GEORGIA LOMAX THORPE shares her story and views about volunteering for the Desert Voicebox project in the camps, in early 2020, and running a 4 week long singing workshop with the Saharawi students there.
1. How did you first hear about the Desert Voicebox education program in the Saharawi refugee camps and what made you want to volunteer your time and skills?
"I already knew about Sandblast’s work setting up the school, Desert Voicebox, after travelling to the camps twice before in 2015 and 2016. I initially visited the camps on a delegation trip from the UK with youth organisation The Woodcraft Folk, to learn about the geo-political history of Western Sahara. I later returned to the camps to research Saharawi arts for my undergraduate dissertation, I believe it was after this trip I first heard about the Stave House in the Sahara programme that was being piloted in Boujdor at the time. I thought it was a fantastic idea, after seeing the harsh conditions Saharawis’ face living in the camp, with most of life being about survival, spaces for children to engage in art and gain creative skills were and are hard to come by. Children being born and brought up in the camps are critically in need of opportunities to escape the on-going plight of their society: a place to have fun and enjoy themselves. That’s why this Music and English programme is especially important to the children. Volunteering my time at Desert Voicebox as a singing facilitator was one way I could offer support to the Saharawi cause."
2. What activity did you run in the camps for Desert Voicebox?
"I stayed in the camps for a month and ran singing and music sessions for the children. These sessions were to supplement the music theory and instrumental learning parts of the curriculum. In the month project we focused on developing pitch, harmony, group singing and performance skills. We did this through various vocal exercises, music games and learning songs together, all with the aim to help the students really embody the music: develop senses of melody and rhythm within their bodies and vocalise it. Another aspect of the work was to embed English learning into the music material, improving reading, vocabulary and pronunciation skills by learning songs in English. Even further from this, I encouraged the students to try writing their own lyrics to a song in English, Spanish and Hassaniya. This was a really amazing creative challenge for them, they responded with so much enthusiasm and engaged with the themes of the song with personal insight and poetic expression. All of the time they were gaining confidence and team-working skills which will help them in other aspects of their lives."
3. Had you previously taught students in similar circumstances?
"Never. I had only ever delivered workshops to children and young people in the UK, who lived under very different circumstances and vastly different cultural contexts. There were many challenges when working with the children that I had never faced before, which made it all the more of a meaningful learning experience!"
4. What was your initial impression of the Desert Voicebox program?
"My first impression was that the teachers are incredibly passionate and committed to the school. They care deeply about the children and their progress. The students adore the classes. The fact they choose to go in for more learning after a day of school says a lot. Its obvious the teachers have put in a lot of time creating consistency in the classes from week to week – the students know the expectations of them and they engaged politely and enthusiastically with the classes. When I arrived the class were absolutely brimming with excitement, which made me so pleased I was able to give them an exciting, new, fun experience. They obviously love interacting with visiting teachers, proving that overseas volunteering at the school is something that benefits them greatly. My other first impression was being incredibly impressed by the resourcefulness needed to set up and run the school on low budgets and difficulties transporting materials and technology."
5. How did your role evolve over the course of your time in the refugee camps at Desert Voicebox?
"I knew that my expectations were going to change as I got to know the kids I was teaching. I definitely saw the need for me to use my time to not only teach singing, but offer lots of other fun activities, to give the children an enjoyable experience while I was there and not just have lessons like any other day! I also started to work with the teachers a little more to encourage them to sing, helping build their confidence in singing and show them they can use group singing more in their teaching."
6. Did you see a clear improvement in the student’s learning abilities over the course of your time in the camps at Desert Voicebox?
"Helping children to develop a sense of pitch is a difficult thing to teach, because there is such a variation in natural ability across cohorts, meaning some children needed a long time to develop good vocal pitching, and others needed very little time. I saw an incredible improvement for those who struggled vocalising notes/melodies at the beginning of the month, but I didn’t see these changes happen until the very last week. I remember being so impressed with these students in the final days of my trip, seeing them be able to start to ‘click’ with singing was immensely rewarding. The other big improvements I saw was in all the students’ sense of confidence, presentation and performance skills. Many of them became comfortable singing on their own in front of the rest of the class, something that had been a struggle at the start. I think that really came from working on creating a space free from judgement of one another, I saw students supporting one anther more and more and the sense of team spirit really grew. That’s the result of group singing."
7. Can you share a personal story, where you witnessed either a student or teacher grow as a result of being part of Desert Voicebox?
