Sanaaj Mirrie says she can still remember the culture shock she experienced as a teenager arriving in Canada from Jamaica.
“I wasn’t too sure where I fit in as a young Black girl,” Mirrie told CBC Toronto.
But at a Black History month presentation in her Toronto high school, she was introduced to the traditional African art forms of dancing and drumming, allowing her to finally connect with her heritage.
“That mentally kept me focused. It connected me to my roots. It gave me the confidence that I needed,” said Mirrie.
For the last 20 years, that connection has inspired the single mother of two to perform both locally and around the world, and to create the Afiwi Groove School — a space she established in Ajax seven years ago to empower, educate and inspire youth through traditional African arts and culture.
But like other not-for-profits, her school was hit hard by the COVID-19 lockdown, which led to an exodus of almost half the students by the end of summer.
“A lot of parents came to me,” she said. “We can’t afford it anymore. We have to pay for food. We have to pay for rent,” Mirrie recalled them saying.
To make sure classes could continue, the school started a GoFundMe campaign, the Black Youths Matter Bursary Fund, and within one week it raised $5,000, which offered some families a sense of relief.
Now, using funds from a recent grant of $100,000, Mirrie hopes the school can extend its reach to youth across Canada. The money was from the Canadian Red Cross’s COVID-19 Emergency Support for Community Organizations Granting Program, funded by the federal government.
The school is using some of the grant money to support mental health and address isolation among youth and women, said Aisha Saintiche, a board member with Afiwi Groove School.
Afiwi Roots & Revival and Queen Edition are two series of free virtual workshops the school designed to reach both youth and women in under-served communities across Canada.
The funding, Saintiche pointed out, has not only allowed the group to stay connected with the community, but also broaden its scope beyond the Greater Toronto Area to provinces across the country.
As a parent with two daughters, Saintiche can attest to the power of the school’s programming, calling it “refreshing” and “powerful.”
“I think it’s so important that our children understand, you know, where they come from, their history,” she said.
Connecting to heritage and roots
As a white mother, Jackie Gillard encourages her adopted daughter, Nonjabula, to embrace her birth culture and to know as much as possible about it.
At Afiwi Groove School, Gillard said she knew Nonjabula, who was born in South Africa, would make great friendships and the classes would provide her with strong role models and a sense of belonging.
“We want her to have pride in her identity and part of her identity includes being a Black woman and having that connection to the African and even Caribbean dance and drumming,” said Gillard.
Nonjabula says the drumming makes her feel alive.
“It’s so much fun just being at the school and having so many other kids that look alike to me and understand what it’s like to be Black,” Nonjabula said.
“It’s just amazing having the same connection with them.”
‘Thank you so much for not giving up on the community’
Mirrie plans to compensate for the impact COVID-19 has had on her community by continuing to stream classes live for as long as she can from the rented space she uses at the Ajax Dance Company.
“We’re hearing, ‘Thank you so much for not giving up on the community.’ We are hearing, ‘Oh, my gosh, my kids really needed this. I really need this,'” said Mirrie.
“I’m hoping that after COVID-19, if we can get some more funding, eventually we can have a place that we can call our home, where the kids can walk in and see themselves on the wall and just know that this is home for them.”
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.