Tag Archives: music

The Harare International Festival of the Arts

The Harare International Festival of the Arts


The Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA) is one of Africa’s largest international arts festivals. Established in 1999,  the festival takes place each year in late April or early May in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. The week long festival encompasses five principal disciplines: theatre, music, dance, fine art, and poetry.  I was lucky enough to be able to attend for 4 full days.

Zimbabwe is a country in deep trouble.  It declared independence in 1980 and Robert Mugabe, seen at the time as a hero by many people, was elected Prime Minister.  For the first decade of his administration, it seemed as though Zimbabwe would emerge as a modern power, with decent health care and education for all citizens,  integration and cooperation between people of various races and a thriving economy.  However, after about a decade, Mugabe seemed to lose his grip on reality.  He blamed his countries woes on vague “conspiracies” and “sabotage” and made some extremely questionable decisions.  He has been “elected” seven times, although the last few elections were challenged.


Zimbabwe has gradually deteriorated into a country with an 80% unemployment rate, no health care, no education and no industry.  They experienced “hyper-inflation” and in 2008, the government started printing bills in denominations up to 100 billion dollars.  Shortly afterwards the economy completely crashed and now Zimbabwe has no currency at all – they use American dollars and also accept Botswanian Pula, South African Rand or Euros.


The city is crumbling – sidewalks falling apart, trash strewn everywhere, shops boarded up and people trying to sell trinkets or cheap food on the street, or begging outright.

In the middle of all this is HIFA…an incredibly organised, internationally diverse, wildly successful festival.  And so…maybe there is hope for Zimbabwe after all…because the HIFA was amazing.  Six days of music, dance, drama, poetry and artists literally from all over the world.  Everyone working at the Festival was friendly, welcoming and helpful.  There were shuttles organised to take you to different venues and they ran on time and on a schedule.  The acts were all great – hugely diverse in scope and style.  Performers of all ages, colours, nationalities and everything else.

So, let me tell you about what I saw!  (And this is only a small sample of what was going on!)

Zimboita was a quartet of musicians blending Zimbabwean and Italian music.  They were terrific and got everyone on their feet and dancing.

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There was an Indian Dance Troupe…they advertised themselves with a picture of someone breathing fire and holding a snake.  However, apparently the theatre nixed the fire and customs nixed the snake.  So they did many dances which involved balancing many bowls and other objects on the head.  It was kind of cool…especially when in the middle of one dance, one of the musicians ran out into the centre, blew this huge horn and then ran off again!

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There was a magic show called “My Father’s Hat,” which was wrapped in a one-man play about the magician, his son and his father.  The performer gave me a ride back to the Main Gate afterwards and told me that the story was 99% true…that his father had been an expert magician and had actually died while doing his act!

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There were some fantastic classical performances held in a wonderful old church with exceptional acoustics.  I heard world-famous opera stars in recital, three of the Bach unaccompanied cello suites, a choral/orchestral work called “Stabat Mater” and an incredible solo pianist who juxtaposed some of Bach’s preludes and fugues with more modern pieces…and somehow made it all fit together.

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On the main stage, there was a bona-fide Celtic band that got everyone singing and dancing.  The only thing missing was a keg of Guinness.

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I saw a couple of very interesting dramatic productions…one was about a suicide attempt gone wrong and was set in a decrepit public toilet.   It was called “The Gods You Built” and revolved around the loss (and invention) of belief systems. Another one combined acting with dance – which I wasn’t sure would work, but it did.  It was called “Brothers in Blood ” and was about the strained and often paranoid relations between Muslims, Jews and Christians after apartheid.   Both plays reminded me of some of the stuff I saw at the Edinborough Fringe Festival – a little edgy, a little risky and a little thought-provoking…just like theatre is meant to be. (Pictures from HIFA website)

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And then there was the craft market. I wanted a truck to take home some of the gorgeous stone statues.

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They were also selling marimbas of all sizes and other instruments.



The whole craft market was alive with colour and bustling with activity.

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Many items were made from “recycled” materials.  You could get necklaces and keychains made from the now-useless money.  And this hat is made from….video tape!


And I loved these toys…hand-carved.  Notice how the lion is going to bite the man in the butt…but never quite catches up!

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I saw a Chinese dance troupe from Nanjing made of up children aged 8 – 12…they were called The Little Red Flower Art Troupe.  They were very good but a little creepy in their perfection.


Also several singers…one jazzy, one more folky.


