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Portraying Africa with Almudena Parejo

Where does the idea of going to Africa comes from? Why Gambia? 

The idea came a really freezing day in the library with one of my university colleagues, Laura Cobarro. We were studying for our final exams so we needed to plan something really spiritual for us. Laura´s father is a doctor and he had already been in Gambia, he knew some people in the country so it wasn’t completely difficult for us to decide to go. At the beginning it was just Laura and me, but after telling about the project to a few friends, Macarena, one of my closest friends, decided that she really wanted to come with us. The team was now complete, and it was perfect because our goal was to improve creativity in children and we were two crazy advertisers and one even crazier performer. We were students so we couldn’t spend too much time there (I wished we could have) and we didn’t want to go in summer, when everybody else goes, so the project lasted all the month of September, just before getting back to college.

What do people do normally in this kind of voluntary experience? 

From my point of view, the usual projects in Africa are focused on palliating the basics necessities, but these kinds of projects have a complicated and long way for them to be successful. We didn’t want to go with a NGO because of the bureaucratic stuff, which is one of the things that we actually hate.

We wanted to create our own project, a different kind, that would allow us to stay in the minds of the children over the time. We had the advantage of our skills to promote the creativity in the children´s minds. Through music, physical expression, crafts, critical thinking skills and visual arts we laid the structure of our work there.

Who got the chance to get involved in your Project?

When we arrived there was a little bit of chaos, nobody knew a thing about our project. There everything progresses at a really slow pace. I remember it was a surrealistic situation, we were in the middle of a playground full of children and one of the more strict teachers, Salomon, started choosing twenty five kids between six and ten years old. Then everything started. We worked the first week with that group, then, when the normal classes started, we had two groups of twenty pupils around ten years old.

The truth is that they recognized the value of assisting to our classes, they felt special because they were going to class to do something completely different for once. Not all the kids could, so they were conscious of the opportunity and despite our everyday difficulties in that kind of class, all of us squeezed the experience together.

How was the first impression? Did you manage to connect? How did you get to connect with them? First days?

Sincerely, I was in shock. We arrived to Gambia at night, there were no lights, nothing. I remember I was smoking a cigarette in the ground of our house and you could only hear the dim noise of some barks far away. In the morning everything was different, the light changes everything and it was then when we arrived the school, and what I was talking about before, started. Beginnings are never easy, especially when everything is so different, but in a couple of days we felt like locals and every complication (because there were a lot) was a new adventure and a new useful lesson.

To be honest I think that we really connected with the people, I think it was because of our attitude; we were certain about our goal, so ever since the first day we started going to the same places and doing the same things as them. One of our first adventures was going to the “pub” in Lamin, the village we lived in, with a group of boys that we didn’t really know. At the beginning we were crossing some kind of jungle to go there and we were fucking scared but we didn’t stop, we went and felt really nice. I think after that, we started to risk more and more, that decision allowed us to really get to know the culture, the people… and not be there like tourists but as real friends or teammates.

With the kids it was a little bit more difficult, the first days was a real disaster for us, we had never been in the teachers position nor in a different continent, so the beginning was hard, we didn’t know how to deal with kids neither get their silence or attention, so we arrived everyday home almost in tears like never before. Step by step we started knowing each other and finding the best ways to teach them all the materials we had brought. Finally we all enjoyed the classes, we made a really good team. When the last day came we were all crying, after all, it was really difficult to say goodbye. 

Did you see any features of other people like you girls, or Europe on these kids?

This question is really interesting because it was amazing for us to see the mixture between the African and Occidental elements. It is really curious, you could see a woman wearing the traditional Gambian dress while she is listening to Rihanna in her mp3. Obviously they are far away, but not so far for the trends and new technology not to arrive, so the Occidental influence is obvious. You could see boys wearing Real Madrid t-shirts, a ciber-cafe in the smallest town or girls taking pictures with their mobile phones before going to the disco.

We still have relation with the people from Lamin thanks to Facebook and whatsapp, which allow us to keep in touch. Although the way we use social networks is completely different, the aspects like chatting is perfect to keep the relationship.

So what other kind of activities did you girls organize for the kids?

We organized plenty of activities to achieve our goals. We wanted to touch different creative areas so we made a lot of activities with its own purpose, always connected to the idea of them not just seeing but also feeling and working the creativity from their deepness.

They are really nervous kids so we started every class with the kids laying down with closed eyes and listening to the song “Take a walk on the wild side.” That enabled us to start in a relaxing mood and with an open mind.

They made paintings of their feelings, family situations, sculptures for their mums, watched movies and videos about visual effects, animals, or things that they had never seen before, relaxing therapies with classical music. Physical theatre exercises were one of the most important parts because it improved not only their physical development but also their psychical growth; we used to do exercises like improvisation, small pieces or body games. And music had a major role because music is an international language, they are really used to expressing feelings through music and dance, so we made emphasis on that and introduced them new kinds of music. Finally the last day, we threw together a little festival where they made their own costumes, instruments and versions of the songs we gave them. It was a really special day, for us because it made us really proud, and for them because it revealed what were they able to achieve.

How does the people of that town enjoy they free time?

They are really chilled people (when there are no troubles near) so they spend their time in a really relaxed way. They enjoy walking a lot, sometimes when we were going somewhere, someone who we didn’t know came all the way with us, maybe he didn’t say anything but he was there, they like to stay, feel the things but not necessarily speak about everything all the time like we are used to.

They love to socialize through the body, the disco is open every weekend and although they don’t drink alcohol, they dance till they die, and what is more amazing is that in the disco almost everyone are males, but that doesn’t stop them, they all dance in such an intense way together. As the disco, the football matches are really famous there. In Lamin there is an official team, so every week there is a match on the soil pitch. Football is really different there, I cant even explain, but there’s always a group of people constantly singing and dancing, and every time someone scores a goal, all the kids run through the field. Also, there’s even a tree where smoking marihuana is allowed and you could see like a hundred people under that tree’s shadow.

So what do you think is the most important added value you are bringing to these kids?

I think the most important value is that now they know another way to do things, now they are used to ask the why of things, and the fact of having experienced completely different things have made them learn that the world doesn’t have limits.