JULY 13: Mr. Joe and I set out from Nkwichi a little after seven in the morning.  Our destination today is Mala, my last village in which I will be working with the choir.  I was scheduled to come to Mala well over a month ago when I went to Utonga, but the choir sent me a message while I was still in Utonga that it would not be able to rehearse at the scheduled time due to conflicts with the school schedule.  This being a Saturday at the start of a traditional three-week Winter school break, it should not be a problem this time.

I have to admit that going to Mala feels like a bit of an anti-climax after all the journeys I have taken.  The main part of Mala is only a forty-minute walk from the lodge, and most of the employees of the lodge live there (with the remainder mostly in Mbueca and four coming all the way from Utonga).  In fact, Nkwichi itself is technically part of Mala, so I am really walking to the center of “my own town” (kumudzi kwathu).

Regardless, Mala has a very good choir.  In fact, it placed first at the choir festival last year.  Their choirmaster, Mr. Andrew Kaiwala, received the “best choirmaster” award.  He also works at Nkwichi as the staff manager, and in the village he serves on the school board, which is meeting today at two.  I’ll need to do everything before then so that we are out of the church so the school board can meet there.

When we are almost to the church, we run into someone Joe knows (naturally) who is headed to Nkwichi from Utonga.  The mfumu there has sent this man to let us know that there will be volunteers at the festival from his village for the kitchen and for general errands, and also to ask why rumor has it that the lodge is only buying thatch from the villages of Mala and Mbueca this year to re-thatch roofs during rainy season… what’s wrong with Utonga?  We thank him for the information about the volunteers and wish him well with his other message, not having an answer for him one way or the other regarding the thatch.

We arrive at about 7:45 for a scheduled 7:30 rehearsal to find Mr. Andrew alone again, naturally.  He is outside the church reading his Bible – I am happy to see that it is the more modern translation, the same one I have. If he looks up Psalm 23 later he will find the exact words we are singing in “Chauta.”

I know that the choir is not likely to arrive until around 9, so I propose we have an impromptu choirmaster meeting now while we wait.  Since Joe and Andrew know me well by now, they both have more questions for and about me than anything else.  Andrew wants to know about my background at home: Do I sing? How many choirs do I lead?  What else do I teach?  They want to know if I get paid for all this, and I say that I do.  I ask Andrew if he gets any stipend for being choirmaster at his church.  “Who would pay?” he asks laconically.  I tell him one Sunday he should announce there will be no offering that week; he will be passing a hat around for money for the choirmaster.  Both of them laugh heartily at this suggestion.  I ask if the lay leaders get any money for their effort in leading the services and preaching the (lengthy) extemporaneous sermons.  Andrew explains that if they run into financial difficulties they might speak to the church committee about it, and they will help if they can but otherwise, no.

Andrew asks what sorts of issues I face with my own choirs, which I thought was an excellent question.  He is delighted to hear that I face the same musical and personality issues that he faces here; indeed, I assure him that they are universal problems wherever choral music is sung.  He asks me to help him with motivation in the group, since he has younger singers who are not there because they really want to sing but because their friends are in the group and they want to be with them.  I assure him that this is a common refrain as well, but I tell him I will do what I can.

Joe and Andrew are stunned when they learn that my university has 16,000 students.  They start calculating, “That’s Mbueca, Mala, Utonga, Mandambuzi…” I tell them that it is basically all the people in the Manda Wilderness minus Ngofi.  They shake their heads as I tell them the University has its own housing, many school buildings, its own police force, places for people to eat, etc.  Andrew is trying to figure out where the money comes from for me to get paid, and I try to explain how a university works and how students sign up for classes.  I am not sure if I explained that part clearly enough to him.

