Deep within a young tree is the pith, or soft tissue which stores and transports nutrients throughout. As the tree grows, rings surround this pith to show the evolution of time and development. After meeting the young men who are known as Black Pith Zambia, I think this is a perfect name for their team. It is not only reflective of the solidly rooted poetry they share, but symbolic of their deep character focused on sharing knowledge with others.
As you can read on their Facebook page, Black Pith believes “in talent, the magnification of art and the value of an artist” with the mission of “raising a generation of poets in Zambia and beyond.”
Embedded within their poetry is a strong connection to proactive mental health education, reducing the stigma related to conversations about mental health, and showing the power of poetry as a valuable form of self expression.
After reading about their work and focus on community development, I contacted Black Pith and learned that it was an eleven hour bus ride between Lusaka and one of their outreach areas in Solwezi. Despite, a general aversion to long bus rides, and after only a few informal conversations online, I felt good about the trip. Everything they shared was in-touch with the kind of missions I hope to support…innovative, positive, productive, interactive, and hopeful.
I arrived in Solwezi on Thursday night to a bus station filled with people willing to help find a taxi to my hotel. Without a phone, local communication is a challenge, so I to knew I had to wait to contact Black Pith until I had a WiFi connection. To my surprise, during a quick stop to get water at the local grocery store, four smiling young men greeted me by name saying they must be psychics. We all laughed as I fought moments of confusion, but I was immediately sure that this would be a weekend filled with friendship and fun.
Charles Chalwe, Ezra Mwenda, Mbwangi Mwenya, and Mwanangwa Zombe offer their own skill sets to this well-designed team with each focusing on poetry and another specific role within the organization. They met in college and shared a common desire to use the spoken word they enjoyed in school to influence their others and support local development. Through six shows a year, and a variety of outreach events in Kitwe, Zambia and beyond, they are doing just that.
Our weekend, which also included two Black Pith volunteers named Nsofwa and Grace, was filled with diverse outreach in a variety of settings.
What I enjoyed the most about participating in their events was the way their mission was always clear, focused on sharing poetry and building the power of others. However, their approach varied to customize the experience for different audiences.
On Friday night, Black Pith hosted a poetry event at Shamel’s Restaurant. I have to say that I was awed when these fun-loving and humble guys took the stage and dove into their poetic personas. In one breath, their spoken words were deep and meaningful, and in the next, funny and inspiring. It was a wonderfully emotional poetic ride. I loved it!
On Saturday, in preparation for our visit to the correctional facility on Sunday, we shopped at the local market for Chitenge fabric that we could used to cover up to follow local customs. It was fun shopping with the girls for clothes – and then some groceries for the lunch they made. They even bought some dried caterpillars which I must say – for caterpillars – tasted good. Even though I still can’t believe I ate caterpillars. It’s funny how our cultural food hang-ups run deep. The dried caterpillars were similar to a small piece of a pretzel – but my own bias made it feel different. I also know, there are things I eat at home that others wouldn’t dream of eating. This is why I love the way travel shows us new ways to be.
During our afternoon of lounging, I learned Zambian cooking basics – and enjoyed the fellowship of our meal, playing cards, watching soccer, origami making, and just hanging out. After months of traveling, this recreation time was a welcome friend.
Saturday’s visit to Cheshire Home was beyond special and gave me a chance to see Black Pith connecting with children. The young people who attend this school have physical challenges and a ton of spirit. They board at the school during the school year under the care of their maternal leader Sister Michelin Kafwembe. During the show, the children were encouraged through puppetry and interactive activities to be overcomers focused on achieving their dreams.
On Sunday morning, we visited a correctional facility where the poets share regular poetry workshops for a small group of prisoners. The men who participated shared poetry written after their previous workshop- and reinforced the power of freedom they will never take it for granted again. There was a strong connection between the poets and prisoners – focused on self improvement and the potential for change. The workshop focused on writing with sensory details – which I loved – and made me feel a tad like I was back at school.
Sunday night was for relaxing at Georgie’s Restaurant outside of Solwezi where there was a bit of kayaking, bridge walking, pizza, and dance.
One cool project we have in motion is collaboration between Black Pith and Chicago poet, Adam Gottlieb. During our video collaboration, they planned a combined poetry workshop centered on, “What gives you hope for the next year?” Through video and audio work, they will host a poetry workshop in their respective cities that will be combined for a global poetry production. As a teacher, this is my dream for how technology can be used to build partnerships and provide cross-cultural learning opportunities.
I cannot say enough about the men of Black Pith poetry and the way they have created an outreach program built on their talents. In many tangible ways, they are providing poetry therapy for the masses in their community through large and small group activities.
If I had grown children, I would want them to be just like this crew…filled with respect for others, a desire to influence the world, and a general good nature and strong set of values.
Someday, they will come to visit me. I can already picture them working with some friends from home, and other I have met on this journey, to bring their positive influence to Chicago.