29 January 2012

Who is afraid of the black man



Some time ago, two years from now, an organization contacts me and asks if I would be interested in participating in a project regarding immigration for primary schools.

Their intention was to produce a cartoon book of almost 100 pages which would talk about immigration “but the true one, because not everybody is a delinquent” says the voice on the telephone. OK, I say but give me a day or two to think about it. I think that producing a comics books of 100 pages or more is a long and hard work, especially for who reads and especially when the reader is in primary school. So what to do? Why not take the culture that is purposely excluded directly into the classes ? Why not take in the classes directly the voice and the music of this culture? But how can one have the children participate actively without have them listen to someone talking? Well, the idea came. I am concentrated and am setting up a completely different project. Initially I need to structure everything just like in a course, a course divided in two parts. In the first part we will talk about the African culture, and specifically of the mandengue culture. In the second part the children will be introduced to the fantastic world of the cartoon and with the acquired techniques they will illustrate the stories that they have listened to. For a total of 12 meetings. The introduction to the projects closed this way: “The course aims at stimulating the knowledge and the interest towards other cultures and at taking children closer to a specific narrative technique close to them like that of the cartoon language. “ Title of the course “Who is afraid of the Black Man”. Happy with it I sent my project via mail.

Time passed and the Province accepts the proposal and more than one year later the same voice on the phone calls me in Feb 2011 to say let’s get going. Well, while I think of how to do it.

I call Sekou and Madya to give them the news and to ask them to meet up to talk about this. While we drink quantities of tea and within a brainstorming situation we find ourselves ready.

First day, introduction with the kids. After the ritual presentations, the exposition of what the course will be, the first words come out slightly uncertain. “Hello . . . we are here to talk to you about the differences, ehm … for example do you know the difference between me and him?” pointing at Sekou who had just put on a pair of glasses.

Children are of course small but not stupid and to say that he is black and I am white is of course not nice. With a stupid smile on my face I carry on “well, I will tell you… he is wearing glasses and I am not” and there goes everyone laughing. OK the ice is broken. We are clear now that they can laugh at us, so they can trust us. Mainly that the differences are not in the colour of the skin but in the ways in which these people of different colours see, built and talk about the world around them.

We had prepared a table made up of musical listening with various stories to tell and small tests. But the children’s curiosity required, like in the best jazz clubs, improvisation and discipline. Madya with his kora would play and sing what Sekou was telling. I would comment here and there on the stories that Sekou would close up with proverbs. Immigration and immigrants were just so distant. We were there instead, present in flesh and blood and in music and stories. Mamma Africa from the geographic map hanging on the wall in the class was smiling.

Our winning horse was a proverb Sekou pulled out of his hat unexpectedly, like magic. A proverb that wanted to show that on this land we are not alone and that we cannot give a damn of who lives close and around us, unless paying the price of remaining alone.
“Who chooses the way of who gives a damn, will find himself in a country of ah if I only knew!”.

I don’t know what translation Sekou used to give a voice to this small wise pearl. The children immediately made this into something applicable to the class and to the whole world. How could one contradict this, they are small that they are not stupid and to understand that we live in a world made up of egoism, hypocrisy and falseness is not that difficult for them either. (*)

We had decided to establish a couple of points to be followed. One was mostly the respect towards oneself just like for the other. Abused rhetoric of course, but with the weapons and the eloquence of the griot this would become fresh running water.

“There are things that one is unable to say without smiling. One of those is your own name. Let’s see if someone wants to try to say his own name without smiling…”.

The most tenacious would not last more than 6 seconds, then they would burst into a laugh.
Others would say their names smiling openly.
“Your name is important, it is an important word, strong, it is a word that will accompany you throughout your lives and it is for this reason that one cannot pronounce it without smiling.”

Like good griots we passed onto the importance of the word.
“What do you think foreigner means?”
“That he is not of our country!”
All together the class proudly replies.

“Well, do you think the word foreigner can be applied only to people or also to things?”
“Also to things!”
“So also things are foreign. Look at your shoes, your t-shirts, you pencils, you bags and find out where they come from.”
“Cina again!”
“Well apparently we are surrounded by a world of foreign things. But thinking about it, are we scared of foreign things? We don’t trust them although we take them with us?”
“nooo” all together even more proudly.
“So why then do we have to be scared of foreign people?”

Looks and satisfied smiles accompany this small little discovery. The discovery of a word that has been abused that has been removed from its usual meaning, it was acquiring a new meaning. Foreigner was loosing it’s aurea of unreliability and consequently of distrust.
A child with his hand up and a little polemic: “but foreigner is also what we don’t know”. Sekou with a big smile says “in fact , we are here so we can get to know each other!”
Score! One – Zero for us!. Ball in the centre.

