Feel the music

When I volunteered to work with the Literacy Council of Buncombe County, I wasn’t expecting to meet an African drummer named Bolokada Conde. And I certainly never dreamed the work would become so deeply meaningful to me.

Bolokada is a native of Guinea in West Africa, where his wife and four children still live. In Asheville, he’s working with Ballet Warraba, an international dance company that performs in the tradition of African “ballet” to bring ancient wisdom to contemporary life. Through main-stage performances and educational programs, the group infuses its audiences with the joyful and transformative energy inherent in West African celebrations.

When Bolokada and I part from each other at the end of our tutoring sessions, he typically says, “My teacher, I am very happy.” I know how he feels. I recently attended one of his weekly djembe drum classes, and several times I was overcome with emotion. Bolokada’s enthusiasm and knowledge transformed the room into a place where history meets the present day — where these seemingly average people were empowered to carry on the proud tradition, spirit and joy of his country’s music.

“Even when I am sick, djembe makes me happy,” Bolokada explained in French. “In Guinea, when children hear the drum, they come from afar to reach its source.” After the class, Bolokada approached me, saying, “Do you see my problem?” He was talking about the challenges of conveying his message in English. “You do not have a problem,” I told him. “You are a really good teacher! But we can work together to make your teaching even better.”

Watching Bolokada do the thing that brings him the most happiness — and seeing firsthand how the assistance I’m giving him will benefit many others — was a magical experience that will live in my heart for years to come.

I first heard about the Literacy Council through an article in a newsletter for Biltmore Estate employees. The local nonprofit trains tutors, provides support services and collaborates with other community groups to promote increased adult literacy in Buncombe County.

From my first interaction with the Literacy Council, they made it easy to become a productive member of their team, providing the training, support and encouragement needed to make the experience a successful one for student and tutor alike. I chose to work with those interested in learning English as a second language, which is how I was matched with Bolokada.

From the moment my training facilitator at Biltmore Estate first reviewed the company’s core values — authenticity, quality, hospitality, integrity, teamwork, community service, profitability and leadership — I began to see the importance of involving myself in each of them. But the basic concept seems pretty simple — people who are balanced in work and in personal life tend to be happier and more productive.

And certainly, community service is something that spreads out in all directions. If I help to create a better quality of living for one person, it also creates a better quality of living for me, for my family, for the company I represent, and for the community as a whole. Everyone benefits — as I see so clearly when I’m in Bolokada’s presence.

To become an English tutor, contact the Literacy Council at 254-3442. To learn more about Bolokada Conde’s weekly African-drum class, contact Ballet Warraba at 242-2753.

[Asheville resident Allan Waltemyer works as data and telephony systems coordinator at Biltmore Estate.]

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