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Journals from Africa by Gloria Simoneaux
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Journal One

July 6, 2007

Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA)

Today I am going to write about the street children of Zimbabwe.

Last year I attended the Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA) and I gave some talks about art therapy. This year I was invited back to work with a group of street children to create a large permanent mural installation. I had arranged with Streets Ahead, a local organization that provides a day sanctuary for street children, to identify fifteen children (ages 10-17) who would be reliable and interested in a week-long project.

The sign outside says, "Streets Ahead is an agency which provides foster care and drop-in services for street children. Streets Ahead provides outreach workers in the city everyday so that street children know there is someone to turn to with worries and concerns. The outreach workers tell the children about the drop in centre where they can go for a shower and a meal. More importantly, this is a safe environment where they are made to feel welcome. They can relax and remember what it is like to be a child again."

Too bad that funding has been cut drastically and the children are rarely being fed. They have no soap to bathe with and it didn’t look as though anyone had time to listen to their “worries and concerns.” When Michelle (the wonderful DrawBridge art facilitator who accompanied me on this adventure) and I showed up for the first time, we were met by a large group of children dressed in rags or half naked, washing clothes from a single tap (no soap/no shower), lying around in the walled in courtyard or running around playing with each other. Lots of clothes (rags) were spread out to dry all over the dusty yard.

Ivor and Gift, our trusty (some of the time) adult organizers/helpers called the group together into a circle by screaming “CIRCLE, CIRCLE”, and informed us that there were 28 children (plus a set of two year old twins…the daughters of one of the street children…sixteen year old Caroline) and that we should choose fifteen of them. Appalled, Michelle and I looked at each other and we decided (hellooooo?) that they would all be invited to join the project. Feeling completely overwhelmed, I asked them to go around in the circle and tell us their name, where they came from and their age. Everyone of them said, “I am sixteen years old” and then mumbled the name of a village in Shona which probably translated into “your ass”. There was lots of laughter. One of them appeared to be around ten years old and some of them looked as old as eighteen. There was no telling, and in fact many Africans don’t know their birthday…they were born in the year of the great drought or the heavy rains.

I made a little speech about how honored we were to be there with them, blah, blah and blah, and that we would feed them a good meal every day and pay them each a $10 stipend at the end of the week for working with us on the mural. They went MAD…wildly shrieking and jumping with joy about the money.

The boys (I forgot to mention that there were twenty-six boys and only two girls) included: Blessing, Givemore, Learnmore, Innocent, Pardon, Power and Anyway. What fabulous names. There was also Brucie, Frankie, Mike, Mkhulule, Clements, Exavior, Ashford, Fadzai, Fanwel and more.

Their list of rules for the week:
1. No (domestic) violence (I think that was a joke)
2. No begging
3. No stealing
4. No fighting
5. No smoking or sniffing
6. No jealousy
7. No vulgar words
8. BE HAPPY!

If you break the rules you will be punished. The punishment is NO FOOD. Be there on time (which is two hours late to a Zimbabwean).

And so the week began as we walked a mile to the grounds of the HIFA site, 32 of us and the two-year old twins, carrying old doors and other large pieces of wood that had been collected for the project. The first day is a bit of a blur, but I mainly remember thinking to myself, “How are we possibly going to reach these boys? They are so defended and so beaten down.” I told Michelle that I thought we had made a mistake by coming. I was scared. I went to sleep thinking to myself, “How can one possibly touch the empathy in a child who is so beaten?”

The next morning everyone showed up on time, two hours late. I had a brand new video camera with me (purchased in the London airport a few days earlier) and three other digital cameras, good ones, including a brand new large Nikon…and I had an idea.

When the group had assembled and I had passed out the scones stolen from the breakfast buffet at our hotel (by the way, don’t think it is easy to steal 28 scones. It takes some real confidence and practice), I said “I am turning these cameras over to you for the week. I will teach you how to use them and I want you to document our time together. The only rule is that you must keep the strap around your neck and after 15 minutes return the camera directly to me so that I can give it to someone else.” Silence…looking at each other…softening…I was on to something. The boys knew very well that they could run off with an expensive camera, and they also knew that I knew that. But, they didn’t, because I trusted them. And then slowly, slowly they trusted me and soon we were all in a love situation. A big one. And to think of them now, as I write this testament to a great group of children, my heart is bursting with what I feel for every single one of them.

More tomorrow.

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