SCCC Alum's Work in Africa Combines Music and Sustainability



The Music of the Mpingo

The African blackwood or mpingo tree, as it is called in Swahili, is resilient and grows alone, not in dense forests, but solitarily and in rocky soil where other trees can't survive.

As a young girl growing up in rural East Berne, N.Y., Michele Von Haugg '98 spent many hours alone in nearby woods, exploring her surroundings, but with an innate feeling that someday her love for nature would lead her thousands of miles away to Africa. Two years ago her childhood longing took her to Tanzania in east Africa, the home of the mpingo or "musical tree" and these two products of nature became fast friends.

"I grew up reading books by Jane Goodall. She's such an iconic figure," Michele explained. "I always believed that my path was going to lead me to the forests of Africa. Even as a kid, I knew somehow, some way I would end up there."

Michele, who graduated from SCCC with a degree in Performing Arts: Music, was a doctoral student at Arizona State University when she began to plant the seeds for a cross-cultural program to educate children living in Tanzania, the main area where the mpingo grows, about their native tree. She decided she would do this by teaching them how to play the clarinet, her instrument, and one that is made from the wood of the mpingo. Her program is called Clarinets for Conservation.

Her journey involved long plane rides with suitcases full of clarinets, reeds and music books, a 13-hour bus ride through rough African terrain on a bus with no one who spoke English (and a few chickens and goats), and some heartbreak about broken promises with those assigned to help her.

But in May 2010, she arrived in Moshi, Tanzania, in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, and forged strong friendships and working relationships with Sebastian Chuwa, Director of the African Blackwood Conservation Project, and Samweli Mochuwa, Director of the Kiviwama Conservation Project.

She had eight weeks to get the program off the ground, speaking with principals of nearby schools and recruiting students who wanted to learn how to play the clarinet, an instrument the children, ages 13 to 17, had never seen before, despite the fact that its essence is the mpingo, which surrounds them every day.

Mornings were spent at Korongoni Secondary School, with Michele leading 12 students, six girls and six boys, through musical scales and warmup exercises. When they had a firm grasp on the fundamentals, she began to teach them songs they would eventually perform for townspeople.

All of the students were in a Mali Hai Club, an African "living things" environmental club, and already grew plants and vegetables that they sold in town. During the afternoon, Sebastian and Samweli led conservation education, focusing on the mpingo and other trees, stressing that demand for the mpingo has threatened the tree's existence.

Only two students left the eight-week program, one who had to help his family with daily chores and another who contracted malaria. When new students joined the group, Michele assigned other students to teach them the basics and was surprised at the results.

"When new students joined, I would have other students teach them everything they had learned so far," Michele said. "They ended up being more advanced. They learned from the other students' mistakes without even needing to make them. They had been observing them."

Over the course of two months, the 12 students and their three teachers planted 100 trees around Korongoni, including blackwood and avocado trees. On instruments they had never laid eyes on only six weeks before, they gave a performance for their families and friends, using the notes that Michele taught them. In between songs, they shared facts about the trees, such as that the mpingo grows to about 30 feet and takes 70 to 200 years to reach maturity.

At the end of June 2010, Michele prepared to fly back to the United States. She left the clarinets, music books and cds behind at the school, for the students to continue playing, with the older ones teaching younger students how to play. They continue to give performances in Tanzania, at locations where trees can be planted. They play a selection, talk about the trees and while community members are watching, they plant seedlings.

Michele and Assistant Director Scott Horsington plan to tour the Northeast this spring to perform, raise funds and spread the word about Clarinets for Conservation. In May 2012, Michele will return to Tanzania, again working with Sebastian and Samweli, reuniting with her original students and teaching new clarinetists. "I'm excited to find out what direction they've taken it in," she said. "There are so many ways the clarinet has been used all over the world. I'm excited to see how it's been used in eastern Africa."

For more information about Clarinets for Conservation, please visit www.facebook.com/clarinets4conservation.