FROM THE FIELD

 

Vol. 4, No. 2: Summer 2005

 

 

 

A TANZANIAN SUMMER

by

Michele D. Gibbs

In 1951, African-American poet Langston Hughes asked: “what happens to adream deferred?... Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?...or does it explode?” In my case, it flowered in Tanzania after germinating for forty (40) years.

In the 1960's, politics brought me into contact with some of the most important visionaries and architects of African Independence. Outstanding among them was Mwalimu Julius K. Nyerere, whom I had the privilege to meet in Washington , D.C.

At that time a part of my work was helping to develop an International Black News Network. Contact with others from the Continent followed when I traveled to Algiers to participate in the Pan-African Cultural Congress of 1969.

Although my involvement in developments in the Black Liberation Movement in the U.S., specifically in Detroit, Michigan and later in the Eastern Caribbean island of Grenada, combined to delay my dream of directly experiencing life in post-Independence Africa, my personal growth as an artist prepared me to make the most of it when I finally arrived where human civilization began: Tanzania.

Ujamaa sculpture (collection of Michele Gibbs)>

In particular, the sculpture of the Makonde people had always attracted me. The Ujamaa ( unity ) forms of community portrayed in their art, often with women at the center, seemed a reflection of a social orientation very different from the royal court traditions of West Africa . Rather, they expressed the cooperative spirit animating Maroon communities of Africans in the Diaspora that I knew of and valued highly.

By this time, my own skills as a sculptor had progressed sufficiently for me to do more than simply observe others working. I felt I was ready to create, too. I knew that generally, only Makonde men were the carvers, However, I hoped that they might welcome me. I was not disappointed.

Armed only with a photo portfolio of my artwork, an elementary command of friendly greetings in KiSwahili, and a willing spirit, I arrived in Dar es Salaam . George and I booked a room in Kariakoo, the African quarter of city center and headed straight for the Mwenge art market where the Makonde were reputed to congregate, work, and sell their art.

Since we arrived in early June, the heavy tourist season had not yet begun; so the carvers and vendors were in a relaxed mood, readying their wares for future sales. Many people we met there spoke some English. With that, gestures, pictures, and goodwill on all sides, it was very easy to make contact with individual carvers like Mr. Lucas Makuti,agreeable to lend me tools, give me wood, and include me as an equal with the other Makonde men. The fact that I have dreadlocks also created a cultural bond with some of the brothers who were pleased that “a Rasta sister” had joined them. When I began to work, immediately comfortable in their midst, they also realized that I knew what I was doing so that an authentic basis of mutuality emerged.

<Maasai ebony sculpture group

For me, the Makonde carvers are examples of the age-old sophistication of Africa , creating work in a tradition hundreds (if not thousands) of years old yet as new as tomorrow. By emphasizing the enduring characteristics of their people and the activities of daily life which sustain them, the artists achieve a sublime certainty uncompromised by the fleeting surface changes of contemporary style. Their orientation and skill have thrived in relative isolation and have no need of ‘development.' Rather, it is for those of us who have been torn from our origins to ‘develop' so that we may live up to our own beginnings.

As in the Caribbean , those from ‘away' ready to work ‘on the ground' and learn will have ‘no problem' realizing their potential and dreams.

Mister Makuti at Mwenge Sculptor at work Michele and Lukas Makuti

II

 

If the first month in Dar es Salaam completed one cycle of artistic exploration ferrying to Zanzibar for the final two weeks of our trip revived my love of islands. Accessible scale, constant sea sights and scents, and the balance of natural elements would make any normal day on this legendary spice isle nice. When combined with a ten-day festival of international film showings, African and Indian music and dance performances, and a women's panorama, the atmosphere literally buzzed with creativity.

This was the 8 th year that ZIFF {Zanzibar International Film Festival) had brought together the seafaring peoples of the Indian Ocean to showcase, evaluate, and celebrate the cultural connections the dhow had wrought through the centuries. As the ZIFF JOURNAL states: “The dhow is central in the drama of a 2000 year old mercantile system covering the northern Indian Ocean from the Red Sea to China and Indonesia, crossing over to the Atlantic....Exchanges have been based on clothing, food, housing, religion, language, aesthetics, healing practices, labor and natural resources.....The dhow has been the primary vehicle for these interactions and has shaped the region's collective memory.” In relation to the social construct of ‘race', “whatever color one may use to paint the different continents surrounding it, only a multi-colored ribbon can begin to explain the complex societies of the littoral that have developed as a result of millennia of transoceanic interactions.”

