Okay, so I know that I just put up a post yesterday, but I just experienced something that I thought was really cool, and that I want to share. Hopefully, you’ll think it’s cool, too.
So, just to set the stage, some of us spent the day near Entebbe, at a volunteer’s site on a demonstration farm. We were learning about building energy efficient cook stoves, and two current volunteers were leading the session. I had a lot of fun, and it was great to get out of the classroom for a day to do some physical work. We were doing lots of shoveling of soil, which we mixed with sawdust and water to create this mud mixture, and then we built the stove using bricks and the mud we had just made. It’s pretty neat…the stove is designed so that airflow enters a small chamber which contains a little wood, and then the smoke and hot air are directed to two holes where pots would sit, concentrating the heat onto the pots from below and from the sides. Then, the air is directed to a chimney structure and out of the house. The chambers and passageways that the air passes through are formed by sticking the trunks of banana plants in the structure, and eventually the trunks will decompose and can be pulled out, creating openings in the mud. I’m not sure how well I explained that, but the idea is that this kind of a stove doesn’t need as much fuel (wood), because the heat given off from the fuel is channeled so that it warms the pots more efficiently and effective. Also, the design reduces indoor air pollution, since the smoke goes up a chimney and out of the building. Most people in Uganda who cook on charcoal stoves or on three-stone fires end up breathing in a lot of the smoke, since it just rises past the food being cooked and fills the room.
That wasn’t the really cool experience, even though I had a lot of fun with that today. After returning to Wakiso, I hung out with friends at one of the bars just outside of town, and then headed home around 7 pm. When I got there, the only other people in the house were my host mom and her little grandson, Hosea, who is about 3 or 4 years old, I think. I have a lot of fun with him, especially when he ventures into my room in the evenings and I teach him English words for some of the things in my room. He has become really good at recognizing lights, clocks, pens, and brushes, although his pronunciation is pretty funny. (light ~ ayiti, clock ~ kaka, pen ~ penni, brush ~ brussssssssh)
Anyway, while I was eating supper, he was hanging out near the table, just watching and laughing occasionally when I would look at him. Then, my host mom had to go outside to talk to someone in the front yard, and I think Hosea got very worried about her, maybe wondering whether or not she would come back. Obviously, she was right outside, and we could hear her talking, but that didn’t change the fact that he started bawling (and he can bawl quite loudly…he threw in some really nice ear-piercing shrieks). So, I started talking to him, trying both English and Luganda (they’re trying to teach him English early), saying things like “Don’t cry,” “You are all right,” etc (in both languages). This didn’t work…So, I walked over to where he was standing, picked him up, brought him back to the table, and sat down with him in my lap, and I continued saying the reassurance attempts in a very calm voice, as he continued to cry in a very un-calm voice. This didn’t work either. So, I changed tactics. I held him in my lap, starting to sway back and forth, and began humming the theme from Brahms’ Lullaby (if you don’t think you know this piece of music, you probably do and just don’t realize it…here’s a youtube link to convince you that you’ve probably heard this before: Johannes Brahms - Lullaby). Almost immediately, Hosea was silent. The tears stopped, and he just listened. I was able to keep him calm for at least 5 to 10 minutes, as my host mom finished her conversation, repeating the lullaby probably 6 or 7 times. Finally, she came back in, I let Hosea get down and run to her, and I finished supper. And I was just sitting there thinking that music is truly an amazing thing.
It is often said that, to truly understand the culture of a certain people, you must understand the language of that people. I agree with this. People who study world music will probably also say that, to understand the music of a culture, you need to understand the culture itself. And, in the world music class I took in college, we learned that music is NOT the universal language, since the musical styles of people from different cultures can differ as much as the languages of people from those different cultures. Traditional African music, with an emphasis on complex rhythms, multi-layered rhythms and textures, and call and response patterns, is very different from western music, which focuses on harmonic structures, relatively simple rhythms, and bringing out the melodic line. The style of one culture would probably sound very foreign to someone brought up in and immersed in the music of the other culture. I also agree with this. However, I still think that music has some sort of universal quality to it. A beautiful melody (like Brahms’ Lullaby…hopefully I did it justice) seems to touch us somewhere beyond the cultural differences that we might see on the outside. We are all able to appreciate, enjoy, and love the wonderful music created by the sound waves in the air all around us. If you think about how sound is produced, I think that you might see how it is able to literally connect the person or group creating the music to the person or group listening to the music. Whether you’re sitting in a concert hall or in a little dining room, the sound waves coming from the musicians stretch out to reach the listeners, touching both groups and allowing them all to experience the beauty inherent in the music. The musician literally touches the listeners, so that the listeners can share in the experience of the musician, each in his or her own way.
I know I’m getting sort of abstract here, but this is one of the reasons that I love music so much. It connects people, and it can express pure emotions and ideas that may be difficult or impossible to completely convey with words. Sometimes, I think that language can limit our expression (or, at least, my expression), but music can communicate feelings and thoughts “with sighs too deep for words.” What I’m trying to express here (and maybe words are limiting that expression right now) is that maybe music can help us all to find a common humanity within each and every person, and maybe it can bring us together to realize that we are not so different after all. As I struggle to understand certain things about Ugandan culture that seem so foreign to me, I was also able to connect, for a few minutes at least, on a very fundamental level, with a little boy from that culture, just by singing a piece of music that conveys feelings of peace and calm. It seemed to transcend any sort of cultural difference and bring us together. Personally, I think it’s a pretty beautiful thing, and, even though volunteers will often say that extended service abroad makes them a little more cynical than when they began, it serves to give me hope, at least for now, that the possibility of a better, more just and peaceful world still remains.