Just beyond the swivel doors of the James R. Thompson Center downtown, 15 Chicago area vendors gathered Monday for the first African Market Days.

The two-day event of vendors selling African goods will help spotlight the continuing problem of HIV/AIDS cases in Africa. The event concluded on Tuesday.

Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn during a morning opening ceremony at the Thompson Center, 100 W. Randolph, welcomed African diplomats, Illinois vendors and representatives of local groups serving people with HIV/AIDS. The theme of the inaugural event was “It Takes a Village to Save a Village.”

Sponsored in part through the lieutenant governor’s office, a portion of the proceeds from the Market Days has been pledged to the Uganda Orphans Fund and the AIDS Orphan Trust in Zimbabwe.

“By participating in this market, these vendors are giving hope to African women and children in desperate need,” said Quinn following a thanks to vendors and dignitaries for coming out. “When you think that only $30 will provide a year of school – plus uniforms – for a child in Zimbabwe, you realize that the simple act of shopping at this market can transform a child’s life thousands of miles away.”

The event itself was actually organized by artist Selena Derry Awoleye of the Ibeji Resource Center. Based in Roger’s Park, Ibeji focuses on raising awareness of issues involving women, seniors, people with disabilities and youth throughout the world. The organization also raises funds for programs geared toward its issues by selling dolls and jewelry.

“I started getting involved in the plight last year when I made dolls and sold them in a fundraiser on the North Side,” said Awoleye, who is an artisan of dolls and jewelry. “I was able to raise about $300 to go towards building a water hole to be drilled and to provide more milking cows to the area of Zimbabwe. After that, I wanted specifically to address the AIDS epidemic in Africa, and I contacted Eric Hudson (manager of Human Relations for Lieutenant Governor’s office) about holding a fundraising market here, and he offered me the opportunity to hold it.”

Awoleye gathered the vendors through her network of businesses that sell African-themed products. Consumer goods, however, were not the only things available at the market.

Richard Tholin, a retired professor of social ethics at Garrett Theological Seminary, sold booklets on the affect of AIDS in the black community. Awoleye recruited Tholin for the market. Both attend United Church of Roger’s Park.

Tholin had done global monitoring for 20 years in Zimbabwe through the United Methodist Church.

Tholin estimated that millions of children are orphaned, many because their parents and guardians died from AIDS or AIDS-related illnesses. Health agencies estimate that roughly 25 million in sub-saharan African have been infected with HIV.

“I see the effect of AIDS in the grandparents, who have to now become the primary parent for orphaned children whose parents die from the disease,” Tholin said. “I see children having to head households when their parents die, meaning that they won’t be able to finish school or have the opportunity to enjoy their youth. It is really a problem.”

Red Ribbon AIDS pins, crafted by Kenyan women for Project Harambee, were sold over.

Vendors such as Cutest Thing and Images Gift Boutique offered an assortment of baskets, ankle length teal dashiki’s and handmade handbags for girls. Jewelry artisan Cecile Young crafted glimmering silver loop earrings and bracelets.

“I was approached by Selena during a market in Evanston about this market, and I was glad to come,” said Young, owner of Cecile’s Fine Jewelry. “I’m a traveling vendor, so I go to a lot of different festivals covering a number of different events. This is the first of its kind here, but I definitely would like this one to become a regular market.”

Her sentiments were echoed by Robin Napier, who along with her husband James, are independent dealers of Shona African artworks. They became interested in African sculpture when they visited Zimbabwe on vacation in 1993, she said. Since then, she has visited Zimbabwe more than a dozen times, and her familiarity with it gives her more of a personal investment in the market.

“The people are so friendly there. It is just the most beautiful place we’ve ever visited,” said Napier. “The artists are brilliant…My husband and I were so moved by that first visit that we’ve been involved in distributing African sculpture ever since.”

Monday’s opening ceremony included remarks by a number of diplomatic representatives from South Africa.

“We are very happy to have dignitaries from Sao and Tome to visit during this very special event,” said Vanessa K. Allmon, policy assistant for Lt. Gov. Quinn. “We in America are generally a very giving country, and we understand how important this issue is to the world as a whole.”

Among the dignitaries were Yusuf Omar, Consul General of South Africa, who spoke highly of the event and the work of Illinois with the AIDS crisis in Africa.

“There is undoubtedly a piece of Africa in Chicago,” said Omar. “We are fortunate to be working alongside such a dedicated city to fight HIV. It is an enemy to the increased prosperity and stability of our people.”

Additional sponsors of the African Market Days project included the Illinois Department of Human Services, the Chicago Health Department and various other organizations.