Zama’z Magic Paintbrush for the Good of the People

In our first afternoon workshop with the kids at the WWO orphanage, Jamie’s story about Zama and the magic paintbrush is perfect for these kids. It is long but they stay with it the entire time. Me I am sitting amongst the kids, wedged in at the back of a table on the part of the bench with a broken slat. At the moments when Jamie does something silly – a silly voice or face, or as he is sitting on a cracked plastic chair, when the chair slips and threatens to send him crashing down – the kids turn around and look towards me, to share in the laughter or smile, maybe also to make sure it’s okay, or to share their astonishment. This sharing of looks with the adult is the look of the clown. It is special that these looks go both ways with this group. We are both clown and teacher to these kids…

But during the rest of the story they stay captivated, watching Jamie and Lemlem. A moment of total focus as a group. The focus is just as special if not more so, than the laughs during our warmup and games. When we go to leave and they start cleaning up for dinner, we get a taste of the usual chaos of a house of 39 orphans ages 3-14. I realize what a respite it must have been to listen quietly all together, caregivers included, to an oral story. No TV, no music, no bickering, or distractions. Just listening and being transported.


“These kids are so lucky,” we heard this said quite a few times. Tonight Jamie says “So lucky and yet so unlucky,” yes they are fed better than many (maybe most?) kids in Addis. They have great medical care, are clean, and have good school situations. But all of them are orphans and all are HIV +. These kids are adorable and a few of them especially smart and gutsy leaders. The handful of kids who sneak or bicker to be next to me in the cicle or who whine about getting the right color crayon (I hear “Bourtoukan blah blah blah bourtoukan” – orange, the only color I know in Amharic) remind me of the everyday tifs of the kids I teach at the American School in Paris. Kids are kids anywhere.

But when the caregivers come around with some of the kids’ medecines during one of the our circle activities, the normalcy of it brings home hard the everyday reality of being a young orphan growing up HIV +.

On Thursday during our second workshop with them, we turn their life dreams (that they had drawn pictures of after listening to Zama’s story on tuesday) into group theatrical tableaux. The child whose dream it is, is the star of the tableau.

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