"There were so many! Personally it was amazing building a relationship with Tetu, one of the music teachers, who I stayed with in the camp. We worked together to plan the lessons, and we came up with the idea of setting the task of lyric writing for the kids. Once the students had handed in their lyric ideas, me and Tetu sat down together and went through them. Some were in English and Spanish (I speak a little Spanish) and some in Hassaniya, so we had to work together to translate the meanings of the lyrics, which was a really nice exchange. It was very emotional for us translating the lyrics, particularly for Tetu, as the children had written so beautifully and personally about the Saharawi struggle for self-determination. It was really moving seeing Tetu be so proud of her students. It was also really rewarding being able to help her develop new ideas and skills. There was one moment, when she had finished editing some of the words to make the rhyme scheme work perfectly while still maintaining the message of the lyric, when I saw her really surprise herself at her creativity. She was really proud of the work and we talked about how music education should encompass more than teaching notation, but be about stories, meanings and poetry too. I hoped that she could use those new perspectives on music within her future teaching."
8. What were some of the challenges faced while teaching there?
The biggest challenge was coping with the language barrier. In the time it takes for every piece of information to be translated from what I say to the students’ ears, many of them can get distracted. So managing to keep their attention while the teachers listened and translated was a big challenge. I had to adapt a lot of my teaching material, games and exercises to be able to be understood very quickly in a non-verbal manner. Although it was challenging, it is really important for the students to be exposed to native English speakers, to help support their learning of the language.
9. If you had to explain the Desert Voicebox to someone who was unaware of the program or the importance of the program in the educational development of both the Saharawi students or teacher. What would you say in one to three sentences?
"Desert Voicebox gives a group of refugee children the chance to do more than just survive. It provides them relief from the long-term limbo of living in the camps as well as creative skills they will use for life."
10. What was your biggest takeaway from your experience teaching there?
"To appreciate that education is a powerful force. And that we in the UK have access to so many resources, people and funds to support our own education system, we should be applying those better to improve the quality of education for all."
12. What was your experience of living with a Saharawi host family and being immersed in the community?
"It was a very special experience living with Tetu and her family. I had stayed with Saharawi families before, but never for such a long period of time. In the camps in the desert, time can move very slowly. You have to adjust your approach to life, slow down, and not feel the pressure to constantly be doing something! Tetu and her family were extremely welcoming and kind to me, and they loved sharing parts of their culture and daily life with me. The sense of community within the camps is unparalleled, neighbours share spaces with one another in ways that would seem very strange in parts of the UK and Europe."
13. How did you personally grow as a result of your experience?
I learned a lot about patience, and allowing things to happen at their own pace. I also found myself becoming more spontaneous within the classes, responding to what was happening in the room intuitively and working off plan when it happened naturally. From this I definitely learned to trust my own instincts when delivering workshops, and that I didn’t need to plan every detail. When I returned I also saw a little clearer some of the absurdities of what we do to be happy in modern western life, it definitely made me think about the things in my own life that were actually completely unnecessary for my own happiness. I also got a bit better at making Saharawi tea (although nowhere near perfected it).
14. In the context of the Saharawi conflict, what stood out for you about the Desert Voicebox initiative?
"The Saharawis understand the importance of arts, languages and cultural education, but much of the time they have been forced to prioritise the essentials due to the economic toll of the struggle. These are communities living on food aid packages – a lot of the time there simply aren’t the funds or resources to run arts activities. Not to say the Saharawis haven’t set up such ventures in spite of this, but it’s an area where international charities can really help. Desert Voicebox is unique because it provides both language and music education side by side, each supporting the other. English language skills are becoming more and more important, opening up opportunities for the students’ to live and work abroad in the future. Music education has a massive range of benefits, and provides a unique skill that many Saharawi children will never have access to."
15. What is your impression of the role the Desert Voicebox programme plays in the lives of both the Saharawi children and teachers?
"It gives both teachers and children a real sense of purpose, having something to really care about, to love doing. It’s a huge part of their lives. The teachers receive vital training that gives them so many new skills and they are working to implement alternative teaching methods, compared to more traditional methods used in schools in the camps. Desert Voicebox really is an oasis in the camp. The children have so much fun in the classes and it’s a space for them to grow in ways they aren’t able to in their normal school curriculum. The curriculum offered at Desert Voicebox is all about giving the kids a voice, so they can grow up to be confident in voicing their world view."
