Mindful of the mosaic

The Sensuous Geographies of Ethnic Festivals—By Kelley McClinchey

As a geographer, my interests lie at the crossroads of space, place, scale, environment, and society. I am particularly interested in the way we develop a sense of place. Our senses immediately take us back to familiar places, those we have been emotionally attached to and intimately connected to.

When you inhale that familiar scent of a favourite food, you are instantly reminded of the comforts of home. When you hear that one-hit wonder from a bygone era you either cringe with annoyance at being reminded of an awkward stage in your pre-pubescent life or get “jiggy with it” at the fond memory of an age when not much else mattered. There is also a certain scale of comfort in putting on that hand-stitched tunic, sweater or shawl when you need added warmth; like a warm hug. Similarly, finding comfort in a close friend or confidante who is able to answer all your difficult questions about everyday life is as easy as a walk down the street, a drive in your car, or a phone call away.

These scenarios are likely much different for someone who may have recently migrated, or someone new to the neighbourhood, or someone of a different ethnic background who is just learning customs, language, and traditions. This is the way it was for a family like my husband’s growing up in Canada. His parents migrated with five children in the early 1970s. They knew no English, and both parents worked. His parents told them to speak English, stay in school and get good jobs. There was never any extra money, not for anything. Life was about family, food and community. Eventually, church members and a dedicated group of volunteers started an ethnic festival. It began as a small community event and has now been a hallmark event for 35 years looked forward to by the urban community at large.

Now that I have two children of my own it is our responsibility as parents to teach the language, culture and customs of both places. The annual festival is but one event that assists in this endeavor. Now, more than ever, I want to learn about, and mobilize, the narratives of those who share a passion for ethnic culture and a place identity that may not be the same as what is considered ‘mainstream’.

Unlike new migrants or those of varying ethnic backgrounds, my cultural heritage has been firmly planted here in Canada for several generations. My story is a fairly straightforward one. I know that this is not the case for many other Canadians; their stories are as colorful as the mosaic itself. I have always been interested in where people come from and in which places they find meaning, emotionally, intimately and sensuously. What is their sense of place? This is how I became interested in ethnic festivals. I am particularly interested in the stories of festival participants; those individuals that belong to ethnic organizations and spend countless hours practicing and planning their participation in a special event. For them, the festival is more than two dollar tasting plates and a walk down a closed section of Main Street.

Festivals are often used as a social strategy to combat feelings of insecurity, senselessness and placelessness felt in public spaces. Community groups initiate a festival as a way of combating oppressive social forces that exclude and include certain people from ‘public spaces’ (Harvey, 1989; Waitt, 2008). These festivals are conceptualized as Geographies of Hope by offering creative possibilities and uses of public space by temporarily suspending social relations, blurring boundaries and allowing sites for negotiation and hope. They are an opportunity for ethnic groups to gather formally in a public space where feelings of pride, unity, community and a sense of place for their local neighbourhood and homeland can flourish and bloom.


Ethnic festivals benefit individuals and communities; not only for the community at large, but for recent migrants, first generation, second, or even third generation community members. Ethnic festivals may begin and maintain themselves as grassroots events, but others generate widespread notoriety frequently becoming hallmark events. The annual Odunde Street Festival in Philadelphia is one such example. Held every second Sunday in June, it brings a genuine taste of Africa to South Street, one of Philadelphia’s oldest, historically African-American neighborhoods. The festival, initiated in 1975 by Lois Fernandez and Ruth Arthur, has gained a national reputation as one of Philadelphia’s brightest cultural events and largest street festivals in the country. Odunde celebrates the coming of another year for African-Americans and Africanized people around the world (Perspectives in Anthropology, Odunde Festival).

This year, the festival celebrates its 40th anniversary with a number of pre-festival events across Philadelphia. Vendors and the African Marketplace sell everything from food, crafts, clothing, jewelry and more. Two sound stages have scheduled performances of traditional dancing, singing, music, drumming and contemporary rap artists (Philadelphia Odunde Festival).

