Thursday, October 22, 2009

Which New Guitar? And What it Might Me, to Them, to Us

This is a long entry. My visit to Bauleni Compound made a strong impression on me. If you have ten minutes please read the report, look at the photos and let me know what you think. Thanks!

Above on the right is Richard Lungu with our driver
and a friend. Richard, a gardener at AISL lives in
Bauleni and madethe arrangements for me to visit the schools.

The gentleman in this photo is Mr. Janack Mahachi,
a talented musician and teacher. He told me his dream
is "one day before I die" to meet Stevie Wonder. I
hope he does.

This smiling group is our newest Bridges
of Peace and Hope Pen Pals. Madame Mwanza
is on the right. They are displaying letters
from one of Helen Mahoney's classes from
Lakeville, Connecticut.

Everywhere I went I was made to feel welcome.
This group at Calabash School for very young
ones performed poems and songs for me. We also
sang and laughed together.

I took this photo just outside
Richard's doorway. Many girls
take on adult responsibilities at
a very young age.

This is a scene alongside the main paved
road through Bauleni. Soon after this spot
the pavement disappeared.

What's right with this picture? We often ask, "What's wrong with
this picture?" In this case it's slightly out of focus, but what's
right is that these kids are so joyful, actually jumping for joy
just because I smiled and pointed the camera at them. What can we
learn from that?

My first day in Zambia I struck up a conversation with Richard Lungu, a gardener and maintenance worker at the American International School in Lusaka (AISL). He was watering some plants and trees as we talked. Like so many Zambians I met Richard has a gentle, humble, manner and a contagious smile. He and his wife have three small children who attend schools in the compound. I asked him if he could arrange a visit for me to their schools to sing. He said, "That would be great John. I will try." I composed a letter introducing myself and Richard brought it to the head teachers at both schools. It took a couple of days to communicate back and forth but the arrangements were made. It was set for Tuesday morning.

After the conference ended Monday night most of the other presenters were going on safari or sightseeing at Victoria Falls which is only an hour plane ride away. I wanted to see the falls but I aslo wanted to meet some children and try to make new connections for BoPH so I made the decision to stay in Lusaka. I was delighted and grateful that Richard was able to make these arrangements. International schools are wonderful to visit and work with but I also want to learn about how the local people live and see firsthand what their schools are like too, even if it's a one day glimpse. Vic Falls is one of the Natural Wonders of the world and I hope to see it someday but children are the #1 Natural wonder of the world and our greatest source of hope.

The administration and staff at AISL support some other local schools and have a strong commitment to community service and global citizenship. Thanks to Kate Bidder, a grade one teacher and new BoPH partner, and Chris Muller, the director of the school, arrangements were made for AISL to help me get to and from the Bauleni compound. Richard doesn’t have a car so AISL generously provided a van and driver, and they loaned me their sound system. They also allowed Richard to come with me even though it was a work day for him. I was excited as I waited in the hotel lobby Tuesday morning for the van to pick me up.

As I stood there watching for the van to arrive, Stan Davis, a presenter, magician, and guitar player from Maine came up to me and excitedly said, “I’ve got to show you this, check it out!” He unzipped a rectangular case and brought out a travel guitar the likes of which I had not seen. It was an impressive instrument, inexpensive, considerably smaller than mine, and it played and sounded great considering the very small size. I made a mental note to look into getting one because it would make my travels easier. I already have a travel guitar and three others (six counting Ann Marie and Patrick’s guitars), but this one really seemed terrific and I knew I would use it frequently and appreciate it. I inject this aside about the guitar here because it has relevance later in this report. When Richard and the van arrived I thanked Stan Davis for showing me the guitar and we parted.

