On the grounds of Greater Mount Nebo African Methodist Episcopal Church in Bowie, African diplomats mingled with local leaders while church members and their guests visited with one other, all of them assembled to celebrate their common heritage.
On Saturday, the church, on Route 301, staged its fourth Pan-African Festival, which is aimed at building relationships between African nations and local religious and business communities, and educating the public about issues that people of African ancestry face.
The festival opened with a walk to raise money for research on AIDS, a disease that affects African Americans and Africans disproportionately. The day also included samples of traditional African food, drumming, storytelling, dancing and free health screenings.
At the event's opening prayer breakfast, the Rev. Jonathan Weaver, pastor at Mount Nebo, welcomed officials from several African nations.
Ambassador Cyrille S. Oguin of Benin, in West Africa, delivered the keynote address. "It is all of us coming together and realizing the achievements that we can accomplish together," Oguin said. "We need to enter a new millennium with a new brotherhood of solidarity."
Oguin was joined by officials from Angola, Congo, Nigeria and other African countries. Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) and state Sen. Nathaniel Exum (D-Prince George's) also attended.
The day-long festival, which included a large tent filled with vendors selling wares such as colorful clothing and carved wooden furniture, focused on how African nations and Prince George's County can help each other.
"At Howard University I remember studying about the pan-African movement," Johnson said. "Today we are those people. This conference probably has more countries represented than any conference I've read about, and what it tells us is that we are one people and we have some real common issues . . . health, education, unemployment."
The discussions touched on AIDS and civil wars and other unrest.
Ambassador Josefina Pitra Diakite of Angola said the festival was important for building bridges between the people of her country and African Americans, particularly to unite churches in the two countries.
Weaver, the force behind the festival, said that although it is meant to be fun, it is also intended to spur serious and sometimes uncomfortable talks.
Weaver said he believes that ties between African Americans and Africans have frayed in recent years, leading to misunderstandings.
"We need to break down the walls of misconception so that people can learn more about the culture and traditions of the people in Africa," Weaver said.
He took a first step last year when he traveled with congregants to Ghana and other African nations to exchange business ideas.
Some of Weaver's ideas were on display Saturday.
Herb Lewis of Accokeek, for example, used the occasion to sell the "heritage footstools" he makes using fabrics from Africa.
"The business possibilities in Africa are tremendous," said Lewis, a retired federal government worker and accountant who started working in international trade six months ago. "My sister and I came up with the idea."
While some worked during the festival, others played.
Vera Oye Yaa-Anna, a native of Liberia, shared the African tradition of storytelling. A professional storyteller who works with cancer patients, Yaa-Anna said she believes black people have lost the art of storytelling because of modern distractions such as television and video games. "Your parents told you stories," she said. "The only way we as a people can preserve our culture is through stories."
A highlight was a performance by the Legend Singers, made up mostly of singers from war-torn Congo. Among the songs they performed was the popular gospel tune "Total Praise," which they sang in their native tongue.
Adrien Ngudiankama, a Princeton University fellow who is studying religion, said the Legend Singers are a blessing. He pointed to the five-year regional war that ravaged Congo and left an estimated 3 million to 4 million people dead, mostly from disease and hunger.
"There are many misconceptions," Ngudiankama said of outsiders' perceptions of Africa. "At the end of the day, I hope that we will just be able to educate people about who we are."