Zimbabwe thoughts and a big Thank You to everyone who contributed to the collection which made this amazing and heart-warming trip possible!
This trip to visit The Music For All Project in Zimbabwe was my very last “PIERIAN” thing, and what a huge pleasure it was to discharge such a duty as my final activity! The Music For All Project is the vision of Fidelis Mherembi, a wonderful musician who plays Mbira and Marimba as well as running his business, making Marimba sets. It was his inspiring playing while he was in Bristol that caught my attention many years ago, followed by conversations about his vision that every child in Zimbabwe should have access to a traditional musical instrument, that first fired me up!
I write this sitting in Harare airport with about an hour to go before catching the first leg back to Dubai. The shops in Duty Free are so limited compared to any other airport shops. And I am drinking a pretty grim cup of coffee!! Zimbabwe is after all a country rebuilding its economy after a devastating few years where the Zim dollar dropped its value daily and finally became altogether worthless in a matter of hours. And Zimbabwe is still dragging itself out of the damaging effects of that economic downturn where people from every walk of life went days without food of any description. One woman I talked to remembered not being able to afford even one egg and she was working and earning a salary. Other signs are that the roads are still in poor, if not terrible, condition, power cuts occur 2 or 3 times daily, the water goes off at some point almost every day, piles of rubbish decorate the roadsides – and this is in Harare, the capital city. Significant for me was the amount of stuff being used and worn that we would throw away as beyond use in our wealthier society.
So what was the trip all about? Well, it was about Mbiras and the power of music to change lives. I have memories of a country recovering slowly from despairing times. But I also have memories of children performing to a crowd of students, teachers and parents with a confidence they did not previously have. And memories of teachers saying how much more the children were enjoying school generally and engaging with other subjects much better as a result of the music. They now go home and ask for things for school from their parents or guardians where they were too shy to ask before. Now in Zimbabwe, while things are still really tough, there is a sense of hope and some optimism for anyone who has a bit of initiative and is prepared to work really hard and watch every penny, so things that we would throw out as useless are saved and used over and over. And the continuous washing and ironing (when there is electricity and water to actually do it!) mean that there is a real cleanliness and floors are swept and washed daily or twice a day. And generators and wells and wood fires in the yard mean there is always an alternative, as Senseni noted when I was half way through the hand washing and the water went off!!
So on December 6th 2011 we raised about £1500 to pay for my trip over here. The fares cost about £775 in all, and I kept £225 for travel expenses and fuel to travel to the schools and for collecting me from the airport, food, contributions to the household electric bills etc. The remaining £500 bought 15 beautiful new Mbiras for Sabi school, which were made by Trymore. Trymore and his business have huge parallels to Fidelis’s business in that they are both family enterprises run from home and involving other family members. Trymore has no workshop and simply works under a tree in the yard – but in the rainy season that limits him hugely. Fidelis has an outbuilding but still uses rooms in the house to store parts of the Marimbas he makes – as we did on the last day when I was helping to varnish all the keys for a rush order!! In both families the wives are crucial to the running of the business, helping in the making, the delivery, the marketing and still doing a full time job looking after the children, washing and cleaning and often looking after extended family who have been orphaned.
The optimism lies in people like Fidelis, Trymore and the music teacher Prince making their way through hard work and initiating things in small ways to scrape a living together. No doubt the currency changing to US Dollars has made a huge difference for everyone here. And the great thing is that those 15 Mbiras have provided work for Trymore, teaching for Prince and a growing reputation for Fidelis. However neither Prince nor Fidelis were paid anything other than slight expenses for their work on Music For All. But the new coalition government has decided that music is important for the cultural heritage of Zimbabwe, and is encouraging sets of Marimbas and Mbiras in every school. So the Music For All project is now in a totally different environment from three years ago when Fidelis first spoke to me about it. It is evidence that when someone follows their passion then they set up an energy that can open doors and change conditions on the ground.
My feeling is that the time for Music For All is coming. The Solon project in East Zimbabwe has now got Marimbas in many schools – I think Fidelis said about 20 – and these rural schools are the ones which will need real support as they are so low on funds. That children are turned away from school for want of the required $10 a term is an indication of the distance still to be travelled for these schools to be seen as successful. And talking of distances travelled, it is sobering to realise how many children have more than an hour’s walk to school and that the teachers live at the schools all week and then have hours of travel to get home to their families for the weekends. Super Mackenzie rides a bike for the first 2.5 hours and then catches a bus for the next 2.5 hours on a Friday and back again on a Sunday. Their dedication is immense and the classroom conditions in which they work atrocious. The water is not good, there is no electricity, so no computer classes, and the resources are limited. Volunteer teachers from the community are dedicated but not always capable, and often do not stay for long because they are not paid which equates to not feeling valued. Teachers are only paid about $250 US a month which equates to about £185. One Mbira cost about £35 and that was a reduced rate for the bulk purchase of 15 which puts these salaries in context.
