I’m going to depart from my usual topics this month…no musings about why non-fiction gets a bad rap or cosy tutorials to demystify geekiness. I’m going to tell you about my week instead. Partly because it has been utterly extraordinary and partly because I relearned something about storytelling.
It all started with my pal Valerie. Occasionally she’ll get an idea in her head and nobody will be able to budge it. She’ll know it’s nuts but she has to do it anyway. She also knows exactly how to work my strings to get me giving it a go too. Sometimes it’s a relatively trivial idea, like ‘let’s go ziplining,’ or ‘camping in the snow will be fun!’ On this occasion however the mad idea spread wider than one terrified and/or frozen Carolyn.
I should add one more thing by way of background, my friend Valerie is a reporter on our local newspaper. She visited Uganda a couple of years ago to report on a locally funded school-building project. While she was there, she happened to hear about another interesting school and popped in for a visit.
She was overwhelmed by what she found. A fully-fledged high school with a mission to rescue street kids, AIDS orphans and child soldiers. Without the school, indentured servitude was the best any of these youngsters could hope for out of life.
The school’s music and drama group put on a show for her. When she told me that she`d decided to bring the performers to Ontario for two weeks, to tour around with their drumming, dancing and singing —and raise money from the concert tickets to build the school a biofuel plant—I nodded noncommittally. Would I be able to help with fundraising and stuff? I gave her my standard reply, I’d probably be able to maintain a website for the project but wouldn’t have much time apart than that.
I was glad I’d been noncommittal as the visit grew nearer. The arrangements were a nightmare, the fundraising a disaster, the committee fell to bits and everyone except Valerie quietly agreed that it was a daft idea that was bound to fail. If they ever got visas and passports, the kids would be overwhelmed by the trip and raise no money and would go home miserable.
But we were all wrong except Valerie, because these young people are magical. I got persuaded to help collect them from the airport, mainly because I can drive big buses. In the hour it took to drive them to their host families I was on board. Did I mention, I drive big stuff? I became their roadie, taking the bus hither and yon, loading and unloading a dazzling array of African drums, a wooden xylophone that weighs more than I do, piles of gourds, drumsticks, rattly things that get tied to legs and, well, stuff. I also had a lot of fun explaining what a roadie is.
Our visitors, aged from 8 to 17, had mostly been dumped by their parents as too expensive to feed. Their music teacher lives in one room and takes kids in off the streets when he finds them. Their talent is truly astounding, their music irresistible and their showmanship sublime. You can see a tiny taster of what they do here.
They will be back. Every school we visited wants to stay connected, every formal concert produced someone from the audience who has fancy charitable connections and wants to support the school. Canada’s premier university for the performing arts wants them back (with a grant from the government) to teach, yes teach, our students a thing or two about physical theatre and storytelling. And here’s the thing that I learned. Well, I learned a lot but here’s the thing I want to tell you.
Valerie and the troupe’s music teacher, our new pal Kevin, came over to my house one evening for conversation and some decent beer. When Ben came home from a rehearsal of Waiting for Godot, Kevin asked about the play. Ben began to explain it. ‘Ah yes, we have a story like that. It’s about preparations for a guest who never arrives.’ When we were able to close our mouths again we began to compare the common threads in all our stories and remembered that styles of art may differ, genres, ways of expression, but the need for stories is universal. As are their themes. Which is why what all writers do matters, whether we like them or not.
Ben and Kevin are now collaborating on a script to bring the Ugandan way of telling tales to Canadian audiences. And I think I might just ask for a bigger bus next time.
Oh, and I`m mightily proud of the website, you can read more about the kids and the projects at Dream for Uganda.