I have to say that the most impressive act I saw was a solo guitarist.  Originally from Persia, by way of Russia, Germany, the USA and finally Canada he made the guitar sound like everything from a freight train to an orchestra.  A very talented young man.


A colleague of mine had also come to HIFA and she introduced me to Paul and Rex, a fantastic couple who currently live in Lusaka, but have a home in Scotland, where they were married a few years ago.  They talked about their home country, Nigeria, and spoke with some sadness about how neither of them would (or could) ever return.  We had a wonderful dinner with them the first night and then kept bumping into them at various events!

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On the last day, I spent a few hours just sitting in the main courtyard, listening to the music and watching the people around me.  It was an incredible 4 days and I am looking forward to next year.


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The Bo Kaap and the Noon Gun

The Bo Kaap and the Noon Gun

When I was in Cape Town a few weeks ago, I stayed in an area of the city called the “Bo Kaap” which means “Upper Cape.” The area is noted for its colourful houses, cobbled streets and interesting history.  It is located basically on the side of  Signal Hill, which means there are steep climbs and lots of terraced houses.

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The area is also sometimes known (somewhat erroneously) as “The Malaysian Quarter” as this is the place where the former slaves (some from Malaysia, but many from elsewhere) settled after slavery was abolished.  Because they were required to wear and live drab circumstances when enslaved, after they gained their freedom, they made sure  their houses and clothing were brightly coloured.

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The Bo Kaap is the centre of Cape Town’s Muslim community, with no less than nine mosques in this one small area (less than 6,000 people.)  Some of the mosques were tiny, but there were two or three with the capacity to broadcast the call to prayer over loudspeakers.  Although there are (I think) 5 daily “calls” only the ones at dawn, noon and sundown seemed to be broadcast.  My B & B was at the top of the Bo Kaap so I heard the calls loud and clear.  The prayers are done live – first there would be one, breaking the silence – an ancient, eerie kind of music, sung with great passion and vigour.  And then, as that one died out, another mosque would broadcast their call – with the singer doing his best to show at least as much “prayerfulness” as the first.  And then, a couple of mornings, I heard a third singer get into the act.

Since, theoretically, all the calls should be happening simultaneously, I could only assume that some kind of friendly competition was going on.  Sort of an “anything you can pray, I can pray louder” type of thing.

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The people of the Bo Kaap were incredibly friendly and welcoming.  It is not (yet) a big tourist area…and although there is some worry about gentrification, the area still retains much of its 19th century charm.  I was very happy to have stayed there – as the proprietor of my B & B said when I commented on how lovely the area was, “It’s a special place, isn’t it?”

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This is the hill I had to walk up to get to the B & B.  It was even steeper than it looks.



But THIS is the view I had from the terrace:

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On the far edge of the Bo Kaap, about halfway up Signal Hill, you can find the “Noon Gun.”  This is a very old tradition in Cape Town – they shoot a cannon off precisely at noon every day but Sunday.  They’ve been doing this since 1806.  It is somewhat of a tourist attraction. I walked around the side of the hill and up a path and some  stairs to where the armoury was.  The stairs were very much dis-used, apparently most people come up the road.  But I managed to find my way.  There were many old cannons and cannon-related items up there and the view was terrific.

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A sign informed me that this was to be the 65346th firing.  Other signs warned people to “cover their ears” and stay well
away from the firing zone.

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At about 11:30, they began to prepare to shoot the cannon.  A few people drove up in cars and there was a small tour bus.  An officer came out and gave us a bit of background history.  These are the oldest cannons still being fired in existence.  The timing is done with absolute precision – through an electrical charge that is connected to a facility in Greenwich, England!  And though they only shoot one cannon, there is a “back-up cannon” loaded that can be set off manually, in case the first cannon doesn’t work.  He raised a flag and showed us how he put the charge into the cannon.  It is a bag filled with gunpowder, tamped down into the barrel of the cannon with a wooden plunger that looked as though it may well have been in use in 1806!

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When the cannon went off, it was deafening…and pretty cool.  No doubt that everyone in Cape Town knew that it was noon!

I had planned to have lunch at this cafe called “The Noon Gun Cafe” at the bottom of the hill, but found that it had been closed for the past 8 months!  I passed another little restaurant on the way down and found it booked to capacity with a tour bus!  So, I made my way down the Bo Kaap and ended up having a wonderful lunch in a little corner Indian cafe…excellent lamb Biryani and naan.  Then I climbed back up to my B & B for a swim and a nap!

