Heard all over the world;Arts

14th August 1998 at 01:00
Nigel Williamson catches up with the Womad Foundation, a charity that brings the arts of different countries to children

Thirty children gather around two fabulously robed Ndebele women learning to copy the extraordinary geometric patterns made with sand, clay and charcoal with which they decorate their houses in the villages of the Transvaal.

Elsewhere other children are learning to make South African jewellery. Others are creating an orchestra directed by musicians from three different continents or having a demonstration in the henna body decoration of Arabic civilisation.

Most pop festivals, if they have any facilities for children at all, offer a bouncy castle and a dreary cr che with a box of cast-off toys. Womad is different, a music festival that has set up its own charitable education foundation with a programme designed to bring music, dance and art from around the world into schools.

"They are very beautiful ladies and their painting is great," says Helene Buckley, aged eight, from Bath, quite overawed by Angelina and Francina Ndimande, her two Ndebele teachers in the workshop tent at this summer's festival in Reading. "It's quite difficult to get the lines straight because they don't use a ruler but they help you. I'd like to go and see where they live. Someone said they don't even have television in their houses," she adds with disbelief.

Over the weekend, while her parents and 20,000 other adults were enjoying world music from 30 countries, Helene and several hundred other children were being entertained and educated in similarly multicultural style.

Run by administrators Mandy Macfarlane and Annie Menter, the Womad Foundation aims "to promote education in world cultures." Yet the words scarcely begin to do justice to its programme. African drummers, West Indian story-tellers and Aboriginal dancers are among the range of artists that Womad has toured around schools.

The Ndebele women, who spent a month sharing their skills with pupils in Reading and Bristol, spoke very little English and taught mostly by example, although Womad always provides translators. Their intricate geometric patterns are drawn free-hand and applied direct without being sketched in advance. "It is a quest for beauty, seeking harmony through the use of colours," Francina says. They also act as feminist role models, for in Ndebele culture it is almost exclusively the women who are the artists. "The boys are not forbidden to paint but children learn the art from their mothers and it is usually the daughters who take it up," Angelina explains.

After their stay in Britain, the two women were off to America for a similar Womad-sponsored programme in Seattle. An exhausted Mandy Macfarlane returned to the Womad Foundation's headquarters in a converted mill in the Wiltshire village of Box to prepare classroom projects.

Ms Macfarlane, a former teacher who has run the educational programme for the past six years, says: "When we take artists around schools we offer background information on their cultures and follow-up ideas for teachers so they can create long-term projects. The festivals offer a big bang but we try to have a programme that offers a lasting impression of that culture."

With Heinemann, Womad has published four volumes in a series of packs designed for 14 to 16-year-olds to support GCSE music.

It estimates that its materials are now in use in 15 per cent of all secondaries in Britain. Yet Womad was not always so welcome in the classroom, says Thomas Brooman, the artistic director who, with the financial support of rock star Peter Gabriel, established the foundation in 1983.

"When we sent out our first teaching packs with the Commission for Racial Equality some schools sent them back unopened," he recalls. "They said they didn't want to be corrupted by anything that was associated with a pop festival." So Brooman invited the headteachers who had refused the Womad material to a festival. "When they saw what we did they apologised for having got it wrong. Now we are part of the official curriculum."

Womad, Millside, Mill Lane, Box, Wiltshire SN13 8PN. Tel: 01225 743188

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