Rhythm and rage of Africa style

Merlin John

Collaboration with Zambian partners has enriched the arts curriculum in a Somerset school. Brendan O'Malley reports.

A Zambian boy, Raphael Mbewe, is following an English boy on a circuit of the hall floor, copying his gait: one hand in the pocket, one arm swinging slightly, his frame gently bobbing up and down as he springs into each step from the ball of his foot, his head held still to avoid disturbing an imaginary quiff.

As the pacemaker peels away, Raphael speeds up into a circuit of exaggeration, the arm swinging wildly, the frame bouncing comically, the head frozen still. The circle of students laugh and giggle, the pace drops again and Raphael is now being followed.

From the corner Nick Brace calls time. A short stocky actor with a Gazza haircut and earring, he has been imitating their moves like a teenager copying the leg swing of his favourite footballer striker.

"When you work with a character it's very important that you don't just work with words," he tells them."This is your way of literally stepping into someone's shoes and leaving yourself behind. As we learn to be actors, we have to learn to be controlled about what we have become and what we have left behind."

But stepping into other people's shoes is about more than acting in this music and drama project, it is also about stepping into different cultures. Raphael is one of 12 pupils and five teachers who have come to Ansford community school in the Somerset market town of Castle Cary as part of a burgeoning link with their own secondary school at Mufulira on the Zambian copperbelt.

Their three-week visit culminates in two concerts at Wells Cathedral and Castle Cary of the musical Mtende (Crossroads), devised by the Zambian and English pupils under the guidance of Nick Brace, and his colleague Ed Swift, from the performance company Actiontrack. All the dialogue and music is being put together during the three weeks of the visit, and takes its inspiration from the ideas stimulated by the Zambian and English students working together.

The Zambian pupils, all members of the Mufulira School Choir will also sing in choruses on their own, and narrate two poems accompanied by song, one on the fallen heroes, the national football team which was tragically wiped out in a plane crash two years ago.

The visit forms an integral part of Ansford's multicultural, anti-racist curriculum which permeates all subjects, though music and the arts is the most important facet at the moment. The aim of the performance project, for instance, is to create an original musical work that is not only exciting but also expresses something of the pupils' feelings about their different cultures.

Charity Kabwe, 31, a music teacher for nine years, believes the mixing of British and African traditions will be beneficial to both sides. "The British students enjoy the drum music we have. It goes with dancing and clapping and doesn't happen so much here. Our students are definitely enjoying working with a completely different people, whom they just hear of and perhaps see on television, and are actually working together."

The Castle Cary-Mufulira link grew out of a tour of the school by a visiting Zambian priest, who put them in touch with the Mufulira school. In April 1994 six Ansford teachers and a community representative flew out to Mufulira to spend two weeks making contacts and gathering materials that could be used in subjects right across the curriculum to enrich pupils' studies.

In art, for instance, department head Lin Hawkins concentrated on collecting artefacts and fabrics that she could use to with children over here. "We decided to do a splash of work with 11-year-olds on clay pots and masks. We explored why and how they made them and brought in artefacts to paint from. From the paintings we devised versions of fabrics in the style of chitenges, colourful cotton wrap-arounds that Zambian women wear. It gave a cultural resonance to what the whole Zambian experience is about."

Chitenges tend to have patterns based on items from Zambian daily life, such as Tilley lamps, umbrellas, insects and maize, so the British children have developed these ideas in their designs.

As Year 7 pupils normally look at gargoyles and clay faces, they will now also look at Zambian masks and develop the work through portraiture. Lin Hawkins points to the inspiration Picasso drew from an exhibition of African masks in Paris, in the early part of the century, for his now famous abstract work and sees this as an important way to link the influence of African art with mainstream European art.

Both art and music have been brought into the realms of science by the Zambian work. Year 8 pupils are to look at using sawdust firing techniques to make terra cotta pots and Year 7 pupils have been investigating the property of sound generated by playing five Zambian instruments. These included drums covered with cow-hide, rattles filled with dried seeds and imbas (thumb pianos) with metal from car-seat springs.

Five years ago, when the links with Mufulira were first mooted, few Castle Cary children had ever seen an African let alone worked with one. In fact the school was sent one or two letters staunchly opposing its prejudice-breaking work on topics such as the slave trade or black art on the grounds that it would encourage black people to come to the town. But the community has become an enthusiastic supporter, raising funds and pushing for lectures for themselves on the economic situation in Zambia and Zambian screen-printing techniques. Seven primaries plus four or five churches, brownies, guides, old people and community groups are now also involved.

At Ansford, headteacher Dinah Bardgett says the driving force behind the link is to open minds against racism. "We want to show that cultures and groups of people portrayed as poor, having nothing to offer and being dependent on charity have in the past had a lot to offer and do so now."

An issue that illustrates this well is the lack of music facilities in the Zambian school which is balanced by their superiority in singing.

Charity Kabwe observes: "I saw two music lessons here. They are very different, because the children here were using their instruments, the flute and the trumpet, and in one lesson were using computers to make music. We don't have that in our country. Not a single one."

But, perhaps as a result, the Zambian singing is comparatively better, she says. "Here there isn't so much singing in harmony. Whereas in Zambia it comes out naturally. When three people sing, they sing three different parts. When one can't have the instruments to harmonise, we harmonise with the voice. I'm sure if our country was able to get the instruments this sort of singing would die."

Dinah Bardgett put it more bluntly: "They have no facilities, no instruments. The piano is out of tune. No equipment to do artwork. But they sing damn well. They are superior. And that's something we can celebrate with them."

Back in the community hall, Nick Brace is putting the AngloZambian troup through its paces, this time breaking them into groups of four or five to devise sketches using both English and Bemba, a Zambian tribal tongue.

Raphael is sitting it the corner as the rest of his group act out being trapped in a lift and phone him, the engineer, for emergency help. He appears to be giving them stern advice, but they seem incapable of following it. As he gets angrier and angrier he erupts off the chair, kicking and punching the air, his whole frame bursting with rage, his mouth machine-gun rattling a stream of Bemba into the imaginary receiver.

Dinah Bardgett had said it was important for the Mufulira students and teachers to realise that their British counterparts were benefiting as much as them from the link work. Nobody seeing the reaction to Raphael's rage would doubt that.

o School linking across the world, a directory of agencies backing North-South links, published by Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges, 10 Spring Gardens, London SW1A 2BN. Tel: 0171 389 4004; Development Education Association 0171 490 8108.

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