I do think that when I return to Cape Town, I will stay in the Bo Kaap once again. It felt like home.IMG_0394







ISSEA Band Festival in Zimbabwe!


“ISSEA” stands for “International Schools of Southern and Eastern Africa” and they are responsible for coordinating and organising events for the various International Schools.  Previously, all the events were sporting activities – soccer, basketball, volleyball and etc…but this year, for the first time, there was a “cultural” event.  A concert band festival.

Never mind that half the schools involved don’t even HAVE bands, or that it would have been MUCH easier to start with choir or even drama.  The committee that met last year decided that starting with band would be much more spectacular and draw more of a crowd.  So, all the member schools had to scramble around to find “band members.”  Even if they didn’t have a band.

We had exactly two kids in the high school who could play an instrument and were willing to put in the practice time necessary.  Here they are!

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They joined with 70+ kids from seven different schools and more than 50 different countries to create the first-ever ISSEA Band.  And to be fair, the end result really was spectacular.

The kids were all housed with host families…and the accompanying teachers were put up at a very nice place call the Bronte Garden Hotel.  I was impressed.  The rooms were comfortable and spacious and the grounds were lovely, with a wonderful collection of Shona sculpture throughout.  Zimbabwe is known for its fine stone and many local artists create works made from it.

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There was also a restaurant and bar with excellent food and great service and a lovely pool.  It was really nice to meet up with other band/music teachers.  Next year, there will also be a drama and art festival and some of those teachers were also there to help plan the 2015 events.

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The first day, we all gathered at the Harare International School’s performing arts centre.  We got the kids situated  and (sort of) tuned and launched into the first piece.

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It was dreadful.  We wondered what we had done…had we expected too much?  Should we cut some of the selections?  Shorten some of the pieces? However, by the end of the day –  after sectionals and some rigorous rehearsal…the cacophony had started to sound like a band.  We were very fortunate in having section leaders who knew their instrument and also knew how to teach it.

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The next day, kids could take workshops from some local musicians.  They included mbira (also called kalimba – a “thumb piano”) marimba,  jazz improv and drumming.

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There were also some impromptu performances by the locals.


There were seven selections for the concert and each music teacher had the opportunity to conduct one of them.  Here I am, rehearsing “Invocation and African Dance.”  I had a great time – I haven’t conducted a band since I left ACS in England!

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By the time Saturday night rolled around, the band was ready!  Everyone wore their ISSEA Band t-shirts (complete with the  host school “Warthog” mascot on the front playing a variety of instruments) and the superintendent made a lovely speech.  Our concert was very well-received and everyone had good reason to be proud.

ISSEA Band shirt

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There was supposed to be a live feed of the concert, but as is typical for Africa, the internet connect went out.  At some point, the entire concert is supposed to be uploaded to Facebook and when they finally work out the glitches, I will share it.  However, a video will not convey the fun, excitement and sense of accomplishment that was palpable in the room.

Meanwhile, here is a slide show put together by the media team!

There will be another Band Festival next year (probably in Johannesburg) and we are also adding Choir.  It should be a blast!

Christmastime in Zambia…no snow, but plenty of cheer!


Christmas was “invented” (if you will) in the northern hemisphere.  The long, cold, dark nights of December cried out for light.  The pagans already celebrated the winter Solstice with great gusto (fires, candles, dancing, feasting and general revelry) and so, knowing a good thing when he saw it,  after the Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the empire’s favored religion, he then decided that December 25 made a great day to celebrate the birth of Christ. 

And so we who live north of the equator tend to associate Christmas with cold and snow and candles and evergreen trees.  We have Christmas songs about “in the bleak mid-winter” and Santa’s sleigh in the the snow and dashing through the snow and “White Christmas.”

When Christianity moved south, so did the holidays associated with it.  And, as incongruous as it may be, so did the traditions.  Even though it is the height of summer here, people put up evergreen trees, hang lights, Santa arrives dressed in boots and furs, there are reindeer sleighs and songs about a “White Christmas.”  Never mind that most Zambians have never seen a single snowflake or experienced temperatures much below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.  Christmas is irrevocably linked to the winter. 

So, the decorations go up at the malls.

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There was even a huge tree made out of green plastic bottles – a joint effort by several companies to encourage recycling.


And the InterContinental Hotel put out a call for carolers.  I brought my 6th, 7th and 8th graders (on three separate days) to sing “Jingle Bells” and “Frosty the Snowman” and “Silent Night” in the lobby.  We had a great time.

