Exhibition

The Exhibition of my response to the blog is now up. Here are some of the images.The exhibition also includes the paintings which create the backgrounds for the words.

I’m not sure what happens now. There are groups I wanted to visit that I didn’t get chance to before this exhibition, so I might continue the blog for a while longer. A big thank you to everyone who has been involved so far. It’s been a pleasure.

‘Intare’ Burundian Drumming Team

Fact File

Where?            Intare have performed all over Europe.

They performed in Coventry City Centre for the Embracing Africa Festival

in 2015.

When?             The group meets when they get a gig in order to rehearse.

Who?               All the drummers are Burundian men. Not all of them live in Coventry.

What happens?           Drumming, Ikivugo (warrior chants) and dancing.

My contact:     Pierre Nkundwa

Is the group linked to other groups? It’s linked to a Burundian ladies dancing group.

What would you like to see as the future of the group?

The group would really like a start-up grant so it can find good conditions in which to keep the drums, an appropriate venue to practise in, money in order to transport the drums to gigs and to buy more drums. Given all this, the company could get more publicity and become self-sustaining.

I meet Pierre at his house. His wife Valerie, who is involved in the dance group is at work and the kids have grown about two feet each since I last saw them. While the children tuck into spaghetti (Pierre is a chef and his speciality is Italian food) I ask Pierre how the group started.

“Most of us used to do it at home when we were teenagers in Burundi. Some of the men learnt here. We wanted to start a group but we couldn’t bring drums over from African because it’s very expensive (the drums are big) but we had this chance: A group was coming from Burundi to perform here and they left us some drums. Then we were able to start the group. At the beginning we had lots of contracts: Coventry City Council, weddings, private events.”

It’s a professional group, then?

“Yes.” I’m not surprised. I know from before that Pierre was an internationally renowned teacher of Burundian dancing, with many other traditional skills.

 

What about the drums themselves? I wonder what’s so special about them. We look at a video of Intare playing a gig.

“Is that goat skin?”

“Yes, or cow”

“And the wood the drums are made of?”

“The wood comes from a special tree called ‘umuvuga ngoma’ (Ngoma is Kirundi for ‘drum’) which comes only from Burundi.”

“Our drums are small. In Burundi they are huge. Ten or Fifteen people playing them could be heard for miles and miles. It’s a very important part of our culture. I think Burundian drums are unique. The drums call people. They were only for the king, but now they are for everyone, for any occasion. I wish I could pass it on to my children so they can stay in our culture. The drums are a good thing to come from Burundi. They give me hope for my country.”

Pierre tells me a story.  A conversation he had with a Coventry man one day, some time ago, when he first came to the UK.

“He asked me where I was from and I said “Burundi”. He said he didn’t know Burundi. Then he said, “Wait! Do you have those drums that people put on their heads?”

When this man was a child, they didn’t have much money. His Dad took him on a trip to London one day, he remembers it was 1967. His Dad told them they were going to see drummers, but he was shocked when he saw the price of the tickets: He couldn’t understand how drumming could be worth that much. All through the show he was spellbound. He loved it so much he asked his Dad if they could stay for the next sitting and watch it all again.

Pierre was thrilled “Forty years later and he still remembered!”

I saw Burundian Drummers myself in Rwanda and it was an experience I’ll never forget. Imagine having that in Coventry?! We have the talent right here.

To find out more about the political situation in Burundi, please follow this link:

http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/jun/17/failed-coup-and-facebook-story-elections-burundi-biography-of-a-small-african-country-nigel-watt

To watch ‘Intare’ perform, follow this link: //www.youtube.com/watch?v=vf-yJxQZ5CE

The Coventry Language Cafe

When and where?  Twice a month, in The Old Windmill pub on Spon Street every first Sunday of the month and in Esquires Café in the Transport Museum every third Sunday, from 3-5pm.

Who?   There are usually between 15 and 20 people, but more than 700 people have registered online.

What happens? The Cafe always has English, French, German and Spanish. Other languages come up now and again. You can make arrangements online to learn a particular language. (At the event I went to there was Cantonese, Mandarin, Russian, Romanian, Indonesian, Punjabi…those are only the ones I remember!)

