A violin strikes a chord in South Africa

For a guy standing in the back of an open-top jeep - with his legs inside the frame of an old seat and his head two feet above the roll bar - I was surprisingly relaxed. Eight other people standing with me weren't terribly concerned either. The antelope running down the road in front of us was in more danger than we happy band of tourists.

We were in Cintsa, South Africa, about to take a tour of a local Xhosa school (Xhosa is one of the many ethnic groups in the country). After 20 minutes on the road, Mike the driver turned into a dirt parking lot outside a nondescript building alone in the landscape. No kickball field, no basketball hoop, no cars, and no sign of a nearby town. We followed Mike inside, where he shook hands with the three teachers - two older women who looked like nuns and a man named Matthew.

The 40 students, ranging in age from 5 to 14, flashed excited, shy smiles while we squeezed into the tiny desks. Our knees folded high above our hips. Then, in beautiful unison, the children welcomed us with the national anthem. "United we shall stand/ Let us live and strive for freedom/ In South Africa our land." The notes echoed beautifully off the damp, posterless walls and empty bookshelves.

All the girls wore dresses. Some had colorful dots on their face that looked tribal but might have been some sort of global teeny-bopper fad. Several boys were wearing cutoff indigo coveralls, hand-me-down versions of the African workingman's uniform. A few were shirtless. Many were barefoot.

With Matthew's guidance, the children put on a show for us, given simply because we cared to show up. They performed traditional African songs that I hadn't heard before and Christian classics that were barely recognizable through thick accents. "Kumbaya" sounded as it always does.

Beyond singing, they foot-stomped, heel-slapped, and finger-snapped to rival the best of off-Broadway.

Students who weren't performing sat coyly among the tourists. Older children laughed when the little ones didn't know the words, rhythms, or dances. A happy kid of about 5 repeatedly jumped into the fray only to be knocked around like a pinball, disappear amid the sea of legs, and come crawling back out all teeth and joy.

Matthew translated lyrics, introduced acts, and shepherded his disorganized minions with amateur magnificence. He was the first to start clapping and the last to stop.

At the end, he asked each of the guests to point out our home country on a map that two of the older boys held above their heads for all to see. We pointed to the United States, Germany, Switzerland, Northern Ireland, and France - the names alone made the students' world a little bigger.

An Englishwoman introduced herself and explained that she had been teaching violin to street children in Soweto, near Johannesburg, for the past several weeks. She asked to play and Matthew agreed, but when she took out her violin he gasped.

"I've never seen one in person before ... maybe once or twice on TV," he whispered as he choked on giddy tears.

She raised her bow. The room was still. And then she played two beautiful classical melodies. The notes floated from grin to grin and filled the room with hope. Matthew was frozen, gape-mouthed.

When she offered him the violin, nobody breathed. He placed the pad on his neck, peeked at his audience, and with one self-conscious stroke shattered the air with a cat-skinning screech. The room erupted. African children squealed. American and Europeans clapped, hooted, and howled. The teachers stamped their feet and jiggled in their seats, laughing without a sound.

Matthew reveled in his ineptitude and enjoyed it more than anyone. After a little guidance, he played two of the most profound notes ever heard. Glowing with pleasure, he handed back the violin. She tucked it into the case.

Before we left, Mike the driver took up a collection to pay for basic school supplies and much-needed building repairs. Everybody gave and piled into the hostel jalopy for the return trip. The children were singing inside as we left. My meager $5 donation gnawed at me.

At dinner that night I gave Mike another $50 for the school. He promised to bring it to Matthew, who's probably smiling still.

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