Bantu art is a family affair for Calabasas resident Marianne Bema and her children, who enjoy sharing their vibrant Central African culture with others.
A single mother of four who grew up in Cameroon and lived in Europe before she and her family came to the U.S. in 2012, Bema said she strives to give her children the best opportunities she can while making a positive mark on the world, one art project at a time.
“I had to overcome issues without having to complain or feel sorry for myself,” said Bema, who speaks English, German and French as well as several native African dialects.
She is committed to promoting women’s and children’s causes and understanding among cultures.
While living in Germany for 18 years, she said, she used her language skills and knowledge of local customs to help other African women who had immigrated to the country gain their independence and accustom themselves to their new surroundings.
Today, Bema is pursuing a new cultural enrichment venture that offers educational programs with a global perspective to children.
The idea was born about two years ago when she began to volunteer in her youngest son’s classroom at Lupin Hills Elementary School. She organized art projects coupled with dancing, singing and finger food so the students could sample the tastes and sounds of her homeland.
This led her to create a small business called Bantu Arts Atelier For Kids, which she hopes to turn into a nonprofit so she can offer educational programs to more children in the community through schools and other venues.
The activities include arts and crafts, storytelling, singing and dancing.
Recently Bema and her sons, William, 16; Harold and Lloyd, 12; and Morgan, 8; and her niece Natacha Njouonang, 16, worked together to bring the Bantu culture to life for children at the Calabasas Earth Day Festival, where Bema’s business had a booth.
She also recently offered workshops at the Agoura Youth Basketball Association’s team party and at Kids World entertainment center in Oak Park.
The Bantu people comprise various tribes that stretch from Cameroon in Central Africa to South Africa who speak many different languages, including Zulu, Xhosa and Swahili.
Bema and her family often work together to offer Bantu arts and crafts workshops.
“To me, Bantu art is a family thing. Everyone gets together to do activities,” said Natacha, a sophomore at Calabasas High School.
“Bantu Arts Atelier shows all the cultures inside the art and brings together all types of people,” said William, a junior at the school. “It also shows how everything can work together to make something.”
Bema, who has also spent time in Gabon, France and Belgium, said working as a boarding agent at the Frankfurt airport allowed her to learn about and appreciate all cultures, something she shares with her children, who also speak English, German and French.
She said the mothers in Calabasas have welcomed her and her sons and niece with open arms, and this inspired her to develop a program that would promote cultural exchange here.
“She’s so enthusiastic about teaching the students,” said Lori Kurzeja, a second-grade teacher at Lupin Hill. “She really wants them to experience things with hands-on activities so they can create something based on what they’ve learned.”
Kurzeja said the students are excited about the lessons.
“They get to create beautiful masks and all types of art. She brings supplies for them to enjoy and also puts together PowerPoint presentations with photos. It’s fun and enriching for the kids,” the teacher said.
Bema, who recently studied interior design, said she is grateful for Kurzeja’s trust and support.
While leading activities, she talks about how children in Cameroon live. She hopes it will encourage students to get involved in community service and philanthropy.
She said many parents in remote areas of Cameroon and other developing nations can’t afford to buy toys, so children build their own with whatever materials they find. Bema said she is writing a children’s book based on that theme.