The Key to Sustainable Aid in Africa? Perhaps we should follow the music.

My first field report for Singing Wells was March 29, 2011, reporting on our first day along the Kenyan Coast.  We were in a beautiful village, surrounded by dozens of African children (all brothers and sisters of different mothers), and listening to stunning music.    We knew then that a strong community and village was the foundation for great music.  We now believe great music is the foundation of a strong community and village.  And this makes all the difference.

Part One:  Our Original Mission within the Context of a Host of More Urgent Problems:

When Tabu and I started Singing Wells in 2008, we were passionate about its mission:  to record, archive and share the traditional music of East Africa.   Our twin goals were to sustain and celebrate the extraordinary cultural music heritage of the region and to help make this legacy relevant and fresh to today’s audiences.     The last five years has only re-enforced our commitment.

On our first goal, we only have to remember that we were probably the last folks to record Okumu K’Orengo, one of the great Nyatiti players, before he died.

On our second goal, we only have to remember Francis and Jessie playing together in Kisoro.

And as we plan for our next trip to Kampala this Autumn, we can’t wait to publish new songs, new dances and new stories from East African music.

But, we always recognized that there was a hierarchy of needs in East Africa.    No matter how threatened the culture of music was, we understood that East Africa was facing ‘bigger problems’ – be it famine, disease, tribal conflicts, etc… Music was important, but the threat to music stood at the end of a long list of more urgent needs.   We tended to talk about our mission with caveats.  “The music of East Africa is under threat, but of course, East Africa is facing many other more pressing issues as well.’  It was hard to argue that music was more important than helping a starving family or providing basic medicine to a child.

Part Two:  An Emerging Hypothesis:  Music REALLY Matters and is the Soundtrack for Delivery of More Urgent Aid

And on one level, of course, this remains true.    As we consider any ‘triage’ of African problems, of course we want the next shilling, dollar, pound or Euro of support to help that child.  Music can wait.   But at another level, we’re no longer sure.   The more time we spend in the villages, the more we believe the following to be true:

  • As many aid agencies now recognize, a key conduit to sustainable support for Africa is a healthy village.
  • One of the most important proxies to understand the health of a village, is whether it has a strong, vibrant and young musical troupe.
  • Supporting tribal music, therefore, is a key component in sustaining a healthy village, which is a key conduit to delivering all the more urgent and important aid, from medicines, to clean water, to sustainable farming techniques and financing, etc…

We are finding ourselves caveating what we do less and less – we are doing our little bit to support the leaders of healthy villages, so they do can help fascilitate all the other aid that is needed.   Let’s look at each of the statements in turn…

Part Two A:  A Key Conduit to Sustainable Support for Africa is a Healthy Village

Everyone who works and travels extensively in Africa knows the startling contrast between the beauty of a healthy village and the hideousness of the urban sprawl at the edges of African cities.   And most leading thinkers concerned with African development, argue for efforts to maintain village life, to work with people in a village, with all the support that entails, rather than to work with folks who are already displaced, on the move, entering the big cities for the first time (see the  Millennium Village Project and some recent commentary about it – and here)

The village is the preferred conduit for aid and support.  With good water, access to the right medicines, support in sustainable farming, children can thrive in a village, surrounded by an endless parade of supporting ‘aunties’ and dozens of cousins (brothers and sisters from another mother).    For aid agencies, it is of critical importance to keep the village healthy, to make sure family and tribal ties stay strong.   The key word in aid and development is sustainability.  Support at a village level can be sustainable – it can be directed at making the village sustain itself.  Once the village has broken down, and you are supporting people on the move, desperately seeking camps to get urgent care, you are facing, by definition, unsustainable aid.  You are solving critical and urgent needs, of course, but these solutions are not sustainable.

Rather than encourage the drift to cities, maybe we should be encouraging families to thrive in healthy villages.    As one writer on the topic concludes:

Critical factors in the relationship between poverty and health are population and environmental health issues. Eighty percent of the poor in Latin America, 60% in Asia and 50% in Africa live on marginal lands of low productivity and high susceptibility to degradation. This tends to encourage migration from rural areas to the cities. However, in the world’s cities, more than one billion people live without facilities for garbage disposal or water drainage, and breathe polluted air.2 There are Healthy Cities policies and programmes aimed at addressing these problems. At times, it seems to be assumed that eventually everyone will move to the cities. MK Rajakumar, the great family practitioner/philosopher, former WONCA President from Malaysia, points out that, in the totality of human history, cities are a very recent and potentially ‘unnatural’ phenomenon. He suggests that this helps to explain why so many urban people feel more at ease, somehow ‘at home’, in the rural areas. It does raise the notion that there should be programmes which actively seek to reverse the rural–urban drift.

