Sounds of Africa bring joy in Irish setting


David and Fortunate, the choir directors

Introducing the wonderful Afrish choir made up of residents of the Athlone Direct Provision site. They came together to sing their hearts out, initially after a friend at the centre passed away. The reaction from locals to these vibrant songs inspired a group to form a permanent choir.

Says co-founder, Fortunate Nesengani: “Watch out for us, we are going to be huge!”

Their story …

A wonderful sound of Africa is taking to the air of County Westmeath.

It’s the Afrish (African and Irish combined) choir, a musical partnership created in the Lissywollen Direct Provision Centre. You can hear their wonderful sound above. Co-founder Fortunate Nesengani explains that the choir arose out of sorrow – the death of Nhlanhla Baron Masuku, an asylum-seeker at the centre and a fellow Zimbabwean.  

“Nhlanhla was from my village in Matabeleland South, and was sharing a mobile home here with a man from Pakistan. So he would often come to my home to eat, to avoid offending his roommate with food forbidden to him. We would be in my mobile home eating together, planning life together as a family as we believe that family you can create from anywhere,” Fortunate says. 

Last winter, before Covid-19 and lockdown, Fortunate and her husband David had travelled to Dublin for a church service. On their return to Lissywollen, they saw an ambulance and learned that their friend was seriously ill. He died in hospital subsequently.

Fortunate had to contact Nhlanhla’s relatives in Britain and tell them the news. She herself was only just recovering from surgery at the time.

“We have not forgotten our culture of singing as part of comforting,” she says. So a group came together in February and started singing African numbers appropriate to honouring their lost friend. 

The experience of hearing the choir was overwhelming for some Irish people, according to Fortunate. “They came to us and said, Wow, Fortunate, we want this kind of life and song for the next generation!”

Afrish is indeed inspiring, raising their voices to the skies despite all the limitations being placed on them. They have no regular accompanist nor musical instruments, says Fortunate, apart from some African drums that Gerry O’Callaghan found for them. 

“But we are learning to play among ourselves,” Fortunate says.  To avoid assembly problems caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, they have been practising outdoors so far, in a park. 

Fortunate says they plan to perform in schools and libraries, restrictions permitting, in the year ahead. They are avoiding boredom, and providing happiness to anyone who listens.

“Sometimes it will be difficult to say how you feel but by singing you say everything,” says Fortunate. “Whether in harmony or pain, we sing.”

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