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African Drum Camp

by Elizabeth Vander Haagen

Debra Rienstra is away today. We welcome guest-blogger Elizabeth Vander Haagen. She is a spiritual director and pastor of Boston Square Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, along with her husband Jay Blankespoor. They are grateful parents of two  daughters.

This month I got to go to West African Drum Camp – every afternoon for three hours for a whole week. My fingers tingle when I think about it. My husband gave me a djembe when we were dating, 15 years ago, and it sat in a corner of our living room, rarely used. Then this spring there was an advertisement in our kids’ school newsletter for a drum camp for adults for a week in June. And I, who have not really played an instrument in over 20 years, suddenly, desperately wanted to go. So as an anniversary gift, my husband sent me to drum camp. The night before I was so excited and nervous I could hardly sleep.

We met at the local middle school – two older women, four eleven year old girls, our very enthusiastic instructor, and me. We learned about the different hits you can make on the drum: bass, tone and slap. We learned about the countries and villages the rhythms come from, and how learning rhythms is a bit like learning a language – bit by bit, over time, best through immersion. So we immersed ourselves – watching our instructor, mimicking her, recording her with our phones so we could practice at home.

I’m a perfectionist. I don’t like to do things I can’t figure out or do relatively well right away. At one point the first afternoon I was almost in tears – it was so hard to keep the patterns in my head, my hands wouldn’t do what I wanted them to do. When I got home that night, the kids asked what I had learned and I couldn’t remember anything to play for them. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back the next day. My fingers were too bruised and sore to practice much that night (besides, I had a council meeting!) But during the council meeting I had drum beats running through my mind.

The next day I went back. We did more work on the long rhythm (zaouli a) we would perform at the end of camp, and learned some dance moves. We tried out different drums and beats. We stretched and rubbed our fingers. We broke the long pattern down, learning piece by piece, doing small portions over and over for muscle memory.

I practiced at home that night with my swollen hands, and the kids could hear me, coming home from the park. There’s no way to practice a drum in secret. As I fell asleep I could hear fragments of our long pattern in my mind.

Friday, finally the performance. My husband and kids came. It was hot. The kids were shy and embarrassed, watching their mom dance in public and waddle with a drum strapped to her front to the center of the circle to play a solo. And then it was over.

Except that for days after, the complete pattern of our performance rhythm has pounded through my mind. I find myself chanting the tones and syllables we used. Drumming on my lap and furniture. Noticing the beats on the radio and dancing as I drive (much to the shock and embarrassment of my children). And thinking about practice and learning and our bodies.

We’re preaching our way through the book of Philippians this summer and this week. We’re up to chapter 4 where Paul says “whatever you’ve seen from me or heard from me or received from me, put it into practice and the God of peace will be with you.” I’ve been thinking about this in light of my week of drum camp. Having been raised in the church, I rarely think of the Christian life as foreign or a different language that I need to immerse myself in, and yet trying to practice what I see in Jesus, especially the practice of forgiving others, can feel as awkward and bewildering and impossible as that first day of camp.

But I want it. I want Jesus’ words pounding through my mind. And I want (or at least I want to want), like Paul wrote earlier in Philippians, to know Jesus and his death and resurrection with my body, like I’ve begun to learn these West African rhythms. And I’m wondering what that looks like — receiving communion each week is certainly part of learning Jesus’ rhythms with my body, so is remembering my baptism. So also, when I’m mindful of it, is serving my family and others in physical ways – the laundry, the meals, the cleaning…I want to find myself dancing to his rhythms in my daily bodily life, to keep practicing.

Elizabeth Vander Haagen

Elizabeth Vander Haagen co-pastors Boston Square Christian Reformed Church with her husband Jay Blankespoor.  They live in Grand Rapids, Michigan with their children Emma, Brianna, and Peter, and their dog Luna.


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