Odunde festival ends amid food, fun and a sales boost

Members of the Toure family toss offerings of flowers and fruit off the South Street bridge into the Schuylkill for Oshun the river goddess during the Odunde Festival. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Members of the Toure family toss offerings of flowers and fruit off the South Street bridge into the Schuylkill for Oshun the river goddess during the Odunde Festival. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Posted: June 11, 2012

The 37th annual Odunde Festival, Philadelphia's African American street party, drew to a close Sunday with estimates that as many as 500,000 had attended, providing an economic boost to more than 100 vendors along South Street in Grays Ferry.

"We're more than just a festival, we're an economic driver," said Oshunbumi "Bumi" Fernandez, chief executive officer of Odunde, the educational and cultural organization that sponsors the event.

Fernandez's mother, Lois, started the festival in the 1970s with Fernandez, then just a year old, in attendance strapped to her back. This year's festival focused on Bahia, Brazil, which has a rich African heritage.

The 10-day celebration included a business symposium on the World Cup, as well as a visit from Brazil's ambassador and a Zumba class on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. It culminated in Sunday's street festival, which stretched along South Street from 23d Street to the Schuylkill, where the sounds of R&B mixed with traditional drum music and vendors sold handmade African jewelry and clothing, jerk chicken, fried fish, and big cups of lemonade.

The word odunde comes from the Yoruba people of Nigeria in West Africa and means "happy new year." At noon on Sunday, attendees paraded to the Schuylkill, some wearing headdresses and flowing printed dresses, to offer fruit and flowers to the river goddess Oshun.

For Martin Wimbush, 22, a Philadelphia native, Odunde is a chance to be surrounded by people he identifies with culturally.

"It's interesting in a sense to learn about a part of my culture that I normally don't get to see," said Wimbush, who volunteered at the event.

The city almost required the street fair to change locations this year, citing a public safety issue, Fernandez said. Through the help of U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.), the event happened on South Street as planned, she said. The cost, between $75,000 and $100,000, was mostly covered by vendors, who paid a minimum of $375 for a stall, and local business sponsors, she said.

Philadelphia police Lt. Thomas Vales said that as of Sunday afternoon, there had been no arrests or complaints. He said he expected Sunday to be a "nice family day."

Residents and local businesses unaffiliated with African culture also joined in the Sunday festivities, including South Street resident Gudrun Debes, 38. Originally from Germany, she said she usually heads out of town during the festival to avoid the loud music and traffic. This year, she stayed to experience the event with her 18-month-old daughter.

"I thought she would like the music," Debes said as her daughter, Charlotte, danced in the shade of a stall.

Because there is no admission cost, the streets become packed with people. That's the best part of Odunde for Otis Williams, owner of the Universal Creations African art gallery on the 300 block of Preston Street. Williams has attended the event for 22 years, bringing handcrafted art and jewelry from Mali, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Kenya to sell. He said he loves to see locals exploring their heritage.

"It exemplifies a culture of the African American community in Philadelphia," Williams said. "It's to experience our heritage, our culture, and learn from our people and where we came from."

Contact Dara McBride at 215-854-5626 or dmcbride@philly.com.

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