PLEASANTON -- When Catherine Ndungu-Case found herself the mother of twins, she wondered how she could pass on her beloved Kenyan heritage to her children in a meaningful way.

The Pleasanton woman found the answer in some things children love most -- music and play. Today, the Cheza Nami group she and friends founded brings the rhythms, stories and dance of Africa to children and their families around the Bay Area.

"It has become more than just dance and movement," Ndungu-Case said. "It's more about a passion for that part of the world. Our approach is to introduce the culture to people who may not have a chance to know about it, or those with no access to be a part of it."

Cheza Nami, which is Swahili for "Come play with me," began in 2009 as a play-based program at the Habitot Children's Museum in Berkeley. That small cultural arts program soon ballooned to include not just young children, but their families and the larger community. Last year, Ndungu-Case and others involved in the group decided to expand again.

"We found a need in the Tri-Valley area," she said. "There is not a lot of diverse cultural programming here. We thought, 'Why not start from home and make this for the community?' I'm African, and we wanted to be able to contribute our culture to the larger community. We want to give a little of who we are."

Today, the Pleasanton-based nonprofit group brings African drumming, dance and music to school assemblies, early childhood programs, library events and other community-based organizations. Many of the programs are free; others charge a fee, with proceeds plowed back into providing more free presentations.

Audience members are able to interact with the performances, sometimes donning African clothing and trying out drums and other musical instruments.

"For me the original goal was to have my children be able to see what Kenyan culture is about," Ndungu-Case said. "It's everybody being a part of whatever activity the community is involved in -- that's what African culture is about. It's more than entertainment."

In addition to performances, Cheza Nami has undertaken fundraising projects. The group's presentation at Orion Alternative School in Redwood City in March kicked off a school walk-a-thon that raised $4,000 to buy school uniforms for students in Kenya and Tanzania.

Ndungu-Case said she hopes to keep their community programs going, in part, with tax-deductible donations from individuals and local businesses. Those funds will be used to buy new instruments, repair damaged ones and to keep the music playing.

"We welcome people of all cultures to share this with us," she said. "When I came to America, it really was wonderful for me to learn about other people and cultures. I think I'm a different person for it. I feel as if I'm a member of the community if I, in turn, share my background."

cheza nami events
Pleasanton: Free African drumming and percussion instruments performance, 2 p.m. Sunday at the Pleasanton Library, 400 Bernal Ave.
Livermore: African dance and drumming workshops for all ages and skill levels, July 7 and Aug. 4 at Las Positas College. 3033 Collier Canyon Road. Drum workshops are 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. both days; dance workshops will be held 1:30 to 3 p.m. on both dates. Both will be held in classrooms adjacent to the outdoor performing arts center. The cost for each workshop is $89. A free children's drum/dance workshop will be the same days from noon to 12:30 p.m.
Details: For information or to register for workshops visit http://chezanami.org/cheza-nami-brings-african-culture-to-las-positas-college-this-summer/