Dhananji Rathnayake | Photos by Mark Mattos
Lighting the darkness
Early winter ushers in Maine’s shortest days and longest nights, but the darkness of winter is punctuated by countless points of light.
Diwali in Maine
November 18, over 350 people of Indian heritage gathered at the Wentworth School in Scarborough for the Indian Association of Maine’s annual celebration of Diwali (or Deepavali, a regional variation of the Sanskrit word). Diwali is a major religious festival observed in Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism. In Hinduism, the holiday celebrates the victory of light over darkness, or good over evil. During the festival, on the night of the new moon, diyas (small oil-filled earthenware lamps) are lit and placed in rows along the parapets of temples and houses, and also set adrift on rivers and streams.
Priya Natarajan, president of IAM, estimates that there are 2,000 people of Indian heritage living in Maine. She said that Indians like to gather to celebrate cultural events, hoping especially to share important and beautiful occasions like Diwali with their children. The Diwali party featured traditional dance performances, colorful clothing, music, and a diverse array of foods. Diwali is generally a time for visiting, exchanging gifts, wearing new clothes, feasting, feeding the poor, and setting off fireworks.
Indigo Arts Alliance
Indigo Arts Alliance held its annual holiday season pop-up showcase featuring work by Black and Brown artists. On December 1, Signature Soul took the floor. The duo is known for their work fusing spoken word, music, and art. On December 2, Samaa Abdurraqib, accompanied by other poets, read their work from Abdurraqib’s latest poetry collection, From Root to Seed, which highlighted the voices of Black, Brown, and Indigenous poets with deep connections to the natural world in the Northeastern United States. On December 3, Soulful Sessions featured Suzie Assam, VIVA, and Kouchera, offering a moving jazz and R&B performance.
On December 22, children at a shelter hotel managed by Catholic Charities of Maine gathered in a common area for a party and gift distribution hosted by a group of organizations in the Camden-Rockland-Thomaston area. The groups included Connecting Across Cultures, The Riley School, the Intercultural Club of Camden Hills Regional High School, Our Lady of Good Hope Church, and Thomaston Assembly of God. The party was held for the first time in 2022 and has quickly become an annual event that demonstrates the ability of rural areas to help those in need in other areas of the state. Most of the parents and children who attended the party were from Angola, Congo Brazzaville, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, and Togo.
An asylum seeker from Congo Brazzaville, who originally lived in hotels in Cumberland County during her first year in Maine and then moved out of the city to a more rural part of the state, came up with the idea of the toy drive and party. She wanted to help families who were living through the same difficult times as she had. At the party, speaking in French, she welcomed the hotel residents to Maine, expressed her compassion for those still in the shelter system, and encouraged the adults to hold onto hope for the future. “There are people who love you here,” she said. Interpreters from Catholic Charities shared her sentiments in Haitian Creole, Lingala, and Portuguese. The pastor of her rural church attended the event with his family.
Manuel, a parent from Angola, said: “This is a good event for my kids. They like to get gifts. This is the festival season. They enjoy this. Thank you all. We live in a very small space. Small room. My family is five people. My last baby was born here. My children eat on the floor. This is a sad life. We know this is temporary, but more than one year we live in here and we are still searching for a place to move with my family. It’s a challenge.”
Dieudonne, from the DR Congo, who has been in Maine for nearly nine months, shared his thoughts: “I have three children. They are still small. I don’t have money to get toys or new clothes for my kids. Here, they are very happy with their gifts.”
The hotel shelter, supported by Maine Housing and Catholic Charities, serves as a transitional housing solution for asylum seekers. The holiday celebration brightened the spirits of the asylum seeker families, as well as the staff who work so hard to help them.
On December 16, the Portland Public Library hosted a pre-Kwanzaa celebration, complete with crafts, storytelling, and snacks. Kwanzaa is an annual celebration created by Dr. Maulana Karenga during the 1960s. Kwanzaa greetings are in Swahili. The celebration is inspired by African cultures and takes place over seven days. The event at the library was organized by Athena Lynch.