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Every child counts: Is competition a good way to develop the arts among children?
December 15, 2009

(On Saturday 28th November CHIPAWO children came together for a festival. It was a very child-friendly time to launch the CHIPAWO 20th anniversary - and this was duly done by the Executive Director, acting for the Chairman, who was absent in Malawi at a SADC Theatre Festival. The following are two perspectives on the day, by two different observers but fundamentally raising the same question: "Is competition a good way to develop the arts among children?" The first is by Mnatsi Zhou, the CHIPAWO ITC Officer, and the second by myself.)

FUN by Mnatsi Zhou I had the pleasure of attending two events on Saturday that that really should have been good fun for children. The first venue was Alfred Beit Primary School in Mabelreign. There the Alfred Beit CHIPAWO Centre held a mini arts festival where CHIPAWO children performed to a an audience predominantly composed of, well, CHIPAWO children. Schools and CHIPAWO centres from in and around Harare (Norton, Chitungwiza and Bindura) were represented.

Set in the school hall, there wasn't much in the way of décor, simplicity being the buzz word. The second venue was the 7 Arts Theatre in the posh shopping centre of Avondale. The show was Jikinya, the annual traditional dance contest for primary schools. All ten provinces of Zimbabwe were represented by the winning schools after district and provincial competitions and in addition there was a visiting troupe from Botswana.

Pomp and fanfare were the order of the day. Considerable effort was put into decorating the stage and some fancy, at times disturbing, lighting effects were used liberally. The only thing the two events had in common were the brilliant costumes. Two altogether great days for children?

Let us look a bit closer.

What is fun? Wiktionary defines fun first as "amusement, enjoyment or pleasure" and secondly as "playful and often noisy activity".

There was certainly a lot of playful and noisy activity at Afred Beit. The loudest of the bunch being the Mount Pleasant-based CHIPAWO Supasenta. They beat their tunes out of a set of steel drums - you can imagine the decibels - and while they were at it showcased a Tswana dance to said tunes into the bargain.

Waterland Layiti (infant) Centre, based at a preschool in Chitungwiza looked quite playful as they gave a gumboot jive performance but looks are deceiving. They stomped and clapped their way through a surprisingly well-kept rhythm. Surprising, that is, if you don`t know CHIPAWO. The oldest dancer of this group was barely four years old but they gave what was for me the most memorable piece for the day. They just looked carefree despite their obvious skill. The same can be said of just about every other performance.

And the part about 'amusement, enjoyment and pleasure'? You just needed to be there to feel it - the anticipation as they marched to the wardrobe room for their costume changes, the look in their eyes as they watched their contemporaries on stage and their shrieks of laughter as they almost raced off-stage to watch the following centres do their thing. The fun was an almost tangible factor at Alfred Beit.

Having left this, I found myself seated in the darkened auditorium at 7Arts. The dancers were also children and they too were well drilled and practised in their craft. The activity there was certainly noisy as most traditional dances are accompanied by some very enthusiastic drumming and vibrant song. For me the 'playful' part was struck off the list when I saw the desperation in a boy's face as he struggled to fasten his costume leg-piece that was coming undone in the middle of a Chinyambera (Shona hunting dance) performance. Backstage the picture was one of a near palpable anxiety as competing schools waited to take to the stage. Onstage a few of the more experienced singers and dancers did seem to have fun as they proudly showed off their talents.

Amusement, enjoyment and pleasure were plentiful in the audience especially among the distinguished guests (all adult) in the front row. It would be unfair to say that the children in the audience didn't have their fare share but some said they were quite worried about their position in the contest, given how much 'better' the other schools seemed to do.

At the end of the day there could only be one winner and of course the winning dance teacher was on hand to showcase some noise and playfulness as he danced up to the stage with great amusement, enjoyment and pleasure to see his wards accept the top honours and cash prize. Our own 'Nde'pi Gen'a' crew was there - this is the CHIPAWO Saturday morning children's television series - and they got some interviews of the runners-up. One boy said: "Izvi zvirikubohwa tanga tichifanira kuhwina" (this is annoying - we should have won). His teacher shared the same sentiments in not so many words.

So what is there to learn from the two occasions? Firstly, children being children with other children equals fun. Secondly children performing for adults equals work, potentially heartbreaking work. And last but not least. green, blue and red flashing lights and a backdrop sequined with shards of glass do not work for traditional Shona dances or those from Botswana either.

CHIPAWO and competition by Robert McLaren It was a busy Saturday morning for Farai, the young director, and the crew of the CHIPAWO children's television show 'Nde'pi Gen'a' (What's up, gang?). They had to start off with the CHIPAWO@20 launch at Alfred Beit School then go on to the Dance Trust Outreach concert and end up with the finals of Jikinya, the National Arts Council's primary schools traditional dance competition.

