Reva Klein finds out how Zimbabwe's Black Umfolosi are opening pupils' minds with a musical mix of tradition and modernity
One June afternoon last term, a class of Year 6 children experienced the warmth and vibrancy of Zimbabwe in defiance of the cold, wet weather outside. They banged bongos, shook shakers and sang in a language they had never heard before while swaying and dancing as if there was no tomorrow. In the process, they learned about the lifestyles and values of southern Africa.
Thanks to a joint project between the Oxford Development Education Centre, Voluntary Services Overseas and Arts Worldwide, the class, from Isis Middle School in Oxford, spent a day with seven members of the Zimbabwean music and dance group Black Umfolosi. Before the visit, the children had a day-long workshop on Zimbabwean life with Mandy Warwick, a former VSO volunteer in southern Africa who runs development education sessions for Oxfordshire schools.
Participating teachers from Isis and two other schools that each spent a day with the group also attended an in-service training session with Ms Warwick, members of Black Umfolosi and Eleanor Kercher, advisory teacher to ODEC, who also works at VSO. Complicated? A bit, but only because of the interconnected roles and experiences of the key players, which ultimately brought a refreshingly holistic quality to the project.
Black Umfolosi first made music together as primary school boys in Bulawayo. Since then, they have become Zimbabwe's leading cultural ambassadors, taking their distinctive acapella performances around the world.
One of their strengths is the mix of the traditional and the contemporary. While their vocal harmonies and dancing styles have been handed down through generations, their songs deal with issues confronting modern Africa - conservation, Aids, unemployment, the environment.
Group member Lucky Moyo explains the educational rationale behind Black Umfolosi's tours of Britain and the United States: "If we share music and culture, we make a better world. We're teaching people about how it is in Africa and in Zimbabwe. They don't think we have drugs and other modern problems. We're showing them how similar our lives are to theirs."
While this is a lofty aim, giving children the time and space to talk with the group as well as to learn songs and dances certainly helps break down stereotypes. As Lucky Moyo puts it: "Talking to the children teaches them that Africa is not all about famine and disaster."
Ms Kercher agrees: "Art is a way in for development education. But it works both ways. Zimbabweans have stereotypes about what life is like here. So Black Umfolosi always bring on their tours members who have never left Zimbabwe - so they can see things for themselves."
For their part, the children from Isis had their eyes opened in the most pleasurable ways. On the day of the group's visit, there was plenty of time for informal chats and learning about each other's lives. Tessa, 11, said: "It's been exciting to learn about a different country and have fun at the same time."
At the end of the three days of workshops, the schools presented a music and dance performance for parents and teachers. But that is not the last Oxfordshire schools will see of Black Umfolosi. Ms Kercher is aware that the impact of such "hit-and-run" cultural visits is often short-lived, and is determined to make this the start of a beautiful relationship. The group are booked to work with Oxfordshire schools again next summer. And in autumn 1998, they will return with some 11 to 15-year-old members of their youth music group in Bulawayo.
In the meantime, Ms Kercher is running, in her VSO role, a weekend workshop in November for teachers interested in arranging for people from southern Africa to work in schools, whether as refugees giving talks, or artists, musicians or writers.
World Voices in Education takes place on November 21-23 at Harborne Hall in Birmingham and is open to all primary and secondary teachers. For details, contact Eleanor Kercher on: 0181 780 7512 Schools in Dorset can make use of a World Music and Resources Support Service which loans out musical instruments from West Africa, India and the Caribbean and recommends visiting musicians from other cultures. Contact Development Education in Dorset, telfax: 01202 532484