In this context, Africans, Indians, East Asians, and Gulf-state peoples crowded together to share commonalities: multi-toned rhythms of the Diaspora were made palpable in the streets in the features and voices of people. Saris blended with caftans, buibuis and kangas, turbans with gelees; dreadlocks alternated with cornrows, curls, bobs and braids each accenting the other, migration bringing us together in work and life.

African-Americans were sprinkled sparsely through this masala, too: most notably, Charlotte Hill O'Neill and Aida Ayers. Both had chosen Tanzania/Zanzibar as places to live. Charlotte came in 1970 at the age of 19 with her husband, both Black Panthers from Kansas City seeking the progressive political context created by Julius Nyerere. Since then, they have settled in Arusha on the mainland where they have established the United African Alliance Community Center , training Tanzanian youth and village women of all ages in income-producing skills and self-reliant strategies for community development.

Aida reached Zanzibar in 2000 after a life of teaching and community work in Little Rock , Arkansas , her place of birth.

Both artists and activists, their current work was crystallized in the Women's Panorama of the ZIFF festival. This included a visual art exhibition, dramatic monologues of journeys across borders, music and dance performances, a craft vendors market, food, forums, and film.

< dhow batik

Needless to say, the three of us found each other quickly and in a spontaneous movement of like spirits generationally shaped by similar forces were able to forge links for the future. Moreover, our experiences of moving from individual exile to the creation of intentional communities of interest were mirrored by other women in attendance from Zimbabwe , Camaroon , Kenya , Rwanda , Darfur , Sudan , Angola , Capetown , South Africa and beyond. These accumulated minarets of meaning continued to build through the ten days of our stay, making the reality of Diaspora Culture live, demonstrating how people thrive through complication..

A poem this meeting generated in me goes as follows:

 

WANAWAKE

Barefoot on mats we gather:

a circle of all ages together,

m'bira rhythm

plucking us to life.

 

small talk starting quietly,

smiling eyes linking like spirits

reinforced by jasmine bracelets

scenting every move,

stories of our journeys here

how we brave our inner fears

open a space

where distance disappears.

 

an equilibrium

which is not stasis

shines forth from tan and ebony faces

in this place of peace our trust creates:

Zanzibar .

 

 

As for the film festival proper, $30 guaranteed access to all events for the ten days. This meant a mix of twelve hours a day, every day, of performances and 99 films: documentaries and features, animation and shorts In other words, enuf stuff. We took advantage of it all, seeing an average of four films a day in addition to attending a full schedule of music and dance, traditional and modern. The final night awards presentation put a fitting cap on the experience by recognizing films indicative of the gathering's consciousness and concern.

Feature film awards went to: EARTH and ASHES, dir. Atiq Rahmini ( Afghanistan ):

As an old man makes a journey to the distant mine where his son works to tell him that the rest of the family has been killed, he encounters several strangers along the way who also share stories of loss, dislocation, and devastation. It is a film of the perseverance of the human spirit in the face of the atrocities of war.

TUMAINI (Childhood Robbed), dir. Beatrix Mugishagwe ( Tanzania ):

Tumaini and her siblings struggle as many villains and hardships surround their world. These youngsters battle through helpless circumstances and in the face of great adversity display courage and discover hope.

DRUM, dir, Zola Moseka (U>S>A>/ So. Africa ) The story of 50's So.African journalist Henry Nxumalo, his work on the magazine DRUM.

LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD: Souleymane Cisse of Mali (dir., YELEEN (Brightness)

 

I don't know if I will ever have the opportunity to return to this part of the world. but after this trip, I will never forget it.

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[To see sketches from Michele's trip to Tanzania and Zanzibar, click here. When you are done, use the "back" button on your browser to return to this page.]

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Pete Noll, CORAL's Leader, Leaves Oaxaca

Where did he come From? What did he do? Where did he go?

By George Colman

Pete Noll began his work as Director of  CORAL, an organization committed to low-income Oaxacan children with hearing problems, in 2002. Three years later he returned to the United States to work toward a graduate degree in Public Policy and Management at the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh .

