Artifact in Focus: Mancala Board, Cote d’Ivoire

“Who plays mancala?” Students wave their hands in the air and nod excitedly. They laugh when they hear that CCMM purchased its mancala game board at Toys-R-Us.

They rush first to the familiar game board of two rows of six holes each when they come up to the Connecting Tables. “You pick up the rocks in this hole and you spread them out over the next holes . . . ,” countless students have explained. Also at the Connecting Tables, they play confidently with the Nigerian board, “Ayo”, configured the same way, using tamarind seeds as markers.

Students are surprised to learn that mancala-type games most likely started in African countries, and have spread throughout the world. Scholars believe that the game, named mancala for the Arabic “naqala”, meaning “to move,” traveled from its points of origin in Africa along trade routes, particularly to southern Asia. Slaves brought the “oware” game with them from West African countries to North America.

CCMM’s collection of these game boards includes a folding traveling game from Ghana, where “Oware” is the national game. Another folding traveling game, Katro, comes from Madagascar and is played with polished almond shells. Filipino students are delighted to see on display their 14-hole version of mancala, “Sungka”, played with cowry seashells.  Students can compare the rough hewn 32-hole “Bao” board from Tanzania with a beautifully carved 12-hole “Oware” board from Cote d’Ivoire.

“This game is easier than chess,” says one student. “And it’s a lot of fun.”

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Festivals of Light

Around the world, there are many festivals that celebrate light as we head into the darker winter months. Here are a few that share some similarities but are different in their traditions and within their cultural contexts.


A five-day celebration that includes good food, fireworks, colored sand, and special candles and lamps, Diwali is short for Deepavali, and literally translates to “rows of lamps”. It signifies the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance, and hope over despair. Celebrated in late fall (moving the date around Mid-October – Mid-November), it is associated with Hinduism, Sikhism, and Jainism and is an official holiday in Fiji, Guyana, India, Malaysia, Mauritius, Myanmar, Nepal, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago.


The Jewish Festival of Lights remembers the rededication of the second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. This happened in the 160s BCE/BC. Observed for eight nights and days, it starts on the 25th day of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar, which may occur at any time from late November to late December in the Gregorian calendar. It is also known as the Festival of Lights and the Feast of Dedication. In fact, Hanukkah is the Jewish word for ‘dedication’.

To the left is a “hanukkia”, or Hanukkah candleholder, from our collection. It has receptacles for eight lights, one for each night. A ninth receptacle, called the servitor or shammash, is often included in the lamp as well. The hannukkia is used to perform central ritual of the eight-day Festival of Hannukah, the kindling of a lamp for each night.

Yi Peng Festival

Originating in the ancient Lanna kingdom that once ruled northern Thailand, this festival usually occurs in November in the town of Mae Jo. Thousand of lighted lanterns, called Khom Loi, are released into the sky. People make a wish a wish while releasing the lantern; the tradition is thought to carry away troubles and honor buddha.

St. Lucia Day

In this Scandinavian holiday commemorating Saint Lucia, a Christian martyr known for her service to the poor, the eldest daughter in a family dresses up as in a white robe and glowing candle-decked crown to serve her parents mulled wine and Lucia buns, a traditional sweet pastry. In Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland, Lucia is venerated in a ceremony where a girl is elected to portray Lucia.
By Claudia Gründer – Claudia Gründer, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
Wearing a white gown with a red sash and a crown of candles on her head, she walks at the head of a procession of women, each whom hold a candle. The candles symbolize the fire that refused to take St. Lucy’s life when she was sentenced to be burned. While entering the room, the women sing a song that describes the light with which Lucia overcomes the darkness. Celebrated on December 13th, which was the winter solstice in the old Julian calendar and a pagan festival of lights, it’s also known as St. Lucy Day. A special baked bun, Lussekatt made with saffron is a very popular tradition, as well.

Mid-Autumn Festival

This harvest festival, also known by other names like the Moon Festival or the Moon Cake Festival, takes place in late September to mid-October throughout Asia. It is associated with the folklore tale of the Chinese moon goddess, Chang’e and involves the tradition of family gathering and moon gazing, and mooncakes. A notable part of celebrating the holiday is the carrying of brightly lit lanterns, lighting lanterns on towers, or floating sky lanterns. Another tradition involving lanterns is to write riddles on them and have other people try to guess the answers.

Try this paper craft project to make a mid-Autumn Festival lantern string with your kids.

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Donor Spotlight: Laurie and Larry Soskin

“What do you give your 85-year-old mother for her birthday?” Larry Soskin asked. “She has everything she needs and wants. So we made a donation to CCMM in her honor. She thought it was such a good idea that now she is making donations to CCMM in honor of her friends.”