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Our singing was well received….even though they didn’t give us any Christmas cookies or punch, as is supposed to be traditional for carollers!

And now…I am on my way to the airport and in 24 hours, will touch down at JFK – where I hear there is actually some snow and the temperatures are decidedly frosty. 

I’m looking forward to it!

United Nations Day


October 24 is “United Nations Day” and we, as an international school, were of course bound to celebrate it!  (Pictures by Heather PIllar…click to enlarge! )

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I have celebrated UN Day before, both in the USA and at my UK school…but it has never felt like this.  Our school has students from 53 different countries.  For UN day, everyone – from the 2-year-old “play school” students to the 18+ year old seniors, gathered in the gym.  Everyone was seated by country.  Many students were dressed in traditional dress from their country or had their faces painted in the colors of their flag.  Some of the elementary students had hand-made flags to wave; some had painted their faces.

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There was a parade of countries, similar to the opening ceremonies of the Olympics.  Selected students carried their country’s flag and everyone cheered as they walked into the gym.

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Finally, it was time for Zambia, our host country.  There was a huge cheer…and my little “orchestra” was ready.  We played the Zambian National Anthem as everyone sang with great gusto!  (That’s me on the clarinet.) The rest of the “orchestra” consists of a trombone, a violin, a snare drum, a rhythm  guitar and another clarinet. Hey, it’s a start!  We also had a vocalist.

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The student council president spoke, and there was some traditional Zambian drumming and dancing!

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We also had a surprise visit from the AISL mascot (a leopard!) as we prepared to host the upcoming ISSEA Volleyball Tournament.

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We left the gym to partake of a feast – an “international food festival.”  I have to say that the parents oputdid themselves…I have never seen so much food!  Each table was labeled with the country or area and there was plenty for all!

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It was a great way to start our October break!  I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to work at this school!

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Emmanuel Jal – child soldier to hip-hop artist for peace!


NOTE: Please forgive the horrible picture quality…I had to use my iPhone.  Also – this guy never stood still!  Hence the blurriness!

IMG_0048“Music is powerful. It is the only thing that can speak into your mind, your heart and your soul without your permission.”

Official website of Emmanuel Jal: http://www.emmanuel-jal.webs.com

This week, we were privileged to have Emmanuel Jal as a guest artist at our school.    Jal is a South Sudanese musician and former child soldier. He is a world recognized hip-hop artist and also a humanitarian advocate for social justice and human rights. He broadcasts his message of peace and equality through his music and through various NGOs he has founded.

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Hip-Hop is far from my favourite style of music.  However, the energy in the auditorium when Jal took the stage was electrifying and unmistakably positive.

Using a mixture of singing, rap, spoken word and dance, he told his story and advocated for a more unified, peaceful world, in spite of religious and cultural differences.

His life story was both horrifying and uplifting.   Kidnapped when he was only 8 years old (under the guise of getting an education)  he was trained to be a soldier and to hate Arabs and Muslims…and his goal was to kill as many of them as possible.  (This admission elicited some gasps for our students, many whom are Arab and/or Muslim!)  He told of his lowest point – when some of the children were so hungry that they considered eating the corpses of their dead friends…and of how a crow appeared that he was able to capture for food before he had to resort to that himself.  He talked of poverty and slavery and greedy governments and lack of education…and engaged the students in dialogue about ways to make a better world.

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He lived as a child soldier for more than 5 years and saw many of of friends die from exposure, thirst and starvation.  Finally, he and some other children decided to run away.  Some died in the attempt, but some made it to the town of Waat.  Jal, then 11 years old, met a British aid worker (emma McClure) who adopted him and smuggled him into Kenya, where he was able to attend school for the first time.

Even though McClure died shortly afterward, Jal was aided by some of her friends and completed his education.  Although he had no musical training, he stumbled upon the hip-hop genre and felt that the music had great spiritual and political power.  He started to use his music to tell his story and lobby for political change.

Jal’s biggest passion is for Gua Africa, a charity that he founded.  The nonprofit charity builds schools, provides scholarships for Sudanese war survivors in refugee camps, and sponsors education for children in the most deprived slum areas in Nairobi. The organization’s main mission is to work with individuals, families, and communities that have been affected by war and poverty.  His most recent project is a Global Peace campaign called We Want Peace (and he got all the kids singing and dancing along to the song.) The project is a steady effort to inform the world that peace is a possibility.