All these events were on the same day quite coincidentally. In other words neither knew what the other was doing - and here we are talking about the National Arts Council of Zimbabwe, CHIPAWO and the Dance Trust, two of the most prominent players in arts education and the national council with which they are both registered! There is obviously an issue here - and the newly confirmed Director of the National Arts Council, Mr Elvas Mari, and I did have a bit of chat about this. Perhaps something will be done about it. We hope so.

The organisers of the CHIPAWO@20 children's festival knew about Jikinya but they did not know the date. It was thus by accident that the festival, involving CHIPAWO children mostly from primary schools, was slated for the same day as the finals of the national primary schools traditional dance festival. But what would have happened if CHIPAWO had known the Jikinya date before organising its festival? Would some of those brilliant children who performed with such skill and gusto at the CHIPAWO festival have been there at the 7 Arts Theatre competing in the Jikinya primary schools traditional dance competition?

The answer would have been 'No'. Why?

CHIPAWO is a child development organisation that educates and develops children mostly through the arts. CHIPAWO does not believe that competition is a good way to develop children. CHIPAWO's position is well known - and the National Arts Council is fully aware of it. CHIPAWO does not compete in Jikinya though children from schools which have CHIPAWO arts education centres have often won the competition or done well.

CHIPAWO has two different programmes involving children and the arts - the Arts Education for Development and Employment Programme (AEDE) and the Performances Programme.

In the AEDE Programme CHIPAWO works with children in many AEDE centres and facilitates the opening of such centres all over the country. The children who participate come from all different backgrounds, rich and poor, girls and boys, town and country, and includes the physically and mentally handicapped.

As the name of the programme makes clear, it is an arts education programme which is designed to educate and develop the child and prepare the child for employment - not necessarily in the arts. In this programme all children are welcome. Artistic talent is virtually irrelevant. The idea is to strengthen the confidence, self-belief and self-esteem of children by helping them to learn, create, challenge and demonstrate proudly to other children, friends and parents what they can do.

To achieve this, the AEDE Programme includes in its syllabus an arts training and creating component in which children do drama, music and traditional and modern dance and sometime video and television. At the same time they receive an education in culture, child welfare, children's rights and issues relating to their sexuality and health, such as child abuse, gender and HIV/AIDS. The syllabus is designed to assist them develop confidence, a sense of identity, communication skills, democratic practice, freedom and a critical culture - all of which impact positively on their ability to find or create employment when they grow up.

In such a programme, a competitive spirit would wreak havoc. The core value of CHIPAWO is SHARING. The name, 'chipawo', is a Shona word, which literally means 'please give' or 'give also'. The founding impulse of CHIPAWO was sharing when twenty years ago adult arts practitioners got together to share their experience and skills with children.

Once the element of competition is introduced, the spirit of sharing is replaced by the selfish desire to do well at others' expense. Those who win go away celebrating their success while the vast majority, who have failed, go away either angry, resentful, despondent or demoralised. Instead of teaching each other, each child tries to keep their skill to themselves. Instead of enjoying the performance of others, each child is either hoping the others will fail or resenting their success.

Relations between children are now characterised by jealousy, selfishness and unfriendliness. It is true that one or two super-gifted individuals who win everything all the time, have their skills developed and opportunities to develop still further placed at their disposal. The AEDE Programme has to achieve a balance between opportunities for gifted individuals to develop freely and ensuring that their relations with other children remain generous and encouraging.

The CHIPAWO AEDE Programme is about building children, not breaking them down; about developing children, not sapping their confidence; about children working together and sharing, not being selfish and exclusive. In the AEDE Programme it is the child that counts and every child counts.

In the Performances Programme, things are a little different however. Here, though children still count, the quality of the performance counts equally. Though CHIPAWO adheres to its principle of not involving children in competition against other children, in the Performance Programme the most experienced and the most able performers are selected by audition and assisted to strive for the highest standards of artistic performance. Many of the graduates that have subsequently made a career in the arts are the products of this programme eg. Danai Gurira and Chipo Chung (theatre) and Chiwoniso Maraire, Rute Mbangwa and David Chifunyise (music).

It is to be hoped that many other graduates, graduates of the AEDE Programme of CHIPAWO, who have not entered or done well in any arts profession, are out there working together with others in their chosen fields, confident in their identity, aware of their own rights and those of others, aware of their value and that of others, and contributing in the process to the making of a juster, more humane and happier world.

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