First thing every morning, they greeted me: “Momkwasay? “How did you sleep?” The answer is, “Tamunkahbho.” “I have slept well, if you have slept well.” “How are you?” “I am feeling well, if you are feeling well.” And on and on…that is the sweetness of the culture.
We divided into three groups and each group came up with a theme, discussed it, painted it, wrote about it and then acted it out in front of everyone. The themes were later elaborated upon and painted on the old doors and panels (which became our mural).
The themes that they decided upon were:
1. Mother’s love.
2. Together but alone.
3. Survival on the streets.
The children LOVE to act…becoming wildly animated, complete with very inventive sound effects and jumping and running around. Fight scenes are particularly popular and everyone cracks up as someone acts the part of a policeman hitting a child in the head with a baton. Another popular theme, repeated over and over again, is a gang of older street boys surprising a group of sleeping younger boys…beating them up and stealing their few possessions.
Little Brucie (the youngest) played the role of a baby wrapped up in a blanket. He was lovingly held in one of the boy’s laps who acted the caring mother…rocking and caressing him. In that scenario, the father arrived home drunk and started yelling at the mother. The crowd roared with threats and advice. Another group acted the story of an orphan arriving in the city and from the outside he looked like a part of things, but there was separation among the rich and poor that made it impossible for him to be a part of the community. “He felt pain,” added one of the boys.
That group wrote:
“In life we seem to be together but due to some differences we become separated. Because of how rich or poor you are. The rich look down upon the poor because they have enough for themselves, but we live in the same community. There are some people who live in the streets waiting for the rich to help them. We were all created in the same way, but separation is brought by man.”
Ngoni, the oldest and tallest boy, painted a fruit tree laden with ripe fruit. In the drawing, there is a child on an older person’s shoulders reaching for the fruit. The accompanying story was: “Blessed be a fruit tree, it neither chooses nor shows partiality. It gives its fruit freely.”
I asked some of the older boys to create signs for display in order to educate the public about our project. We were one small part of the week-long Arts Festival, which includes musical and dramatic performances, stages of all sizes, artist demonstrations, vendors of food and crafts and other events (including a group of acrobats from Sweden who somehow managed to construct a flying trapeze right there in Harare and a group of young gymnast girls from China who wore tons of makeup, skimpy outfits and twisted their body into unimaginable positions while standing upside down on ONE hand). The festival takes place in a sculpture garden and park, owned by the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, that spreads out over about a mile. During the festival it is teeming with people from early morning until way past midnight.
Particularly when performances ended, there were crowds of people milling around our area, showing more and more interest in our project as the week went by. I noticed that some of the children engaged the observers, pointing at a section of the mural and explaining it. I was overjoyed to see that exchange…seemingly so simple and straightforward, but it said so much more to the children. They were being seen as intelligent and responsible people with something to share. It was great…exactly what they need.
They made two signs that ended up becoming group efforts, as the younger boys took great pride in coloring in the letters with every color marker. Everyone worked as a team…there were no comments such as, “Don’t use that color” or “”Color inside the lines.”
DRAWBRIDGEGE (spelled enthusiastically…) from California and
STREET AHEAD from Zimbabwe
EXPRESSING THE INNER SELF.
The soft whisper, reaching out to many.
Listen to our story.
Then you will know us and where we are going.
WHO AM I?
I am that first ray of sunlight, shining ever so brighter till noontime; the small mustard seed that grows into the largest tree.
Turn your eye from my thorns and you’ll see the beautiful rose that I am.
That fire that takes long to build, but when lit, it warms you and takes care of you.
The beauty of the boys was warming me and taking care of me. They were showing their humanity in all its brilliance…it was pouring out.
