Learning Through Example in West Africa

February 23, 2016

Amanda Nagy

Dance Diaspora members Donnay Edmund, left, and Cassandra Brown, center, take lessons from a teacher in a village in Gambia.
Photo credit: Adenike Sharpley

For nearly 20 years, Artist-in-Residence in Africana Studies Adenike Sharpley has been building relationships with dance and drum teachers in rural villages in West African countries. Those connections offer an unparalleled opportunity for Oberlin students to gain first-hand knowledge of performance and cultural traditions.

This year, Sharpley led five members of Dance Diaspora, Oberlin’s West African dance troupe, on a winter term-trip to Gambia. Sharpley explains that their teachers are Susu (a major ethnic group) who travel from Guinea to Gambia during the dry winter season. They met in the morning and participated in classes for six to eight hours each day.

“The students ate traditional food, and we learned a lot about communal living and how people share everything,” Sharpley says. “Everyone was willing to share with us.” By interacting with locals, the students became familiar with their customs and learned to speak greetings in Mandinka and Wolof languages.

“Learning dance from teachers who speak a different language requires you to learn through movement, feeling, and example rather than words,” says third-year Cassandra Brown. “It forced me to be more intuitive than analytical.”

In addition to lessons and performances, the group visited several historical sites. Each year, Sharpley takes the winter term group on a pilgrimage to the fishing village Juffereh, where the English, French, and Portuguese kidnapped Africans in the transatlantic slave trade. There, they met the Kunta Kinte clan and saw the old houses they lived in when Kunta Kinte was captured, as well as remnants of the Portuguese fort that was built on the coast to capture Africans. They learned the history from Gambian locals and walked the paths on which the captured Africans were taken.

They also visited St. James Island, another fishing village with remnants of a fort and prison that kept slaves. “We learned about the brutal methods that Europeans used to capture Africans and about how many drowned trying to swim off the island to their freedom,” Sharpley says.

The group also visited with artisans at a Mandinka wood sculpture market in Brikama, a tie-dye market in Bakouo, and other local markets.

Fourth-year Donnay Edmund says it was an honor to be a part of the winter-term trip and to learn from artists who are keeping their traditions alive. “In this increasingly fast-paced, profit- driven world, tradition can get lost, undervalued, or commodified,” says Edmund, a Africana studies and Comparative American studies major from Brooklyn, New York. “The communal life and hard-working people in Gambia inspire me to work with my community in more humble and selfless ways, and to think about work differently, to serve my elders, and to deeply respect black women and elders for all the work they do to keep their community thriving.”

For Edmund, one of the most powerful parts of the trip was meeting the Kunta Kinte family and hearing accounts of the economic and spiritual impacts of the slave trade from people in Gambia. “I felt a profound sense of loss when I got to look at the forts that Europeans used to capture Africans. People were removed from their homeland, branded, forced to not speak their native language, and separated from their community and traditions.This period is a scar in history that still affects my sense of self and my freedom as an African American centuries later. I felt like I was able to get another piece of my history.”

Aaron Henry, a second-year anthropology major from Philadelphia, says it was difficult, as an outsider, to fully comprehend the depths of local life, which depends on tourism to keep the economy running. “The tourist industry keeps afloat some shop owners and artists such as painters, tailors, and carvers. So we had the joy and pleasure of getting to know people through bartering for gifts, through buying food, which was always sold, through hearing travelling bands play music, and at times through honest, pleasant conversations with locals who are curious and wanted to perhaps practice English.”

Brown, an Africana studies major with a concentration in fine art, says the overall experience reinforced the value of hard work. “We arrived in Banjul, Gambia, at 5:30 a.m., and I was surprised by how many people were on the side of the road, starting their daily work. No walk was too long, no bag too heavy, and no sale too small. Reused plastic water bottles were gold and everyone was selling something. It reinforced that hard work is a core value, a lifestyle, and a solid basis for integrity in whatever you do.”

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