaver Hut, working in all types of District schools from the private, African-centered Kuumba Preparatory School to District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) such as Tyler and Amidon-Bowen Elementary Schools.
A palaver hut is a circular, thatched structure found in West African villages, devoted to music, dance and story-telling. Through this aptly-named organization, Yaa-Anna teaches children about healthy eating and cooking, as well as teaching story-telling.
Oyé Palaver Hut hosts a monthly story-telling workshop at Busboys and Poets (2004 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE). On May 29 at 6:30 p.m., students from the Kuumba learning Center (3328-3332 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE), where Yaa-Anna offers a program, will perform excerpts from the South-African film Sarafina.
Lessons for a Lifetime
Yaa-Anna says her goal is to promote health, wellness and culture through nutrition and applied storytelling in experimental workshops.
She often starts culinary workshops for children by teaching them to make guacamole, because it is a simple, fresh recipe. She said that it is also emblematic of the kind of ‘fast food’ she was raised on. “You just reach up, pick it and make it,” she said. “That’s the real fast food.”
Students retain these lessons for a lifetime, Yaa-Anna added. “Once, I was walking down the street, and some boys –young men, really—they said to me, ‘I know you! You taught me how to make guacamole!’,” she recalls. “So, they really do learn. They remember.”
She said that she has learned a great deal from children as well. “Intuitively, they know things that we don’t know,” she said. “So I’ve asked children a lot of questions.”
A few years ago, Yaa-Anna started a storytelling club at Corner Store Arts (900 South Carolina Ave. SE) as part of the National Storytelling Network. She wanted to share a meal, together with the storytelling tradition with African-American parents and their children. She said many people attended, but the bulk were of European descent. “I wanted a diverse audience,” she said.
Yaa-Anna decided to change attendance by changing her location. She secured a monthly space at Busboys and Poets in Southeast.
This past March, Yaa-Anna hosted a festive gathering in the Marion Barry Room at Busboys and Poets. Yaa-Anna led families in amusing yarn-spinning. Musician Aaron Myers hosted, and Baba Joseph Ngwa and Eric Lewis played African musical instruments as dancer Diane Freeman kept things lively, as energetic children and their parents danced and clapped.
Then, audience members shared lively five-minute anecdotes. An 84-year-old man from the Bahamas related an endearing folk tale about the sky’s Big and Little Dippers. Yaa-Anna amused us with her story about a Nigerian man, newly arrived in Los Angeles after his very first plane ride. He managed to get into all kinds of scrapes, even painting his teeth green and blue. (You had to be there, and Vera swears the story is true.) The kids –including a table of youngsters from the nearby Kuumba Learning Center–were especially appealing. When asked what he wants to be when he grows up, one little tyke quipped: “A grownup.”
For Yaa-Anna, Palaver Hut is a labor of love. Her work is largely self-funded, although she is always searching for grants. She pays for her supplies and room rentals out of her own pocket, purchasing meals for children at restaurants when she takes them.
“I come from Africa, and we are taught that you don’t wait for anyone to help you,” she said. “You help yourself, and one day, the ancestors will send you somebody.”
Based on Capitol Hill, Vera Oye Yaa-Anna’s Palaver Hut provides cultural and nutritional education through dialogue, storytelling and cooking classes. Get involved, donate or learn more call 202-547-4899 email [email protected] or visit www.oyapalaverhut.org.
A $10 donation is recommended for the Wednesday, May 29 pre-show performances and excerpts from Sarafina, held in the Marion Barry Room at Busboys and Poets. Best for children 10 years and older. RSVP preferred as there is limited space. Call 202-547-4899 or 202-563-5971.
Located at 2004 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE, Busboys and Poets is open daily for lunch and dinner. Call 202-889-1374 or visit www.busboysandpoets.com.