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Togo native hopes to turn Grand Forks into cultural destination

Hamzat Koriko poses with his African drums in his Grand Forks apartment. He immigrated from Togo in 2004 and hopes to transform the town into a cultural hub. Photo by Tess Williams/Grand Forks Herald1 / 6
Hamzat Koriko poses for a photo in his Grand Forks apartment. He immigrated from Togo in 2004 and hopes to create a cultural hub in Grand Forks. Photo by Tess Williams/Grand Forks Herald2 / 6
Hamzat Koriko writes a note in his Grand Forks apartment. He immigrated from Togo in 2004 and hopes to create a cultural hub in Grand Forks. Photo by Tess Williams/Grand Forks Herald3 / 6
Hamzat Koriko shows off a shirt worn by one of his favorite musicians. Photo by Tess Williams/Grand Forks Herald. 4 / 6
Hamzat Koriko looks at a shirt worn by one of his favorite musicians. Photo by Tess Williams/Grand Forks Herald.5 / 6
Colorful details from Hamzat Koriko's clothing and jewelry from Togo. Photo by Tess Williams/Grand Forks Herald. 6 / 6

Rhythm comes naturally to Togo native Hamzat Koriko.

In his Grand Forks apartment, he picks up a percussion instrument and straps it to his shin, letting the rhythm flow from the bottoms of his feet hitting the floor to the tips of his fingers dancing in the air above his head in harmony.

"In my village they don't teach you. You just watch and then do," Koriko said of the array of percussion instruments from his home country, a west African nation on the coast of the Gulf of Guinea.

Koriko came to Grand Forks in 2010, but first moved to the U.S. on a Diversity Visa. He found out he had been selected while living and working in France.

"My friend actually applied for me. I had to leave France, go home to Togo and get prepared," Koriko said.

The Diversity Visa program is a lottery system that places entrants anywhere in the United States. The program selects immigrants from countries with historically low rates of immigration to the U.S.

Koriko was placed in Fargo and arrived in 2004. He graduated from NDSU with bachelor's degrees in theater and French. He then moved to UND to further study theater.

Now, Koriko has started a nonprofit and has plans to change the rhythm in Grand Forks.

Theater, African Arts Arena

Before formally studying theater, Koriko was writing plays.

"Many of my plays are just me having a conversation with myself on issues important to me," Koriko said.

His plays touch on issues like girl empowerment, equality and conflict resolution. He said he started writing plays because he was always complaining about things.

"Like if something is hurting me, but if I talk about it there will be backlash. ... That situation turned into writing plays. Someone told me to start writing down my complaints on paper," Koriko said.

While he was in France one of Koriko's plays, "When the Bird Takes Flight," was published.

At NDSU he translated this play into English and he was invited to the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival in Washington, D.C., to present on his writing and directing process.

A year later, in 2010, Koriko founded his nonprofit, African Arts Arena.

The African Arts Area offers events and education services in an effort to help others understand African cultures. In November, the group will hold a festival at the Empire Arts Center. Koriko said the event will allow Grand Forks to explore African countries through dance, music, food and fashion.

City Councilman Bret Weber is on the board of the African Arts Arena. He has challenged Koriko to turn Grand Forks into a cultural destination.

"It's very challenging but its not like he asked me to go to the moon," Koriko said. "I know I can do it. We want to make Grand Forks a place where celebrities in the African arts and theater community want to come here."

Koriko said he will give himself five years to make a cultural change. He plans to change the beat in Grand Forks using the African Arts Arena.

"He's flattering me to say that I'm the one who gave him this challenge. He's challenging himself to do this," Weber said. "He is bringing greater cultural awareness, arts and understanding to our community. Hamzat is a great example of shift in our community."

Weber said the African Arts Arena is working on being a self-sustaining arts organization, with traditional public offerings, but also offerings like in-home performances and question-and-answer sessions.

Five years from now, Koriko wants the African Arts Arena to have a building of its own, where people can come and see artwork and listen to music. Koriko wants to display the art and instruments currently boxed up in his apartment.

He would like to serve food, preferably from Steers, and even teach dance classes.

Koriko also hopes the festival the African Arts Area is today will grow into something more exclusive, where artists must apply to perform or display their art at the festival.

"I want a cultural festival in Grand Forks that is like Folklorama (in Winnipeg)—not that it challenges it, but that people who go there would also want to come to Grand Forks," Koriko said.

The two-week cultural event in Winnipeg draws nearly 450,000 people every year.

All this would make Grand Forks more welcoming to immigrants, Koriko said.

Koriko said when he and other immigrants get together, they have to do so in someone's kitchen or over coffee. There is no spot where everyone can meet.

The African Arts Arena would become a meeting place.

"People have a lot to say about the space they've been given here," Koriko said. "We have a certain level of integration in Grand Forks, but it stops there. A lot of people are out there speaking for us, us immigrants, instead of giving us a chance to lead our own initiatives."

Arts and culture integrate immigrants into a community, he said, and can help the community change its tune about cultures it knows little about.

Koriko currently teaches a freshman honors class at UND, but said his main focus is on the African Arts Arena.

"I am very lucky," Koriko said. "My students are incredibly curious."

Koriko spent three years in the Peace Corps in Armenia and has been back in the Grand Forks since June. He graduated with his Ph.D. in August.

Breaking down stereotypes

Armenia was emotionally draining, Koriko said. Many mornings, he would step outside and feel the eyes of the whole village on him.

"It was the reverse experience of being a black person," Korioko said.

Many in the village had never seen a black person before and what limited knowledge they had of black people was observed in American pop culture.

"They would ask if I knew how to hold a gun or play basketball," Koriko said. "I had to debunk some of those ideas. I sat down and had coffee with many people in their homes."

Seven other African-Americans traveled to Armenia with Koriko, but three or four of them left because of the pressure they were under.

"I don't blame them; it was hard," Koriko said.

Many of the children wanted to touch Koriko's hair.

"They said it looked like rocks and wanted to know if that is what it felt like," Koriko said.

So he struck a deal with the children: If they behaved in school, did all of their assignments and studied, he would let them touch his hair.

"Instead of maybe getting offended, I felt like I could make it into a learning moment," Koriko said. "Twenty years from now when someone black goes to that village, that stereotype will be broken down."

Koriko said he taught students using theater and arts.

He got a grant from Michelle Obama's "Let Girls Learn" initiative and started an after-school theater program. Koriko said he wanted to tackle the issue of gender equality, so he gathered both boy and girl students together during the program and discussed just one issue.

"Then, based on the discussion we had, I would go home and turn that discussion into a dialogue. And that dialogue became the basis of starting the play writing process," Koriko said. "I wanted to create a small community within, among the young people at school."

This was successful, he said, and Koriko left Armenia having changed lives using the rhythm inside him.

Bonnie Meibers

Meibers joined the Herald in September of 2018. She reports on all things business in Grand Forks and the surrounding areas. Have a tip or want to get to know her? Call her at (701) 780-1114 or email her at bmeibers@gfherald.com.

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