Story and Photographs By John Murray
Nana Assibey-Yeboah stood at the edge of the dancing and watched intently as a line of Albanian women moved past her at the Albanian Festival in Waterbury on June 8th. Slowly Nana's head began to move, and her feet began to scrap the pavement beneath her sandals. One week before The Gathering, on May 18th, in downtown Waterbury, Nana had reached out to ask why there were no Africans coming to the festival. When I told her we had been unable to locate any, she announced, “I’m Nana from Ghana, and I’m coming to The Gathering.”
And she did.
Nana dressed in colorful West African clothes and set up a Ghana cultural tent by herself. She would have marched in the parade, but got lost getting a cup of coffee and missed it. She was infectiously happy at The Gathering, and was thrilled to have been able to represent her culture and meet people from all over the world.
Nana set up her own cultural tent for Ghana, and is pictured here placing a sticker of Ghana on a passport game played by children at the festival.
Nana is already planning on recruiting a large contingent of West Africans to participate in the next Gathering on May 17th, 2014, and wants to prepare traditional foods and offer traditional dance at the festival.
A few days after The Gathering Nana reached out to me through Facebook and asked when the next ethnic festival was in Waterbury. I told her there was an Albanian Festival on Raymond Street in the South End of Waterbury in early June, and she said, “I will meet you there.”
And she did.
Nana walked right into a throng of Albanians and started introducing herself and saying hello to complete strangers.
“I love festivals and want to know all people,” Nana said, “and I love to study maps.”
When a little boy said loudly, “Mom, what’s the black lady doing here at the festival?”, Nana didn’t flinch. She heard the comment and smiled at the mother.
“I don’t care,” Nana said, “he’s just a boy asking a question.”
Did she feel awkward at the Albanian Festival?
“No,” she said. “They will not come to my place, so I will go to them. We are all one people. We are all human beings. We can share blood with each other, blood is not black or white. We are the same.”
Nana won a lottery to emigrate to the United States and she has been living and working in New England for six years, the last two in Waterbury.
“People in Waterbury have not been very friendly to me and I was getting ready to move.," she said. "Then I went to The Gathering and now I am so happy. I’m going to all the festivals now. I want to meet the people.”
Her approach is very direct. Nana will look people in the eye and say hello. “If you talk to people they will respond,” she said. “Why expect someone else to say hi first, Just talk to people and open your heart.”
As Nana continued to listen to the music at the Albanian Festival she started to bob her head and move her feet in rhythm with the women in the traditional Albanian valle. The women were moving in a big circle beneath a cavernous tent and as Shpresa Sufka glided past she reached her hand out to Nana and said, “come dance.”
And Nana did.
Nana Assibey-Yeboah danced a traditional valle with Shpresa Sufka, right, at the Albanian Festival, June 8th, on Raymond Street in the South End of Waterbury.
For ten minutes, maybe more, Nana danced the Albanian valle with 20 white women. It was a beautiful moment, and I stood and soaked in the scene. Nana had taken the slogan of The Gathering to heart - "We all came from somewhere, now it's time to come together." In fact, Nana Assibey-Yeboah was the living embodiment of the slogan.
Days later I tracked down Shpresa Sufka at her home in Town Plot to talk to her about the dance with Nana.
“When I came here from Albania I was very alone,” she said. “I worked with black people in a nursing home and they were very warm and helpful to me with complicated paperwork. Blacks and Puerto Ricans helped me with my English. They were not judging me, why should I judge them?”
Sufka said it is important to treat people with respect, and when she saw Nana moving her feet she knew she had to ask her to dance, “Her eyes and feet said she wanted to dance. She was very open.”
And what does Sufka’s first name Shpresa mean? "Hope," she said. "My name means hope."
Shpresa was surprised I had tracked her down to talk about a gesture she saw as natural, and how one individual should treat another.
“Not everyone thinks like me,” she said. “And changing people’s minds is like a revolution. We have to fight.”