Larry and Laurie Soskin have found a variety of ways to support CCMM from its very beginning. “What CCMM does is so important. In this age of distrust, and even fear, of peoples’ differences, CCMM provides a vehicle for the student to learn that our similarities outweigh our differences,” Laurie says. In addition to making their own regular annual donation every year, the Soskins have given many contributions as presents to family and friends.

But it’s not all about the money. Laurie offered her expertise as an educator to help craft an evaluation form for students to complete. “Through CCMM’s hands-on approach, students come away with a greater respect for and understanding of our world’s various cultures.” The evaluations can be used to show that increase in knowledge.

And Larry has provided brawn on more than one occasion. Because CCMM is truly a mobile museum, all the display materials must be loaded into a van, unloaded at the school, and reloaded into the van to move to the next school. Larry laughs that he now knows more than he ever wanted to about which schools have stairs to negotiate or elevators to ride.

The Soskins are always on the lookout for people who can donate artifacts to the collection. They have shepherded several doll collections to the museum. They themselves acquire objects for the collection during their travels. Why?

Because, as Larry says, “Education and understanding always trump ignorance and prejudice.”

If you believe in our mission, please consider donating today.

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Artifact in Focus: Head Rest, China

Think about where you slept last night. You had a mattress, sheets, a blanket and your favorite pillow. Now consider exchanging your pillow for a headrest made of wood or ceramics or bamboo.

Among the oldest known headrests are those from ancient Egypt. In life, ancient Egyptians slept with their heads on pillows of wood or alabaster. Eight headrests were found in the famous Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb.

China adopted the use of ceramic headrests, first manufactured in China during the Tang dynasty (roughly 600 to 900). Ceramic headrests became popular domestic items for the well-to-do during the Ming dynasty in China (around 1350 to 1650). A guide to elegant living suggested that porcelain used to make pillows has the “power to brighten the eyes and benefit the pupils.” Moreover, the pillows could influence and guide dreams.

Students at John Muir Middle School test the Ethiopian headrest made from wood and the Indonesian headrest made from woven rattan. Almost every student thinks the woven headrest is more comfortable!

Also, in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, people used carved wooden headrests to preserve their elaborate hairstyles while sleeping. The headrests themselves can be works of art, carved with images or geometric designs. The headrests would also act as conduits to the ancestors, inviting the spirits into the sleepers’ dreams.

The headrest is a symbol of Oromo culture in Ethiopia. In the Omo Valley, men always carry their headrests whenever and wherever they move. Typically, the headrest is made of wood and has a slightly curved tray fixed on a vertical support base.

The support keeps the Omo men’s clay headdress intact. It is also said to prevent insects from entering the ears.

In Japan, during the Edo and Meiji periods (around 1600 – 1900), women, particularly courtesans, wearing complicated hairstyles would use wooden bases under their necks to keep their hair from being crushed on the sleeping surface. To train geishas to sleep on the base, sticky rice would be spread around the base. Rice stuck in her hair would be a tell-tale sign that the sleeper had put her head on the sleeping surface. Even today, wood block pillows are used in traditional Japanese bath houses for both women and men.

In addition to the Chinese ceramic headrest, CCMM maintains wooden headrests from Ethiopia and Congo and a woven rattan headrest from Indonesia. The Indonesian headrest is similar to antique Japanese woven headrests, which are more comfortable to western necks.

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Meet the Board: Murray Heltzer

It seems all too fitting to introduce you to Murray Heltzer, one of CCMM’s Board of Directors, on International Day of Charity. He has a passion for volunteering and giving back.

Murray Heltzer is a Renaissance Man, with an interest in many things: fine wine, terrific food (he is a self-described “foodie”), good books, the theater, great music, foreign travel, and now CCMM. “I knew about Connecting Cultures through the founding couple and I thought it was an organization of interest. But once I started to volunteer with CCMM and was exposed to what we do for students, I knew I wanted to participate in a more formal way. I knew I could be helpful.”

From installing and packing up the exhibition, correcting student worksheets, photographing objects for the catalog, and doing data entry, Murray has volunteered with CCMM in ways large and small. When asked 2 if he would consider serving on CCMM’s board, he responded, “I was just waiting to be asked!”

