People in Houston’s conscious community refer to Sundiata (pronounced soon-jah-ta) Shango as “Baba,” a term in African nations that means both “father” and someone worthy of great respect. Baba Sundiata is both of those things: a proud husband and father, and a “community Father” worthy of all the accolades individuals shower upon him because of his longtime role as an educator, mentor and leader at SEHAH.
For those who may not know, SEHAH Youth and Fitness Center, was founded by Sundiata’s parents — both community legends in their own right. When Sundiata’s father, known to the community as Baba Shango, passed away, leadership of SEHAH passed on to Sundiata.
Historically, most organizations of any type – business, community, non-profits, etc. – fail to successfully carry on after the death of their founder. Regardless of the race of the founder, when that person transitions, very few organizations have the wherewithal to survive.
Thus, it is a credit to the person Baba Sundiata is because SEHAH has not only survived, it has continued to thrive.
The Defender spoke with this dynamic, spirited and talented community change agent and martial arts/survivalist expert about SEHAH and its programs, and about Sundiata, himself.
DEFENDER: For those who don’t know, what is SEHAH?
SUNDIATA: SEHAH was established in ‘92 to reach the community, far and wide, initially for self-defense and self-esteem. We didn’t start off with the homeschooling projects and cooperatives like we have now. But for self-defense and self-esteem. So, all of our programs are geared to the building of self-esteem in our youth and families through survival, education, health and African history, which is the acronym for SEHAH. And self-esteem goes onto to many virtues and avenues. But it is the love of the self, the progression of self. And with that, being able to extend it onto others. Being able to teach it unto others. Make sure that what you have, your brother has; what I want for my brother, I want for myself; what I want for my sister, I want for myself.
DEFENDER: What are your roles at SEHAH?
SUNDIATA: I am currently the head technical advisor for our martial arts program at SEHAH. Also in our homeschooling cooperative, I am the lead instructor.
DEFENDER: You mentioned martial arts and homeschooling. Are there any other programs that come out of SEHAH? I know you do international trips.
SUNDIATA: We started traveling as a community center internationally about 15 years ago. You name it, we’ve been there: Ethiopia, Kemet (Egypt), Nigeria (Yuroba), Ghana, Senegal, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, South Africa. From the top to the bottom. And currently, with our homeschooling, we actually have some national travel. With the few that we do have, we travel throughout the states to experience the different cultures and make the learning experience tangible. That’s what the trips are about. It’s about making your learning experience of the culture or academia, whatever that may be, even labor, or whatever, making it tangible.
Another big thing that ties directly back to not only the self-esteem, but the building of the survival—of course, education, health, African history—is the traveling. In our community, especially, our youth are deprived of that traveling experience. Being able to open their minds up to even get outside of their neighborhoods, you know? It’s so divided, a lot of them are afraid to even go to the next neighborhood over. And if not afraid, just have no desire to; no desire to expand.
DEFENDER: Can you say a little more about yourself?
SUNDIATA: My name is Sundiata Shango. I am one of the children of Salida Marquette Wells and Mwalimu Baba Shango, the founders of SEHAH Youth and Fitness Center, established in 1992. And we’ve been going strong ever since. I am currently the head technical advisor for our martial arts program at SEHAH. Also in our homeschooling cooperative, I am the lead instructor. I’ve been training, myself, close to three decades. I’ve been teaching for a decade; both academic studies and the self-defense sciences. I have a wife, beautiful children, much, much family, and I’m about defense, safety and progression. My mother and father, they are the founders of the organization, and I am following in their footsteps in the sense of keeping the traditions, the culture, the mission and the purpose live and direct.
DEFENDER: What does your name mean?
SUNDIATA: “Sundiata” means “lion King.” It comes from the Mande traditions. It has, of course, been colonialized by the French. But, nevertheless, it means lion King. Now, “Shango” is of Yuroba. This represents not only the “god of lightning and thunder,” but on an energetical sense, strategy, passion, justice, righteousness and the undying fight for righteousness.
DEFENDER: What’s been the biggest challenge of taking over the lead position for SEHAH after your father passed?
