Nechama’s Story: Transformation and the Djembe:

9 Aug


Despite trauma-focused orientation and training, I wasn’t sure that I would be interacting with those whose lives were impacted most, the  folks who continue to suffer from the disasterous earthquake .  At our visit to Madame Luc’s Orphanage on the way to Ponte Sonde that first Friday, I was moved to tears.  Barefoot children wandering aimlessly around a lot filled with junk cars and debris; 8 yr olds taking care of toddlers, gathered at the water pump in the hot sun.  A small boy around 3, with only a ragged shirt and no pants, comes and takes my hand…. a child reaches out to a stranger seeking saftey, security, love.  I have nothing but respect and admiration for my fellow volunteers who in these rough and challenging conditions, selflessly dedicated their week to bringing hope to these obviously needy kids. Nevertheless, the Orphanage was not my destination for the week. The pictures and the experiences of Amy, Rob and Liz are testimony to the efficacy of the focused energy of human compassion, especially using Art as a vehicle.
Arriving at Ponte Sonde, a rural village which not only has an organized school, but flushing toilets, showers and a hostess that treated us like distinquished guests….. not to mention a  location  2 ½ hrs trip from Port-Au Prince, where the earth beneath our feet shook only mildly on Jan 12, 2010,  I wondered where  I would  find the opportunity to make a significant difference. Why did I have to come to Haiti in order to teach children Creative Arts.
Henri ( not his real name) was brought into my class on the second day. With him there were 11 boys and girls ages 10-14.  I had begun to teach the children recorder skills,  improvisational drumming and percussion, as well as group singing accompanied  by my guitar.  Henri found his place in the group and followed instructions well as I showed him the basics of how to hold the recorder.  Later that evening at dinner, Girard, our guide, translator and Creole teacher, informed me and the group that Henri is from Port-Au-Prince, and a survivor of the earthquake. Girard had been told that this boy, at times begins to shake for no apparent reason.  I thanked him for alerting me to the child’s situation, and thought back to my recollection of him in the class.
“No”, I said, “I did not notice anything unusual about Henri”.  Then I recalled his hunched over posture as he tried to play the recorder, and how I had to prompt him to sit up straight  and keep his chin up.  The next day in class, I encouraged Henri to take more space for himself.  I lifted his chin, while praising his efforts. As  he looked up, a broad smile appeared on his face.  The following day, all I had to do was motion with my hands, and Henri would look up with a smile. During the percussion group, I saw that Henri was very comfortable with the drum, so I gave him a larger drum, a 9 inch djembe, from my personal collection ( as opposed to the donated equipment that would be left with the school). His eyes lit up as he played.  When asked, he told me that he had played drums before; his uncle had one.
The following day, as we prepared for the “Celebration” on Friday (performance for the parents), I asked Henri if his Momma was coming. First he shook his head in the affirmative but afterward told me ( his first words to me in English), “ My Momma is dead.”  I put my hand on his shoulder, and told him how sorry I was… and asked when she died…. Was it a long time ago when he was little?  Our translator was not around and one of the girls in the class tried to help….. unclear, but I concluded in my mind that Henri was orphaned when he was very young.

Henri eagerly participated in the percussion group and I gave him a short solo for the performance. After the Celebration, a young woman approached me , Henri’s cousin and guardian.  I told her that I knew his mother had died, but wasn’t sure when.  “Six months, ago”…. “Oh, in the earthquake…”  I took a deep breath.  Henri’s cousin spoke enough English to have a conversation.  We spoke a little about the work I do with children and music.  She told me how hard it is for her and Henri. She thanked me and said “we need more of this” ( i.e. creative outlets for the kids).
I thought a bit about Henri and the the recorder… and then the drum… how he shifted from looking down with arms and shoulders contracted to looking up, smiling expansively, and releasing flowing rhythms reverberating from the body of the drum…. And how one beat led to the next…. The energy continued….. connecting him to himself, others and the world around him.  I considered what I had learned about the nature of the djembe, a drum that comes to us from West Africa.  It is narrow in the middle, curving upward, and played tilted (often held between one’s knees) so that the sound can come out from the bottom. The energy of this style drum moves upward. The drummer strikes the skin head with his finger tips/hand, immediately pulling the hand away to make room for the vibrations to be released.  The sound vibrations are drawn up and expand outward from the drum.  We speak of “healing and transformation”.  Transformation signifies something changing into something else.  However, like the djembe and the drummer….. we are not creating something new….. only drawing out what is already there, accessing the life energy force, and empowering the use of it in a constructive beautiful way. For Henri, a simple gesture letting him know that he had the choice to look up  (facilitating hope)…. And making it possible for him to access his inner wealth, using the drum as a tool to connect and express the joy (or sorrows) of living.  The beat goes on….. inspite of horrific losses.
Sometime that afternoon, I reconsidered my plans of what to pack and bring back to the states.  I could replace the drum.  The  9” Toca Freestyle Synergy Djembe was left in Ponte Sonde, to be given to Henri.


One Response to “Nechama’s Story: Transformation and the Djembe:”

  1. rahel sherman August 11, 2010 at 9:15 pm #

    thank you for sharing your story, nechama… it was written in a way that i could envision the plight of the children and your humility in facing them in the midst of their environment.

    what a difference music can make in healing not only a soul like henri but in the universe. the story moved me to tears. i loved how you explained the metaphor of drumming

    you and the other workers did an awesome thng. Gd heal the cildren and families and strengthen the helpers…

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