16. What are your hopes or aspirations for the Desert Voicebox program going forward?
"That it grows and grows! Getting more teachers trained is key, so there can be more classes and more children can be engaged. It would be great to see the school expanded even further, or even more Desert Voicebox schools set up in the other camps as well as Boujdor."
17. How do you remain connected to Desert Voicebox, since leaving the camps?
"It is so easy to quickly forget what life is like in the camps when you return home and settle back into the western lifestyle. Its so important to keep talking about the situation in Western Sahara here in the UK, the more people are aware of the situation, the stronger the international campaign. I love seeing the continued work happening at Desert Voicebox through Instagram and newsletters, it makes me really happy to see other overseas volunteers visit the school. Until I can next visit the camps, it is really exciting hearing about the plans to grow the school and hope I can continue to support the work in small ways."
They are the engine running Desert Voicebox from the ground, managing all the local aspects and teaching, so far, 3 out of the 4 levels of the programme. Two of them teach English, the other two, music, but they work together as a team and help each other whenever necessary. They are learning at the same time as working, getting their professional training through intensive workshops and online lessons, and truly devoting themselves to their students and the project.
Here they briefly introduce themselves, showing off their English language skills!
I have loved all the volunteers who have contributed to our knowledge. I also thank the teachers who have participated in our distance education in the past months. It was a great opportunity to learn for me. I thank everyone who supports this project for letting it progress. I hope the project arrives to all the Sahrawi children in the refugee camps.
Distance learning has been a really beneficial experience so far, and I hope that the summer training rounds for the teachers will increase. Finally, I would like to extend my special thanks to those who stayed up and helped from near or far to complete this project and bring smiles to the faces of innocent children.
I wasn't lucky enough to be able to continue my education until university! My grandmother isn't a big fan of education and she was responsible for me; she always said "girls shouldn't go far from home for long time! It's good enough that you can read and write your name"! I didn't and couldn't give up! I found ways to study in the camps and joined every course here run by kind and loving friends of the sahrawis who are helping the sahrawi refugees in many different ways.
In the camp I studied Spanish and English, and I am now still working on my English through DESERT VOICEBOX. I thank all the people who are behind this program. I love teaching English!
school as a sports coach and during my work, I had the opportunity to learn about Desert Voicebox. One day, one of the volunteers came searching for a new teacher and he interviewed me and some other teachers from my school, and after some days I got the news that I had been selected! I was very happy and slowly I have become better and better at my new job with a lot of effort. I thank everyone who has given me training and advice, and all those in charge of the Desert Voicebox.
A brief intro by Violeta Ruano, Desert Voicebox Project Manager
Beccy Allen is a long-term friend of Sandblast, and an even longer-term friend of the Saharawis. She has travelled to the occupied territories of Western Sahara to learn and inform about the situation there, has been a key part of numerous human rights campaigns in support of the Saharawi struggle, and been a few times to the Saharawi refugee camps, always involved with the community in diverse ways. In 2017, she decided to spend 6 months in the camps to teach English to the kids of our nascent project Desert Voicebox (Stave House in the Sahara back then), among other things, and she has remained in the hearts of all the projects' participants ever since (quite literally, since she has returned to run workshops and assessments a few times already!). Kind, high-spirited and proactive, Beccy is definitely one of our best ambassadors! Here she shares briefly her experience, but if you want to learn more about her journey you can always check her personal blog here. Happy reading (and please share)!
I'd wanted to volunteer abroad for a long time, but my interests and skills didn't seem to align to point me in an obvious direction. I started getting involved in Western Sahara solidarity and suddenly, I realised I'd inadvertently been preparing for volunteering with Desert Voicebox for a long time. My desire to be on the African continent; my interest to immerse myself in an Islamic culture; my Spanish speaking. Finally, it all made sense. And with the chance to take a one-year sabbatical from my job in the UK, I headed off for a six-month stay in the Saharawi Refugee Camps for an opportunity to put my project management and creative education experience to good use. I was welcomed into a family and a community and soon became part of things - taking my turn to do daily chores and earning my keep as well as building new family and friendship ties that will last a lifetime. The whole experience was a hugely challenging but ultimately rewarding one, which threw me out of my comfort zone and got me problem-solving and adapting like never before. I became a teacher, and the love the children showed me and seeing them flourish in English and music made each and every day a joy. Working alongside some brilliant Saharawi women who have learnt new skills through the programme and are applying them to help build the potential of the children in the camps left me humbled. I am proud to have played a small role in the development of Desert Voicebox. Providing creative education to the Saharawi children is imperative and inspiring in equal measure. With the help of more volunteers the programme can continue to go from strength to strength and enable more Saharawi children to thrive.
