Celebrating the Journey

By Michael R. Malone

Celebrating the Journey

By Michael R. Malone
“Young, gifted, and black” graduates are honored at Senior Mwambo Ceremony at the Shalala Student Center.

As the drummers welcomed them, beating Kuku and Kakilambe rhythms on their djembes and dunduns, the 180 graduates strode into the Shalala Student Center ballroom with their heads high and eyes focused ahead—proud to be participating in 2018 Senior Mwambo, a Malawian word for the “ceremonial rite of passage” established at the University of Miami in 1992.

“I’ve been attending Mwambo since I was a freshman, and to be here, now, graduating—wow, there’s a lot of emotion,” said Keion Farmer, referring to the ceremony that marks the transition of black graduates from college to advanced education and professional careers. “I’m happy and proud to be a black man graduating from the University. The U has honored me, and I want to honor the U, to just keep serving and trying to make my ancestors proud.”

Farmer, together with Olumayowa Stephanie Olabis Olujohungbe, popularly known as “May,” both earned Nanga awards for their outstanding student achievements, both academic and in service to the University and the community.

“The Mwambo Ceremony is one of our greatest traditions,” said Michelle Maldonado, assistant provost of Undergraduate Education. “Diversity is challenging—and it should be—we learn from being unsettled. But diversity does not undermine unity, and it is diversity that makes us excellent here at the University.” 

Keynote speaker Christopher Lomax, B.M. ’05, J.D. ’08, a former federal prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice and an associate with Jones Day, focused his message on the lyrics in Nina Simone’s song “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black,” challenging the graduates to laugh a lot and to enjoy life, but also to work to address the systemic oppression that has evolved through the legacy of slavery. 

“Class of ’18, the ball is in our court. Don’t forget about our brothers and sisters who live on the margins of society,” Lomax said. “’Young’—you are full of potential. ‘Gifted’—you are full of promise, and ‘black’—is to be beautiful, bold, brilliant, and uncompromising in your convictions. You have a tremendous opportunity to shake up the world.”   

Jashua Sa-Ra, the ceremonial elder, offered the libation, or blessing, to invoke and honor the spirit of the ancestors. “It’s because of them, all those that have gone before us, that we have gotten to where we are,” he said. “Now today, we can jump higher than ever.” 

Patrick Masala, B.A. ’93, is one of those ancestors. An international student from Malawi, Masala served as president of the African Student Union and was instrumental in launching Mwambo, as part of his efforts to encourage pride in African culture on campus. Masala died of pneumonia soon after entering a graduate program at UM.  

Renée Dickens Callan, director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, a principle coordinator of Senior Mwambo, earns her doctorate this semester and was honored as the final student to receive her kente clothstole, a symbol of African cultural identity.