The need to grasp aspects of culture through one’s senses on a regular basis is crucial to maintaining ethnic identity. We become habituated to certain tactile worlds from early childhood, through touching, tasting, smelling, hearing, and exploring (Rodaway, 1994). This is why festivals are so important for ethnic community members. Sights of brightly-colored tunics, indigenous patterns and designs, traditional and contemporary ceremonial displays remind participants of authentic clothing worn during special occasions or in the everyday experience. The beat of a bongo and the clanging soul of a steel drum snare the hearts and minds of festival attendees and exhibitors in a conjoined hypnotic sound spurring the body—arms, legs, hips—into a symbolic public dance of freedom. A swirling invisible presence of fried fish, curry goat, fried chicken, coffee, fruit juices wafts into unassuming nostrils; a Pavlov’s experimentation of salivating taste buds.

The senses are an important part of the everyday experience, providing us with information about a world around us (Rodaway, 1994). Music, dancing and clothing as belonging and socializing not only act as a refuge from the conditions of social isolation and boredom, but festivals in particular emerge as key moments of community identification (Lewis, 2015). The participants and spectators at the Odunde Festival were photographed by Corey Hariston. It was a hot day, and his lens captured the up close and personal expressions of people in the foreground while also incorporating the bodily actions in the way of performance in the background. You can almost hear the steel drums in his photograph. As Hariston explained, “I love colours, patterns, and body language.”

Ethnic festivals build a bridge from a neighbourhood here to a place far away; they are a cultural link connecting the emotional and sensuous geographies of migrants as well as other community members for a renewed sense of collective understanding.

Habitus works as a practical sense of moving through place, producing the embodied sensual rituals of everyday life (Bourdieu, 2005). Haptic habituation occurs through the movement of body parts (arms and legs, hands and fingers) and the locomotion of the whole body through an environment (Rodaway, 1994). An ethnic festival such as the Odunde Festival in Philadelphia enables community members to experience culture through their senses, touch, smell, taste, sound, sight and haptic habitus. There is a deeper, more intimate and sensuous encounter, and an emotional connection with a place that is firmly planted in their memories, in a past generation, in a homeland far away. It is events such as the Odunde Festival that bring migrants together in mutual cultural celebration and a geography of hope. These events capture the beauty of culture that mainstream media and everyday experiences do not always communicate.

On a global scale, Barack Obama recently visited Africa, having set foot in Kenya (the homeland of his father) and Ethiopia. He was welcomed and embraced. Obama was quoted as saying “I am the first Kenyan-American president.” Obama has an emotional connection and a strong self-identity for a place his father called home despite his physical connection and ease of mobility being far-removed.

On a regional scale, ethnic festivals build a bridge from a neighbourhood here to a place far away; they are a cultural link connecting the emotional and sensuous geographies of migrants as well as other community members for a renewed sense of collective understanding. Ethnic festivals, hence, provide an opportunity to travel “back home” through the re-affirmation of cultural tradition, the listening to of familiar music, the movement of the body in response to the rhythms, the sights of colorful tapestries on clothing, the scents of spices and the tastes of traditional cuisine. These sensuous geographies are reminiscent of a place migrants too can call home or in the very least know is a component of their self-identity – of who they are – and of place identity – where they are from.

Finally, on a personal scale, my children will always attend our ethnic community festival. It is a way to build a bond between them and their family and community members, teach them to appreciate differences in language, food, music and customs, and to understand part of their heritage. It is our job to teach the sense of place for two places; to be mindful of their own personal mosaic.

Photography by Corey Hariston

Bourdieu, P. (1980). Habitus. In Hillier, J. and Rookskby, E. (Eds). Habitus: A Sense of Place (2nd Edition). pp. 43-52. Aldershot, England: Ashgate.
Harvey, D. (1989). From managerialism to entrepreneurialism: The transformation in urban governance of late capitalism. Geografiska Annaler, 71B(1), 3-17.
Lewis, H. (2015). Music, dancing and clothing as belonging and freedom among people seeking asylum in the UK. Leisure Studies, 34(1), 42-58.
Rodaway, P. (1994). Sensuous Geographies: Body, Sense and Place. Oxfordshire, England: Routledge.
Waitt, G. (2008). Urban festivals: Geographies of hype, helplessness and hope. Geography Compass, 2(2), 513-537.

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TAGS /human geography / migrants / public space /