There we stood in the clearing dust, face to face with a crowd of complete strangers who had staged a surprise party for us. In all the clamor of the bongo drums, vocal chants, and wooden xylophones, we didn’t notice the drone of the engine driving away, not to pick us up again for two years. In our bags, we had packed both necessities and memories from our lives in Chester, Virginia, where we were born and raised. The song and dance continued, even after the village chief showed us into our new home. Local women with slumbering babies tied to their backs continued to shuffle in a dance circle around our front yard. An ocean away from our hometown, it was time for my wife Tana and me to step outside into our new West African village and make some friends. - Chad McCoull
Chad McCoull and his wife, Tana are Peace Corp volunteers. They volunteered shortly after graduating from James Madison University. Tana’s studies were health sciences and French and Chad has a MA in Public Administration. Both felt their assignment in the country of Burkina Faso in West Africa was a perfect fit. Along with their specific assignments, the couple wants to help build an ampitheater like Dogwood Dell for the community.
McCoull said the community of Burkina Faso is welcoming where meals and live performing arts unite the villages. “Social convention dictates that when you’re chowing down, anybody who happens to be passing through is entitled to join in. Especially in villages, all meals are consumed outdoors in plain view,.” he wrote in an email.
The community is lacking in electricity and literacy. Four out of five adults cannot read. Without televisions or books for entertainment, they look for live performing arts for entertainment. Along with musicians and dance team performances, talented actors and actresses rehearse original plays for their neighbors.” McCoull said when a touring production passes through a village, the whole population comes running out of their mud-brick homes not wanting to miss a moment. “Together, everyone laughs and cries, claps and cheers.”
McCoull said he sees this as an amazing opportunity for development, because he feels theater meets the greatest local need of all: education. “The power of narrative can be used to raise awareness and even modify behavior,” he writes. “When framed in the context of a play, audience members are receptive to contemplating normally taboo subjects, such as HIV/AIDS.
When confronted with a complex problem, many people can’t analyze the full scope of it with the same degree of insight as those with a higher education. Theater takes abstractions, such as gender equality, and presents them in practical, everyday situations that anyone can appreciate. Everyone in attendance can put themselves in the shoes of realistic characters and decide for themselves the most appropriate course of action. In this way, theater naturally leads to critical thinking and reflection.”
Over the past year Chad and Tana have studied their community and see one particular need has resurfaced time and time again. He wrote, “Despite the region’s keen interest in performing arts, no venue currently exists to hold large audiences. We’ve personally helped produce seven performances, some of which couldn’t accommodate everybody who wanted to watch. Droves of people, all standing on tip-toes and craning their necks to see, couldn’t squeeze comfortably into a single courtyard. Those in attendance also suffered from the lack of elbow room. What the community needs to more efficiently deliver these educational performances is a public venue with mass seating and a stage.”
MCCoull said inspired individuals in the community have already started working towards uniting local audiences and artists alike in building the first community amphitheater in southwestern Burkina Faso. “Oumar Diarra, a motivated local playwright and the director of Troupe Brigue, has drawn up long-term action plans and budgets, secured support and land, and rallied a board of directors,” writes McCoull. “He has enlisted the expertise of a construction manager and project planner and has started soliciting the support of local businesses and the tourism industry. Oumar has asked Tana and me to train all parties involved in transparency, accountability, and sustainability. The Centre Culturel Multi-arts des Cascades, as it has been tentatively named, will be established as a community resource for all local citizens. The first step is constructing the stage and building amphitheater seating, and the project leaders have already plotted the blue prints, which were inspired by Richmond’s Dogwood Dell.”
The McCoulls feel folks from the Chester community could help. They write, “Please consider whether you have any expertise, resources, or money to contribute for the benefit of tens of thousands of families in rural West Africa. Without outside support, their dreams couldn’t be realized for decades to come. Also, if you would like to develop a long-term relationship with the Centre Culturel Multi-arts des Cascades to offer support or counsel in the subsequent phases of realization, please contact the McCoulls by e-mail and they will personally connect you.
Along with the goal of building an ampitheater, Tana is a community health volunteer working with the local health clinic educating five villages on important health topics, such as malnutrition, hygiene, and family planning and Chad is a small enterprise development volunteer, working with a local union that exports Fairtrade mangoes and cashews to Europe. He also helps other individuals with entrepreneurial projects, for example starting a cassava production business with a local man and a fruit syrup business with a local woman.
For more information and updates, please follow our Facebook page: tiny.cc/buildatheater. To donate, please visit the Peace Corps Partnership Program website, a secure channel managed by the US federal government: tiny.cc/pctheater.”