Before entering the main Bauleni compound road Richard warns me saying “You know it is filthy in here.” He was right. There isn’t any trash removal in the compound, which is home to hundreds of thousands of people, so the sides of the road are strewn with plastic and paper bags blowing in the wind and twisting in tree branches. Other useless waste forms miniature mountain ranges of garbage throughout the landscape. In some places there is the pungent acrid smell of people burning piles of garbage in the open air. No grass anywhere, just dirt and stones. Along the road there are people everywhere. Little makeshift selling stalls appear ready to collapse if a strong wind comes up. Hundreds of men, women and children are scattered randomly around a sad looking market. I don't see any elderly people but with an average life span of 38 years old in Zambia it is not surprising. It’s 10 am yet there are scores of school age children playing in the ditches along the road, many of them barefoot. I wonder why they aren’t in school but don’t ask.

As we continue slowly along the paved road en route to the school the road suddenly ends and is replaced by a dirt and stone surface with major pot holes in it and occasional large islands of broken pavement rising 12 to 16 inches above the dirt. Richard tells me there used to be a good road here too but it was poorly constructed and it washed out one year in the rainy season leaving this ragged, jagged dirt and blacktop jig saw puzzle. There are no plans to replace or fix the road.

For a few minutes we bounce along the surface of this 3D jig saw puzzle with most of the pieces missing. Then Richard points out the school ahead on the right. We veer off the supposed road and cross a rock littered field leading to a walled in, gated school grounds with a tired looking water tower in the center. The school was built by the Japanese government and is named Prince Takahado School. I didn’t learn why the Japanese built it but it is good that they did. I am welcomed by the head teacher in her small, poorly lit office which is approximately 8 feet wide by 10 feet long. No computer. Just a desk, some book cases, a small refrigerator, a few hard chairs and two electrical outlets. I don’t recall a filing cabinet. The school has over 2400 students.

Madame Priscilla Lydia C. Mwanza is the acting head of the school. She is a lovely, charming, articulate lady who is proud of her school and teachers. She introduces me to several of the teachers. The first man I meet is Janack Mahachi who is introduced as "a teacher and a man who sings with the children sometimes." He is wearing sun glasses and I realize upon shaking hands with him that he is blind. Another man walks beside him and guides him. Following a short discussion it is determined which grade levels will attend the assembly and word goes out to the classrooms which are in concrete rows surrounding a dirt courtyard. Soon students are flocking out of the rooms, many of them running, and noisy with excitement and wonder about who I am and what I am going to do. The first thing Mr. Mahachi asked me when we met was,“Did you bring a keyboard?” When I told him no and said guitar he smiled and said, “Guitar is nice too.”

It took a while to get the PA set up, and while that was being done I was told that Richard’s daughter Olivia wasn’t there because she only comes to school in the afternoon. That news explains why all the kids were hanging out playing. Because of the number of school age children and the shortage of classroom space, children only go to school half days. The average class size is 75 students. When those 75 go home at noon 75 more students come in for the afternoon session. I said I would like it if Richard would go get 5th grader Olivia. He said he could be back in ten minutes. The students were all just standing on the dirt courtyard crowding together, getting restless, and pushing towards where the microphone had been set up. Many of the teachers had short lengths of rubber hose or tree branch switches to assure that students stayed in back of a line they created in the dirt. Some students were given sticks to assist in this too. The sticks were mostly used for threatening but I did see a few legs get whacked.

To occupy the audience while we waited for Richard to return I was told that Mr. Mahachi would sing with the children. I was asked if he could use my guitar and I said sure and placed it over his head. The strap hung incorrectly in front of his shoulder, the guitar like a medal around his neck. Nonetheless, he gracefully caressed it and started to play. At first it seemed awkward to him and he wasn’t finding the frets he wanted. The guitar is a three quarter size so it feels strange to someone used to playing a full size guitar but once you see where the frets are you get used to it. Of course, Mr. Mahachi couldn’t “see” where the frets were but within a minute or so he was getting comfortable and finger picking very nicely. I later learned that it wasn't just the size that made it feel unfamiliar. The students and teachers sang along as he sang in a local language. I think it's called Bembe, I'm not sure. The singing was great!

