Monday, October 01, 2007

Liberian president to attend black heritage parade here

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- The first female president on the African continent is expected to return to Staten Island next month for a weekend-long fete celebrating the culture of black residents here.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (photo), president of the West African nation of Liberia, plans to attend an Oct. 20 parade from Stapleton to St. George, part of the inaugural Staten Island Black Cultural Arts and Heritage Festival, according to a letter sent by a Liberian envoy to City Councilman Michael McMahon.

The parade, which will culminate with a speech by Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf in the Richmond County Bank Ballpark at St. George, will mark the second visit by Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf to the Island -- but the first ever by an African head of state. In April 2005, she debated famed soccer player and former Staten Islander George Weah, along with dozens of other presidential candidates, during a town hall meeting in Clifton.

Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf eventually won the presidency in a run-off election with Weah later that year, and has since won over most of her critics. Dubbed Africa's "Iron Lady," she is now one of the continent's most popular and promising leaders. After two decades of war and political turmoil, the Harvard-educated president has been largely credited for bringing stability to the country, which is roughly the size of Virginia and has a population of about 3.3 million.

"It means a lot to have her here," said Bobby Digi, the festival's chairman and founder.

Touted as a celebration of "African, African-American and Caribbean culture," the three-day event will include a street fair, a prayer breakfast and workshops on networking, economic development and strategic planning. And expect lots of food, exotic dress, dancing and music.

But the festival's main goal is to cultivate a sense of unity among the Island's increasingly diverse black communities, Digi said.

"It's about the African, African-American and Caribbean communities coming together to help move the community as a whole in a progressive and productive way," Digi said. "It's especially designed to encourage bonding among our young population."

The first festival dedicated to the Island's black culture also is a testimony to the borough's changing demographics.

According to the most recent U.S. Census statistics, the number of black residents here rose 6,374 to 55,782 between 2000 and 2006, a 12.9 percent jump. Local groups estimate about 10,000 of those newcomers are refugees from war-scarred Sierra Leone and Liberia. But many others also have come from Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast and from the Caribbean islands of Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago.

And while many have settled in established black communities in the North Shore, like Stapleton, Clifton and Mariners Harbor, pockets of black communities increasingly are found in the South Shore and parts of the Mid-Island.

"As they have been spread out, many [black residents] have experienced a sense of isolation," Digi added.

Next month's festival is expected to draw thousands, with many coming from as far away as California and Minnesota, which also have large Liberian immigrant populations.

Clifton resident Louise Roberts said she's excited by the opportunity to meet Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf. Mrs. Roberts, a Liberian native who has lived in the Park Hill Apartments for two decades, plans to buy some fabric to make a lappa suit, a traditional Liberian two-piece dress with a wrap-around skirt and a heavily embroidered top usually worn for church and celebrations.

"She is a very good woman, and if anyone can bring our country hope, she can," Mrs. Roberts said.

Liberian president to attend black heritage parade here - SILive.com