Noll's work in Oaxaca has been, by any measure, impressive. When he began, CORAL had a staff of 3 serving 100 patients. In 2005, the organization has a staff of 14 social workers, doctors, technicians, educators and an accountant providing services to 750 children.

At the end of 2001, the staff was so small it could do little more than respond to daily demands and hope things would work out. In 2005, a trained and committed staff integrates individual work plans with organizational plans for the four “pillars” of CORAL's work: 1.the early detection of hearing problems, 2. the provision of hearing aids and training in the use of them, 3.direct work with parents of children in the program, and 4.a school providing specialized hearing therapy. 

Three years ago, financial support for CORAL's program was, at best, uncertain. In 2005, CORAL operates on income obtained from three main sources: 1) contributions from the United States , 2) foundations in Oaxaca , and 3) income from services provided by CORAL. A solid financial base has been established and assured for at least the next two years. Imaginative programs for long-term, sustained support are being developed and tested.

These are, of course, the considerable achievements of no one person but of the entire CORAL staff.. The selection, training, and leadership of that staff, however, has been the clear responsibility and priority of Pete Noll who believes the key to an effective organization is “getting the right  people on the bus and the wrong people off it.” His main contribution to CORAL, he believes, has been precisely in this area: staff selection, staff clarity on the mission, staff planning, and staff coordination.

It is not everyday that a person with Noll's abilities commits himself for three years at a low salary to a service organization in one of the poorest states in Mexico instead of going for the gold up north. It is encouraging that he has done so because it signals that   humane traditions continue to contend with the prevailing commercial culture's  glorification of money, power and privilege. In the wilderness of these times, all efforts to increase equality, affirm solidarity, and work for greater approximations of justice and peace should be noted and celebrated.  

His life began in a home created by socially concerned parents who had been influenced by and active in the civil rights movement of the sixties. His father is an Anglican clergyman and scholar who taught at Trinity Episcopal Seminary in Pittsburgh and now leads a university in Uganda . It was a family that encouraged Noll's participation in a broad range of youth activities including church sponsored work in Haiti where he constructed cisterns and learned about the greater world beyond Pennsylvania .         

By  word, deed and quiet persuasion, his parents, dedicated Christians, communicated their conviction that a worthwhile life, a successful life, was not about getting things or making money but was about making some positive difference in the world. Pete Noll's idea of a good life became entwined with the notion of a life that does some good. It is not surprising that after college and a brief stint selling insurance in southern California,  he signed up with the Peace Corp and moved to Guatemala . 

His work there was organizing workshops on small business administration for local teachers and interested adults. A fine athlete who played on Pennsylvania state's championship high school soccer team, he joined community efforts to construct a new sports complex and played hours of basketball and soccer with local fans. In the evenings he sat with the men and women of the village and  listened to their stories of life and death in recent wars.     

He read and learned from books like Bitter Fruit , Schlesinger and Kinzer's account of the CIA operation in Guatemala which overthrew the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954. A more treacherous world than he had experienced came gradually into view.

Noll's years in Guatemala were followed by work in El Salvador rebuilding homes destroyed by two earthquakes and a subsequent trip to Oaxaca where he was invited to become director of CORAL. 

In Oaxaca , he initiated a new period in the life of CORAL as he and the staff worked together on: 

 *Visits to families in small villages beyond the city in which children were known to have hearing problems. Noll's  Spanish was good and his manner quiet and low-key as he explained to parents that 20,000 Oaxacans have hearing problems, that early detection is critical, that CORAL could help..

 *Meetings with the government's Minister of Health in which Noll suggested cooperative action. As a result, CORAL trained 90 doctors in the early detection of hearing problems.

*Joint efforts with the public schools:  A volunteer Canadian audiologist developed and the CORAL staff implemented a continuing program that tests students in public schools whom teachers have identified as having hearing problems.

*Changes and additions were made to the staff.  

*A comprehensive planning process was initiated.

*Grants from foundations were sought and secured. Benefit concerts were cultural and financial successes.    

*The four pillars of CORAL's work: 1)early detection, 2)provision of hearing aids, 3)work with parents, and 4)a school for specialized therapy were expanded and strengthened.

As Pete Noll leaves Oaxaca , it is clear that he has served CORAL and the children of this state faithfully and well. We join his many friends in expressing our admiration for his work and our best wishes in his new endeavors.

(T o learn more about CORAL please go to www.coraloaxaca.org )

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