Many of us dream of traveling to Africa, and for most that dream is never brought to reality. However, for seven Juilliard students—LeBaron McClary, Carolyn Smith, Kerry Warren, Sekou Laidlow, Jehbreal Jackson, Hassan Ingraham, and me, along with our advisor, Candace Feldman, who works at Juilliard in the Concert Office as a house manager—May 27 marked the beginning of an amazing journey to Botswana.
I had the privilege of being part of a unique group setting out to do something extraordinary—an extensive arts residency in a country halfway across the world. We decided to call the residency Project Maru-a-Pula. Maru-a-Pula means promises of blessings in Setswana and with this name, we knew that this program was going to break boundaries and bring forth great fruit.
In planning the trip, which was funded in part by a Juilliard Summer Grant, there were moments when we all thought that we would have to postpone until 2011, but we pushed on with our fund-raising, which included numerous bake sales, benefit concerts, and sending out the good old donation letters. It was around a month before we were scheduled to leave New York and we still hadn’t met our financial goal, but we had faith and as we became more and more like a family, we continued to speak positively. Sure enough, we received a very generous donation that would not only cover all of our plane tickets, but also take care of all other expenses. With the tickets booked, bags packed, and open minds and hearts, we set off, unsure of what would happen but excited to have such an amazing opportunity.
When we arrived in Botswana we were overwhelmed by the greetings that we received from the students, teachers, and friends and family members of the students. I must admit that at first I was quite nervous about going to a new country, but my fears were stripped away within the first hour of being in Botswana. The faculty and staff of the Maru-a-Pula School in Gaborone, where we stayed, went far and beyond to ensure that we were comfortable and would have a wonderful stay.
With only a day to adjust to the time difference, we all woke up on Monday morning quite tired but ready to meet all the wonderful students we would be working with for the next three weeks. Each day we traveled to a small village called Mmanoko, where we worked with the students of the primary school, teaching them math and English through fun and interactive games. I must say that these games also tested us, for it had been a while since we had to think about the correct pronoun or even our timetables. I can still remember the excitement in the eyes of the eager students as we entered their classrooms for the first time. We were greeted each day by loving words “Good morning teachers. Good morning friends,” and indeed we were their friends and will forever be. While in the village we also created a community garden that would serve as a source of fruits and vegetables for the primary school, as well as provide an area where the students could sit and eat their lunch. It was not an easy task turning a weed filled area into a garden, and without any power tools we had to get down and dirty, but we enjoyed it every step of the way and seeing the end result we couldn’t help but cry.
After spending the mornings at Mmanoko we headed back to Maru-a-Pula to prepare for our dance and drama master classes and rehearsals that would run from 4 to 9 p.m. Long days? Yes, but it was all worth it. For the dance master classes we split into two groups, with two teaching artists for each group, while drama divided into three groups with each teacher taking on a different technique. These two hourlong classes were a chance for us to establish the building blocks that would be needed in our two-hour rehearsals to come. During rehearsal we all worked on pieces that would be showcased in the production Tapestry, portraying the weaving together of cultures, people, and art. I wasn’t sure that we could have pulled of a full-length production: lights, sound, props—all directed by Candace Feldman—in three weeks, but when the curtains opened on opening night it was proof that we had accomplished one of our many goals.
Project Maru-a-Pula 2010 will always have a special place in my heart. I have gained so many friendships that I know will last a lifetime. And as we begin planning for 2011 I am filled with joy, for I know that we will once again have the chance to make an artistic difference in the lives of others.