“I don’t want to do this anymore!”
Thursday, day 56, in Baucau
That was my thought at lunchtime yesterday, sitting with Tony in Café Victoria on the main street of Old Town Baucau. Why?
I’m in Baucau, and today was the first day of The Right to Play, the project I am leading in partnership with a local arts organisation here. Tony and I arrived 2 days ago, on Tuesday.
Yesterday felt like an example of all that is challenging about cross-cultural work. To start with, things that I had thought were organised and confirmed, were not. The person I had set the project up with was not in town. I’d known he was going away, but had expected his return the previous week. Then, when I stopped by on the way to Lospalos last week, I’d learned he was not due back until December 7th – the same day Tony and I would arrive in Baucau. So we went by his office on the afternoon of the 7th, to be told that he wasn’t expected until the following day, “or maybe the day after”.
Of course my mind started going into a bit of a panic. This was a big and ambitious project we had planned together. We now had UN support and interest in it. I went into Plan B mode, and arranged to meet with the coordinator’s assistant the following morning at 10am to see what we could put in place in time for the project start on Thursday. I began to wonder if the training and planning session we’d scheduled for Wednesday (the next day) would happen.
When we arrived to meet the assistant at 10am on Wednesday, the coordinator was there! Which was a great relief. We all sat down and started to talk through the project at hand. There seemed no time to lose, and lots to do. We each had a list of tasks, and I thought we had arranged to go our separate ways to complete the errands, and meet back in an hour.
When Tony and I got back, no-one was there. We waited, and the others arrived but the coordinator wasn’t there. In the meantime, I showed the other staff the videos I had of instrument-making and other activities that were relevant to the project we had planned. I then tried to stimulate discussion about how we might source some of the instrument-making materials.
Notice my language here? I… I… I…. Was I imposing this project on these patient, long-suffering people who were too polite to say anything? I had thought we were working in partnership but perhaps this was all way more than they wanted to take on. Where I had thought the roles and capacities of each of us was clear, perhaps they had expected I would have it all in hand, and didn’t understand what I was doing, showing them these videos and asking for their thoughts on drum-making.
Before I came here, I had been thinking and reading a lot about cross-cultural arts projects, and about the dangers and power-based assumptions that can come into play when well-meaning people from the West come into developing countries very clear about what it is they want to contribute, and all the benefits it will bring to the local people, but without ever really asking the local people if this is what they want. I didn’t want to fall into this trap, and was determined to be mindful of asking people their thoughts, and of not imposing my own musical constructs and assumptions on other people, especially when I know so little about their own musical cultures.
This then demands a tricky balance from me in terms of why I have been funded to come here. Asialink funding is artist-focused. It is primarily for the professional development of the Australian artist. That is an unusual thing in a developing country, I think. Most funding – particularly for cultural projects – would be about building capacity among local artists, and creating opportunities for them to develop their own work, and build skills in the production and realisation of that work. For my project, I have been looking for ways where this will come naturally as an outcome of any work I engage in. I’ve been looking for mutually-beneficial projects and relationships, in other words. But in doing so, and in a timeline of just 12 weeks, perhaps it is inevitable that the balance is wrong. Or difficult to manage. It is certainly a challenge to manage!
So there we were at the arts centre, engaged in what felt like a futile time-killing endeavour with the assisting staff, managing with my thoroughly inadequate language skills, given the lack of background these staff seemed to have about the project. Tony and I decided to leave and go and get some lunch. At lunch, I started to cry, tears of frustration and confusion, and a kind of shame that I seemed to have become exactly what I had wanted to avoid becoming here – the bossy white person snapping their fingers and getting frustrated when it doesn’t go their way. If we hadn’t told so many people about the project, and got their support, I probably would have shelved the whole thing.
It doesn’t help to have these thoughts and feelings on an empty stomach, and once I’d eaten some lunch I began to feel more energised. For the first time, chatting with Tony, I began to have some ideas about the musical content of the project. (I find it incredibly difficult to make the shift into artistic content planning when I know so much of the project coordination is still unsettled and not locked-in or confirmed). It felt good to finally be able to play around with some musical ideas. This is the difference that having a familiar collaborator around to bounce ideas off can make.
Later that afternoon, I went to the venue to confirm our booking, and pay for it. This was important. I wanted to hand some money over in order to guarantee we had somewhere to work. I met with the priest in charge of the parish where the Campo de Alegria is situated, and gave him the money. He pocketed it and thanked me for the contribution, explaining that later in January they hoped to hold some sports competitions for the local young people, and this rental money would go towards realising that project.
Then Tony and I walked back up to the Arts Centre. The coordinator still hadn’t returned, and I had to assume the training and planning session that we had planned for him and his staff was not going to happen that day. I spoke with the two staff who were there, and explained I was feeling very insecure about the project at this stage, given that I hadn’t been able to meet properly with them all, that we were still waiting to see the lists of children’s names in order to phone them one by one to remind them to come (given that they had registered for the project some weeks earlier). I admitted that I was worried that the arts centre might not really want to do the project, and that I felt bad that I might be pushing things too hard. (This was a tricky conversation in Tetun by the way. My scant little dictionary has so few words for feelings and emotions – you have to get by with things like, good, not good, not very good, bad, feeling good, not feeling good, etc). They responded to me kindly, and reassured me that definitely the children from School No. 1 were coming, as they all lived in the area of the Arts Centre, and that definitely there was nothing to worry about.
As we walked back home, I realised I felt better, despite feeling not so great! I knew the venue was booked. I knew Tony and I would be there. I knew that if the arts centre staff were keen they would be there, and if they weren’t, I could book an interpreter and complete the project that way. I knew I was trying my best to figure out the best way to behave and communicate. Something musical would happen the next day.