They also ask what instruments choirs sang with in the United States.  I explain that we, too, sing a cappella, but that we also might sing with an organ, or a few instruments, sometimes drums alone, sometimes a symphony orchestra (a term Joe did not recognize until I start naming its instruments, then he knew what I meant right away).  Andrew asks me if we ever sing with a keyboard.  This question brought me up short.  He was referring to the electronic keyboards I have mentioned that are enormously popular here.   Mala won one last year as their prize for coming in first place.  These are items of considerable prestige for a church here to have. They are hooked up to large speaker systems with big batteries run by solar inverters and are played loudly before during and after the service, to the delight of all.  Mandambuzi’s mfumu came to me personally in front of his village choir and assembled villagers to ask me to help them get one for their town.  How (and why) would I explain that such a keyboard is regarded as a beginner’s instrument in the United States, Canada and Europe and is often given to children as one of many Christmas gifts, only to be stored in a closet somewhere more often than not or perhaps given away, sold or simply broken a few months later?  The keyboard they got would cost under $150 at home, but with shipping and exchange rates costs over $300 here.  By now you know that this is a huge amount of money here and would take months or years to save. For reference, the average village church offering – a good indicator of money beyond necessities for a church-going family - appears to be the equivalent of two to four dollars for a congregation of between one and two hundred. This explains the pride such a purchase brings to a village church, let alone to a choir that has won one as a result of its music making.  I pause for a long time to think very carefully, then reply that not many choirs use keyboards quite the same as the ones they use here, but that many choirs do use electric organs.  This answer appears to make sense to them, and indeed, the electronic instruments are equivalent in terms of their meanings to their respective ensembles.

By now (around 9:30), enough of the group had arrived that we could begin.  As usual, we start with the group singing from a seated position.  I am shocked by what I am hearing.  The group is out of tune, and many of the singers are slumped over.  The sopranos are too soft, which is an absolute and undreamed of first for me to hear from a choir here!  Many of the children have a bored, faraway look in their eye.  We have a lot of work to do!

I begin as I so often have with a posture and breathing lesson.  This is a culture that values experiential learning, so I have the group slouch and sit up straight during the same song, slowly altering their posture within and between phrases so they can feel and hear the difference.  Of course the difference is evident right away, and this sets up a good rapport for the remainder of the session.

We progress to adding dance and begin working on presentation as we work other technical issues.  We even talk a bit about stage deportment between songs since I know this choir has considerable performance experience from their frequent singing for guests at Nkwichi.

We move to the video work.  Here their pride in presentation begins to take over, and each video is progressively better in terms of how the group looks, which means posture is better, which means the sound is better – the good cycle that attention to how a group carries itself engenders.  The difference is so drastic between the first and fifth song, I show them the first video again at the end so they can see the difference themselves.

As we close, Andrew gives the group a long pep talk, telling them that there is a lot yet to do (very true) and that they can not assume they will win this year just because they won last year.  He thanks me and closes with a prayer.  We take the group picture and I hand out pencils, again a huge hit with everyone.    
The Mala St. Lucas Anglican Choir, Mr. Andrew Kaiwala, choirmaster, kneeling in front
We are done with everything by one, which would make lunch very brief for Andrew, were it not for the fact that the school board meeting was scheduled for two.  This meant of course in reality he had at least two hours to get home, have lunch and be back.

 Joe and I are back at the lodge by two (the real two), and I spend the rest of the day in the office revising the script for the festival and preparing topics and handouts for the choirmaster training.

My time in the villages has come to an end.  I have visited fifteen of the sixteen villages in the Manda Wilderness, and I have worked with the thirteen choirs that exist and that will be representing their respective villages.  It is a bittersweet feeling, since I learned so much and loved the experience more than I could have thought possible.  I feel guilty that I am a little blue today about the idea of staying at a luxury eco-lodge for two weeks, but I know why I have those feelings and let myself have them.  Tomorrow will be another beautiful day at Nkwichi, and I know I will feel much better.

At night I sit on the rocks at the far end of the beach and gaze northward, where the first villages I visited lie, remembering how I felt that first trip when everything was so strange and new.  I name to myself every single village I have visited, one by one, slowly, thinking of the people I met, the music we made and the experiences I had in each as I name it.  Then, I get up and head to my hut.  I have work to do tomorrow to get things ready for the festival.  And besides, I have saved a bar of Belgian chocolate all this time. This chocolate was a gift for each of us that a French volunteer brought back from Europe the second week of my time here.  I promised myself then I would eat it only after I had completed all my visits.  How many times have I thought about that chocolate bar between my journeys, when I knew it was lying at the bottom of my duffel, waiting for me!  Somehow, though, when I get to the hut this night, I don’t feel like having it. 

It is still there.


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    A choral conductor walking cheerfully over the world...


    May 2013