The kids started to understand that all this was going to take them towards unknown paths, that the game, the joke, the story and the music would have become instruments that would help them out during the trip and that the trip itself would be and instrument of knowledge.
To experiment collectively through playing trying to shed some light on complex matters seemed to be the winning weapon.

Unfortunately it was not this way for the second part of the course. The established meetings had been cut and I found myself cutting and speeding up just on the cartoon lessons. Here we need to specify something. Our intention was to give the children the tools to make up a story, not to teach them how to draw, but how does one imagine a story.

In the few time left, together with the technic things which I had to explain, the framing, the subject, the scenery, the story board ecce cc the issue I cared mostly about was the building of the story, how to put together a series of events and to give them a meaning.

“Observing, questioning yourself and answering yourself. It’s all here. Whatever you look at and that surprises you ask yourselves why. Always.” Looking out of the window and inviting the kids to do so too: “you see? There is a man still on the sidewalk. Ask yourselves why. Why is that man still on the sidewalk? Is he waiting for someone? And who is that someone? What is he gone to do?
“Ask yourselves always why. Write down whatever comes to your mind without a chronological order. Then put in place the various answers and you will have a rough copy of your story on which you can work on. “I would end the lesson by fixing an appointment: “ At six this afternoon, prepare yourselves with the pen and notebook and look out of your windows. “Ask yourselves why. (**)

The children were very happy about the cartoons but they didn’t quite catch the link between the first part of the course. Mainly the collective experience on what they had learned was missing, we had to rush to make up some stories, news stories. We had learned to digest without having eaten and now it was time to chew.

Talking to the children I realized that my enemy was the external language. The mass media information, the cascade of images coming from the tv with its chaotic world and its’ irrationality to deconstruct to be read and then told.

In fact the stories that the children wanted to tell were in some cases very complex and articulated to be solved quickly with the little time we had left.

So the complexity of the stories was such that even an expert would have needed time to find a good way and the right narrative chords that they had figured out. This again explains that the children are small but not stupid. And not only.

The exclusion of the children from the active and participative adult life seemed to be a question of language. True. Once the language was acquired (in this case that of the cartoon), the stories to tell were becoming rich. As if to say that the children had been quite for too long and that now they had to tell the story. Doing this they would enter the adults’ world. Telling it in fact.

Partly is was about re-elaborating stories that we had told in class but updated and readapted with new actors chosen amongst the class and also between us. In fact some of the stories were about Sekou and or Madya trying to solve everyday problems like the staying permit, work and the afar families.

Or also fantastic stories in which Madya would become the inventor of the kora, naming it this way because he fell in love with a girl called Kora, or Sekou and Madya that would become healers and with their songs and stories they would heal a child who was in hospital because he didn’t give a damn about the red light and was hit by a car.

Stories that would tell the friendship that was established between them, white children, Sekou and Madya; the black men. Those children were proud of this friendship and when leaving school in front of their parents they would say goodbye to us with a well evidenced hand. We would watch them leave while they were explaining to mummy or daddy who we were and what we were doing. So : who was afraid of the black man?

Since the beginning of the course I had difficulty feeling at ease in the right place at the right moment. Yes, because to work with children I thought they would not have the capability of understanding fully what we wanted to demonstrate that if there were differences between us those would be jewels and as such should be treated. I didn’t see that the children were concerned about the differences or at least they did not perceive them as such. In fact they understood it was something that belongs to the “adult world” and that it doesn’t concern them at all.
They would perceive themselves as children. They felt children and they identified themselves as children and this was enough. A childish humanity. The distances were mostly between us and them, the adult world and the children’s world. A gap that we tried filling in by taking off our adult mask, trying to give meaning and dignity to the children’s humanity by providing elements of a different culture.
If one could separate within integrity and within the conservation of childrens’ worlds, we could hope for a better world. We have worked with this idea in mind. We have worked so that in the future there will be no need for us.

Marginal thoughts:

(*) the children feel lonely. They are lonely. Children are waiting to learn the rules of an already made up world, not in the process but already made, a world that will reach them too late, when they will not be children enough to change it.

(**) during one of these lessons a little girl tells me that she cannot make up stories, that she cannot imagine them, that nothing comes to her mind. The little girl had two big eyes framed inside an adult expression, her serious and direct look does not miss the confrontation. I think to myself that it is not nice that a 9 years old baby has such a look in her face. The look of who has and will not have surprises in this world. No, it’s not fair. I am very emotional and I ask her to wait till the end of the lesson. Then we can talk about it. When the lessons was over I ask her “what do you think . . . . can we have an idea for a story now”. “Yes now we can”.

A heartfelt thanks to:

Franci for the photos
Daniela who is wonderful teacher but she doesn’t know;
Sekou Diabate and Madya Diebate without whom this project could not have been possible’
And to all the kids we have met and to all that they have taught us.

Project implemented in the schools listed below:


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