SUNDIATA: I would say, with this work period, with schooling, teaching a larger group of kids on a consistent basis, community works, the biggest, deepest ambition for me is to maintain the drive, not the discipline necessarily, but the drive, the “want” it do it. We know what we need. But actually wanting to do it, the drive, liking it, loving it, making sure that what I’m doing, in the progression is still something that I love. Making sure that it’s genuine, in a sense. Now, that’s not to say, you just out here, in front of people faking it. But we all know that with the times, just with family alone, not even outside in the extended world, it’s still life. You still have to manage every compartment. When my parents passed, it wasn’t just taking on the role of SEHAH and keeping that going. But like I said, I’m a father. I’m a husband. I have to keep my home stable, protected, safe, happy; and the center and the community. Finding the balance, man. It’s just about that balance. I think that’s one of the biggest things that’s kept me afloat.
DEFENDER: What is your absolute, most favorite thing you do on any given week?
SUNDIATA: I’m definitely going to say, dance . With our martial art, it’s dance-based, it’s rhythm-based. Everything is movement. But, I would still say dancing, actually. That’s peace of mind for me. Getting funky, like Rerun on “What’s Happening.”
DEFENDER: What does SEHAH have going on this summer and fall?
SUNDIATA: Currently, we still have a small group of homeschoolers that we deal with. And we have two more trips planned for the homeschool year. And, that’s just with the homeschool cadre. It’s a tangible tour to Arizona and New Mexico. That’s gonna be for a week. Of course, we’ll explore the Grand Canyon and some historical areas across New Mexico and Arizona. And then California, which we’ll also be doing the same thing. We have a few families, one family in Arizona, and then we have a few families in California, that we’ll also collaborate with once we get down there. Most of our travel, other than the academia and the historical pieces to it, is actually stuff like hiking; the adventurous part of traveling. This past January we were in Colorado. The youngest kids are like five-years-old in the group. We hiked to the top of a snow mountain and came down.
We also have this summer, another Africa trip, and we’re doing three countries this year: Ethiopia, Tanzania and Kenya. That trip will be from August 1 – 15. That’s basically an East Africa tour to get a glimpse of each three of those countries. We’ll also have our annual summer program, and this will happen before the trip. It’s from around the first week of June to the last week of July. It’s an eight-week program, and that’s annual. We do plenty of bike riding, martial arts, gymnastics, swimming, even board games like chess. We keep chess alive, We do hikes and different field trips. At the end of the year, when our school year picks back up, we have one more trip planned for this year for the homeschoolers. That’ll be Oregon for four days.
DEFENDER: With all the travel and programs, are you a billionaire or does SEHAH accept financial support?
SUNDIATA: Yes, most definitely (re: accepting financial support). Now, I will say, I’m not a billionaire yet, but it is coming. But on the serious side, I, myself, the parents involved in the program and anybody that’s going on the trips, we are paying for it, out of pocket. We all work hard, and earned the trips. We are open to the funding. And in the past, we’ve had donors. People donate to our Africa trips, specifically. As a matter of fact, for the Colorado trip, we had a big donor. Shout out to Erin Richards. She donated about $500 to this Colorado trip to make sure that the kids had their protective gear and were nice and warm out there. We are definitely open to business donors, corporations, individuals.
DEFENDER: Rapid fire. Were you born in Houston?
SUNDIATA: Yes. I was born in the house that I still have to this day; my father’s house.
DEFENDER: Favorite eatery in Houston?
SUNDIATA: I don’t really go out to eat. I don’t know any places.
DEFENDER: So, the crib is the favorite eatery?
DEFENDER: What are you listening to musically these days?
SUNDIATA: Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of upbeat, instrumental music.
DEFENDER: Are you reading anything interesting these days?
SUNDIATA: Actually, yes. It’s called, “Djed.” I haven’t started yet. It was a gift that I received on my birthday. I’m looking to start that. The last book that I read was actually “Spiritual Warriors Are Healers.” That’s a book that you can constantly go back to.
DEFENDER: Do you have a mantra or words that order your steps on a daily basis?
SUNDIATA: Yes. I’m telling the kids this all day: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” We say it in a couple different variations. Another way is “treat others how you want to be treated.” And I explain to the children here that I deal with that, that’s one of the ways that you can become closest to God, or that you be God. You know how people always saying, “Yeah, I’m God.” But, when we’re talking about spirituality and God, we’re talking about treating others how we want to be treated, at the end of the day. Balance and reciprocity. I definitely am on that every day.
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