The mission of this expedition was to provide emotional relief to South African children who are affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic and poverty. Underscoring this objective were four points of focus: 1) to perform for as many children as possible and bring laughter and healing for a brief moment in their lives; 2) to establish connections with local grassroots organizations that are working to alleviate the suffering of communities due to the HIV/AIDS crisis on a daily basis; 3) to connect local performers to these organizations so that celebrations of laughter can continue on a more frequent basis after the expedition is over; and 4) to gather information and assess the situation in South Africa in order develop future expeditions to the region.
The condition of children in South Africa is desperate due to HIV/AIDS and poverty, especially in the rural areas in KwaZulu/Natal and border towns near Swaziland, Lesotho, and Mozambique. As it has been widely reported, the South African government has been slow to respond to the AIDS crisis in the region. There are few clinics and even less governmental support for children who have been either abandoned or left orphaned due to the high fatality in the region. According to a 2002 study by the Center for Disease Control, South Africa has one of the highest rates of HIV positive individuals in the world (11% of the country’s population). Of the estimated 4.8 million South Africans living with HIV, 85% are between 25 to 40 years old – depriving households and children of principle caregivers. As a result, there is an estimated 420,000 children living without parents due to the virus. At this rate, 1.6 million more will be orphaned by AIDS by the year 2008.
Race is still a huge issue in South Africa. There also exists a dichotomy between white humanitarian workers and the black population which they serve. Many of the organizations we worked with were run by white South African women who volunteered many hours of difficult service to help alleviate the suffering of children orphaned by AIDS and their parents. We found that there is yet to be real empowerment for the people who come from the African communities. On the other hand, the orphanages were operated primarily by African women. Whether our experience and contact with organizations run by whites was due to accessibility to the internet or that this is the norm in South Africa remains to be seen.
The fact that our team was composed of four Caucasian performers added an unforeseen welcomed element to our work. Many of the children had never seen white people dressed in our costumes and acting like clowns before – never mind for their benefit. Often, we would arrive at a site and emerge out of the car to instant laughter without doing anything. As a result, we were able to break down some misconceptions of racial behavior and barriers that normally exist between whites and blacks in post-Apartheid South Africa. Our attempts at learning Zulu and Xhosa also had a beneficial effect on the expedition. We noticed that it meant a lot to both children and adults if we spoke in their language first before using English to communicate.
The loss of primary caregivers causes deep emotional scars to many orphaned children. Beyond basic needs such as food and education, these children need emotional support, protection and a sense of belonging. While many find care from relatives, especially grandparents, some children either take care of themselves in their homes, become street children in urban areas, or join foster homes and orphanages. In Pietermaritzburg, the Child Welfare Society told us that foster parents actually receive more government funding than single parents or next of kin resulting in the abandonment of young children due the inability to provide for them. In addition, the increasing population of orphans also far outnumbers the capacity of many orphanages that are financially struggling to provide services. In Khayelitsha outside of Cape Town, Rosalia Sibulelu Mashale of Baphumelele must rely on untrained volunteer child workers to care for abandoned infants. Likewise, Amazing Grace Children’s Home in Malelane, Mpumalanga, provides shelter, food, and nurturing for over 50 children from all over Southern Africa even though she only has funding for 35.
In the orphanages, especially, as well as across the board, we were met by children who were extremely hungry for affection and attention. Often, a hand would slip into ours or we would hold a child in our arms for some time. Upon arrival to a site, our reception varied from laughter or silent curiosity before each performance. There were numerous occasions in which we each surrounded by a crowd of children wanting to interact with us before and after shows. In Southern Africa, it is important to note that audiences do not leave after a performance but remain sitting almost as if they are expecting more. We sometimes would improvise for an additional hour and a half after a show to the delight of the children until exhaustion would finally force us to say goodbye. Singing and dancing was very popular at these times as well as call-and-response. At other times, a workshop was conducted immediately after the show. It wasn’t uncommon for the children to also perform for us in appreciation of our work. In the end, leaving a site was difficult as the need for emotional relief persisted after temporarily being lifted.
Visit http://www.unicef.org/publications/index_22212.html for the joint report by UNICEF, UNAIDS, and USAID on the affects of HIV/AIDS on children and a proposed plan of action for more information.