A brief intro by Violeta Ruano, Desert Voicebox Project Manager
Last summer we were delighted to welcome Jack Morgan Jones to the team of Desert Voicebox (formerly Stave House in the Sahara) volunteers. He spent almost two months in the Saharawi refugee camps in August and September helping the local teachers to build their new team (they had gone from two to four teachers), manage the launching of the new Desert Voicebox teaching centre, and create a working system of weekly lesson planning and staff meetings. His contribution was vital for the new stage of the project!
Throughout this academic year, the teachers have been implementing everything they learnt from Jack on a weekly basis, carefully planning their teaching and learning to successfully communicate with each other and with the international management team. Even now with the pandemic, and although face-to-face teaching is not happening, the four of them keep meeting once a week to reflect on their (online) work and to make sure that everything and everyone is progressing as they should, just as they learnt from Jack!
Here's Jack's reflection on what it meant for him to volunteer with the project, and share some unforgettable weeks living as a desert refugee. Please read and enjoy, and to hear him speaking you can have a look below at the video he recorded at the time.
“¡Hola!” – a Sahrawi kid said to me – bouncing off the sandy gravel having just performed a quite spectacular bicycle kick with a football.
My plane had landed on an August night in Tindouf a couple of days before. I was picked up from the airport by a musician called Mahfoud, who drove me through the dark desert to Boujdour, a nearby Sahrawi refugee camp. Once there, I joined my host family, Tekwen, and her two wonderful children, Seku and Zahara.
As a volunteer with Sandblast, I was there to help the Stave House Project prepare for the new school year, and prepare a new blue building in the grounds of the Lal Andala primary school, complete with blackboards, green carpet, and air-conditioning, so that the English language and music programme could be taught to the children.
The Sahrawis use song and story-telling to hand down their traditions, and Sandblast know how to run English language and music programmes that can make an intelligent and meaningful impact. As a man of many languages and one, I always found language learning both difficult and enthralling, and so it was something special to see just how enthusiastic Sahrawi children are to not only learn outside their native language of Hassaniya, but beyond their second language of Spanish too.
Aside from pushing forwards the construction of the school building, I worked with four fantastic teachers: the scholarly Neneha, the hilarious Nicole, the doubly hilarious Fatimatu, and the caring Tekwen. We spent hours in a library that had old books glued to the ceiling and the walls, and worked together on teamwork strategies, teaching methodologies, and our daily English language lessons. The four of them were united not only in their love for teaching, but also in their drive to improve themselves as teachers and leaders in their community.
It was challenging; it should be expected of the Sahara desert during the summer. The midday sun was so oppressive I that soon realised that naps were an essential means of escaping the heat. Tekwen would sleep too, as would Zahara, who, when completely covered in a thin blanket, looked like a kayak – with her mummified globe head the bow, and her veiled vertical feet the stern.
In other ways, the time I spent in the camps with my Sahrawi host family was the least difficult thing I have ever done. After traipsing to the mosque for prayer, Zahara might return to play with her yogurt pots, and Seku might come back to hunt for a khanfsa’, a giant and helpless type of beetle that would scuttle away from us like crazy.
In the mornings, I got my running shoes and went running over the Sahara’s distended dunes.
During the afternoon, I chased the children, barefoot over the far too hot for me sand.
At night, I slept under the stars with Tweken and Seku and Zahara.
This repeated throughout September, and I am forever grateful to Sandblast for that.
A brief intro by Danielle Smith, Sandblast founder
Last year, Andrada and Florin, two people who have become like family to me, took a huge leap of faith and volunteered their time to go to the Sahara to run a music workshop, for the Saharawi refugee children, in our Desert Voicebox project. It was an experience of firsts for them. It was the first time they set afoot the African continent, it was the first time they travelled to a desert region and it was definitely the first time they ever tried camel meat. I am truly happy I was able to share this journey with them and the many enjoyable moments we had living together in tent, for ten days, in the middle of the desert.
The music workshop was also a first for our project. Its resounding success proved to be a turning point, highlighting how these kinds of encounters enrich and expand the horizons of everyone involved. During their time there, Andrada and Florin taught the children a Romanian folk song, which they loved and, in turn, the children taught them the beautiful Saharawi song 'Asahara ma tinbaa' (The Sahara is not for same). Once again, music revealed its power to cross all frontiers and showed us the road to building bridges of enduring friendship and respect.
