Four shirtless, black dancers rhythmically rapped poles against the Panida Theater stage. In song and dance, the men portrayed the violent racial struggle in South Africa.
A nearly all-white audience of 600 Bonner County high school students watched, mesmerized. Some students never had seen a black person in the flesh.
In fact, the performers on stage Thursday nearly outnumbered the entire black population of Bonner County.
That was partly the reason for Sibikwa’s performance - to spread cultural diversity. The South African group was brought in by the Pend Oreille Arts Council to help counter North Idaho’s reputation as a home for racists.
But at the same time Sibikwa (pronounced si-bee-kwa) was performing for students and visiting human rights groups with its message of racial equality, Aryan Nations members were planning to parade through Coeur d’Alene on Adolf Hitler’s birthday.
Unfortunately, some in the audience lamented, outsiders will only hear of and remember the Aryan Nations, not Sibikwa. The group’s name means “spoken for” in the Zulu language. It was formed about 10 years ago when it was unlawful for blacks organize without permission from the government.
“If we can get these kind of groups to Sandpoint maybe we can help change our racist image, and break down some racial barriers,” said Sally Lindeman, an Arts Council member. “We are so insulated here, but through the performing arts we can change some opinions and broaden some perspectives.”
Sandpoint’s been labeled a haven for bigots. Partly because it is home to an anti-Semitic church, former Los Angeles detective Mark Fuhrman and some white supremacists, including three who are serving life in prison for bombings and robberies in Spokane.
“We don’t have a lot of diversity in our back yard,” said Masai Jones, vice-chairman of the Bonner County Human Rights Task Force. “We have to bring in other people. It’s a way of making our world a little smaller.”
It was actually a coup to land Sibikwa in Sandpoint, a city of about 6,000 residents. The group is here for four days after stops in Miami, San Francisco and Seattle. A $4,000 grant, half from Coldwater Creek, a mail order catalog company here, helped bring in the South African performers.
Unlike their other stops, the group’s members went into the Sandpoint community to teach dance, share information about South Africa with history students and put on two shows for more than 1,500 school kids. The group performs again tonight at the Panida.
“We do it to expose our children to the world and give them a better understanding of cultural diversity, said Ginny Robideaux, executive director of the Arts Council. “There is something about music that helps us understand one another better.”
Members of Sibikwa knew nothing of North Idaho’s racist reputation. Group director Smal Ndaba said it wouldn’t have mattered. The members have faced far worse racial strife during years of segregation in South Africa.
Ndaba said it’s possible North Idaho can learn from what happened in his homeland. Problems arise when people can’t sit down and talk out their differences, he said. “There is freedom through talking. Our show can open people’s eyes,” he said.
It will take more than music to mend North Idaho’s reputation, but Lindeman said it’s a start.
“I’m sure people question why we do this,” she said. Residents questioned the Arts Council when it brought in the opera. It’s now a popular annual event.
“The Arts Council isn’t around to make money. It’s around for the community, to expose people to entertainment they could not otherwise see in this area,” she said. “It truly is about breaking down barriers.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo