Smithsonian Folklife Festival kicks off with celebrations of Chinese, Kenyan culture

The woman in pink raised the machete above her head. Its 18-inch blade glinted in the D.C. sun.

Whack.

A man a few feet away looked up from his iPhone for a moment, then continued his texting.

Whack.

Into the thin tree branch went the machete, the sound reverberating off the grounds of the Mall. Heads turned as nine helmet-clad passersby neared on their Segways.

Whack. Whack. Whack.

The Segways moved on.

Only at an event like the Smithsonian Folklife Festival could a machete-wielding woman be ignored.

Malika Mwanajuma, who is building a traditional Kenyan home out of tree limbs, is just one of dozens of craftspeople who are displaying their skills on the Mall for the next two weeks.

Now in its 48th year, the annual festival of food, music, arts and storytelling — which kicked off Wednesday morning and runs through July 6 — is celebrating the culture of China and Kenya.

The goal is to bring as much authenticity as possible; it took nearly three years for the Smithsonian to prepare each country’s events. Much of that time is dedicated to seeking out areas of a country whose traditions have been untouched by Western culture, organizers say.

Malika and her building partner, Salma Maro, are both from the Pokomo tribe, which resides along Kenya’s largest river on the rural eastern coast of the country. There, both women are known for the art of building homes, a job that is passed down through generations and is primarily handled by women.

The branches they split with machetes were shipped from their village to Washington.

As the pile of wood began its transformation into a hut, a small crowd of opening-day festival-goers emerged from nearby exhibit tents to watch Malika work.

Her gold jewelry dangling over a brightly colored dress, she carefully tied the limbs together with rope made from a sisal plant. The longer, thicker branches were then dug into the ground so they stood vertically, forming a round skeletal base for the other branches to be tied across.

The result of the process is a 4-foot-wide hut with a pointed roof made of dried grass, no windows and only one entrance, as a guard against malaria. The huts are homes for the people who live close to the river, because they can be easily rebuilt if an overflow washes them away.

In the Pokomo tribe, family and community members are expected to help each other build the huts; it usually takes three to four days. For the sake of the festival, Malika and Salma will build slowly, taking the full two weeks to finish. Nearby, similar tradition-focused events will play out on the China half of the festival.

When a Smithsonian volunteer came by to ask the women if she could throw away the plastic that the branches were shipped in, Malika seemed confused.

“Oh no, no, we will use that,” she said. “We will use everything.”

That is the lesson for Americans, said Denis Opudo, a research scientist for culture at the National Museums of Kenya, who organized the hut-building display. The home’s materials — branches, grass, rope and cloth — are made only from what is available in the Pokomo’s coastal home.

“You do not have to have skyscrapers. These people, they make simple structures that let them survive and sustain their families,” Opudo said. “People can live from what is existing within their immediate environment.”

The machete the craftswomen were using, however, still had its “made in China” sticker. Not a problem, really: For the next two weeks, China is indeed in their “immediate environment” — just across the lawn.

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