When Richard returned with Olivia I sang with the group for about 30-40 minutes. We had fun singing, doing sign language, and laughing together. Then students returned to their classrooms but one class stayed around. I decided to try to get some video of us singing “We Are Walking” together. I started to play and sing with them and suddenly dozens of kids started running out of their classrooms back into the courtyard. I stopped and we decided it would be better to unplug the PA and go into a classroom.

While talking with Madame Priscilla after the assembly she mentioned that Mr. Mahachi loves to play music but the guitar seemed strange to him because he hadn't played in a very long time. He doesn’t have a guitar to play. He had one at one time but had to sell it. Not only does this fine musician, Mr. Mahachi not have a guitar or keyboard, the entire school doesn’t have any musical instruments either, with the exception of some traditional drums. I was stunned to hear this. She said that the budget was very tight this year but that she hoped that next year they would be able to purchase a keyboard. She said the same exact thing about a computer and the internet. I told Madame Mwanza that Bridges of Peace and Hope would buy the school a keyboard and one or more guitars.

My first impulse was to give Mr. Mahachi my guitar but I need to use it in Senegal and Cameroon. My next impulse was to give them the money or to try to find a music store and make some purchases. But as I thought more about it I decided that this may be a great first group service project for some BoPH classrooms back in the USA.

I brought several packages of pen pal letters with me to Prince Takahado School. Some of our teachers and classes are going to become “Connecting Classroom Partners” with their school anyway so this may be a golden opportunity for us to make a difference as we learn about each others cultures and worlds. Madame Mwanza called part of a class down to give them penpal letters while I was still there. The letters included pictures from the students who had written them. They also included some small gifts like bookmarks etc. The excitement amongst The Prince Takahado students reminded me of a birthday party or Christmas morning. They were showing each other the pictures of their penpals and the contents of the envelopes. This particular package of letters came from one of Mrs. Helen Mahoney's classes in Lakeville, CT.

Madame Mwanza told me that Prince Takahado School is having a celebration in December to mark ten years in existence. She has asked that some of the BoPH partner teachers send letters (from the teachers) helping to celebrate the occasion. I would like to propose that we consider sending more than letters. Let’s find a way to purchase a keyboard and some guitars so that Mr. Mahachi and the students can make more music.

After leaving Prince Takahado School we went to Calabash School for children younger than grade one. This was also incredible which is whole other story that I don't have the time or energy to tell now, and you probably need to do other things besides read this but thank you for reading this far.

As this most extraordinary day wound down I was struck by the marvelous irony of it all. I started the day excited about the prospect of purchasing a new guitar, my fourth, and concluded reflecting about how we might bring their "first" guitar to a school of over 1400. I have much to be grateful for, now including new friends at Prince Takahado School, and my relationship with each of you reading this. Thanks!

Note: While I was interviewing Madame Mwanza the room suddenly went dark. She explained that the electricity often goes off and that it would probably be off for three or four hours. A teacher told me that the electric company (probably the Zambian government) shuts down the grid because they sell the electricity to another country. I was fortunate they didn’t turn it off as the assembly started.


  1. John,

    We at Stadley Rough know the value of music and we will be happy to help with this project. You should have heard the groans from my class when I read your letter to them. I can't tell you how valuable this blog has been to my class's understanding of the big old world out there.

  2. Ken, I also would love to get my school/district involved in this project. As an elementary school music teacher, I certainly understand the importance of music in a child's education, community and life. Perhaps we can work together? The more of us involved, the more we can do. I will e-mail you to discuss.

    John, Thank you for allowing us the opportunity to reach out and hopefully make a difference in the lives of many children, both on the giving and receiving ends. You are an inspiration to many. Keep up the good work - and your energy!

  3. I was deeply touched by your blog. A few years back my class did a service project at Christmas to send surprises to children in a town in Belize. A local nurse had moved there to work and we facilitated through her. We were so moved by her recount of the arrival of our package. It would be wonderful for my class this year to participate in this project. Our children have sooo much and don't realize it. Could it also involve CD's and players? How can we help?

    Cheryl Arnett
    Sunset Elementary
    Craig, Colorado