Nontsizi Cayou, a force in the development of African diaspora culture in the Bay Area, has died at the age of 82.
Born Delores Kirton on May 19, 1937, in New Orleans La., she moved with her family to Oakland, Ca.
She had an almost insatiable appetite for education, obtaining Bachelor’s and Masters’ degrees in Spanish and Dance in the early 1960s. By 1963, she was teaching jazz dance at her alma mater, San Francisco State University and began to pursue an interest in African-derived dance and culture.
A dance student of the late Ruth Beckford, she performed professionally in many dance theaters, musical revues and dance ensembles throughout the United States, eventually founding her own ensemble of dancers, poets and musicians in 1969, which she called Wajumbe.
A Kiswahili word that means ‘people with a message,’ the group Wajumbe was anchored in Cayou’s Project ACE, an Academic and Cultural Enrichment program for under-served children in San Francisco.
As Cayou mastered more dance forms—Haitian, Afro-Cuban and Afro-Jazz, she taught master classes throughout California, and Wajumbe came to represent the vanguard of the Black Arts Movement on the West Coast.
Unabashed in openly seeking, embracing and claiming her African heritage, Cayou led Wajumbe in appearing in the 2nd annual World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1977.
Four years later, she took a 21-person group on a five-state tour of Nigeria, culminating in a performance before the foremost king of the Yoruba people, the Ooni of Ile Ife.
Cayou was renowned for instituting an annual celebration of the Kwanzaa principle, Nia (purpose), at the San Francisco Center for African and African American Art and Culture that emphasized presentations by youth and children.
In the same manner, she hosted or presented Black History Month celebrations and programs at SFAAAC or at Cowell Theater at Fort Mason, bringing in international acts like the ONE steel drum band from Trinidad/Tobago; ‘Flash in the Sun’ from the University of Ibadan in Nigeria and jazz sessions by saxophonists John Handy and David Hardiman.
In 1986, Cayou hosted a 45-member ensemble from Nigeria as part of a cultural exchange program with the production of ORI at the Herbst Theater, opening doors between African and the U.S. in unique ways.
In the early 1990s, she brought the World Dance Festival to San Francisco and it was held at SFSU and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
Her unflagging interest and dedication to African spirituality was evident in organizing the 5th World Congress of Orisha Tradition and Culture in San Francisco in 1997. Practitioners from the motherland, Brazil, Cuba, Puerto Rico and all over the United States attended the 10-day conference.
Cayou was also known for her sense of social justice and was instrumental in helping SFSU maintain its standing as a center for ethnic and cultural studies.
After retiring from her position as chair of the Dance Department at SFSU, she continued her quest to raise consciousness over all things African through the African American Institute and the African Trade Center.
She was an avid devotee of African spirituality and was initiated into the mysteries of Obatala in Osogbo, Nigeria, in 1977. Cayou was known for organizing initiations and ceremonies in the Bay Area and even as her health declined, she went to events resplendent in white clothing, covering every visible area of her black wheelchair with white cloth or paint. She passed away on Oct. 3, 2019.
She was so beloved by Baba Ifayemi Elebulban, that he traveled from Nigeria to attend her final services.
A solemn celebration of life will be on Friday, Oct. 18, 2019, from 11:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Seventh Avenue Missionary Baptist Church at 1740 Seventh Ave., in Oakland. Interment will follow at Rolling Hills Cemetery in Richmond and mourners will return to the church for a repast.
An Orisha Cultural Tribute will take place at the Greenlining Institute, 360 14th St., from 6:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.