Sharing stories over the fax has brought schools here and in South Africa close together, writes Beverley Naidoo. To theatre director Olusola Oyeleye's question about the value of stories, 10-year-olds at Milldown middle school in Blandford, Dorset, had ready responses. "Stories make your imagination go wild!", "They make you dream", "They tell you about people", they said during a recent drama workshop. Along with other young people from five Dorset schools, they have been part of the Global Stories project, collecting and exchanging stories with children from three primary schools in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.
At the end of January, Dorset seven to 13-year-olds faxed over 50 selected stories to Port Elizabeth, receiving an immediate "thank you" signed by 30 young South Africans. Five weeks later, the Port Elizabeth children responded by faxing over 50 of their own stories.
This is an international linking project with two distinctive features. The first relates to the unique point in history when the entire education system in South Africa is setting out to transform itself. Despite the tremendous pressures, one of the reasons for South Africans taking on the project has been to feed into the transformation process.
The three Port Elizabeth schools, formerly segregated by apartheid, are historically very different. Emafini Primary in KwaDwesi, on the bare outskirts of Port Elizabeth, was built for mainly Xhosa-speaking black children. Collegiate Junior School for Girls was a prestigious and privileged state school in a spacious suburb which until a few years ago admitted only white pupils. Triomf Primary an Afrikaans and English medium school in Cleary Park catered for children of the diverse "coloured" community many of whose families had been forcibly removed from central Port Elizabeth. The South Africans are using the project as a means for children and teachers to share each other's stories, as well as a link to the outside world. The second distinctive feature relates to the structure for curriculum development, established in previous Dorset projects with a cultural diversity focus, which is now being adapted and tried out in South Africa. In Dorset, Global Stories has involved collaboration between the local authority's advisory service, the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum in Bournemouth, freelance artists and schools.
In addition to in-service work with teachers, the children have been offered a series of workshops. An initial storytelling session led to them collecting stories passed down through their own communities family history stories as well as traditional tales. They were asked to think about the messages in traditional stories. After choosing which stories to fax to South Africa, the children brought personal or family objects to the Russell-Cotes for a workshop which encouraged them to consider how every collection carries messages and values.
Once the South African faxes arrived, a week of drama workshops with Olusola Oyeleye helped the children explore cultural similarities and differences in stories. The week culminated with children sharing stories with their families in two vibrant Saturday workshops, with drumming provided by a South African family of artists Molefe Pheto, his sons and grandson.
In South Africa the project is being co-ordinated at the Centre for Continuing Education, University of Port Elizabeth, in collaboration with their museum, art gallery, teachers and parents. Olusola Oyeleye will be flying out to Port Elizabeth for two weeks of workshops this month. There will be Global Stories exhibitions in Bournemouth at the Russell-Cotes, and at the Art Gallery and Museum in Port Elizabeth to celebrate International Museums Day on May 18. With such a productive link established, there is a desire now to maintain and extend it.
For further information about Global Stories contact Beverley Naidoo, East Dorset Professional Education Centre, Tel: 01202 296071 or Victoria Pirie, Russell-Cotes, Tel: 01202 451804. Beverley Naidoo's latest South African novel No Turning Back is short-listed for the Guardian Children's Fiction Award