Five UNC campuses learn about African culture, music, sustainability from Nile Project

A River Runs Through It

Five UNC campuses learn about African culture, music, sustainability from Nile Project

The Nile River is the longest in the world, but unfortunately, many University of North Carolina students and faculty will never get the opportunity to experience its wonder.

So the Nile Project is bringing the river to them, at least in spirit, embracing the idea that nature is often a catalyst for artistic and cultural endeavors.

The project, a collective of musicians from the 11 African countries that border the Nile River, was founded by Mina Girgis a few years ago to promote new ideas and collaborations among countries that are vastly different from one another politically and culturally. Musicians from Egypt, Eritrea, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Sudan, Uganda, Ethiopia, Tanzania, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are all part of the group.

Now the Nile Project tours across the globe, sharing a message of culture and sustainability, particularly with water. Throughout the end of March and the beginning of April, the project is visiting five campuses within the UNC system: North Carolina State University, Western Carolina University, Appalachian State University, East Carolina University and the University of North Carolina Wilmington. UNC system faculty first became aware of the group in 2015, when it performed at the United Nations, and they have been working to bring the Nile Project to the state ever since.

Each campus has structured an extensive schedule around the Nile Project’s musical performances, including panel discussions, classroom visits and river clean-ups.

“We’ve been touring quite some time, but the energy and effort the organizers have put in has been bringing a lot of enthusiasm from the community,” Girgis said. “We’ve had a number of K-12 performances. With the UNC system, we’ve discussed the kinds of problems we have in the Nile River system and how it pertains to water sustainability.”

Girgis even gave the keynote speech at a recent water resources conference in the state. He marveled at the number of rivers in North Carolina and the resources used to maintain them.

Music is its own language

Music students from the campuses have gotten to study with the musicians for subjects such as percussion, while language, literature, political science and cultural students all have had panels or classroom sessions that fit in with their fields of study.

Laura Wright, a WCU literature professor who teaches a course in African literature, said it was important for her students to understand the different cultures among the 11 countries represented.

“From my perspective, this was a really great experience” she said. “Teaching African literature, to have my students see people speaking different languages but collaborating was something special. In the west, we have a very homogenized view of Africa, so I took them to the panels so that they could see each of these countries has its own identity.”

Lane Perry, WCU’s director of the Center for Service Learning, added that it wasn’t just students who benefitted from the tour. He said that the universities within the Nile Basin countries had stronger ties to American universities than they did with each other, so U.S. schools have been able to help facilitate the project.

“For me, it was fantastic,” he said. “Seeing 11 countries, with different languages, different cultures and different religions, find a common strand that exists among all of them, which of course is the Nile River. I had the honor of sitting on a panel with some of the musicians and Mina, and I told myself, ‘You have the best seat in the house to learn.’ ”

Perry said he was amazed when Girgis told how he first assembled the musicians.

“It’s an inspirational story,” Perry said. “I asked during the panel how music has served as a common language among them. They talked about how there were different cultures and languages, but also how there were different scales and cadences and paces within the music. You have to learn how to communicate with each other through the music. Students were able to hear the musicians speak in different languages and have it translated right before their eyes. It was a cultural experience that students at Western Carolina don’t get every day.”

Denise Ringler, director of Arts & Cultural Programs at Appalachian State, said the Nile Project’s mission fits in perfectly with that of the university.

“The match for us was just ideal,” she said. “For Appalachian State, it’s an institutional priority and our chancellor’s priority to focus learning around sustainability and global learning. That was another asset of this project – not only could we expose our audiences to African musical traditions they may not be familiar with, but we can also make those connections around sustainability, global awareness and geo-political conflict resolution. There’s just so many different touchpoints between this project and the academic community.”

Ringler said the project’s visit to Boone in early April was arranged around the cleanup of the New River – which coincidentally is one of the rare rivers to flow north, just like the Nile.

“We thought it was a great opportunity to make this connection between the New River and the Nile River,” she said. “We thought the river cleanup would be a great project for the community to participate in and make this connection. We plan on having some of the musicians out there to talk to the students and to play some music, so it will be a great cultural experience as well as being environmentally responsible.”

Appalachian State  junior Sidney Ginn, a music education major from Boone, said one thing she wants to know is how the musicians bring their different styles together, and how they use the music as an education tool.

“I’m really looking forward to experience the way they create music across different cultures,” she said. “It’s a much more collaborative experience.”

For Ginn, who is currently doing student teaching with a local Montessori school in Boone, she will be able to bring her elementary school students to meet the Nile project musicians and use what she learns in her career as a teacher.

“This is a perfect activity for them,” she said. “I think it’s a way to learn when you get to see how different groups of people connect through music. I want to diversify my teaching to meet the needs of my students – anytime you have different cultures, the students get a more holistic influence.”

The university is also working with the local Unitarian church and several other downtown churches and temples for a service focused around social justice and featuring the Nile Project. Later in the day, there will be a panel focused on how nature inspires literature, music and the arts.

Girgis said that he and his group have been made to feel at home at whichever campus they are visiting.

“It’s almost like a big celebration where everyone is part of it,” he said. “It definitely feels like a special experience for us because we are known wherever we go on campus. It’s always a surprise to find that many of the people in the audience have lived or have visited the countries we come from. Even people from the Nile Basin don’t know much about each other, so we are open-minded when it comes to other people learning about the issues, which we explain through our music. For us, it’s really about a conversation.”

Written by Phillip Ramati

Thursday, March 23, 2017