Thursday, 10 November 2016

Post Trip Postmortem

How successful was this trip?  It's an important question that must be answered at the end of every trip but it  is particularly pertinent for this trip, our first trip post-Ebola.  Additionally, it was my fifth and final trip so considerations of success, collective and personal, are vital.  After so many trips I have a wealth of comparative information to consider this question confidently.  I think...

Was it a success?  Given the inevitable anxieties about the aftermath of Ebola it has been an unequivocal success.  By simply daring to travel and returning safely and without incident we have achieved confidence and reassurance of our safety in Sierra Leone.  Furthermore, we have sent a clear message to our friends in Sierra Leone that our strong links will not be weakened by hysteria.  Furthermore, in a symbolic way it means that we stand with them/by them through thick and thin.  Caught in traffic, which became an undesirable characteristic of this trip, my eye caught a wall emblazoned with "Wi go "was" Ebola!"  Ebola is most definitely in the past and Sierra Leone wants to move on.  It was curious how it was not mentioned unless asked about and even then personal accounts lacked the apocalyptic hysteria of our media presentations.  At JT Reffell there wasn't a single case but we know about people at Ballanta personally affected.  That said the 2 million people of Freetown realistically had very little practical experience of the virus, which only nationally rose to just over 10,000 cases.  Only...

Back to success.  Did I provide the opportunities for success?  More than any trip to date I have managed to provide more opportunities to the travelling students.  See below for evidence of a packed itinerary.

Not only have we visited chimp sanctuaries and markets but we have also visited women's clinics, blind schools and orphanages.  This latter grouping brought a much needed dose of reality and awareness of hardship that our team needed.  There is something potentially troubling about luxuriating in an air-coniditioned hotel compound but it's a necessity for safety.  Hence, visiting clinics and orphanages is vital to ensure that our students [and staff] have the most three dimensional view possible of West African life.  The orphanage was a find - literally!  Bumping into a Sierra Leonean man with an American accent made me curious and my curiosity got me an invite.  As with all things in Freetown, it was inevitably an invite that wasn't as straightforward as I thought [see separate blog entry about our 2 hour+ bus breakdown stew].  When we did eventually get there it was a wonderfully spontaneous happening - the most torrential rain hammered down upon those of us ensconced in the safety of a small hall where our students bonded, connected, illuminated the lives of kids whose lives they simply could not imagine.  Sometimes serendipity actually does work outside films!

Visionary success? My vision [and that of the lovely wife I left behind this time] has always been one based on cultural sharing and fusion rather than one of us delivering cultural instruction.  I have never wanted Ballanta to be WCS in Africa - I have always wanted it to be an African WCS, which is a huge difference.  To dismantle old colonial attitudes involves us recognising that we don't know the best way - we just know our way.  The journey of the musicians on this trip was quite intense.  We travelled with an unusually small group of musicians.  It was a risky gamble but what a gamble.  Chance had brought a group of jazz musicians together and after a shaky start flourished in the fertile musical garden provided by Ballanta.  Their ability to let go of the classical sheet music constraints and embrace the freedom of African jamming and adventurous mistake making was wonderful to see.  Our last concert at the British Council epitomised the musical fusion I have always strived for.  We played classical; we played jazz; we listened to jazz; we attempted to African dance; we played alone; we played together; we combined and collaborated and collectively succeeded.  It was epitomised visually in Hafren's duet with Francesta at the concert's end.  Not something unusual for this trip [it has happened before on other trips] but something symbolically powerful to remind both stakeholders in the project how important our link is.  Our brave troubadours have learned something fundamental about music and musicianship from the joyous, insanely multi-instrumental Ballanta musicians.

Did I mention non-musical success?  The JT Reffell team went to Sierra Leone with big ideas and small resources.  They quickly got to grips with the reality of implementing big ideas in a completely alien educational environment i.e. they swiftly worked out what was going to work and what wouldn't.  I could have told them that, and did, but sometimes experience is the only true form of education.  The adulation that greeted them every break time, with Lydia and Olivia virtually being stretched limb by limb, was testament to the great job and excitement they brought to these children's lives.  This group has also been responsible for overseeing the greatest amount of glitter ever glued to the faces of African children ever - M. Bolan and D, Bowie [both now RIP - not from glitter ODs, mind] would have been proud.  In a way I feel sorry for the JTR Collective as just as they were hitting their stride they were hitting the floor of the water taxi home.  The timings of this particular trip did not allow our usual momentum and it is certainly a consideration for the next trip.  Again, a vital lesson has been reconfirmed: we shouldn't be playing football on a stony clay pitch - not that the egos of Angus, Freddie and Rhodri would miss out on the chaotic celebrations on every goal scored.

