Monday, June 07, 2010

Young musician hopes to bring aid to Africa

Silas Beardslee had graduated from High Mowing School and was ready to enroll as a theater major at The University of New Hampshire four years ago. Instead, he took a detour and went to the college of life — in Zimbabwe.
by By NICOLE S. COLSON, Sentinel Staff, Thursday June 03 2010 - see original article here.

Beardslee, 21, of Keene, performs Friday at The Starving Artist in Keene to raise money for a project he envisioned during that 2006 trip to Africa.

That summer, he attended a camp in northern New Hampshire where a man from Zimbabwe was sponsored to work for the season. “We had an incredible connection I couldn’t put words to,” Beardslee said of Balance Chibangwa, who later became like a brother to him. “He described his triumphs and struggles, the landscape and the people (of Zimbabwe),” Beardslee said. “He told me his life story and I told him mine.” Chibangwa invited Beardslee to stay with him in Zimbabwe. “I saw it as an incredible opportunity,” he said.

He deferred his college application and saved up some money, and was able to visit Zimbabwe for four months from December of 2006 to March of 2007. Chibangwa was getting married in December, and asked Beardslee if he’d be his best man. Of course, he accepted.

“It made me realize I wasn’t ready for school,” he said of his experience in Zimbabwe.

Although Beardslee said he still is in love with the arts and has a far-off vision of becoming a drama teacher, his experience in Zimbabwe made him realize

there was much more to what he was wishing for.

Beardslee now has a house in the rural village of Rimbi (population 3,000) in Zimbabwe, a brick and plaster thatched roof, one-room circular hut. He built it next to Chibangwa’s small three-room house. He learned the native language, and helped his friend run his small grocery store in town and with his wedding preparations. “I had no agenda other than to immerse myself as much as possible in the people and the culture.” He was even given a Shona name by the village chief.

Beardslee noticed early on there are a lot of starving people in Rimbi, but it’s not because there’s not enough food to go around. Because the people of Zimbabwe have endured such hardship, including the HIV/AIDS epidemic, people tend to think about their own families first and foremost. Because so many families are affected by the disease, often there is only one parent left to farm land and feed the family.

“Working together isn’t really a thought,” he said. “It takes a lot of time and attention whereas most time and attention is focused on getting meals for the family.” There is also a lack of work in Zimbabwe, which means many leave to find jobs and cannot farm their own land.

Beardslee and Chibangwa came up with the idea to start a community farming project wherein people of Rimbi could farm shared land and share the harvest from that land.

Beardslee said he left Zimbabwe a totally changed person with full knowledge he’d return. He didn’t feel ready to take the project on then. Instead, he travelled for two years, including to Sweden, where he led a youth initiative project that focused on social change. The connections he made there and the skills he learned from his studies, he said, gave him the tools and ideas to put his vision for the Rimbi Farming Project into motion.

He went back to Zimbabwe last year for a five-week internship, during which he asked villagers in Rimbi what they thought of the idea for the farm. They were very receptive. The farm will be biodynamic — a method of holistic organic farming created by the founder of Waldorf education. Beardslee attended the Monadnock Waldorf School in Keene.

The project is still in its visioning stage; in the meantime, Beardslee formed a non-profit organization to accept donations. He hopes to raise $30,000. So far, he has been using his musical talents toward that goal. He began playing guitar two-and-a-half years ago because he had written poetry about his first trip to Zimbabwe and he wanted to put it to music. He has performed a few shows in the area (there is one tonight in Jaffrey also) and he plans to do more.

No matter how much money he raises, he will go back to Zimbabwe in October to live and get the project off the ground. The village chief donated five hectares (equal to about two-and-a-half acres) of land villagers will be able to farm, and the money raised will go toward tools and the building of a barn. The focus crops will be maize (corn), a food staple in Zimbabwe; watermelon, squash and pumpkin.

Sadly, Chibangwa died early this year as a result of injuries he sustained in a car accident. Although Beardslee said he is still processing his friend’s death, it only fuelled him to continue. “This incredible human being would not want me to stop the work he shared the vision of,” he said.