African exhibit puts White-Oyler’s passion on display

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ORANGE PARK – The Orange Park Library is now the temporary home for a collection of African artifacts from countries like Liberia, Rwanda and Guinea.

Former Clay County teacher and resident Diane White-Oyler has traveled to Africa several times, and she’s lived there for years. Her house is a showcase for her travels but now that she’s retired, she wanted to pass on her love for Africa.

“When I retired, these things were just sitting in my house,” White-Oyler said. “My family had enjoyed these things for years, but I wanted some of it to be somewhere where others could enjoy them like we did.”

White-Oyler has a doctorate in African History and African Humanities from the University of North Florida. Her love of the continent goes back years – before she became interested in it while teaching world history. Her interest grew into a love that she extended to students following her many trips there.

She remembers teaching students at Orange Park Junior High and Middleburg High about Africa and being able to actually show them artifacts from numerous countries.

If she was teaching students about the different qualities of threads and cloths used for clothing, instead of just relying on a textbook image, she would bring in a piece of clothing made using those threads.

“They loved it,” White-Oyler said. “How often do students get to go hands-on with something they’re learning about in their textbook?”

What White-Oyler loves most about Africa is the differences between societies there and the way things work back home in America. What struck a chord with her was the way they treat their elders. Instead of nursing homes and potential loneliness, African cultures prioritize elders. They aren’t sent off to a nursing home or left alone. They’re responsible for teaching children and passing on their knowledge to those around them, and they’re often the foundation in the middle of a family.

White-Oyler also loved the sense of family there.

“You can stay if you’re liked,” White-Oyler said. “Widows remain a part of the family. Even some divorced people remain a part of the family.”

African cultures also don’t stop outsiders from becoming a part of their family. This meant a lot to White-Oyler as she’s an only child. Africa gave her a bigger family.

“We need to think about doing things the way they do here,” she said.

White-Oyler is fascinated with all parts of Africa, and especially the Western Cape, where she spent most of her time. The food, the people, the culture and the land, it all fuels her love for Africa. But what she admires most is the generosity of its people.

“They are always very generous,” White-Oyler said. “No matter what you needed help with, they would try to help. They’ll go out of your way for you.”

White-Oyler hopes the artifacts and pieces of art she’s brought to the Orange Park Library express those feelings of generosity and give people a better sense of African culture. Branch Manager Karen Walker believes that will happen.

She said that because the library is free and accessible to all, White-Oyler’s collection presents a great opportunity to teach those walking through the library about Africa.

“If they see something that interests them, they’re in the perfect place to check out a book or do some research to learn more,” Walker said. “It’s about sparking that interest.”

Some of the pieces in the library include photographs taken by White-Oyler, drums used for long and short-range communication, headdresses and books. A large portion of things are on display, but Walker said there’s so much that she’ll continue to rotate things in and out throughout the weeks.

“There’s so much we can learn from (Africa) and this is a great start,” White-Oyler said.

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