As I sit on the back veranda of Helen Smetherham’s cottage, spotted dairy cows peacefully graze before me while birds chirp on this serene spring morning in the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains in KwaZulu-Natal. Helen is the widow of the founder of the Rob Smetherham Bereavement Service for Children, our partner organization for the next week residency where we will be continuing our work of performing and teaching. We have just completed a 10 day residency with Woza Moya in the highlands near Ixopo in which we performed 12 shows for all the primary and secondary schools in the Ufafa district (close to 5,000 students) as well as conducted a workshop on Life Dreams for 36 orphans and vulnerable children.
Taking a break from the rigorous schedule of morning performances and afternoons classes, I breathe in the fresh farm air (a bit garnished with manure), listen to the birds and the bees, and gaze out at the fields of grass, brush, and hillside – it is quite a different setting from the poverty and disease stricken villages we have been working in for the past 2 weeks. Already, I miss the shouts of “Awoogah! Awoogah!” and the singing of “Jekele Ma Weni” of the children we pass by as we drive Thembe, Woza Moya’s Child Minder and our partner for the collaboration, to her homestead each night. Though we have physically left the area, our visit still echoes in the hills and hearts of the many people we brought smiles to and hopefully inspired hopes and dreams to life. Below is yet another Journal Update from our last two days with Woza Moya. Thank you for taking the time to read it as it is our only way of connecting you to these experiences that have awakened much faith and joy in my heart.
August 31st, 2006 – Ufafa District, Kwazulu-Natal.
Today is our second to last workshop with the children. We have spent the last 8 days playing games, creating shapes, atmospheres, and group machines on stage, learning about each other, and exploring our life dreams. On Tuesday and Wednesday the children created short performances that bring together the skills they have learned and display their dreams and aspirations. Finally, today is a chance to share these pieces with each other and their gogos (grandmothers who take care of the children because of HIV/AIDS). The Gogos arrive and take their place in white plastic chairs in front of the red dusty ground that will serve as our impromptu stage. We have been blessed with a gentle, warm breeze after days of frigid mountain weather. The chairs gleam in the bright African sun. In the distance, roosters crow and trucks carrying timber workers rumble by. Our sharing is a chance for the Gogos to see what the children have been up to each afternoon.
We first warm up our bodies and play a few of our favorite games – passing a clap around the circle and the magic hoop or circle After a brief reminder of the expectations of the performances (to work together, share your beautiful voices and faces, and, above all, have fun) , the sharing begins. Doctors, lawyers, ship captains, soldiers, policemen, teachers, social workers, soccer stars, presidents, nurses, and child and youth workers sit nervously outside the Woza Moya centre in groups of four or five. Last minute changes are frantically whispered to each other. Each group has given themselves a name: Lucky Stars, National Anthem, Football Stars, Soldiers, Gregorrr. The children enter the stage as a machine moving together while singing or making sound effects. They announce their dreams and then perform a short scene using songs and movement. For many, it is their first time in front of an audience. Although they are shy and a bit scared, the performances are beautiful. Songs, poems, choreographies, and movement bring to life their aspirations and evoke tears in the eyes of their caregivers. We whoop and clap at the end of the each piece. The children begin to loosen up and enjoy themselves.
At the end of the sharing, Thembelephi, one of the oldest children, stands in front of the audience to recite a poem she wrote the night before. In isiZulu and broken English, she talks about her feelings of sadness and isolation after losing her parents. “We have all been hurt. Felt alone. Wanted to give up. But we do not lose hope in life. We can be brave and strong and support our future. Our dreams. I am not afraid. We keep this hope to be a success.” The words speak directly to the other children’s experience. Fidgeting ceases as all ears are listening. They applaud as she closes with a bow and beams her bright and beautiful smile dancing off stage. I am filled with a sense of happiness to see the children celebrate their success on this day.
Today, they have been the stars, the center of attention, basking in the love and support of each other, their caregivers, and the Woza Moya team.
September 1st, 2006.
We gather in a classroom at Sinevuso, the nearby secondary school, to reflect and process our experience as a group before going our separate ways. Liz reminds the children of all the different activities and games we have explored. They close their eyes and visualize each day. At the beginning of the workshop, the children drew pictures of themselves as they hoped to be when they grow up. Now, we pass them around the circle giving each child the opportunity to see what their fellow classmates had drawn. They laugh and talk softly together enjoying the different pictures. One of the older girls tells us that she appreciates the chance to know that other children who have had similar difficult experiences also have their own hopes and dreams. As a big family, they can remind and support each other when things becomes difficult and challenging as they often will. Then, we hand out bracelets made out of black leather and a red wooden bead. Part of an international project called,Thought on a Thread (www.thoughtonathread.co.uk)
The bracelets link communities overseas with the people living in the Ufafa district. We have been given them by Trish Bartley, a wonderful woman who is a development consultant and mindfulness trainer working with Woza Moya this week. We tell the children that the bracelets help remind us to be present when experiencing stress and difficulty. They also connect us with those wearing identical threads in the UK and America who are thinking of them and sending hopes that they are happy, safe, peaceful, and well.
Liz leads the group in a couple exercises that they can take with them after the workshop has ended: exploring contact with the ground and connecting thoughts with others. They are simple activities that will hopefully provide the children with tools to manage the many difficulties they encounter. Surprisingly, the entire group takes the exercises seriously in quiet contemplation. Some even ask for an additional bracelet to give to their brother or sister who was absent! Afterwards, Alice gives them one final present: a red sponge clown nose that seems to evoke more laughter than expected as they pop off and on faces bouncing around the classroom. The calm atmosphere dissolves into giggles, songs, and games. It is perhaps a fitting closing to our residency here in Ixopo, and though I am a bit sad to be leaving, there is already talk about returning next year for an even more extended time. “Awoogah! Awoogah!”