July 13, 2003 - Keene Sentinel : The Gambia RPCV Claudia M. Dery shares music from Guinea with students

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Gambia: Peace Corps The Gambia : The Peace Corps in the Gambia: July 13, 2003 - Keene Sentinel : The Gambia RPCV Claudia M. Dery shares music from Guinea with students

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The Gambia RPCV Claudia M. Dery shares music from Guinea with students

The Gambia RPCV Claudia M. Dery shares music from Guinea with students

Teacher follows the music: Jaffrey school students learn of African culture (7-13-03)

By Cecily Weisburgh for SentinelSource

JAFFREY — Twenty years ago, Claudia M. Dery was a young Peace Corps volunteer in west Africa, teaching science for two years in The Gambia.

She always wanted to go back. And in April, she did.

This time, though, she was both teacher and student. Dery, who teaches 5th grade at Jaffrey Grade School, has been a student of African drumming and the balafon, a xylophone-like instrument, for about a year.

Her nearly three weeks in Guinea were filled with music lessons, visits to schools and a 24-hour trip over dusty red clay roads to glimpse an 800-year-old balafon.

For Dery, Africa in 2003 was a richer experience.

“I could share it with my students,” she said. “These kids have really benefited directly.”

She taught her 5th-graders African songs and about Guinean currency before she left. She carried toys and clothes sent by her students for Guinean children and e-mailed her 5th-graders during her weeks away, much to their delight.

“It made them that much more interested in hearing about (the trip) when I came back,” she said.

And they did have lots of questions: What did she eat? Did the children like the things they sent? How hot was it? What are the kids in Guinea interested in?

Pretending to be reporters, the students took Dery’s answers and wrote news reports of her travels.

“People in Africa are very energetic, they love to sing and dance. The weather is mostly over 100 degrees. People in Africa do mostly the same kind of work we do in America,” wrote one student.

Said another: “The most beautiful (sight) she saw was just seeing the huts in the village. It sounds like she had a great time!”

The Jaffrey students also made traditional African masks and recreated an African village, complete with hut and marketplace, in Dery’s classroom.

But there were some stereotypes to combat at first among her 5th-graders.

“They think of Africa as being really primitive. They don’t have an awareness of Africa. That’s something we worked really hard to address,” she said. “Yes, they’re different, but they have these ways of living that aren’t any better or worse than the way we live.”

Dery left Guinea, one of the poorest countries in western Africa, impressed with teachers’ dedication to their students in the schools she visited in the capital city of Conakry and Niagassola, a village 350 miles away.

A crowded elementary school in Conakry — 35 to 40 children per class in grades 1 to 6 — had no textbooks and only a couple of computers.

Dery said she’s hoping to put together a sister-school program with the schools and the Jaffrey school. Already, her students have begun corresponding with pen pals in The Gambia this past year with help from Peace Corps volunteers through the World Wise Schools program, which links corps volunteers with American teachers.

Dery’s trip, though, was fueled by music and conceived by her balafon teacher, Abou Sylla. Sylla, a renowned balafon musician from Guinea, teaches the instrument once a month in Peterborough, where Dery takes lessons.

She and Ann Falby, now-retired co-director at Happy Valley School in Peterborough, traveled with four musicians from the U.S. and Switzerland.

For three hours each day in Guinea, Dery practiced the instrument, which is similar to a wooden xylophone. Keys are smoked to dry the wood. Beneath, gourds create resonance, and a unique buzzing undercurrent.

The balafon is like a river of tradition, carrying oral history, she said. When they’re young, boys are picked to become master balafon players, or Griots, considered a great honor.

“They play the balafon and they sing the history of the people, the country, the tribes,” she said.

Dery saw a reverence for the instrument firsthand when her group trekked to Niagassola to see an 800-year-old balafon, called the Sosso-Bala. She and her colleagues spent 24 hours traveling the 350 miles from Conakry to the small village, the last third of the trip on dusty red clay.

“It was like driving to New York City on back roads from Hancock,” she said.

There are no guarantees to see the balafon, either. Visitors must pass muster with the Kouyate family, the balafon’s keepers.

Dery’s group met with the family beforehand, explaining why they wanted to see the instrument and proving they would show respect for it.

Music is lifeblood there, infusing the country’s culture. “It just seems like they’re always this far away from breaking into a dance or song,” Dery said.

“They have so little and yet there’s so much joy, so much celebration, so much welcoming of other people. There’s a generosity and a way of taking care that’s just really special and different from this culture.”

She recalls striking contrasts within Guinea’s cities and villages, too. There were the crowds of people, cars and garbage in the city, where electricity was fickle.

By contrast, the village was a place to “let out a long sigh and breathe.”

Women walked to market with loaded baskets on their head. Dery’s 5th-graders were so enchanted with the idea when she told them, they tried it themselves, she said.

“There were all these people walking down these quiet roads,” Dery remembers from the trip to Niagassola. “It was really just striking.”

Last year, friends and family encouraged Dery to return to Africa, even helping her raise money for the trip.

Africa had lingered in her blood, she said. “It definitely felt very familiar going back.”

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Story Source: Keene Sentinel

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - The Gambia; COS - Guinea; Music; Secondary Education



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