Saturday, June 21, 2008

A Cultural Weekend in Francistown

Hello again!

I apologize for such a late update on my last month's adventures. I have truly begun the process of "research" in it's typical and professional form, hopping from one place to another, staying only long enough to make a few observations and conduct a few interviews before moving on.

After leaving Namibia I traveled back to Gaborone for a brief visit and to catch a lift up to Francistown with the party from Thornhill Primary School. Thornhill is a school that feeds into Maru-a-Pula, and especially feeds the marimba program at MaP. At Thornhill the marimba is part of the music curriculum from a very young age and the student performing band is both energetic and enthusiastic. Mr. Roy Nyathi, the marimba teacher, had invited me along to an event that he was attending as a clinician at the Clifton Primary School in Francistown over the last weekend in May. I arrived in Gabs to learn that Ayanda Khala, a good friend of mine from MaP, was also attending as a clinician, so the weekend looked to be a success from the get-go.

After a brief and bittersweet visit to MaP I set out from Thornhill Primary School in a bus with 7 children (grades 6-7), 2 Thornhill teachers, myself, and my friend Ayanda. We had a rather noisy trip to Francistown (only 4-5 hours of driving, but this seems longer when you're inundated with primary school children!) and arrived in the evening to be scattered off to our hosts' houses. I was staying with a lovely woman named Jan who teaches at Clifton and had a major hand in the organization of the Cultural Weekend.

In the morning it became apparent that this Cultural Weekend is the equivalent of a middle-school honor band or similar event. Students from about 10 primary schools all over Botswana had been selected to participate in workshops ranging from Marimba to Public Speaking to Puppetry--what a great mix of kids and teachers! The clinicians were enthusiastic and the kids somewhere between excited and apprehensive, but the first workshop saw the entire school come alive with enthusiasm for the arts. The marimba students were talented and good natured... all 17 of them! We used the set of marimbas from Clifton and supplemented with a few extra from other schools to have enough. In the end, it was a massive group with 4 soprano, 4 tenor (often with 2 students playing on each), 3 baritone, and 2 bass marimbas. Can you believe the volume you would get with all of those! But apparently, this size of band isn't that uncommon in the primary schools. I thoroughly approve because it gives far more students the chance to play, and especially to play on the larger instruments which generally get restricted to the more capable players.

We had a series of 6 or 7 workshops across two days, which was both intense and wonderful. Roy Nyathi lead most of the workshops, teaching three songs to the students, while I and another marimba teacher, Mr. Sibindi, each taught one. I had a great time with these guys, I taught them a very simple version of Babamudiki and they loved the rhythms and the interlocking of the parts. The kids themselves were a joy to work with--they were friendly, excited about marimba, generally talented, and just very sweet. I whole-heartedly approve of keeping grades 6 and 7 in the primary school, it just makes them more sweet and innocent and delays the corruption of character that high school encourages.
On the first night of the weekend we gave a "staff concert" where all of the clinicians and other helpers were encouraged to perform something for the students. We had been trying to prepare a little something on the marimbas for this concert, and actually we got a fairly large group to appear although only about four of us were marimba players. Those of us who did know how to play just went ahead and improvised around the chord structure, while the other musicians we recruited held down some simpler parts that kept the song together. After playing "Pata Pata" and "In the Jungle" we were the hit of the show... kids running up to take video and photos on their cell phones, the whole audience encouraging an encore. Unfortunately, that's all we knew! I found this to be a particularly interesting experience because I was completely exhausted by the time we got to the concert. After helping with and running 4.5 hours of workshops during the day and having very little downtime, I was ready to crash and sleep--not to perform a completely improvised show! But even with this drawback I had a number of people coming up to me after the show with odd comments, like "you really can play those things!" and "have you done this before? I mean, it looks like you know what you're doing." It's just another example of the stereotype that a short, white, American girl can't possibly play an African instrument. Personally, I enjoy breaking that stereotype for people... especially for people who play marimba. I think that it should be an inclusive instrument, not an exclusive one, and I really think it does them good to see someone playing who doesn't fit the mold.

At the end of the second day the children performed a concert--which was both painful, interesting, lovely, and bizarre. The 7 workshop groups were very diverse and not all of the disciplines were well-suited to performance (such as the visual Art group) but everyone managed to contribute to the show. The Puppeteers greeted the audience as they entered with adorable hand-made puppets, the Public Speakers introduced all the acts, the Artists had a clever showing of a piece-painting where they purposefully arranged the pieces in several different orientations before showing a gorgeous still life of a fruit bowl, the musicians of all sorts (Western, Marimba, Singers) performed, the Dancers put on a self-choreographed dance, the Actors performed a fable with adorable costumes and props, and everyone had a great time. Because there were students from almost every school in each of the groups they were all very supportive of one another and they put on a good show!

My one regret about the Cultural Weekend is that it didn't last longer! It's just my kind of event... and although it did make me a bit homesick for WIBC, All-State, etc., I had a wonderful time and learned a lot. It was one of my first chances to work intensely with primary school students as well as my first opportunity to work with the teachers there. But even though it was short, It makes me glad that such events take place on this side of the world. Now, if only they could get Tim Lautzenheiser to give a motivational talk on the first day....

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