My Contact: Murielle Galvani

I visit the café when they have a special event for Coventry’s Positive Images Festival – a multicultural festival of different events all over the city. Tables around the room have cards on them, naming different languages you can learn from the people sitting there. I see someone I recognise and go over to the ‘Indonesian’ table to talk to Tiurl, as Murielle who runs the café is busy organising and welcoming people.

Tiurlan tells me that she was already a member of the ‘Meet Up’ website in Indonesia, so when she came to Coventry she looked for a group and found the Language Café. It’s the first I’ve heard about ‘Meet Up’, a global, online register of groups. I make a mental note to check it out.

“I’m interested in languages, so I joined.” says Tiurl.

“That was in 2009. I had nothing to do in my small room, so I had to go out and find things. I enjoy learning, even if it’s just to say ‘hello’.”

I ask Tiurl what she likes about the group. She tells me you can arrange things easily and cancel if something comes up, so you don’t let anyone down.

“Easy to contact and easy to subscribe is important I think.”

I know Tiurl is an accomplished linguist, with many languages under her belt. She is also an academic. I want to know if she is typical of the kind of person who uses the Language Café.

She tells me there are a variety of people, but many are students and most are middle class – they have the time, energy and interest – but she tells me about a girl who came here with only English who has now learnt Spanish. I’m impressed. I’d got the feeling that the Cafe was more about trying out languages and socialising than becoming fluent. I guess people come for different reasons? Tiurl agrees.

“There are people who just come to practise languages they already know, that they don’t want to lose.”

So then I learn some Indonesian!

Good morning – Salamat pagi

Good afternoon – Salamat siang

Sudah mekan? – Have you eaten? It’s used in the way we use ‘How are you?’ when you first see someone that day.

“If you say ‘no’” says Tiurl “I might feed you!”

I ask about writing, but Indonesian apparently has no script, no gendered pronouns and no tenses either! ‘Sudah’ is a prefix that indicates you are talking about the past. I can see that the language around languages can require a good education to follow!

This opens up a discussion about features of languages, a subject that always fascinates me – what can you tell about a culture from the ideas embedded and expressed within the structure of their speech? I’m particularly fascinated by cultures which have no gendered pronouns – no ‘he’ or ‘she’ or posessives ‘his’ or ‘her’. Are those cultures more gender fluid, less chauvinistic or prescriptive about gender roles?

However, Murielle is free. Now the room is full of people talking animatedly in around ten different languages, it feels like a good time to speak to her.

I ask how the group started and Murielle tells me that she was a member of a language café in France, where she lived before. She started there as part of her degree for a year, then carried on afterwards.

“When I settled here in the UK, I wanted to start a similar group. I didn’t know how to begin and it was around five years before someone suggested Meet-Up and that was when the group really began, in 2009. After that, I joined the Positive Images Festival group, which helped in advertising the group. It was also really nice to contribute to something bigger in the city.”

We talk about the success of the Cafe, which in 2012 received an award for Community Cohesion.

“I felt all people were interested in, funding wise, was which group of people you were working with.”

“Which box you could tick?”

“Yes, but because we tick all the boxes (we have members from all religions, sexual orientations, nationalities, genders) I felt people didn’t value it as much. It was really difficult to apply for funding because I couldn’t tick just one box…When I got the award, I thought – YES! England does recognise that ‘mixed community’ thing! So I was really pleased.”

I ask Murielle about the mix of people. She says she’d like more non-European language speakers to regularly be part of the group, but it hasn’t happened. As the face of the Language Café, Murielle jokes that Africa or Middle Eastern people should know they are welcome from her photo (she is of African heritage, and although Christian, she wears a head-scarf for religious reasons and it’s often assumed she’s Muslim).

We go on to talking about the cultural value of the group.

“It’s breaking down stereotypes. Meeting real people and learning from real people what their culture is like, rather than just what you’ve got in the media. When you talk about culture you hear about food, dance, that kind of thing and I find often it’s reinforcing stereotypes.”

Does the group contribute to British culture?

“Yes! People come here wanting to improve their English and it helps with integration. A Chinese student who came to the group was about to leave to return to China, without ever having seen an English persons house, so a member of the group invited them into their home.”

