Monday, 17 December 2012

Guest post: "The story of the boy who fell asleep", by Mohamed El Ghawy (Egypt)

The last guest post of the year comes from a dreamer, a story teller, my friend Mohamed El Ghawy. Mohamed is that kind of dreamer that keeps surprising us with the way he manages to keep his feet firmly on the ground. He´s cautious but determined, he always tries to move things a step further, he knows what he needs to do to make the dreams come true and... does it. We talked extensively last summer about the situation is Egypt and his plans for AFCA, the organization he founded in 2004, aiming to bring education to Egyptian children through arts and culture. This is his contribution towards his country´s future, a future populated by creative, imaginative, sensitive and active citizens, who will be able to accept the others and find their way on their own. mv

Visual arts workshop for underprivileged children. (Photo: AFCA)
“Children crowded the hall, and as usual, I was telling a story. Some of them were opening their mouths in imitation and others were wide-eyed with fascination. The interaction was great, I was enjoying stretching my voice to imitate characters and various animals. The children were laughing. They were happy to watch, as I was happy to perform. Suddenly, I noticed a boy who was in the last row, against the wall. His eyes drifted shut and his head bobbed. He fell asleep and I was shocked, it was the first time this had happened to me. Feeling upset for not being able to attract his attention, I continued and in the end, I went to apologize to the teacher. Seeing how it affected me, she laughed and said: «This boy suffers from insomnia and we are working with his parents to help him. The doctor says that he doesn’t sleep because he doesn’t feel safe».”

This didn´t happen to me; a storyteller from Croatia told us about it during a training session in Ireland. For a long time, I have been interested in how to use the arts in the educational approach of the young. In my home country, Egypt, the educational system is very traditional, as children are expected to learn things by heart, without reflecting on what they memorize, thus it tends to become boring. For me Education is a tool and must remain like that.

When I was 25, I went on a boat trip in southern Egypt with a bunch of friends, to get away from the crazy up-tempo life in Cairo. We drifted along the Nile in a small boat for 4 nights. No technology, no stress, just nature and us. One night, the sky was full of stars and one of my friends, Damien, opened a map of stars and started playing with stones. He said that if a wish was made at that moment, it would come true before the end of the following year. Without hesitation, I spoke about my dream to open a place where kids could learn everything through the arts. All my friends got excited about it and we started looking for a name. “It must include French, you adore that language”, said Marwa; and Yasmine said: “You will open it in Cairo right?”. Damien said that in his country (Belgium) they called this kind of projects “art academy” and at that moment we came up with the french acronym AFCA - Acad√©mie Francophone Cairote des Arts

Half a year later, we all gathered at the opening of my art academy. Damien was in Europe and came back for Christmas, wearing a Santa costume and singing for the children: “One year ago we were playing with the stars in the sky, now we are playing with you on the real earth…”

AFCA’s mission is to “Educate young people through Arts and Culture in Egypt”.  The activities it proposes are designed to enhance the use of languages - French, English and Arabic - and to encourage every child’s creativity and natural artistry and use it as a means to develop personal skills.

Some people believed in our vision. I remember always Aly’s mother who was a great supporter from the very first day. Like us, she believed that her child could learn and speak a second language without a need for an academic system, relying on just the arts. We chatted two years after AFCA began. She said that Aly was very happy. His personality had changed completely and his social skills had developed a lot - but he only spoke the language he learned at school. Three years later, I received a call from her. “We have been in France for four days, and Aly is our guide, speaking in French. Thank you!”. At AFCA, we played together with languages, painted and even cooked with them. Aly is now 12 and is part of the team planning our tenth anniversary in 2014.

After the revolution, we had positive energy and we felt that we were free. We decided to build bridges with other cultures and we established the Hakawy International Arts Festival for Children, with the aim to bring shows from all over the world to perform for the Egyptian children. Exposure to other cultures will support the development of their imagination and their creativity, and open their minds to the world and cultural diversity. We opened this festival to economically underprivileged children who usually have very limited access to the arts. But it is their right, too, to express themselves and to feel accepted by others, even at the international level. We believe that arts and culture are priceless for children, equally important as food and health. Eating is a culture, driving the car is a culture, listening while discussing with others is a culture, cleaning is a culture. Especially now in Egypt, we need these intangible sides of culture.

Second edition of Hakawy Festival with children with special needs. (Photo AFCA)

Some people think that teaching arts to kids is a luxury. It is not; it is as important as anything. It teaches creativity, social skills and imagination. The history of a country, told as a story or performed as a play, will never be forgotten. How often does anyone remember the dates in history if it was only studied to answer exam questions?

Learning through the arts enhances a child’s education greatly. The AFCA team teaches foreign languages through theater or singing, and even more complex subjects, as mathematics and science, can be taught through visual arts. It is more important than ever for the younger generations to possess an array of soft skills. Considering something as simple as baking, an apple pie can surprisingly help a child learn essential team building skills. Art is not a subject on its own; it permeates through the entire curriculum.

Because of the Egyptian economical situation, that stops 28 out of 100 children from finding a place in public schools, we cannot let them be depended on the government anymore. We must train them early on, in a creative way, to think and search. Not only to follow us, but to be in the center, so that we can follow them.

In front of AFCA, one day after Hosni Mubarak´s resignation. (Photo: AFCA)
In order to contribute in the development of our country, and considering that it is the role of independent organizations to be part of the solution, AFCA joined the board of trusties of Heliopolis schools – East Cairo to develop education through arts in public schools. We are spreading this knowledge, we are observing the process and doing assessment after the implementation of every project. We always say that “Education through Arts and Culture doesn't need a PHD; everyone can do it, at home, in the street....with your children or with your friends´ children”. I also cannot forget the role of arts and culture in building the social integration of the underprivileged children or those with special needs.  It can even replace a medicine. I still remember the great impact of our activities on the refugees from Iraq and now from Syria, who found social integration through art. It costs nothing, we only need to believe that, to secure the future of our children, we need to build from a young age. Our aim is to help every egyptian child to be able to accept others and find his way on his own.

It is not easy to work in the arts, especially with the current political situation, but we are moving forward and trying to be creative in solving the problems we face. I always encourage myself and my team by reminding everyone that the boy who fell asleep wasn´t bored with the story; he fell asleep because he felt secure.

Mohamed El Ghawy graduated from the faculty of Arts, French Language and Litterature Department, in Cairo University. He started his career as a drama teacher, actor and storyteller, in several schools and cultural centres. He authored several plays and directed many productions. Trained with the international baccalaureate organisation IBO on how to use the arts in education, he founded AFCA in 2004, an independent arts and culture organisation in Egypt. To spread the arab and egyptian culture around the world, he has toured internationally as a storyteller and trainer in education through the arts. He established Hakawy International Arts Festival for Children in Egypt, under the auspices of the Egyptian ministry of culture, with the support of several embassies and the UNESCO. He is a member of the Board of Trustees of Heliopolis schools – East Cairo. He studied at the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in Washington. He as participated in many projects with international artists to use arts and culture as a tool for intercultural learning in France, Germany and Algeria. Recently, he became the representative of Assitej International Network for Theatre for Young Audience and Youth in Egypt and is working with other organisations locally to rebuild it.

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