Murray has always been a part of the Los Angeles community. He, along with his wife Gail, attended Fairfax High School and UCLA. He graduated from UCLA with a degree in political science, minoring in accounting. He put his minor to work as an executive in the savings and loan industry for 20 years, and then as a consultant to savings and loans, commercial banks and FSLIC for another 10 years. In 1990, Murray turned his attention to the world of law firm administration, working for a LA-based firm for 10 years. Murray completed his career at McDermott, Will and Emery (where he worked with CCMM founder Don Goldman). During his tenure at McDermott, Murray applied his considerable talents to opening the firm’s offices in Germany, England, Italy, and China.

Volunteer work has been an important part of Murray’s life. He is a former board member of the Los Angeles Fair Housing Congress and the San Fernando Valley Fair Housing Council. Since retiring in 2012, he has served on the board for the Therapeutic Learning Center for the Blind. He also volunteers for Center Theater Group and for the Museum of Tolerance.

Murray and Gail have been married since 1964. They have a son, Jay, and a daughter, Dena.

Are you interested in volunteering with us? Click here to learn more.

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Age of Exploration: Student Adventures

Students admire the craftsmanship of a Russian matroyshka doll, deconstructing it to find the smallest.

“It smells so good in here!” students exclaimed in every class that visited the Connecting Cultures Mobile Museum program at Palms Middle School. The scents of freshly ground coffee and spices filled the air in the school’s library.

Made possible by a grant from Nissan Foundation, CCMM hosted student visits at Palms from March 30 through April 6. Nissan’s generous grant for this school year underwrote the cost of bringing this program to three additional schools: Audubon Middle School in February, Orville Wright Middle School in early May, and Daniel Webster Middle School later that month. Nissan Foundation’s mission, “to support educational programs that promote a greater appreciation and understanding of America’s diverse cultural heritage,” could have been written for CCMM.

Not only did the students have the chance to grind spices, creating their own blends, so did their parents. Over the course of two hours, during Palms’ annual Open House, a steady stream of parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, joined their Palms students to learn about the objects on display. All told, about 500 people visited CCMM that night.

Students grind spices, making fragrant blends of cumin, fennel, star anise, cloves, pepper, cinnamon, and nutmeg at Millikan Middle School (above) and Audubon Middle School (below).

This academic year, CCMM has given students the opportunity to explore one of two collections. The Commercial Connections collection invites students to consider how countries’ natural resources have led to the exchange of goods, languages, and ideas among cultures and peoples. Visitors have learned how the search for the source of pepper and cloves, for instance, changed world history. “We care about spices,” the CCMM docent told the students, “because if the Europeans had stayed home and not gone searching for pepper, they would not have launched the Age of Exploration. And we would not all be in this room today.”

The students have considered how, in places like the plains of Africa and United States, the absence of forests leads indigenous people to weave baskets in place of wood storage containers. And they have observed how the availability of wood from native forests leads to its use in everything from German cuckoo clocks to Congolese cosmetic boxes, from Mexican decorative plates to Russian dolls. The students have been entranced by the “matroishka” nesting dolls. “It can’t get smaller than that one!” the students exclaimed after the seventh doll was revealed. When the ninth doll appeared, even the students feigning disinterest were laughing. And by the time the final tiny 12th doll popped up, everyone squealed with delight.

Among the first objects that students tried out during their interactions with the connecting tables were headrests. Finding a clear space on the floor, students laid down to compare and contrast the wooden headrest from Ethiopia with the woven headrest from Indonesia. “I need this one,” students exclaimed throughout the year as they got comfortable on the Indonesian “pillow,” “especially on a hot night.”

The second collection, Everyday Connections, encourages students to walk in someone else’s shoes…literally. CCMM brought the collection, featuring traditional clothing and costume dolls, good luck charms, toys, games, and sports to 12 schools in the 2016-2017 school year.

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Donor Spotlight: Ron & Barbara Goldman

“In our current toxic and polarized environment of ethnic and racial differences, CCMM is an extraordinary program.”

In 2011, when CCMM received its IRS non-profit designation, Ron and Barbara Goldman were on the spot with their support . . . that day.

After visiting CCMM’s program at Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools and witnessing the students’ eager participation, the Goldmans became enthusiastic champions of CCMM. “We have attended five presentations – finding them as enthralling as they are inspirational for the children.”

A highlight for the Goldmans was celebrating Barbara’s and their daughter, Karen’s, collective 119th birthdays with CCMM. “We invited friends and family to Webster Middle School to both experience first-hand CCMM and to have the privilege of a presentation. Adults and children all got into the spirit, giggling with each other while trying on wonderful masks and headpieces; playing instruments from all over the world, and talking to each other about the extraordinary displays.” Barbara wrote, “I was completely enthralled: beautifully documented and easy to understand displays, an incredible variety of objects to look at on the boards and to have fun playing with on the tables; and then the stories that can be shared, all customized to suit the attention span and interest of your group!”