“I’m a teacher in Secondary School and I’ve had this list given to me of British Values I have to teach in school. I looked at them and said, ‘These are not British values, these are values everywhere!’ A group of British teachers raised the point that we should be teaching anti-oppressive values rather than repeating that constant rhetoric about Britain being the only democratic country with values. People believe this – that this is the only country where you’ve got freedom! That has to stop.”

“At the multi-cultural picnic we organise, the first Sunday in June, each time I feel like I’m in heaven: All people, all nations, languages, cultures, religions are together. It’s like heaven to me. If we want to live like that in eternity, we need to start living it now. (Revelations: chapter 7, verse 9).”

 

If you’d like to join the Coventry Language Café or find other groups, use the following link to Meet Up’s website:

http://www.meetup.com/cities/gb/43/coventry/

Knit and Stitch

 

Fact File

Where?           At a different persons house each time

When?             Tuesday afternoons

Who?               At the moment – ladies who sing with the Coventry Philharmonic Choir – although people from outside the choir are welcome

What happens?           People bring their own textile projects

Who organises it?       Liz Chester

My contact:     Ann Small

Is the group linked to other groups? Lots! The ladies also belong to groups such as a Lace-making group, a Clandestine Cake Club and an Urban Sketching group

What would you like to see as the future of the group? The group is very new and doesn’t need anything at the moment. However, the Coventry Philharmonic Choir can’t find a reasonably priced, large enough venue in which to perform in Coventry, which is a shame.

I spend a lovely afternoon talking to the group in a lovely home. Initially there are 6 people, then a few more arrive and a few more until there are ten ladies sharing the spacious living room at what is only their third meeting. The group started when Liz and a friend from choir were exchanging knitting advice. Liz’s husband poked his head around the door and joked that they should start a club. So they did. They opened it out to the choir, planned venues straight away and Knit and Stitch was born (although to be honest – they didn’t have a proper name until I asked them and this was what they came up with under pressure). The group started by knitting blanket squares, but wanted to do something more useful that would be manageable for beginners and fun for more experienced knitters. Sue went to the hospital, to ask what they could contribute – with the result that many of the women are now knitting ‘twiddle-muffs’ for hospital patients with dementia. Apparently the fluffily tactile, textured muffs relieve tension and help calm agitated people. They also look great. The theme of ‘doing something useful’ reminds me of the Wednesday Craft Group I visited: There’s a strong sense of community here, too. People move around the room chatting and advising each other in pairs or small groups and even shout comments across the coffee table.

The women talk about how at choir, you know faces (and voices, perhaps) but not names. Time is limited in rehearsal and after concerts people tend to just go home. I see the delight that they have in properly meeting and talking to people they’ve been literally rubbing shoulders with through so many songs, without ever getting the chance to exchange words.

I ask Liz about the trend for crafting these days: “I think it’s something that’s re-emerged, but it’s hard to say, because until you retire, you don’t find out what’s going on. The handicraft thing is maybe going through a bit of a resurgence.” This is supported by the anecdote I’m told about the choir’s 24 year old, stand-in musical director, Matt, who brought his own knitting and sewing to choir to show them. Liz says “We’re of the generation that were taught these skills.” I wonder if the group have thought about passing their skills on to a younger generation? Or if they would like to meet a young textile artist I know, to compare notes?

Liz also makes the point that the activity provides an excuse to socialise. It makes sense when I look around the room. Many of these women, now retired or working part time, had professional careers and are used to having busy lives.

The links this group gives me to other groups are also interesting. With each group I visit, I get more and more links to new ones. I am beginning to see a web of activity across the city which reaches out to it’s neighbours too – Kenilworth, Birmingham, Warwick. Some of these groups have national or international links. Apparently there are Clandestine Cake Clubs and Urban Sketching groups all over the place. People who find a few like-minded friends set them up locally, then link into a wider support network. The Cake group particularly inspires my interest – it was described to me like this – bake cake, talk cake, swap cake, eat cake, take cake home. That’s got to be one for the list.

