Music bridges a gap for Namibian visitors

Two cultures meet at school in Bel Air

February 28, 2007|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,sun reporter

The girls from Namibia made their way through the busy halls of a Bel Air middle school yesterday, taken with the sights and sounds - a basketball game in the gym, the noisy lunchtime crowd in the cafeteria.

But it was a trio of students playing music in the hallway at Southampton Middle that stopped the 10 teenage visitors in their tracks. They gathered around the musicians - eighth-graders playing a clarinet, oboe and flute - and listened to a classical ensemble piece, applauding at the end.

"Thank you, thank you for your music," the visitors said repeatedly.

"Who knew that we would have an audience?" said Elizabeth Wald, a flutist who along with her classmates had stepped out of music class to practice for a competition this weekend.

There is little common ground for the students and the Namibian teenagers, but music is a shared passion. At the Children of Mount Zion Village orphanage where they live, the girls play drums they have built, as well as marimbas and shakers made from gourds. They sing a cappella and dance to the rhythms they create.

Yesterday, dressed in traditional African attire, they visited an American school for the first time, performing and answering questions about what it is like to live in an African orphanage.

"They are riveted by it," said Elizabeth Fetters, the sixth-grade music teacher. "They know they are seeing genuine performers."

The Namibians, ranging in age from 13 to 16, came to Maryland this month for a six-week stay during which they will visit and perform at several churches in the Baltimore area that support their orphanage.

Southampton was chosen for their school visit because it is close to Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Bel Air, which founded the orphanage where 55 children live.

Much of their rhythmic music is accented by a leader singing and a chorus calling back, a style that struck a chord with the young American audience.

"It's good to hear something different from what's on the radio," said Ronnie Huber, 11, who had a front-row seat for one of the four performances in the school auditorium.

Though the girls sang songs, including many spirituals, in native dialect, their message got across to many in the audience.

"By the end of their concert, I totally knew what they were saying," said Ashley O'Dell, 12.

Between songs, dances and a drum solo, the girls shared stories about life in the orphanage near Katima Mulilo, a small town along the Zambezi River in eastern Namibia. They spoke of losing parents and other family members to disease or war, and finding a new home at the village. In addition to residences and a school, the complex includes a farm with livestock and a large garden.

"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen," Margaret Matengu, 15, said to the audience before describing a typical day at the orphanage.

Children rise at dawn, feed and groom the animals, eat breakfast and attend classes. American students, many of whom may not be able to fathom living without the Internet, iPods or pizza, posed many questions. The first was about food.

"We eat shima almost every day," said Inonge Dorothy Mwila, 13. "It is ground corn."

The girls eat pizza, but it is something of a rarity because of the work required to make dough from scratch for several dozen diners. Here the girls have found that pizza is everywhere.

"I like American pizza much better," Inonge Dorothy said.

One student asked, "Where do you hang out?" The girls said they have little spare time, and the closest town is miles away on a road on which a driver might be blocked by a herd of elephants.

"I liked it when they talked about their lives, and that they do chores just like us - even though we don't milk goats," said Abby Smucker, 12.

At the orphanage, the children work with teachers at their own pace. Many could not read or write before they arrived but are learning quickly, said Rebecca Mink, a member of the Mount Zion congregation who helps run the orphanage.

Southampton Middle also has supported the village, sending toys, clothing and money from fundraisers, said Theresa Travers, a science teacher.

"We have seen slides from the village, but it's just so neat to see [the children] in person," she said.

Pete Dzicki, 11, said the performance was a new and different experience. "It helps show us we are not the only culture in the world."

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