ROCKLAND — Saihou Njie gazed at the transfixed schoolchildren, spoke to them in his native language and laughed aloud at the exuberance of their reply.
Njie, a native of the West African nation of Gambia, has spent the past two weeks as artist-in-residence at the city’s South School. During that time he has enthralled the elementary pupils with tales and customs of his homeland, taught them songs and dances and helped them create art with African images and themes.
Much of Njie’s efforts were directed toward the fourth-grade class and they responded to his teachings by decorating the school’s multipurpose room with scores of paper palm trees, replicas of native huts, paper and cloth dolls and colorful collages. All was done in honor of Njie’s stay, and those attending Friday’s assembly loved it.
“It’s a great project,” observed SAD 5 board chairman Julie Raye. “We’re very lucky to have him here. He really has been wonderful for the children.”
Njie felt the same. He told the gathering that the Rockland pupils were fun to work with and attentive to his directions.
“This is wonderful to be in a packed auditorium with these children,” Njie told his audience of parents, grandparents and pupils. “This is very heartwarming. How very good I feel. I have only been here two weeks, but it feels like I’ve known them for years.”
The Republic of Gambia study project was part of the district’s Year 2000 International Children’s Creative Arts Project. At the same time the pupils were learning about the coastal African nation, they were also comparing its way of life to that of living in coastal Maine. Representatives from the Island Institute, Penobscot Marine Museum and the Maine Lobster Promotion Council provided the pupils with information on coastal Maine.
Saihou Njie was brought to Rockland by Peta VanVuuren, of the Rockland Area Arts Academy. VanVuuren met Njie when she was involved in an arts program in Pittsburgh where Njie runs Makitaara Studios. Njie came to American two decades ago. He has a national reputation as a visual artist, singer and dancer.
“Each and every one of us has a light within which we have to share,” Njie said at the opening of his performance with the children.
VanVuuren said the project began in January and will conclude after an artist from the Caribbean island of Jamaica visits the school in May. She noted that as part of the project the South School pupils communicated by mail with their counterparts in Gambia. The same will occur with Jamaican children, she said. VanVuuren said a long-term goal of the project was to broaden that connection by use of the Internet.
VanVuuren credited MBNA New England, the Davis Family Foundation, the Maine Commission on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts with making Njie’s visit possible.
“The project is based on the concept that through the arts you can find who you are,” VanVuuren said. She told the gathering that “I’m sure if you asked any student from South School where Gambia is they could tell you, and also speak a few words of its language.”