Round 3: Into the Heart of East Africa
The AVE Project 2012 in Zanzibar, Ethiopia and Uganda
Interview with Jarrel Phillips
By Christine Joy Ferrer
In September 2012, Jarrel “Chumbinho” Phillips (AVE founder and ZSTC project manager), traveled to Zanzibar, Ethiopia and Uganda teaching Capoeira, all the while video documenting and photographing his journey with the help of Giovan Alonzi (AVE project journalist). AVE, in collaboration with Acro Active and AcroSports, embarked on another Zanzibar adventure to train with Zanzibar Stones Town Capoeira (ZSTC). For the second time, Edwin “B-boy Blakk” Johnson, AcroSports outreach manager and member of the legendary Renegade Rockers break dance crew, journeyed to Zanzibar as the break dance instructor and Dominik “Swiss Chocolate” Wyss, City Circus acrobatic coach, AcroSports outreach representative, and Sons of Cayuga circus acrobatics trainer, taught acrobatics. After a week of training with ZSTC in Zanzibar, Jarrel Phillips moved on to teach youth in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Gulu, Uganda. He also gave them donated school supplies and clothing. But none of this could have been possible without the amazing support of AcroSports, Bayview Association for Youth 100% College Prep Institute, Amazing Grace Guest Home, Bina and Andrew Contreras, and to all those who donated to the AVE project on Indiegogo.com.
Christine Joy Ferrer: This year the AVE project visited Zanzibar, Ethiopia, and Uganda. Tell me about some of the highlights in each country?
Jarrel Phillips: My travels to the continent of Africa have revolved around the implementation of ideas and the fulfillment of promises to others as well as to myself. Watching the journey unfold in my last three-week trip was a surreal experience—a realization of self-accomplishment. It’s been immeasurably powerful. I felt a sense of awe at various moments in my day where I clearly recognized the power of my imagination translated into words and followed through with action. In every place I visited, I had the opportunity to share capoeira with groups of youth and young adults who have taken the initiative, as a collective, to develop skills through art forms that inevitably empower themselves and their communities.
This is my third consecutive annual trip to Zanzibar and Ethiopia this year and it’s such a pleasure to see the growth in the ZSTC crew. Some of the youngest ones who I met during my first visit are now taller than me. Their acrobatic, capoeira and break dance skills have only gotten better. They are still quick learners, soaking up everything they see or are taught in a matter of seconds.
More and more people know who they are now. They’re involved in many big shows and festivals that take place on the island and in the mainland of Dar es Salaam. The Brazilian Embassy in Dar es Salaam has even invited the ZSTC to participate in capoeira workshops. It’s great to see them being recognized for all their dedication.
This was my first trip to Uganda, I didn’t know what to expect. All I heard before was “Don’t go there it’s dangerous.” But I like to experience things for myself. I just was ready to meet the Break Dance Project Uganda (BPU) crews in both Southern and Northern Uganda. I heard about them by watching the trailer of the award-winning documentary called Bouncing Cats. I couldn’t find the full-length documentary anywhere.
While in Kampala (Southern Uganda) I met B-boy Abramz, the protagonist of Bouncing Cats and founder of BPU. He confirmed that the documentary could only be seen through special screenings and that it was never released on DVD. But, B-boy Abramz had a copy! One day I had just finished my workshops in Gulu (Northern Uganda) and made it back in time to catch up with B-boy Abramz and B-boy Mark, another member of the crew. They set up their DVD player so that Gio (AVE project journalist) and I could watch Bouncing Cats in our hotel room. It was an amazing film and it felt great to finally see it. I’m actually glad I didn’t see the film first. This allowed me to create my own understanding of the BPU Gulu and Kampala branches and especially in relation to Gulu who are always depicted through Western eyes of war.
After viewing the film the four of us talked until 5 a.m. (nearly 4 hours). We talked about so many different issues including, but not limited to:
· Telling your story
· Acknowledgement and appreciation
· Sharing, learning, and teaching as one
· Psychosocial development
· Individuals as contributors to their community
· Personal exposure versus worldly perspectives
I did more listening than talking. B-boy Abramz and Mark had so much profound insight to share. I even filmed it. They were their own reference as they spoke from personal experience and understanding about living and thriving in Uganda and going abroad to places like Denmark to teach.
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia was the first place I ever actually traveled to in Africa. I stayed there for almost three weeks in 2010. I love it over there—the food, culture, dances, kids, and all the people I’ve built relationships with on my journey thus far.
My favorite moment was when I ran into two old friends that I had met the year before and never imagined I’d see again. They are two young brothers, about 7 or 8, who I had met outside the guest home I was staying in. They wanted me to take pictures of them with my camera so I did. I saw them everyday we were there—nice little kids. One of the pictures that I had taken of them turned out really good. I had it printed and framed and used it for a gallery event in San Francisco. It’s one of my favorite photos.
It was amazing to reunite with those two boys. They took my capoeira workshops this year. I was able to share capoeira with them in exchange for the beautiful moment that they had allowed me to capture a year ago with my camera. I got to give them a copy of that photo. They came by every day to say hello and even came to say goodbye before I left.
Ferrer: What was it like training with Break Dance Project Uganda (BPU) of the Bouncing Cats?