Below is Andrada's account of her experience, in her own words. Please read and enjoy and view the slideshow of their time in the camps.
My name is Andrada Maria Pascu and I am a Romanian piano and singing tutor, based in London for 11 years. I have been working with all levels, teaching from total beginners to University students.
In February 2019, my husband and I were invited by Sandblast to join forces and run a -7 day workshop in the Saharawi refugee camps, based in Algeria. We are both musicians and run AB Music Academy, in London, which we founded in 2012. Considering this invitation both a challenge and an adventure, we rapidly agreed, not knowing that it would be an experience that would have a life impact on us.
Arriving in the Saharawi camp of Boujdour, near Tindouf, we met the wonderful family, which would host us for the entire period of our stay. The lessons we learnt from them were that we can share from the smallest part and there is no me, or you, there is just us. The unbelievable sense of community was shocking, in the beginning, as we never thought something like that would exist: It didn't take us a long time to feel we were part of it and we that we could build something together.
Despite having worked with pupils from all kinds of backgrounds, teaching the children from the camps was a lesson for us as well. Usually, their timetable included 45 minutes of music 3 times per week, but because we were staying only 7 days, their lessons were arranged to run as an intensive music course of 2hrs every day. When asked if they would like to do an extra day on their day off, they all jumped and shouted yes. Considering that we are talking about children from 9-11, an age where they easily get bored and want to go out to play, these children didn’t even like to have their well deserved 5 minutes break.
We couldn’t help making a comparison with the Western society, where it is so hard to keep the students engaged and entertained and where parents often consider a 1h lesson too long for them. The children from the camps worked hard, like little sponges, and absorbed all the information, even though it was delivered in the foreign language and not in Hassaniya, their spoken Arabic.
In those 7 days, we taught music using the Stave House method, which we were introduced to and trained in before going to Africa. It is very enjoyable and easy to deliver no matter what the language and the skill level and it gives music teachers the opportunity to develop their creativity and imagination. Our mission was to consolidate Level 2 Stave House and to do activities with the children to ensure they grasped how to put into practice what they were learning theoretically.
It was heartbreaking to see these children with lots of aspirations and dreams and realising that after they finish school, most of them would have no future. This is why we decided to continue helping and supporting in whatever way we can with our knowledge, and by spreading the word about their existence and their situation.
Our trip to Sahara made us appreciate more what we have: our families, our freedom, and every little small detail which we take for granted - like water- which for us has no value, but they appreciate each drop.
Starting from then, we have been trying to be more responsible with what surrounds us, with our planet and our lives and do not let small details pass us by. We are happy and grateful to have had the chance to learn this lesson and to be able to bring joy and happiness to the children through what we know best: music!
They can create simple stave patterns and rhythms for one another to play and are getting quicker and quicker when reading music. We're really pleased with their progress and hope those following the Facebook and Twitter updates are impressed with each individual child's music reading skills. They can also sing a song in English about the rhythms and the family of different notes so they can tell you about Father Crotchet, the Quaver Twins and Mother Minim – all of which means we're having fun in English along the way!"
Update from Stave House in the Sahara!
For the last two weeks in October, one of our partner organisations, Olive Branch Arts, are in the Camps to run their new photography and music training programme ‘Sand and Vision’. They are working in Smara and aim to build the storytelling and creative composition skills of young participants so they can tell their stories in new ways. You can find out more information about their work here. One of their team, Matt King Smith, is a musician and he is gathering the sounds, music and voices of Saharawis of all ages and musical abilities to create some tracks documenting the team's time in the Camps. We are lucky to have Matt working with both our Stave House in the Sahara groups on two different days of workshops.
This week, Matt led our young people through a series of rhythm and soundscape exercises and will return next week to record some of the sounds and music the young people can make with their voices and bodies and the instruments we have in our classroom. Take a look at the videos below to see what they got up to. Olive Branch Arts' Creative Director (Dramatherapy), Becky Finlay Hall, brought us some letters from children in a school in London and we will be writing some responses to them as soon as we can. The team also brought us some gifts of classroom resources so we are incredibly grateful to Olive Branch Arts for all their support and wish them loads of luck with their project - very much looking forward to seeing and hearing the results!
Meanwhile, Beccy Allen has continued to teach English to the children on a daily basis. Their activities this week involve learning through action and using circle time to ask each other questions and slowly build to be able to talk about themselves and other people in more and more detail. We hope you like watching a little of what we do in action.
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