Tea and Tabletop

 

 

Fact File

Where?            At the Big Comfy Bookshop, Fargo

When?             The Second Friday of every Month from 7-10

Who?               Families, couples, friends, anyone. People come from as far as Leicester.

What happens?           People play games! Board games and card games. Please book. They

have had to turn people away on the night. Rob and

Amy bring the games and you play them. You can buy drinks, cakes

and snacks on the premises. If you love a game, you can even buy it.

Who organises it?       Rob

Is the group linked to other groups? Yes. The group has links to David’s ‘Fire and Dice’ games night at the Spon Gate pub and Warwick University.

What would you like to see as the future of the group? The group is happy at the moment, but may well outgrow it’s premises in the future.

I regularly go to the Big Comfy Bookshop to have coffee and wander around the shelves of (fantastically curated) second hand books. But this night brings a new vibe to the usually chilled-out venue. People arrive in twos, fours and fives, in families with children, in couples and groups of friends. I watch people go straight to a favourite game,  or spend a long time looking at the big piles of them, most of which are unfamiliar to me. I am of the age where children’s programmes had a two hour space before Neighbours, even in the holidays, so I’m no stranger to games. I fondly remember ‘Hungry Hippos’, and ‘Journey Through Europe’. Here games have their own epic storylines and bizarre, left-field charms. There’s definitely a new breed of game. The bookshop is packed with people and it’s impossible not to feel some of that childhood buzz. The first people I talk to are a family of Mum and two kids (Dad is on the way) who are playing a card game involving smiling sushi (‘Sushi Go!’). I ask them if they’ve been before.

“It’s great! We play a lot of games, so we trial them here. It’s cheaper that way. It works with loads of age-groups.”

As Rob helps set people up, I wander out to find his wife, Amy, outside the book shop in the main hall (the club has spilled out onto tables there, too) setting out games to buy.

Amy tells me that the idea for the group was inspired by a visit to a Board-game café in Oxford. Rob was inspired: “I’m gonna do this!”. They started a pop-up version in Allesley Village Hall and did a couple of Christmas Fayres, including one at Fargo. That’s where they met Michael, from the Big Comfy Bookshop. He invited them to start a monthly club night, so they did. I ask Megan, one of Amy and Rob’s daughters, what her favourite game is. “The Fire Game!” she replies. Amy tells me it’s called “Fire Point Rescue” and that it’s a cooperative game. That piques my interest. A cooperative game? You play the game, rather than each other. Either you all win, or you all lose. They are becoming really popular, Amy says. I wonder, is austerity making people more aware of how much they need each other? Are our community values becoming more altruistic? What a lovely thought!

My first question for Rob is about what games he loved as a child.

“I was bought a game called ‘Hero Quest’, which is a dungeon/exploring kind of game. I desperately wanted it for Christmas. My family played it with me once and refused to ever play it again. I couldn’t get anyone else to play it with me either! Then,” he laughs “The next Christmas, they even bought me an extra bit for it! What was the point?!”

I look around. I’m happy that Rob’s managed to find a few (up to 50) people keen to play games with him. I ask what he enjoys most about gaming now.

“There’s nothing better than having a friendly grudge that goes over from one month to the next. There’s one guy, he’ll really go for me! He doesn’t hate me or anything, it’s because I killed his character once!” The relish in Robs voice is obvious. I can’t help laughing, thinking about the time ‘Scruples’ caused a rift in our family that went on for several months.

“It’s great for kids – it gets them away from the TV, away from the Computer” echoing what Anastasia said about her TV free childhood in Africa (see the BTA Girls post).

Do you see gaming as a cultural activity?

“Yeah!” Rob talks about people who are isolated coming together to play games. You can tell he sees playing together as community building. I’m also thinking about how games themselves are representative of different cultures. Rob tells me how Warwick Uni realised their Postgraduate students were really isolated. A girl suggested gaming, because she’d been to an event at the Herbert, organised by ‘Thirsty Meeples’ (the Oxford Café where it all started). The Uni got in touch with Rob and the event that resulted was so popular they are thinking about repeating it.

I ask what a ‘meeple’ is – it’s a game avatar apparently. Then, he shows me his wedding ring, which is engraved inside with the line “you’re my kind of meeple”: Proof, if any were needed, that gaming really does bring people together.