Complete Success?  Each team has its own short shelf life and sometimes the shelf life continues well after the trip.  The best teams prioritise cultural education over all else; personal enjoyment and personal problems have to take a backseat.  The odd thing is that when teams take it seriously like this the enjoyment comes easily: they end up learning profound life lessons and are rewarded with fun and friendship.  Other teams prioritise the fun and, unsurprisingly, get fun.  But very little learning takes place.  It's all about prioritising the right things and setting expectations high.  Of late phones have become an irritating problem.  With better internet access more recent teams have been able to access Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube etc and to the detriment of their overall experience.  Looking down the bus many times, I saw a few faces looking outwards but the majority of faces looked inwards riveted to their phones or discussing some social media related trivialities, which is a wasted opportunity.  Luckily, such indulgence can only be a small part of each day.  

I have not been able to measure the individual successes of this team because I have spent so little time with them, which seems like an odd thing to say.  I have been a busy boy, possibly too busy, in Freetown and taken all types of opportunities I normally wouldn't: visiting film schools working with street kids, designing new logos [see bottom], terrorising national TV, blagging my way into the Irish embassy etc.  The lack of a central meeting space in our HQ this trip has certainly not helped this process and it is something to think about seriously for the next trip.  So much happens every day that a team debrief becomes almost essential.  I know that the enjoyment and bonding levels were very high but I have yet to discover how much learning happened.   I have resorted to post-trip discussions and what I have so far found out has been intriguing.  Watch this space...  Despite what has been learned the most difficult aspect of such learning is to retain it, to not let it be washed away by the chaos of life back home, to be able to contextualise our own lives through an awareness of other lives.  It takes strength to not succumb to our familiar coping mechanisms of whinging over trivialities and feeling sorry for ourselves when in a wider sense we have no right to do so.  Only those with a strong moral core can do this well.  To assimilate such temporary cultural learning into a more permanent worldview is akin to wisdom.  Difficult to measure now; maybe best to test 10 years into the future!  They look more enlightened below...or is it just exhaustion?

Solo success?  All down to me?  Not likely!  Firstly, I must thank Johanna Harrison for agreeing to return to Freetown - and thereby making the dastardly transition from student in 2010 to staff member in 2016.  What a calm and mature hand to guide our musicians!  Johanna was a great support to both students and staff and her presence was key in creating a successful trip.  Secondly, I must also thank Jules Desmarchelier for firstly, assisting me in the trip but also more fundamentally in taking on the work I have spent the past six years doing.  I look forward to seeing how Jules continues the good work of the project into the future and I am confident that the project lies in safe hands.  It is odd to hear how long I have been at the helm of the project and I have mixed feelings about letting it go.   It was supposed to be only two years but ultimately, I know that my time is up and my energies spent.  The project needs fresh eyes, energy and ideas to keep the momentum rolling.  Each trip and each team has brought unforgettable memories, challenges, disappointments, failures...but mostly successes.  The highlights reel would be very long indeed!  

Personally, I have no idea how successful I have been and in what ways I have been successful.  I am happy with some things, unhappy with others but ultimately all that I can say is that I have done my best.  In doing my best I have been aided by some brilliant people over the years.  Thank you to all of them but, most especially, thank you to Sarah.  I spent my spare moments this trip looking to my left and finding not stories about her day but hot, humid space.  I would be a liar if I said I didn't taste loneliness among one of the friendliest peoples on the planet.  But those sharp shards of loneliness have prodded me homewards.  Sierra Leone has challenged us to marry, to embrace parenthood, to essentially become better people.  If nothing else I can only thank them for teasing us into action and accelerating our journey into joint happiness.

Success? Yes.