Let’s bring this to life for you.    As you listen to the Macedonia band, look at the Ugandan village behind it – how clean it is, how fresh the air, how tight the community:

Or in Kenya, as you listen to the Sega Sega Band, look at the wonderful Luo Village, with its vast support network:

We are not naive – providing sustainable support for villages in Africa is not easy – and there are a lot of folks trying (see here for some of the issues).  But it is better to start at the source.

An important proxy for the health of a village is a strong, vibrant and young musical troupe…

We have now travelled to over 50 villages throughout Kenya and Uganda recording over 7 hours of songs that have been mixed, mastered and posted for all to hear.    And while we have not done any scientific investigation of this, our strong view is that the following:  the stronger and younger the musical group, the stronger the village.  Let us be clear – this does not mean that the better the music, the richer the village.  In fact, some of the most beautiful music we’ve recorded – from the Batwa of Kisoro Uganda and to the Kel Kar Kwaro of Northern Uganda – was from extremely poor and disadvantage villages.  But in both cases, the village structure was strong, the village elders were respected and the teenagers were actively involved in village life.    Great music is a proxy for strong social cohesion, not necessarily affluence.

One need not go farther than Kilifi Kenya, where the Nyerere Wa Konde Music Club has kept grandfather, father, sons together across multiple generations.   They play together, they travel together and the music has kept the younger sons close to home, tied to the traditions of their village.

Music – and by this we mean song and dance – remains the primary cultural carrier.  Music is the vehicle for stories, it is the sound track to rites of passage, it is the reason to celebrate and the soundtrack to celebrations.  Music in Africa is at the roots of culture – we called our project Singing Wells, because we wanted to evoke the notion of music as the ‘source’, music as the well, from which all else is nutured.    Here are just a few examples:

Francis, bringing the Batwa children together to tell Batwa stories:

Or in Northern Uganda, hearing a Likembe band, The Awach Boys,  sing about reconciliation in a land torn over the last 3 decades by war; the song is Kica Watimon Nining:

These songs keep communities together.  Sometimes, these songs keep communities apart, with songs of peace that make warring tribes pause (see War Dance).  Many of these songs and dances are written for the night, where the shadows of dancers around the fire, fill the children’s dreams with images of hunters and lions, demons and saviours, darkness and light.

Supporting tribal music helps maintain the distribution channels for more critical aid

And this is our emerging insight.  Perhaps the best proxy for sustainable aid to a village is to follow the music.  Where there’s a strong, vibrant and young musical group, you’ll find, in most cases, the necessary structures, through which you can funnel aid.   You’ll find a village that is still telling its stories, still encouraging rites of passage, still bringing young and old together to celebrate life through the passing of seasons.   You’ll find a village eager for aid and support and able to do something positive with it – its leaders will work to make the aid sustainable.

And the music will act as the soundtrack for broader aid efforts.  They will write new songs and dances to celebrate the arrival of clean water, the improvements in child mortality, the improvements in sustainable farming.  And these songs will spread to other villages.

So, just maybe we don’t have to caveat our mission.  Maybe on one level, our mission is to find the villages that have fantastic music and hope the aid agencies will follow.  Maybe we are doing our part to keep the music alive so there will be healthy villages for future support.

All monies you donate go directly to Africa – no admin costs, or need to support the ‘northern side’ (we have separate sources of funding and won’t touch your money).  All monies go to African musicians and dancers, sound and video engineers, and a bit to pay African drivers to bring us to the villages.  These monies are used to pay the performers and record the performance.  These monies are used to keep the music alive and to help in a small but very critical way to keep the performers focused on the music, so the music can support the village, so the village can support the communities and the communities can become a channel for aid and development.  These monies are used so we can  find a special artist, like Tiny Moses that reach an wider audience with his music.  After all, its all about the music.  Here’s Tiny Moses:

Thanks for Listening