Published by The Prince George’s Sentinel
The sunset beamed as men and women decked out in multicolor wrappers, grand boubous, headscarves and kufi caps exited their cars on the University of Maryland campus. They had traveled past the M-circle and up Campus Drive to reach a gateway to another continent.
Hosted by the Prince George’s County Economic Development Corporation’s Africa Trade Office, the inaugural“Gateway to Africa Gala,” promoted international trade and honored nine African business entrepreneurs Friday night in College Park.
Rep. Donna Edwards, County Executive Rushern Baker, state Sen. James Rosapepe and Benin Ambassador Cyrille Oguin delivered remarks before business leaders received achievement awards ranging from renewable energy to community service.
“Africa cannot be forgotten,” said Woman-Owned Business Award winner Margaret Dureke, of Riverdale. “The world is getting smaller and smaller every day. (It) is our marketplace and we must take care of each other.”
Dureke is the founder and president of WETATi, a service, outreach and membership organization to “challenge women to dare to achieve their impossible.” She has authored more than three books about personal and business development and helped women and girls become published authors, including her 11-year-old daughter Destiny, a student at College Park Academy.
“She’s just an all-around jack of all trades. And she’s so supportive,” WETATi founding member Kimberly Wallace Del Valle said. “It felt good to be able to stand behind her.”
Although Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown talked about creating trade relationships to compete globally, Dureke emphasized developing relationships through cooperation.
“Divide and conquer is not the answer. But, if we can come together, we are more similar in our ways than we think,” she said.
Rosapepe focused on similarities between Africa and Prince George’s County in his remarks. He pointed to a shared optimistic, entrepreneurial spirit for the 21st century, embrace of common humanity, interest in working with people across the globe and “a lot of Africans.”
More than 65 percent of the population in Prince George’s County only identified as African American or black in 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
For Brown, this connection made the “networking opportunity” more significant.
“It takes on added or special meaning to develop trade and culture relations with nations of Africa (where) our ancestors, our family had our origin,” he said of the gala.
When asked why a connection with Africa is important, Dureke, a Nigerian-born author, motivational speaker and entrepreneur, said “it wouldn’t make sense” not to care about Africa.
“To remember where you come from means that you know who you are and where you’re going,” she said.
Brown, the Harvard graduate campaigning for governor, promised to “commit” to visit Africa if he is elected governor.
While community business leaders were praised for their entrepreneurial endeavors, elected officials celebrated the ATO, an office staffed with international business specialists who aim to facilitate strategic partnerships between African and U.S. companies.
“I’m here tonight, really, to demonstrate the state’s commitment and appreciation to Prince George’s County for establishing really the only formal trade entity – the African Trade Office – between Maryland and the continent of Africa,” Brown said.
Baker, the man who touts his county as the highest income African-American majority county in America, also talked about building on the efforts of the Africa Trade Office. “We can say Prince George’s County led the way for the state of Maryland to expand and create opportunities in Africa,” he said.
“Nothing else like it here in the United States,” Edwards said of the office. “It is right here in Prince George’s County and we are going to build on it.”
The gala mirrored its host’s distinctiveness.
A West African harp lute played as guests took their seats, children entertained with an Etiliogwu-Nigerian dance performance and a drum sounded to announce each speaker.
“We could have our own traveling band here,” County Executive Rushern Baker said of the man who confronted elected officials with a drum solo before they took the center stage. Edwards smiled as she made her way to the podium, walking past the drummer after her grand drum-slamming introduction.
“Every single week, Africa is on the agenda of the congressional black caucus,” she said, addressing the room filled with vibrant formal wear. “That is not an accident, because it is a sign that, at the highest levels of this government (we) understand our connection. And I am just delighted to be able to represent Prince George’s County, so that, at the most local level, we bring that connection home.”