Coordinators of Annapolis' annual Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival knew the event was a success when they recognized that the children who attended the early programs had returned and wanted to help.
"I have young adults who have been there six or seven years," said Jean Jackson, chairwoman of the event's planning committee. "Now they're in college, and they're working for the committee - a very, very committed group of young people."
Saturday and Sunday mark the festival's 18th year of celebrating African culture and ancestry. And organizers said they expect as many as 15,000 visitors to the Anne Arundel County Fairgrounds to mingle with more than 120 dancers, craftsmen, history performers, artists and musicians. The event is the result of a collaboration among Annapolis, the Maryland State Arts Council and the Cultural Arts Foundation of Anne Arundel County.
"It's always been a family-oriented, non-alcoholic event," Jackson said. "Even with Mother Nature not cooperating, people just keep coming."
Alex Haley, who published the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Roots in 1976 about his enslaved African ancestors, maintained strong ties to Annapolis until his death in 1992. His research and investigation of family lore revealed that his predecessor Kunta Kinte entered slavery through the city's port in 1767. The novel became a wildly popular television miniseries.
Community groups organized small arts festivals and musical performances around Haley's frequent trips to Annapolis to visit family and friends. When the Children's Museum of Annapolis sponsored a workshop about African culture, festival organizers took note of the widespread interest and began work on their own event.
"There just seemed to be a thirst of knowledge from the adults," Jackson said. "We saw more moms, dads and grandparents coming and wanting to do the crafts and participate."
The festival was held at St. John's College in Annapolis until three years ago, when residence hall construction forced the move to the Anne Arundel County Fairgrounds. Jackson said the relocation helped alleviate parking congestion.
The Children's Museum of Annapolis still has a hand in the activities, running a camp this week for kids to explore the culture of Gambia, Kunta Kinte's native land on Africa's west coast. The campers will be on hand this weekend to model indigenous apparel and demonstrate musical instruments.
Dena Holland-Newman, marketing director for the event, said she hopes the festival expands its educational offerings in coming years.
"We want other African dance groups, educators, professors, philosophers - talent, history, storytelling," she said. "We want people who can go back and tell you about the historical and cultural richness of Africa and information that might not be available in our country."
A local professor will act as a foreign correspondent and cover the event for the Informer, Gambia's largest newspaper. Holland-Newman said she hopes to establish a connection with Gambian government officials and educators and invite them to future festivals.
Jackson said she simply wants to continue providing a quality, enriching cultural experience.
"We maintain that small town charm, and I think it's important that we get better at that before we get bigger," she said.
The 18th annual Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival is Saturday and Sunday at the Anne Arundel County Fairgrounds on Route 178 in Crownsville. Hours are 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday. Event takes place rain or shine. Admission is $7; $3 for seniors and children. Call 410-349-0338 or visit www.kuntakinte.org.
For more family events, see Page 33.