The camouflage-colored cotton hunting tunic displayed at the new Sankofa Children’s Museum of African Cultures is in pristine condition, without a rip or drop of dried blood. Perhaps the powerful magic woven into it worked.
The shirt originally was worn by a hunter in Mali’s Dogon tribe. The three small red bird beaks adorning the shirt were intended to call the spirits of the target animals into the hunter’s vicinity. The cowrie shells were added to protect the wearer from tooth and claw. The mirrors were thought to prevent the predator from becoming the prey.
The tunic is among hundreds of fascinating artifacts that will be on view in Baltimore’s new interactive cultural center, which celebrates its grand opening Feb. 1 in Baltimore’s Pimlico neighborhood. The Sankofa Children’s Museum of African Cultures aims to introduce children in the third, fourth and fifth grades to the traditions of Africa’s 54 nations, where many of the youngsters’ ancestors once lived.
The ribbon-cutting ceremony will offer free admission all day to the cultural center. There will be a fashion show, drumming exhibition, storytelling and other activities.
“Basic knowledge about Africa is not taught consistently in the schools,” said Esther Armstrong, who founded the cultural center with her husband, Jim Clemmer. “There are many children — and even some adults — who do not know that Africa is a continent, and not a country.”
Many Baltimoreans know Armstrong as the founder and owner of the Sankofa African & World Bazaar, which has relocated from Charles Village to the same building at 4330 Pimlico Rd. as the museum. Unlike the boutique, the cultural center is a not-for-profit organization.
The one-room gallery is divided into five geographic areas: north, south, east, west and central Africa. Traditions of an individual country are highlighted on a far wall and will change every six months. The inaugural nation to be showcased is Armstrong’s native Ghana.
“We wanted to start with western Africa since that’s where the slave trade operated most actively, and that’s where most African Americans are from,” Clemmer said.
The museum experience begins in the lobby, where children don traditional African clothing and have their photographs taken while sitting in a ceremonial chair modeled after the elaborately carved wooden seat used by Cameroon’s royal family. The now-transformed visitors enter the museum gallery through an arched doorway on which is written the words, “This is your door of returning.”
The welcome is a correction to the notorious building on Senegal’s Goree Island from which captives boarding slave ships bound for the Americas are thought to have caught their last glimpse of Africa.
“We’re letting our visitors know that once they step past this threshold, they’re going back to the place they came from,” museum director Deborah Mason said.
Inside the museum, kids and grown-ups can study an elongated white Fang mask while learning about the Ngil, a secret secret society that operated in Gabon, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea.
“Their job was justice,” Clemmer said. “They would parade from village to village in these masks, where they would try cases and settle disputes.”
Visitors can gaze at a beautifully carved corner post for a toguna, a hut in Mali. Once they learn that the posts supported the roof, they may wonder why the hut was built so low to the ground. The completed toguna couldn’t be more than four feet tall.
“Only men were allowed to enter the hut,” Clemmer said. “They low doorway forced them to crawl in on their hands and knees. Once they were inside, they had to sit cross-legged on the ground. Palm wine was passed around during their meetings, and the low ceiling kept the inhabitants from becoming too aggressive.”
Museum-goers also can marvel at the most ancient artifact in the children’s center, a bronze sculpture of an Ooni (or king) of the Ife, the Nigerian city that served as the cradle of the Yoruba people.
Clemmer estimated that the cultural center’s squat, pot-bellied Oona is somewhere between 300 and 700 years old.
“Back in 1200 A.D. when Ife was a city-state like Athens,” Clemmer said, “the Yoruba people figured out the art of lost-wax casting. That was more than 200 years before the Europeans arrived.″ (He was referring to the method of making a duplicate metal sculpture from an original — a technically challenging art form requiring a high degree of knowledge and skill.)
After leaving the gallery, visitors can visit a room featuring educational play. They can pluck the strings of a kora, a type of African lute. They can choose an Adinkra symbol to serve as a personal motto — perhaps the “dwennimmen” or ram’s horns symbolizing humility and strength, or the “eban" or fence depicting love, safety and security — and stamp their adrinka on a piece of canvas.
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Chances are that after they have put together a puzzle that’s 13 feet long and 10 feet wide, after they realize that Africa is more than three times the size of the U.S. (including Alaska and Hawaii) they will come away with a new appreciation for the world’s second largest continent.
“This museum is an experiment,” Armstrong said. "If it works, it will benefit all of us.”
IF YOU GO
The Sankofa Children’s Museum of African Cultures will celebrate a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 10 a.m. Feb. 1 at 4330 Pimlico Rd. Admission for the day will be free.
The museum’s usual public hours will be Wednesday through Friday from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. and weekends from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission will cost $10 for adults aged 12 and over and $7.50 for children.