I had occasion one time to watch an earnest young man try to design a school that would promote and celebrate traditional dance in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The value of such a school would be to preserve culture and to allow a peaceful structure for the expression of ethnic identity. It was a good idea, a noble idea.
The man, an architect, was not Congolese and did not know the languages spoken there. He studied the country from afar for some time, however, and then visited for ten days. During that time he saw some traditional dance.
A school intended to promote dance should, he decided, aesthetically reflect that dance. So to translate what he’d seen into architectural terms he turned to Greenotation, a codification system that describes dance movements with symbols similar to musical notation. One mark will mean, for example, “left arm up;” others will indicate, “hip swivel slow,” and so forth. The young man based his architectural design on Greennotation symbols that described the dance he’d seen.
In the end, the building he modeled was an elegant thing of swooping roofs, big round theaters, and embellishments that looked like mineral shards springing from the earth. It was certainly beautiful. And it was also completely unlike anything else built by, used by, or familiar to his proposed clients – the people whose dance had inspired him, and for whom the school was intended. It was as difficult to imagine his building being used for an authentic expression of traditional dance as it was picture a digital conference spontaneously occurring in one of the tiny shoe-box-shaped huts typical of the area.
To be fair, the young man’s design was constrained by requirements of the architecture class he was taking, for which this school was an assignment. His project was to be judged primarily for its architectural qualities and less rigorously on its educational or humanitarian merits.
But though this particular project was more fanciful than real, it illustrates a phenomenon not uncommon in the world of development – that is, in the do-good industry, nonprofit and profit, where one group or person tries to make beneficial change in the situation of another. Such efforts are always valuable to the initiator of the change – they provide, or at least promise to provide, either emotional or financial gratification. But of course for most such projects the motivation is also that the proposed change will benefit its receivers too. Who would not be better off with, for example, mosquito nets where there is malaria? Or water pumps where otherwise people have to lug it; or new cooking methods to decrease dependence on wood? Such changes would be improvements. They are good ideas, noble ideas.
And yet the world of development is littered with such projects thwarted, aborted, and fast to fail. Where somewhere between the rosy goal and the actual outcome, something went awry. In some cases the benefits were pirated by unintended recipients. In others an introduced object was used for unintended purposes. New structures are sometimes left empty; new improvements unmaintained. Among the casualties of such failures is cross-cultural goodwill. Optimism sours to cynicism; resentment creeps in insidious as rot.
My parents have been conservation biologists in the Democratic Republic of Congo for nearly four decades. For many years they were primarily scientists, gathering data on the Ituri Rainforest’s endemic plants and animals. Increasingly, however, they have been focusing on establishing preserved areas and national parks – a need for which they feel is urgent.
In 1996 war initiated permanent change for Congo’s natural areas and the communities that live in them. Guns poured into the country and feeble border enforcement, combined with burgeoning world demand for the country’s rich array of mineral resources and old-growth mahogany, meant plentiful opportunities for the kind of entrepreneurs who profit from violence and instability. The past decade and half has seen a dramatic increase in the scale and nature of bush meat hunting. In many areas the huge rainforest that stretches across Congo’s northeast, celebrated for its mystery and depth, has been bleached of marvelous animals still barely known to many in the West.
Often, communities long-established in forest have traditional practices and cultural taboos that, when adhered to, prevent the unfettered hunting of the most vulnerable species – okapi, elephants, bonobos, certain monkeys and duikers – animals that are either sparsely distributed or that breed slowly. But market enticement, and sometimes blatant force, overwhelm customs of moderation and automatic weaponry obliterate the physical disadvantage that otherwise keep human hunters in check. People hunt beyond what can be replenished. And although overhunting undermines subsistence by depleting a source of protein that people might not be able to replace, and unrestrained access by outsiders to an area’s natural wealth threatens communities’ integrity, in any given situation there will be some that regret change, and others who find a way to benefit from it.
For preserved areas to be sustainable, two things are required: top down support from a national and perhaps international levels to ensure that park guards’ salaries are paid and offenders to the new rules are punished; and local support – staunch enough cooperation that those who would have it otherwise are resisted.
My parents and their colleagues had spent many months visiting communities in the area of the proposed park, meeting with local elders and authorities, presenting their proposal, and asking for support. Earlier this year, after some long thinking, one chief told them that the park they proposed might be acceptable, but to ensure it, they must hold a Tambiko. A Tambiko is a ceremony that asks for the blessing and sanction of the ancestors.
In total, three Tambikos were held, in three different areas, each lasting more than one day. People gathered from great distances for days and nights of drumming, dancing, sharing of food, and much, much conversation. The elders and leaders talked out, in leisure and depth, all their thoughts, concerns, and hopes for the park. “Usually we are the ones doing all the talking,” my mother said. “This time, we just shut up, and listened.”
Everyone had their chance to speak and in the end, the leaders expressed their solidarity with gestures symbolic of unity and binding. Thus, the park was approved.
And then – that was it. The crowds dispersed.
My parents were concerned. No documents had been signed. No line had been drawn to delineate what was and what was not protected area. The only official record of this historic event were some casually-taken snapshots. In order to secure the support of the government and international agencies, something more was necessary. Signatures. Marks on the trees. Evidence of the agreements in a currency that would resonate with those in the world who might not understand a Tambiko. With some trepidation my parents and their colleagues launched out again to each community in order to secure that kind of evidence. My mother worried that the unity displayed in public at the Tambiko would, in private, and with the pressure of specific commitments, falter.
The opposite was true. Signatures were given and physical boundary marked easily and fast. Although these were the symbols meaningful to non-local powers, for the local ones it was the Tambiko that had been important. “In their minds, the park was already done,” said Terese. “The signatures and the marks on the trees were given almost as an afterthought.”
Of course – there was and still is much work to be done. The machinery of the top-down support for the park must still be accomplished. Included in the auxiliary efforts will be the building of some schools, which several of the communities asked for. In this case though the architecture of such buildings will take second place in priority to measures that ensure consistency in supplies and teacher salaries. One donor proposed that the village women be provided sewing machines so they could have additional income, thereby, hypothetically, further strengthening the communities’ ability to survive without threatening the park. “That’s a good idea,” I heard my mother reply on the phone.
A good idea, noble idea. One that has every chance of working, or of failing miserably, depending on how it is implemented.
Regarding again the school for traditional dance – how different might it have been if the well-intentioned architect had tried first to understand what these dances meant to those that danced them. How they were interpreted, what they signified. If one hears a language that one does not understand, one hears sounds. When one understands that language, one hears meaning. So too with customs and art. Dance is far more than just moves. It has meaning. And if the architect had sought to codify the dance from that perspective instead, the aesthetics suggested might have been quite different. Perhaps the buildings he’d have ended up with would not have garnered much approval in the architectural community of NYC – but perhaps they might have actually been used, successfully, for the good and noble purposes he intended.
The traditional dance that this young architect had seen had been at a welcome celebration thrown in honor of his class’s visit. At that party one of the local leaders had given a speech. “We welcome you,” he had said. “We want a school. We are happy you want to help us. We want to put our minds together with your minds, and to build this school together.”