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."
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