Read about Gua Africa here: http://www.gua-africa.org

More about We Want Peace: http://www.we-want-peace.com

He also got the kids up and stage and dancing.

I found Emmanuel Jal’s performance both inspiring and humbling.  Surely, if someone with such a horrific and miserable childhood, brought up in the worst possible conditions, seeing so much bloodshed and misery and sorrow…if someone like that can rise above it to create music, dance and poetry with a message of peace for the world and can work and advocate for education and health care for the world’s poorest inhabitants…then surely we who have been born into privilege, have never really known hunger or thirst or been homeless or mistreated….surely – we can do as much for our fellow residents of the world.






The Lusaka Children’s Choir


As I have mentioned before, Fridays at the school are a bit different.  There is a section of the day called “Global Issues.”  This is devoted to assemblies and events that (hopefully) connect the students to the wider world.  About once a month, there is an extended period of time where students take part in a service project of one kind or another.  Every student grade 6 – 12 must be involved in one of the projects.  Selected students function as leaders and organizers.  Every teacher must also be involved.

I was asked to co-lead the “Lusaka Children’s Choir” along with Geofrey, who is the manager of our Performing Arts Center and also directs a choir at his church and one of the local schools.  They started this activity last year…students from several local schools are bused in and combined with students from our school in the hopes of making music.  At the end of the year, there is a concert, which helps raise money for the local schools.  Apparently, last year, they spent almost the entire time rehearsing one song for this concert…and I got the feeling that the students had become quite frustrated with this.  Anyone who has seen me teach music knows that this really isn’t my style.  I suggested we jump right in and learn as many songs as we could…both African songs and songs from other countries.  So we started with some simple rounds – “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and “Music Alone Shall Live.”  I taught them Natalie Sleeth’s “Gaudeamus Hodie” and the calypso tune “Shake the Papaya Down.”  And Geof taught (or rather, reviewed, since most of them knew it!) a traditional Zambian song called “Tiyende Pamodzi” and also “Siyahamba” which we sing in the US as well.

I thought we sounded pretty good for a first attempt!  Please forgive the horrendous quality of the video…I am just learning how to use the camera on the iPad!  I also haven’t yet figured out how to embed the videos into the blog, so you’ll have to click on the links!  But please do click – it is worth hearing!

The uniformed kids are from a local school called “Appleseeds” and the younger children are from a primary school called “Open Arms.”  They were quite shy at first, but as you can see, they become more involved and expressive as we sang together.

Tiyende Pamodzi is a traditional African song that was popularized by Zambia’s first President, Dr. Kenneth Kaunda, who used the song in his election campaign.  For his purposes, the title would likely be translated as “Let’s move together with one heart.”

Learning Tiyende Pamodzi

Siyahamba is a South African song…some you might know it as “We Are Marching in the Light of God.”  I used to sing this with my kids at the Academy of Notre Dame and they loved it, too.  Such a great choral song.

Siyahamba – getting the alto part right!

Adding movement…

Putting all together.

I am really looking forward to working with Geof and this choir as the year goes on!  And I bet our end-of-the-year concert will be fantastic!

A traditional Zambian feast with dancing!


IMG_0980 IMG_0986 IMG_0976 IMG_0964We had a traditional Zambian dinner last night at the home of one of the orientation leaders. She has a fabulous home, filled with artifacts and art from Africa and all over the world. She has lived in Zambia for ten years, although I think she is originally from the UK.

There was a demonstration by a Zambian dance group.  The music was that incredible close harmony you hear with songs from South Africa.  That kind of singing makes my heart feel like bursting out of my chest and feels so….organic.  Like music of the earth itself.  Grounded.

Then there was a traditional dinner, with mieli-meal as a base (like a very thick corn porridge) prepared by two women in traditional dress over a coal fire.  There were lots of “relishes” to scoop up. A relish is simply anything you put on the nsima (which is what the meal is called when it’s cooked.)   You eat it with your hands – making a sort of round ball out of the nsima with an indentation in it and using that to scoop any relish you choose.  We had individual plates, although I suppose to be truly traditional, we would all have eaten from the common pot.

There was stewed beef, beans, chicken, various kinds of greens, eggplant and deep-fried caterpillar. (I tried them…very chewy and crispy and they tasted kind of like…caterpillar.)

A wonderful evening and a great finish to our week of “new teacher” orientation. Read the rest of this entry