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Oyé Palaver Hut Brings African Culture, Conflict Resolution East of the River

For nearly 30 years, Vera Oyé Yaa-Anna has conducted arts programming for children living in each ward of the District. But she’s expressed an affinity for Black youth living east of the Anacostia River who’ve taken to her hands-on instruction about African food, arts and culture.

As young people continue to climb out of a pandemic and quarantine period that has exacerbated trauma, Yaa-Anna has increased her focus on conflict resolution and self-expression with the palaver hut, a West African tradition that compels individuals to discuss their problems and come to a mutually beneficial solution.

“When we have any situation, you have to discuss things. We must be able to find out the problem,” said Yaa-Anna, founder and executive producer of Oyé Palaver Hut, a cultural arts organization that prioritizes health and wellness through storytelling and culinary arts.

Yaa-Anna, a native of Liberia who goes by Auntie Oyé, launched Oyé Palaver Hut as a family-friendly theatrical company in Los Angeles upon her arrival to the U.S. in 1993. Years later, after moving to the District, Oyé Palaver Hut continued to provide both entertainment and a curriculum that exposed children to various African cultures.

The nonprofit currently provides year-round programming to 75 young people, many of whom live in Woodland Terrace in Southeast.

The inspiration for the conflict resolution portion of the programming, Yaa-Anna said, arose out of a desire to help students learn how to share the microphone and other materials they clamored for during weekly activities with Oyé Palaver Hut.

“One child gets up and starts to explain how they feel and come up with solutions,” she said. “You have to remember that children are thinkers. We have to give them the tools to make their environment safe for learning.”

Earlier this year, the D.C. Policy Center collected data showing that isolation and increased economic hardship during the pandemic further primed young people for socioemotional challenges. In anticipation of months of unresolved trauma spilling into the classroom, Yaa-Anna participated in workshops about trauma-informed instruction.

The palaver hut, a circular clay structure from which Oyé Palaver Hut received its name, served as a place in West African villages for visitors to frequent and engage in dialogue during the 18th and 19th centuries. Among many West Africans today, particularly those living in Liberia, the word palaver colloquially refers to a small quarrel or disagreement.

Other aspects of West African culture Yaa-Anna shows young people involve food and folklore. Cooking demonstrations expose students to different crops and information about their dietary significance.

At any moment, Yaa-Anna can also be found engaging her young audience with a story as veteran West African drummer Joe Ngwa sets the mood with the vibrations of the djembe.

In recent years, Yaa-Anna has doled out trivia questions about West Africa and the District while organizing trips to Mr. Henry’s Restaurant along Pennsylvania Avenue in Southeast. The trivia questions have since been converted into flashcards bearing Yaa-Anna’s image.

Charmaine Jackson, a supervisor at Exodus Treatment Center in Southeast, said Yaa-Anna’s offerings have broadened the horizons of children who participate in her programming during the school year and summer.

Jackson said Yaa-Anna inspired her to launch a trash collection program that has grown in popularity among young people in the community.

“Some of our children think that Southeast is the world,” Jackson said. “Auntie Oyé has been a great asset to our program and our children love her to death. The most valuable lesson she taught our children is to value yourself. It doesn’t matter where you’re coming from. It’s about where you’re going.”

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