Just as craft and food vendors were starting to wait on visitors at the 17th annual Umoja Festival Friday, the chairs in the gazebo area between East Main and East Market streets were quickly being claimed, as many festivalgoers took a break in the shade to listen to some stories.
Dr. Joseph Sobol, along with colleagues and students from the East Tennessee State University Storytelling Program kicked off another year at the festival with music and a variety of personal stories from student and professional storytellers.
One of the first tellers to present on the gazebo stage Friday was Carolina Quiroga, a master’s student in the storytelling program at ETSU.
Originally from Colombia, Quiroga told a personal and entertaining tale centering around finishing up her master’s program and talking with her parents, who still reside in her home country.
She said afterward that inspiration for her stories comes from readings and personal experiences.
“I like to read a lot and sometimes I mark the stories that I read,” Quiroga said. “When I’m working like with personal stories, I like to frame it with a little bit of ... stories that I read — fairy tales or folktales — because I do believe that our life is shaped a lot ... from those tales. I kind of enjoy feeling that my life is part of a fairy tale or a folktale.”
She said the tellers had a great audience Friday and said she thinks the storytelling program at the festival is growing.
“I do believe that people here in this part of the country and this part of the world actually do enjoy listening and hearing stories and they enjoy telling stories too, which is something that you don’t find ... everywhere,” Quiroga said. “This part of the world is not exactly very ... diverse, but the fact that you have a festival in which you bring some diversity to it, actually shows that you ... want to be diverse, that you actually understand that there are other languages and cultures here gathering for some purpose.”
“It could be just working, it could just be having fun, but ... everybody came here for the purpose of just sharing their story,” she said.
Handing out coloring books, decals and journals, Dave Doughty from Operation Lifesaver was at the Norfolk Southern Railroad exhibit Friday, educating festivalgoers on railroad safety.
“We’re out here today to get our message out as far as railroad safety, because we know Johnson City has two railroads that go through town and we don’t want the people playing on the railroad tracks or messing around out here,” Doughty said. “There’s a lot of people that just don’t realize how dangerous it is out here or how much they can get fined if they get caught. It’s a huge fine. The ultimate cost is your life.”
The journals distributed to festival visitors contained railroad safety tips in the front cover. Some of the tips included never try to race a train, never walk on the tracks and always expect a train when walking or driving over the tracks.
Johnson City resident Hayley Baldwin and Faith Lovelace were also at the festival Friday afternoon, checking out the merchandise vendors on Main Street.
“I’ve never been here,” Baldwin said. “I’m super excited.”
Lovelace said she was excited to see the Umoja parade, which is scheduled to start at 10 a.m. today.
“We’re going to try to get out early and figure out a place to park, so I can get to see the whole thing. I didn’t get to see that last year,” Lovelace said.
She said the Umoja Festival gives “people a reason ... to come out and do something. I know a lot of people will come out downtown to eat and stuff like that, but it gives them a reason to come out and invite their friends.”
Festival committee member Erma Smith, in charge of the Umoja store, said the festival was off to a good start Friday.
“Everybody seems to be enjoying themselves,” Smith said. “Hopefully, we’ll have a good night and tomorrow will be a better one too. I’m just enjoying everybody coming out and enjoying themselves.”
According to a Umoja news release, the Children’s Carnival will be held today from 2-8 p.m. with lots of activities for the younger festivalgoers. The Umoja Car Show will also be held from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. in the parking lot bordered by West Market, West Main, Windsor Way and Commerce Street.
Main Stage headliners tonight will be Lakeside, followed by a closing ceremony, according to the release.
For more information, visit the Umoja Festival website at www.umojajc.org.