From her waist-length dreadlocks and vibrant African garments to her djembe drum and powerful dance moves, Omelika (pronounced O-may-lee-kah) Kuumba,C’81, is undeniably one of the most visible alumnae on the Spelman College campus. An African dance instructor in the Spelman College department of drama and dance since 1998, Kuumba is also the face and founding member of Giwayen Mata, a dynamic, show-stopping, all-female percussion ensemble.
For Kuumba, it’s all in a day’s work at her beloved alma mater. Dressed in a navy and maroon African wrapper with lace overlay and a yellow head tie, Kuumba is a striking, yet humble woman whose commitment to Spelman remains unwavering.
“For me, Spelman is hallowed ground,” said Kuumba, whose mother, grandmother, four great-aunts and several cousins attended Spelman. “My grandparents and parents met here, so Spelman will always hold a very special place in my heart. In so many ways, Spelman has been a blessing to me. I feel like I have to be a blessing as well.”
Born and raised Avis Bynum in Brooklyn, N.Y., Kuumba says she never intended to attend Spelman. Her heart was set on Howard University, but fate intervened. Theresa Chandler, a Spelman recruiter, spoke at a New York Spelman Alumnae Association event and made a presentation that ultimately changed Kuumba’s life.
“After she made that presentation, I was hooked,” she said, smiling at the thought. “She talked about the sisterhood, Spelman being a safe space for women, the camaraderie, and the empowering experiences of trailblazing women. It was really moving.”
It wasn’t long before Kuumba was immersed in the Spelman sisterhood experience. She became sophomore class president, vice president of the Spelman Student Government Association, Miss Maroon and White, and a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority.
Despite her involvement in campus life, Kuumba decided to take a year off to “find” herself. Returning to Spelman with a renewed commitment to seek out more meaning in life; she graduated with a degree in philosophy.
“I was questioning life and trying to decide what I really wanted to do,” said Kuumba, who originally planned to major in biology and become a veterinarian. To embrace her true self, she changed her name in 1983 to Omelika, which means “light and soul of the omnipresent mother” in Nigerian. “I entered Spelman thinking I was going to do one thing, but after a lot of prayer, tears and meditation, I found that being a veterinarian was not my calling. It wasn’t until I started dancing and drumming that I realized this is what I’m supposed to be doing. Now it’s my livelihood and a career.”
Kuumba’s journey to being a performance artist began in the early 1980s, following stints as a seamstress, singer and sales clerk. After starting a family, she began working as a school volunteer and later as a substitute teacher. Inspired by another mom who danced, she enrolled in a free, six-week dance class that ultimately led to an invitation to join Faiza Dance Theater, a local dance troupe, in 1990. Soon after, she became assistant artistic director with the Barefoot Ballet Children’s Dance Ensemble.
In 1993, Kuumba put the percussion skills she learned as a child to good use when she co-founded Giwayen Mata, a Nigerian term for “elephant women.” In 2005, she became the director of Ashietu dance ministry, the Sisters Chapel African dance ministry, and in 2008, she and Giwayen Mata members took to the national stage, wowing judges on the hit show, “America’s Got Talent.” The group made it through the first round of eliminations but withdrew from the competition because of a performance scheduling conflict.
“It’s been a blessed journey, and one that I don’t take for granted in any form or fashion,” said Kuumba, who’s also an adjunct ethnic dance instructor at Emory University. “At Spelman, I feel like I’m home. This has been a place of growth, and I’m grateful. I really, really give thanks. I hope my ancestors are pleased with what I’m doing here.” – Alicia Lurry is senior communications specialist and editor of the Spelman Connection for the Office of Communications.