LEWISTON — Hundreds of people filled Courthouse Plaza Saturday evening to dance, socialize and celebrate the Somali and American independence days as part of the annual African Immigrants Association festival.
"It's going great," said Mohammed Dini, a leader in the association, as dozens of people gathered in the center of the plaza to dance to the band Rumbaafrica. "Having two independence (days) together is the most beautiful thing you can have."
The association organized the first Africana Festival in 2004, timed to celebrate Somali and American independence days in early July. Somalia claimed independence from Italy and the United Kingdom on July 1, 1960, and the United States celebrates its independence from the British crown annually on July 4.
The first multi-cultural African festivals were held at the Multi-Purpose Center and Lewiston High School. Saturday was the first time the festival was held outside, but Dini vowed it would not be the last.
"Having it in an open, public venue shows it's not only for one community. It's for all communities," he said.
Although the festival had been slated to begin at noon, few people showed until late afternoon. By 6:30 p.m. a couple of hundred people had gathered and vendors lined the plaza selling food, arts and other products. Light blue flags with a single white star — the official flag of Somalia — dotted the plaza, some of them playfully worn as capes or head scarves by small children. The festival featured African dance and music exhibitions, with audience members joining the demonstrations.
Lewiston Mayor Larry Gilbert was one of the first to try a clap-step-shuffle-step dance in the center of the plaza.
Gilbert has attended the festival in past years. He believes the event is important, a way for African immigrants to celebrate their heritage in their new home.
"Just like it was important for Franco-American immigrants to celebrate the feast of Saint Jean the Baptiste," he said.
Like many at the event, Gilbert mingled, chatting with children, with their parents, with the people who sat nearby. Kaera Bogoreh, of Djibouti, introduced herself and talked with the mayor briefly in French, one of her five languages. The mother of two, including one son in college, she recently moved to Lewiston from Georgia. She attended the festival with her with her 5-year-old son.
"I am enjoying myself," she said as she watched her son dance.
Firdosa Gedi, originally from Somalia and now living in Lewiston, also enjoyed the festival as she sat at a table and offered henna tattoos for $5. By 7:30 p.m. she'd had at least one customer, though her table was most often mobbed by curious children.
Gedi said she liked the fact the celebration honored both Somali and American independence days. Though she also planned to attend the Liberty Festival today, an event that marks the 4th of July.
"No country but here. That's my country," she said.