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When Guymon experienced an influx of African immigrants, the town welcomed its new residents by launching a vibrant yearly festival.
By Holly Wall
Published May/June 2016
On a hot August afternoon, the steady pound of a drum and a chorus of chanting voices rise from the brick streets of downtown Guymon. About fifty tall, thin men and women jump and dance in a circle, singing and sweating under the midafternoon sun. The women wear ankle-length, brightly patterned dresses accessorized with colorful sashes and head wraps. Some of these pieces came with the women from Africa; others were made from fabric purchased at Walmart. The men wear dress slacks and shiny shoes or white tank tops and animal-print material tied around their waists. Some wear cowboy hats and boots. They carry leafy tree branches and South Sudanese and American flags, which they wave while they dance.
For nearly thirty minutes beneath the glaring summer sun, in a town of 16,000 people in the flat, open Panhandle of Oklahoma, thousands of miles from home, they celebrate. Onlookers gather around, staring in awe, taking photos with their smartphones, clapping their hands, and swaying to the beat.
Lual is still sweating when he tells the story of how he arrived in Guymon in 2010. He’d heard about Seaboard Foods, which owns a pork-processing plant in the city offering jobs that pay well above minimum wage. His wife, Anok, came here on a fiancée visa, and the two were married at Guymon’s First Presbyterian Church in 2012. They now have three daughters, and though some Lost Boys dream of someday returning to South Sudan, Fidele and Anok call Guymon home.
“It is a beautiful place to live,” he says. “I was raised in a small village, so I wanted a small town. It will be good to me and good to my kids.”
Photo by ARLENE WINFREY
Seaboard Foods employs more than 450 Africans—from Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Zimbabwe, as well as South Sudan—in Guymon. In a town where a majority of the population is Hispanic, it was a surprise to many locals when African men began to show up more than five years ago.
“They’d be stopped on the side of the road while walking and asked for identification,” says Shannon Albert, one of the first locals to befriend some of the relocated Lost Boys. “There was one incident where cops burst into a house where some South Sudanese men were living. There had been a burglary, and the police were thinking, ‘You guys did this.’”
Albert was a realtor at the time and since has moved to South Sudan to serve as a missionary with a charitable organization she founded. She first became acquainted with Guymon’s African population through a chance meeting at Walmart. She spotted Emmanuel Akol, one of the first Lost Boys to arrive in Guymon, shopping for pants. Albert was familiar with South Sudan’s history—she had read about the Lost Boys and met people from the country—and had considered traveling there as a missionary. So after welcoming Akol to Guymon, she gave him her business card and told him she’d like to learn more about his homeland.
“I didn’t think he would call,” she says. “I thought, ‘He’s going to think I’m crazy.’ But a couple weeks later, he called.”
That initial contact was the beginning of a friendship between Albert and the town’s African community. She invited many of Guymon’s new residents to a Christmas party at her house and accompanied them to the police station, where they introduced themselves to the officers. She’s helped them with visas, citizenship applications, opening bank accounts, buying cars, and enrolling their kids in school.
Albert’s friendship with Guymon’s African immigrants was so close that when Melyn Johnson, director of Main Street Guymon, had the idea for a celebration that would introduce Guymon’s residents to their African neighbors and give them a taste of the food, music, and culture of their native countries, she immediately called Albert for help.
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Get There: Azuma: An African Celebration is 4 to 7 p.m. Sunday, August 14 at the intersection of Fifth and Main Streets in Guymon. (580) 338-6246 or mainstreetguymon.com.