Phillips: Training with BPU was so real and raw—it’s just unexplainable. There are two branches: Kampala (Southern Uganda) BPU and Gulu (Northern Uganda) BPU. Like I was explaining earlier, I heard about BPU a couple years ago through the Bouncing Cats documentary trailer, which covers BPU, its development and demand in Northern and Southern Uganda. And here I am getting to meet them and exchange art, culture, and knowledge.
Just like the ZSTC crew, the youth of BPU are extremely talented and inspiring people to be around. They love their art and practice every day. It’s always a pleasure to be surrounded by such dedicated individuals who have so much passion for what they do.
The BPU motto is “Each one, Teach one.” Everyone is a teacher and everyone is a student—learning through social art and movement. Also, during every break dance class emphasis is placed on taking the time to commune with one another. B-boy Abramz closes each class with a check-in. I remember at the end of one of the BPU trainings in Kampala, Abramz talked about the purpose for the movements, style and expressions taught. Then, one by one each person in the room checked in with the group; updating their crew on their lives, their families—those in need of support in one way or another shared their hearts, while others voiced ideas of how they could all help each other.
Ferrer: When American people think of the country of Uganda, they think poverty, strife, violence, and starving children… What did your visit reveal about the beauty of Ugandans and their culture that we should know about but have misunderstood because of our biased American media and Western misrepresentation?
Phillips: First and foremost, no place should be identified from such a limited perspective. Uganda is known as the pearl of Africa. For the BPU, they spend their time in school, with family, and, of course, break dancing, whether for performances or for fun. They’re not people ravaged by war. Their perseverance, triumphs over strife, violence, and starvation. They’ve experienced war, inhumane situations, and exploitation. Yet, they still rise. Their strength shows in the wisdom and beauty of their culture and people. They’ve survived tumultuous times, proving that they are beyond the struggle and troubled past. Through their lives they exemplify understanding of past, life in the present moment, and that they architects of their own futures.
Ferrer: How many youth did you teach in each city per session?
Phillips: I taught so many more people this time. In Zanzibar, there were about 15-20 ZSTC crew members present each day.
In Uganda I only did workshops in Gulu (Northern Uganda). On the first day I worked with about 15 individuals and on the second day it doubled. It felt very similar to my first year teaching in Zanzibar.
In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia I facilitated a class with the most youth I’ve ever taught in one setting. There were 70+ youth on the first day whose ages ranged from 5-18 years old. We trained for over two hours. On the first day, the kids worked together to set up the space where the workshop was held. They made a welcome banner for us and introduced themselves by performing a little showcase of traditional dancing, juggling, and acrobatics that they had picked up and developed on their own.
Ferrer: Was this the first time Capoeira was introduced to the youth in Uganda?
Phillips: I don’t know for sure but I do believe it was the first time capoeira was introduced to the BPU Gulu branch, and the same was for the youth in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. We covered a lot of the fundamentals of capoeira and it definitely seemed new to them. What little they knew about capoeira was from the movie, Only the Strong. And now, I’ve noticed that in BPU Gulu’s most recent Facebook posts, they sometimes focus on capoeira in their trainings, which is pretty cool. I want to go back again, but next time hopefully with my capoeira mestre, Mestre Urubu Malandro of Capoeira Ijexá, some of my capoeira family, along with some of the world re-known B-boys of Renegade Rockers.
Ferrer: What was the most inspiring part about teaching capoeira?
Phillips: The social/cultural exchange was the highlight of my trip. From country to country I couldn’t help but notice that the crews dance, perform, train, kick, and flip together, and function like a small community. They share and learn together, help out with each other’s families, eat together, check in with one another, and support each other. It’s great to see especially amongst such young individuals.
Ferrer: What’s next for AVE?
Phillips: We are working on many things. For one, a series of community events will take place starting in 2013 that will highlight AVE’s travels through East Africa. We are also in the process of planning our next AVE journey. The mission is to bring more instructors as well as a media crew for further written and video documentation that will eventually become a feature-length film. If you are interested in getting involved by volunteering, contributing, and/or coming along for the trip feel free to get in contact with me. I’m looking to open up some classes in the future as well. A lot is in the works so visit avesidea.org for updates.
Ferrer: Is there anything else you’d like to share that you think others should know about?
Phillips: We need to understand the power that we possess as a people. We must build our communities to make them stronger. To quote June Jordan, “We are the ones that we’ve been waiting for.” We must take initiative just as the crews and youth that I’ve encountered on this trip and do just like the BPU motto “Each one, Teach one” suggests. There isn’t any one person that can do everything but every one can do something. We have to combine our skills and experience. I know great scholars and intellects that are well versed on diverse subjects in academia. And I know people who aren’t so educated but live the experiences that others can only read about and cannot fully understand. Binary systems and ways of thinking are not enough. We must not box our ideas or methods of approach. There can be many ways to answer a question and many possible answers to one. We must do our part and acknowledge our significance without limitations. We just have to find our medium. And that is our own personal art.
To view more photos of the AVE Project 2012, click on one of these albums on Facebook: Ethiopia, Uganda, and Zanzibar. Don’t forget to LIKE AVE on Facebook. To learn more about the ZSTC Project, click here. To read more about the AVE project 2012, read Giovan Alonzi’s blog.