We are back in South Africa having just completed our first week of teaching and performing in the rural hills of Ufafa, KwaZulu/Natal. We are collaborating with the Woza Moya Project (www.wozamoya.org.za), a community based action and support program that does amazing work providing counseling and assistance to those who have been affected by HIV/AIDS. In this area lying between the Drakensberg Mountains in the west and the Indian Ocean in the east, the HIV/AIDS infection rate is close to 50% of the population. A recent survey at the regional hospital found 80% of the patients to have HIV.
Needless to say, the affect on the lives of the children is immediate – having to care for their sick parents, growing up without a mother and/or father, and living with their grandmothers (Gogos) or next of kin. Likewise, the stress of taking care of additional children as well as carrying the grief of losing a loved one plagues upon the lives of the Gogos who must bare the weight of responsibility to nurture the next generation.
Our work this week has broken new ground for Clowns Without Borders Project Njabulo in many ways. We have incorporated more themes of the effects of HIV/AIDS into our performances with a routine about going to the doctor as well as a magically constructing a “Gogo” puppet out of a balloon. After our shows, Thembe Mweli, Woza Moya’s lead Child Minder, gives a brief talk about how the performance relates to directly to the lives of the children. We have also been conducting workshops for both the Gogos and their children as part of Woza Moya’s Thandanani Time (Love One Another Time). These workshops attempt to relieve the stress of their daily lives and find hope in the future through play, laughter, and sharing of one’s experience. With the Gogos, we explore memories of childhood and overcoming challenges in their lives. With the 30 orphans and vulnerable children that come to the Woza Moya centre each day, we use theatre and games over a 10 day period to bring to life their Life Dreams in the present moment. Below is a description of our last workshop this week in which things turned out a little differently!
August 25, 2006 Ufafa, KwaZulu/Natal
The rain strikes the tin roof of Nomsembenzi’s chapel in sheets of unexpected torrents due to an early arriving wet season. Liz Turkel, Alice Nelson, and I sit on benches with seven of the Gogos who managed to make the journey from the warm fires of their rondaavels (homes) to the rectangular squat building that sits on a hillside across the valley from Woza Moya. We are in a bit of a quandary as to what to do. Thembe, our partner from Woza Moya who helps with the session and translation in particular, cannot join us as she must attend a meeting at Cekazi Primary School.
Alice presents a note in isiZulu explaining that we are sorry but will have to meet next week. But here we are. It makes no sense to leave at this moment. And for the short time, everyone is dry and warm. I look at the grandmothers wrapped in their colorful head scarves, dresses, sweaters, and towels and realize that we have a unique opportunity to connect physically without words. Scrapping our lesson plan, we hand out oranges and baloney sandwiches and sit in silence while they eat a mid-morning snack. Without knowing what comes next, I say “Asembeni” which means “We must go.”
Then we all stand as Annatoria recites a prayer in thanks. Suddenly, I remember a song I learned way back in high school that would fit the occasion and begin singing “Siyahamba Khukenele Kwen Kos” (We are Marching in the Light of God). Everyone joins in with Liz singing beautiful harmony. Bodies begin to move to the rhythm of the melody. Smiles break out and feet dance shuffle step. Miriam Makeba songs follow – “Jikele Ma Weni,” “Nomeva,” “Nqonqontwane” – and surprisingly, even though the songs are in Xhosa, the Gogos remember these popular songs from their youth. Liz shares a Zulu lullaby. Thokozile leads the group in a children’s song inspiring Alice and I to start a hand jive which we they are eager to learn. Soon, over an hour has passed sharing and playing and enjoying each other’s company without us realizing the passing of time. The women carry such an enormous weight upon their shoulders. To experience us all dancing and laughing with joy as playful as children is part of the magic that happens unexpectedly on these expeditions. Sometimes, the inspiration of the moment strikes closer to our intentions and the truth than any well thought out lesson plan.
It could not be more apparent than today. Finally, I stand once again and say “Asembeni” knowing that this time, it is not premature. It is time to go. Meals to prepare, housekeeping to take care of, livestock to tend before the children come home from school and the rain washes us all out.
Later in the afternoon, the steady rain continues to feed the thirsty land. Mud puddles have formed along side the road. Mists rolls over the hills. Cows take to the timber company forests for shelter. Once again, we are without Thembe. On Friday’s Woza Moya works until 1:00 PM but we have scheduled a workshop with the 30 orphans and vulnerable children at three so must do without translation.
We pull our bakkie (our brand new pickup donated by Imperial Car Rental) in front of Sinevuso High School. The gate is locked. Nobody in sight. Tired from our first week of performing for over 2500 schools students and teaching 6 workshops, we do not want to leave the Buddhist Retreat Centre where we are staying but look forward to a weekend away to allow our bodies to catch up. But with 35 baloney sandwiches and apples sitting in our car, we cannot just leave so we wait by the gate.
Sure enough, ten of the children run up to the bakkie shivering and drenched to the bone. We quickly spring out with towels and sandwiches drying their faces and filling their bellies. Their commitment melts my heart but I tell them in broken isiZulu to go home before they catch a cold. “The gate is locked! Asembeni!” A bit disappointed the children disappear over the hillside. However, seconds later, they come running back with a key. Half wishing we could just hit the road, I pull the bakkie into the school grounds and shake my mind from its laziness. This is what we are here for. The bright faces of the children with rain drops covering their hair and clothes is enough to remind me that these children are thirsty for nurturing relationships. We are only with them for 10 days and cannot afford to let them miss this opportunity to play and have fun as a community.
Their commitment spurs our own. We make a circle in a dry classroom and start jumping up and down shaking our bodies warm. The session is perhaps the most fun we have had all week. Without relying on translation, our activities must be more creative and aware. We group juggle – balls flying across the room. Lift a magic hoop together. Pass gestures around in a circle. From “Ngiyaguthanda” (I love you) to “Amandla Awethu” (power to the people).
Alice leads the children in a trust exercise where the children walk with eyes closed across the circle. We play cat and mouse. Animal characters. Just have fun. Even the older students who are not part of our group join in with the games. Again, time flies by. Once more it is really time to go – the children have chores to do and the rain is coming down with greater urgency. A prayer of thanks to close our time together. One last song. Siyahamba.
As we carefully steer down the winding roads and out onto the main highway leading to Ixopo, we are filled with the warmth of the children’s smiles and their gogo’s laughter. We can only hope that as the cold wind whistles through their huts and rondaavels, they also have sweet dreams of our time together.