To book a place at Tea and Tabletop, visit http://www.thebigcomfybookshop.co.uk

The BTA Girls

The Back to Africa Girls

 Fact File

Where?            They rehearse all over the place

When?             Whenever they can, but especially in the summer

Who?               Girls with African heritage – although any heritage is welcome

What happens?           The girls learn dances from different African countries and also African/Western fusion dances from their mothers and perform them at schools and community events.

Who organises it? Anastasia

My contact: Anastasia

Is the group linked to other groups? Not at the moment

What would you like to see as the future of the group? The group is OK at the moment, but as it grows it may need funding, a proper rehearsal venue and more adults willing to help.

I’ve seen the BTA girls perform at the Embracing Africa festival and I’ve been friends with Anastasia for a long time. I interview her about the group at my house. I don’t really know much about it when I begin, only that she runs it.

We start by talking about how the group started. “I am a Godiva Sister (there are lots of Godiva Sisters in Coventry representing different nations or communities who celebrate multiculturalism.) Every year we would get given a school to visit. I’m ‘Refugee Sister’ but I’m also ‘African Sister’. The children in schools, when we go to visit, they ask about you being a Godiva Sister, about you being African. They used to ask, ‘is it true that you don’t have TV’s, you don’t have computers? You don’t have a fridge?’ that sort of thing. It made me feel like they think that because those things are not in some places in Africa, that Africa is boring. As an African mother of a little girl, I didn’t want to believe that. We do have games, the games you play on the computer here, we have our ways of playing and singing and dancing there; clapping games, storytelling, those are the things we did to entertain ourselves. These kids, some of them are even born to African parents, they didn’t know what Africa is. Some of them have never been there, so my idea was to follow the roots back to Africa. That’s why the group is called the BTA girls.”

I remember seeing the girls perform. They are so joyful, they dance so well and they are so proud of themselves, you can see how their African identity is developing. As Anastasia says “When they are in their uniform they are on top of the world!” I am the mother of mixed African / English girl, too, so talking to Anastasia about all this is very meaningful for me. We have made an effort to tell our daughter about Africa and make her half-African-ness something she can be proud of: It’s important to us that she knows and understands her African family and their history and values and that she is proud of the things that make her stand out from white, British kids: not just her colour, but also her hair and body-shape, things it can be tricky to navigate in a place where the ideals of beauty are still so white.

The BTA girls come from different African Countries: Eritrea, Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone. Anastasia says “My position in the community is a bit difficult. I represent refugees, but they are not all from Africa. Ideally there would be people from different backgrounds to teach children about their culture. We mix up different styles and dances and for the time being it’s African, but things might change. Some of the girls are now in Secondary and it’s harder for them to get time off to perform in other schools.”

How do you think this group fits in with the culture of the city? “Coventry is a City of Sanctuary, of welcome, so this group fits really well. Sometimes we practise in the park and local kids stand around and try to imitate what the girls are doing. They’ve been in the newspaper, performed at schools and events and there is always a lot of interest in them. There’s an English girl who really wants to join and she is welcome. I just need to speak to her parents.”

Our conversation takes us off on tangents. I look at a video of the girls dancing and comment that some of them dance like Africans and some of them dance like English girls. Even though they are doing the same moves, they do them differently! Anastasia laughs roundly at this and agrees. It makes me think of birds and the way they learn to sing. She says that a friend in London was excited to get hold of some bells for the girls to dance with. I tell her that male Intore Warriors in Rwanda dance with bells and British Morris men in the UK and she tells that in Zimbabwe the dancers who are possessed by the spirit of monkey wear those bells, men and women.

“I had a hard life” says Anastasia, “I see those adverts on television, those videos for Comic Relief they play and I think, that was me! But it didn’t feel like that. From this side of the screen it’s scary – I cry when I watch those programmes now, they upset me.

It was hard, but there was other stuff covering it up. You are weeding the crops, you are going out to look for food, but all the while you are singing with each other, you are part of a group. That’s what I miss from my culture: Togetherness.”

I’m trying to get my daughter to join!