On arriving at Matirige school, we were greeted by the whole school singing and then had a three hour show of speeches, poetry, music, singing and dancing, with teachers playing Mbiras which they learned to play alongside the children. A fantastic lunch was prepared by the parents and we spoke to many people through the morning. The next day at Sabi we were given a similar treat, and here the playing was simpler, but it gave us a sense of how much can be learned in a year and with good teaching. I was given a tour of both schools and met the school development committee members and mother support groups as well as students and teachers. I was inspired and very moved by the gratitude and the generosity, and the way that when they get some money they do what they can – build new toilet blocks or new water pumps for example. Even on the day we were there a collection was made for anyone who could afford to contribute. But it remains true also that equipment like desks and chairs, pens, paper and paints are in very short supply, and playing fields are limited – and for a country so committed to football this is concerning! But physical development is as important as any other aspect of a child’s development and is sadly limited despite doing their best under the circumstances.
Mherembi farm is where I stayed, and belongs to Fidelis and his family. They would like to develop it for several uses. Marimba-making courses, a Retreat, and a place to teach teachers the Mbira and Marimba so they can teach it really well. Fidelis would also like a workshop where he can make sets of Marimbas full time, and have apprentices who learn the skills with him and Tadfadzwa. In addition it is a working farm, and Fidelis and his brother Ernest, who is also a teacher, are thinking about how they could staff it without doing all the labour themselves! So they need to build another grass roofed hut for accommodation and add to the facilities there. This would add hugely to the economy of the area and introduce traditional Zimbabwean music as a central feature in the district. It would also mean that Fidelis was local and available for festivals and such like.
The schools clearly need to create a sustainable structure so they are not constantly reliant on outside funding. As standards improve more local people will send their children to school – and the Music For All project is demonstrably showing an engagement from children who previously lacked interest in academic subjects.
Sponsoring a child got disadvantaged children into school who would otherwise be turned away because many are orphans being looked after by grandparents who cannot grow enough food let alone afford school fees. But the other positive knock on effect is that increasing the number of pupils means the school can apply for more teachers. This means that different year groups can be taught in separate classes, obviously good for higher standards. In addition it would create funds for repairs and the other things outlined below, and allow for maintenance budgets too.
Early years facilities in both schools are virtually non-existent. Toys are desperately needed and a special classroom to give these children a solid foundation….. show me the child of five and I will give you the adult! To convert one building at Matirige would cost about £500.
Both schools need English novels and books for their libraries as English is at present the official language for Zimbabwe.
The water at both schools is suspect. No-one knows why the bore pump is producing water with black bits in it at Sabi, but clean and plentiful water is essential for the health of the children. Engineering expertise from an organisation like RedR is needed. Additional irrigation would mean the schools could grow more vegetables, improving the health of the children and of the teachers who live there all week.
Solar panels would be a simple way to provide electricity all year round. Sun is in plentiful supply, but equipping the schools with batteries and wiring needs money. Continue to provide musical instruments – not just Mbiras, but the more sophisticated Marimbas too. And to have a music classroom with other instruments like keyboards, trumpets, wind and strings etc.
Repairs to the classrooms, and the teachers’ living accomodations, which have cracks and holes everywhere are essential. The teachers’ living accommodation is shocking. They have broken panes of glass and limited kitchen facilities.
A four wheel drive truck would help both schools as they could share it for the use of teachers and those children who have long distances to walk – and indeed for getting about generally.
Payment for volunteer teachers and the part time teaching done by Prince and Fidelis needed to be found. The final suggestion, was some kind of cultural exchange, both within Zimbabwe itself but also with the UK.
My strong sense is that we need to keep focus on just the two schools of Matirige and Sabi for the time being. They are in the most rural and disadvantaged area and need so much. While Solon is funding other schools in the Eastern province, these are the only two which are truly instigating the Music For All project, with its philosophy in good shape and fully understood. And if we can help both schools, create work for Prince, Trymore and Fidelis, and in a few years’ time demonstrate the power of music to improve school performance, then we will have done more than I could ever have dreamed when I first became involved in this amazing and inspiring project.
Thank you again for a trip of a lifetime. It comes close to my time with the Aboriginal community in Australia who adopted me in 1992, and it feels like a real top-up 20 years on to remind myself of a whole other life and way of being. It has inspired me to go back next year hopefully with more to offer and a greater understanding of the community and its needs and the context within which these schools are trying to improve. It was a joy and a privilege to join them for two days and live on the farm for three days, a place of such beauty and with a starlit sky at night that was awesomely beautiful. I have left a little part of my heart behind, but I have come back with a heart fully replenished with the love and warmth that I received everywhere I travelled!
The Pierian Centre