By Lynette Monroe, Special to the AFRO
For many African Americans, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) serve as a place of refuge. A place to reconcile identity in a world that seeks to erase it. A place to learn history removed from textbooks. And a place to marry the complexities of their ancestry with their contemporary gifts and talents in hopes of creating a better world.
For Renee Namakau Ombaba, her intentions are the same. Zambian royalty by way of Mississippi, she was literally birthed from the HBCU experience when her Zambian mother and Kenyan father met on the campus of Jackson State University. Likewise, her commitment to HBCU education continues a six-decades long family tradition.
Her grandfather, Akabiwa Mbikusita Lewanika, son of King Lewanika I of Barotseland, received a sponsorship from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to tour the U.S. in 1959. During his trip, Lewanika recognized that African Americans play a pivotal role in advocating for the global liberation of Black people. From then on, HBCUs became of special interests to him.
He was so impressed with the predominately Black lecturers, professors, and students that one year later in 1960, Lewanika sent his first son, Arthur Mwanang’ono Mbikusita Lewanika, to pursue his higher education at Jackson State University in Mississippi. Nine of his thirteen children followed; three of those children chose to stay. Namakau’s mother was one of them. In the following decade, seven of Mbikusita Lewanika’s siblings also attended and graduated from Jackson State University. Today, Ombaba and a host of cousins all hold bachelor degrees from Jackson State University.
So, when Ombaba decided to pursue a Ph.D. in African Studies she, of course, looked to the HBCU mecca, Howard University. Using her Bachelor’s of Arts in Music from Jackson State University and her M.A. in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi she sought to merge artistry and academia. Howard University, as the first university in the United States to offer a Ph.D. in African Studies seemed to be a great fit, but funding was limited.
With faith, Ombaba began her first semester as a Ph.D. student at Howard University in the fall of 2015. She hoped to use her gift as a classical singer and African heritage to study the African influence on African American culture in the 60s and 70s. She received not a single scholarship, but was offered a remission of tuition, which meant that her on-campus job qualified her to enroll at a reduced cost. She also applied for and was awarded on-campus housing.
After a deceivingly peaceful semester, Ombaba decided to speak to the campus housing authority about her room key that hadn’t worked since the first day of school. When she brought this to their attention she was hit with a $16,000 bill without warning. Despite her efforts, Ombaba has only been able to pay little more than half the pending balance; still owing $9000. As a result, she has had to sit the last four semesters out. For anyone who has ever attended school you understand why even a short break can be detrimental to the completion of degree requirements.
Solution oriented, Ombaba has decided to use her gifts to create the reality she envisions. On November 11 at 3pm Ombaba will host a fundraising recital and networking reception at the Trinity Episcopal Church located at 7505 Piney Branch Rd. NW, Washington, D.C. 20012. She will not wait until she obtains a Ph.D. to pursue her ambition to marry artistry and academia, but she will use that ambition as the method by which she obtains her goal.
What can you expect? Ombaba is an experienced vocalist; specializing in classical music. She is a 29-year-old millennial, oozing Black girl magic that emphasizes regality and gentleness. She studies under the renowned opera singer and artistic director, Kelvin Page.
The recital is sponsored by Hales Government Solutions and in partnership with the Institute for Life-Long Learning & Workforce Innovation. All donations are tax deductible. For free tickets, visit eventbrite.com or donate directly to her PayPal paypal.me/Ombaba.