Photograph by Trinity Graham
For almost 30 years, students have come to Mama Washington’s dance room to seek community, comfort, and an opportunity to express themselves through the rhythms and dances of West Africa.
Naomi Washington Diouf, known at Berkeley High School (BHS) as “Mama” Washington has been an African American Studies Department (AFAM) dance teacher since 1991. Her nickname is well deserved, as she acts as an inspiration, leader, and support system for many students. Washington arrived at BHS after being requested by Robert McKnight, the AFAM department chair at the time. Since then, she has been working to keep the AFAM department alive and successful by teaching African derived dance to hundreds of students each year.
Washington has greatly impacted the department. She continuously puts in the work to keep the department going, enabling it to continue to provide history and culture to many students after Washington is gone. Over the course of her time at BHS, Washington explained, “As an artist and a teacher, I have been able to grow, and that has taken me each year to a different level.” Washington has nurtured a strong community at BHS, and can’t see herself anywhere else.
Many of Washington’s students admire her liveliness and passion after many years of dancing and teaching. “It’s keeping me young!” she said. Washington leads Berkeley High School classes for at least five hours every day, and directs the Diamano Coura West African Dance Company, which she founded in 1975 with her husband, Zak “Papa” Diouf.
Washington’s passion for dance is infectious, and spreads to the students in her classroom, many of whom have never danced before joining the class. “If I could take my body and my mind and put it within their body and mind just so they could realize the force of that passion, I would do it,” Washington said.
While she hears many people complain about their jobs on a daily basis, Washington couldn’t disagree more, and enjoys every day she spends at Berkeley High. “I love my job!” she said. Washington feels renewed by passing on her passion to the next generation, which to Washington is the greatest reward she could possibly ask for.
One student who has been lucky enough to experience Washington’s magic for four years is Nicole Bordeaux, a senior in Independent Studies. “I feel so comfortable in this space, and that’s really her doing,” said Bordeaux. Washington has a way of lighting up any room she walks into, and “her instinct is to treat everyone like family,” Bordeaux added. Bordeaux admires that Washington “gives so much to every single thing she takes on, and never shows she’s tired.”
The Afro Hatian dance class draws students of many cultures and ethnicities, some who come to learn more about their own culture, and some who want to experience something completely different than what they’re used to. “Having the chance to be in such a diverse community and really learn about other people’s backgrounds and perspectives has definitely broadened my world view,” Bordeaux explained.
Washington plans to retire after this school year, but promises to visit. “Of course I’ll come and check in,” she said. “I’ll always be accessible; only a phone call away.”
Washington wants to continue her artistic dreams and ambitions, as well as be a passionate advocate for African diaspora arts and artists. She will be deeply missed by the hundreds of students whose lives she has touched, but after decades of teaching at Berkeley High, Washington is “ready to transition into a different life.”