Ron has written letters on CCMM’s behalf to potential donors and broadcast and print journalists. “In our current toxic and polarized environment of ethnic and racial differences, CCMM is an extraordinary program,” Ron wrote, inviting a journalist to visit CCMM. “Seeing the students’ interactions with each other and the artifacts, their enthusiasm and downright glee is absolutely heartwarming.”

Over the years, the Goldmans have traveled extensively throughout the world. Recently, Ron has returned from some of his own trips with some truly fun artifacts to add to CCMM’s collection. For instance, a vendor in the Marrakech souk hit the jackpot when Ron purchased not one, nor two or three, but four spinning tops for the students to play with.

Ron and Barbara are both natives of Los Angeles, attending local public grade schools. Ron earned degrees at Princeton & M.I.T. A Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, Ron has practiced architecture & urban planning for 55 years. His award-winning work includes housing, commercial and retail properties, schools and temples. Now semi-retired from his own development and construction business, Ron is working more than full-time on changing LA’s “street culture” to a “community culture.” He envisions using excess residential side streets to create neighborhood parks within a 5-10 minute walk of every resident. And on weekends, he heads a group of architects advocating responsible development in Santa Monica.

Barbara earned degrees at Berkeley and UCLA. Upon graduating, she was the director of a surrealist art gallery. Later, Barbara created Malibu Art & Design, a retail store and art gallery noted for unique design & product. After selling the store, she worked with the Santa Monica Mountain Conservatory to establish The Streisand Center for Environmental Studies–an environmental research conference center. For the last 25 years, she was the office manager for Ron’s architectural practice. And now she’s retired.

Without our donors, we literally could not do what we do.  Thank you.
Want to donate? Click here.

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International Day of the World’s Indigenous People

There are an estimated 370 million indigenous people in the world, living across 90 countries. They make up less than 5 per cent of the world’s population, but account for 15 per cent of the poorest. They speak an overwhelming majority of the world’s estimated 7,000 languages and represent 5,000 different cultures.

Indigenous peoples are inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures and ways of relating to people and the environment. They have retained social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live. Despite their cultural differences, indigenous peoples from around the world share common problems related to the protection of their rights as distinct peoples.

Indigenous peoples have sought recognition of their identities, way of life and their right to traditional lands, territories and natural resources for years, yet throughout history their rights have always been violated. Indigenous peoples today, are arguably among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups of people in the world. The international community now recognizes that special measures are required to protect their rights and maintain their distinct cultures and way of life. (via IPS News)

The International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples is observed on August 9 each year to promote and protect the rights of the world’s indigenous population. This event also recognizes the achievements and contributions that indigenous people make to improve world issues such as environmental protection. It was first pronounced by the General Assembly of the United Nations in December 1994, marking the day of the first meeting of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations of the Subcommission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, in 1982. (via wikipedia)

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Through a Student’s Eyes

Connecting Cultures Mobile Museum serves as a portal to worlds that students may not know exist.

Written by: Jerrell Cockerham

It feels like only yesterday that my 10th grade history teacher, Mr. Mize, told the class to pack our things and head downstairs to the library. What is it this time? I thought to myself; he was always taking us on trips around campus that seemed useful for little more than the physical exercise. But as we entered the library we were met with an explosion of colors –trinkets, instruments, foods, and clothing that we had never seen before, all on display for us to interact with. And that’s just what we did, courtesy of Connecting Cultures Mobile Museum.

When we left the library after an hour of fun exploration, the class was a hum of lively discussion about the things we’d seen (and tasted!). Many of us had learned more about our own cultures and, as a result, came to appreciate them more. Some students were so impressed they even began to consider majoring in fields involving exposure to different people and societies.

Ultimately, CCMM facilitates one of the most enriching and intellectually stimulating events to take place at Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools — at any school — by providing an introduction to the range of cultures across the world in a way that demonstrates that we as a species have more similarities than differences. It is effectively helping to cultivate an inclusive environment for students everywhere.

In low-income neighborhoods where many parents have not been educated beyond high school, it is difficult to properly educate children about the world and the diversity it has to offer. Connecting Cultures combats this in the best way possible: bringing that education directly to the school campuses. I feel incredibly lucky to have been given that experience at RFK.

Jerrell graduated from RFK in May. He will be attending Colorado College, studying in their STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) program. “I’m looking forward to going to Budapest for one of the semesters,” he says. Of course he will. CCMM has been serving students at RFK Community Schools since the campus first opened its doors in 2010.

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