Moses and the goat-herding mathematician by Alan Doyle

November 20, 2012

Three years ago, as I was sitting on a bus heading from Mali to Burkina Faso, we passed a poor rural community and my eyes met those of young girl, who was herding some goats. Transfixed by her stare for a second or two, something dawned on me: what if this girl was a brilliant mathematician? I wondered if, given the right opportunity, she might have deserved more than me a place on my degree course. She probably had no education at all. It’s a thought that I return to when considering anything connected to development. If I can be permitted a little simplification, providing opportunity is paramount. Maybe the girl would have hated maths and actually loved herding goats. But we should all have the chance to discover our talents and our passions. Moses Kolommo probably never tended animals in his childhood. But he had his own struggle. His parents had European friends when he was a young boy in Zambia and through them, he had the chance to listen to classical records. Inspired, he managed to get a ticket to a concert, and heard a live orchestra for the first time. As his tale reaches the first chord of this performance, he takes us back there with him. Closing his eyes, he evokes the conductor by raising his hands to the air and all of us understand the emotion that poured forth when this little boy heard that magical sound. One senses that there was no stopping the young Moses from that point onwards. But there were some tremendous obstacles to overcome along the way. Not that you’d know it from the calm, sensationless manner in which he relates the story: perhaps he overcame these obstacles by never regarding them thus. At first, he tried – in his reserved way – to engage the lead violinist of a Lusaka orchestra. ‘Engage’ in this instance means hanging out where he knew the musician in question would be: at the library or the university, eventually plucking up the courage to speak to him… only to be mistaken for a street beggar and curtly dismissed. Undeterred, he started teaching himself the violin. Later, he found a teacher based in Harare. Extraordinarily, Moses travelled all day and spent the night at the bus station in the Zimbabwean capital before beginning his class. Every week. And now he’s here, telling us this tale in Ngoma Dolce, a music academy in Lusaka that he helped to found. It’s an extraordinary journey but a perfect narrative to the parable of the goat-herder. Someone showed Moses a chink of light into a world that became his passion; something that fulfils him in a discernibly profound way. After a talk and recital at the academy this evening, the final question is one that resonates with the OfC pilot team. This project can change today’s answer from that of the future – and provide another possibility for the likes of Moses and the goat herder. The question: how accessible is opera?

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