Multiculturalism is a two-way street


Juan Pedrazza

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Multiculturalism is a two-way street

It's never a question of violence and victims, but rather survival and success.

For Amoussa Koriko, a University of North Dakota language instructor and playwright, that's a core philosophy for life and art. A native of the embattled West African country of Togo, Koriko lives with a big smile and a hopeful attitude.

He says positive energy can do more for the victims of Africa's post-colonial history of revolutions, uprisings and wars than "victimology"—and he uses his literary works and plays to convey that message.

The positive attitude comes naturally to Koriko, who puts it all together in his impressive catalog of writing, including a recent play, L'ombre d'une nuit (The Shadow of One Night), published by Harmattan in Paris.

Koriko, who laughs easily about life, including the cultural misunderstandings he's observed, says that's why he wants to share his culture with others and learn more about the culture he's living in, mostly through his plays and performances.

Koriko teaches beginning French in the UND Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures, classes in which he blends grammar and spelling with vignettes about the cultures of Togo and other French-speaking West African nations. This fall, he's also teaching a West African culture class through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at UND.

Multiculturalism is much more than a "politically correct" word for Koriko, who came to Fargo, N.D., under a lottery visa program in 2004, and since being here, founded the "African Arts Arena" in Grand Forks to share African arts and cultures through presentations in schools and in the community.

"Oh, yes, it's a way of life for me," said Koriko, who grew up speaking French—the colonial language—and several tribal languages and dialects. "After sharing my story in plays under a pseudonym in Togo—we had to be careful about what we said under the Togo regime—I was fortunate to go to France to study and work in the government-supported French National Theater. There, I could confidently sign my own name to my own work, as I can here.

"When I was growing up in the suburb of Lomé, the capital city of Togo, there were people from all over the region, including English-speaking Ghana—it was very multicultural. It was easy for us growing up there to pick up three, four or more cultures and languages. As youngsters, elders from many cultures would ask us in their own language to get water for them or whatever—and we were able to quickly sort out their meaning. We didn't learn every language fluently, but we sure understood them."

Clearly, Africa's recent history directly impacts Koriko's plays and other writings.

At the 2011 UND Writers Conference—titled "(Inter)national Affairs"—he spoke about his writing experiences. Also, in March, his play Night Shadow was performed at Fire Hall Theatre in Grand Forks as part of the 2012 Writers Conference line-up. Night Shadow haunts the audience with poetic voices from a warring culture in Africa. The story is about two people sitting on a beach and possessing a bond of having suffered through genocide and other atrocities.

Koriko is also a director, actor, percussionist and African traditional dancer. He has had most of his theater experience working with directors from Africa, Europe and the United States. He has taught Togolese tribal dance at North Dakota State, Minnesota State University-Moorhead and La Comédie de Saint-Etienne in France. In 2009, he was nominated for the Grand Prix Afrique du Thèâtre Francophone. He has founded a theater company called "Theatre Assassan du Togo," where he trains young people in theatre arts.

Religious multiculturalism also is natural for Koriko.

"Yes, I had a three-in-one religious upbringing—I was born Muslim, went to a Catholic school and had a grandmother who was a traditional priest," Koriko said.

Koriko has been writing, directing and producing plays for 10 years, including theater productions at NDSU, where he immersed himself in the English language and got a degree in Theater Arts and French.

"In my courses, including what I'm doing for OLLI @ UND this fall, my intention is to integrate what we learn as new Americans with helping people here to understand where we're coming from," said Koriko, who holds a master's degree in linguistics and communication. "I believe that understanding goes both ways—it's not just about us as new American understanding American cultures, it's about sharing our cultures with Americans, helping people here understand new Americans."

Koriko's teaching and learning initiatives, whether they're teaching French in the classroom to undergraduates or inspiring an audience through his plays, embrace diversity, understanding and fellowship – a key tenet for an "Exceptional UND."

For Koriko, his literary output is all about delivering an innovative cultural perspective to audiences, whether on or off campus. And the beauty of his theatrical works is that they meaningfully reflect on the human experience.

"That is why I write plays," Koriko said.

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