When Patrick Woodtor came from Liberia to study at Northwestern University, he was shocked to find that the U.S. had such high levels of poverty and discrimination. “I didn’t expect to see people living in worse conditions than some parts of Africa,” he says. “I saw people eating from garbage cans. I didn’t expect that in America.”

After Woodtor earned a degree in transportation planning, he headed back to Liberia with his American wife. In 1982 rising political problems there sent him and his family back to the U.S. The failing economy here made it difficult to find a job, so he started selling clothes and artifacts he’d brought from home.

He opened a small shop in the Zayre store on 76th and Stony Island the next year. By 1986 his clientele had grown so much that he opened a store in the basement of a Hyde Park building. The space had a big window, so he called it Window to Africa. The next year he moved to a bigger location in Harper Court. “I have seen a lot of education over the last ten years,” he says. “Before, people thought Africa was one big country. Now they’re more educated and want to learn more.”

In 1989 Woodtor organized the African Festival of the Arts to serve the growing interest in all things African and to celebrate the continent’s cultures. The first year a cluster of vendors set up shop in front of his store. The next year the festival filled the Harper Court parking lot. But that wasn’t big enough either, so he moved it to Burnham Park on 47th and Lake Shore Drive in 1992. Last year the festival took place at the Field Museum and included films, concerts, and 20-odd food vendors.

This year vendors from Senegal, Cameroon, the Gambia, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, Morocco, and Egypt will attend the four-day event. The festival includes an exhibit featuring the work of 15 Chicago-based African, Caribbean, and African-American artists, films from Senegal, Nigeria, and the U.S., and workshops and seminars on black culture. The musical highlights are Zairean Afro-pop legend Tabu Ley Rochereau and L’Orchestre Afrisa International on Friday and reggae greats Black Uhuru on Monday.

Part of the proceeds from the festival will benefit an African cultural center, which Woodtor hopes to open next year. “We need a center for the exchange of ideas and culture, to bring people together. A party doesn’t do it,” says Woodtor. “Our major goal is to have a place where we can have cultural exchange–language, theater, art, food–on a consistent basis.”

The African Festival of the Arts runs from 11 AM to dusk Friday through Monday at the DuSable Museum of African American History, 740 E. 56th Place. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for children, and free Saturday until 2 PM. Tickets may be obtained by calling 559-1212. Call 955-7742 for more info or pick up the festival schedule at the DuSable Museum.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.