They sweetly asked for large sheets of plastic to sit on and paint on during the day. They didn’t want to sit in the dirt. I listened to them carefully and continuously suggested art exercises that matched what they appeared to be ready for. For example, on the second day I suggested that they paint a happy memory and a sad memory. On the third day I asked them to paint their sleeping area and on the fourth day they painted their families and home villages. In between they created fantastic collages using trash that they collected, dirt and leaves and brilliantly colored sparkly papers, feathers, crepe paper and glitter that I had brought from home. On the last day they collected thousands of bottle caps and those were used as the base for wonderful collages and sculptures. One of the older boys, Thomas, found some wire and built a structure similar to a chicken coop (he had obviously made the same thing many times before) and he added that to one of the final three installations.
They threw themselves into every exercise with joy and they also decorated their hair, arms, clothes and shoes. They had great fun and played like children should play. Not one of them held back…they were engaged and focused every day, all day long.
And the food? Well…they loved the food and they NEEDED the food. No complaints, like “He got a bigger piece of chicken.” Or “I don’t like this.” Oh no. They were ecstatic to have a hot meal every day for a week. Everyone was ecstatic (anyway, I was).
Stories emerged and not surprisingly it became clear that children do not like living on the streets. Many of them are orphans and those who have lost one parent are often asked to leave by the stepparent. Others leave home because there is not enough food or because they have been abused emotionally or sexually. Some of them, who were being raised by stepparents or relatives, reported that they felt like “slaves” or “prisoners.” And they are just children.
Life on the streets is dangerous and rough. For one thing, there is a hierarchy, which became very apparent in the repeated plays acted out by our group. Older street children bully the young ones and demand their food and money. The children learn to steal and to sniff glue from the “senior street gang.” Sniffing glue diminishes hunger pangs, relieves the intense cold at night and helps them to forget the pain of their lives.
Children sleep in groups for protection and their “bases” are constantly at risk of unexpected police raids. The police beat them, arrest them and sometimes throw them in jail for months at a time. Aside from all of these ongoing hardships…having to search for food in trash bins and run from the police…the children put up with intense discrimination from the community at large. In fact, one of the festival organizers approached me and said, “You are responsible for those children. I know those children…they are bad. They will steal your cameras” I was astonished and replied, “You don’t know anything about those children.”
“I am a boy aged 14 years old and my parents got dead and I decided to come on the streets and there was no one to take care of me. I was very intelligent boy when I was at school and all my teachers said to me “your future will be bright.” I sleep in a shopping area with two friends. It’s a very quiet place, but the police come sometimes and beat us and chase us away. I sleep under plastic that I hide during the day.”
“My name is Learoy Mbula and I am a boy aged 17 years old. My parents both dead and I decided to come on the streets because I had no one.”
“I sleep in a cardboard box by myself. My friends are nearby. It’s sad and painful. The box is very cold. I was a very naughty guy and I was stealing from my family…not precious things…but things like food. I decided to run away from home after they beat me. My father came to look for me. He said, “You are no longer my son.” I want to go back to school. My mother passed away. I have two sisters but I don’t know where they are. It is so painful. When I feel sad I keep very quiet. I don’t talk to anyone. When I feel pain sometimes I play with my friends. When I grow up I want to go to California with you to your place.”
“I sleep in a bush area. It’s a river area about 2 kilometers away. I’m all alone there. Some big guys sometimes come by and they steal everything. They search me. Sometimes I sleep in town. I have some plastic to cover myself with and I hide it. I miss my family.”
I sleep at a dumping (trash) area with my friends. There are up to 20 of us…only women and girls. Some police come there and also big guys come and harass us. They steal our blankets and our money. We have some sheets but it’s very cold. I was staying with my mom in bus terminals my whole life, then my mom was taken to another area by the police. I was left behind. I haven’t seen her and I don’t know where she is. It’s very painful. I never had a home and I want to find a home.”
I stay in a gas station area. We are six guys there…best friends. It’s a very quiet and private area. We use cloth banners that we find, as blankets. After my father passed away I lived with my uncle. The moment he passed away I lived with my grandmother. She also passed away. Mom also passed away (TB). Then I was with an aunt and she didn’t take good care of me and I ran away. I am all alone. It’s so painful. Sometimes I go to church.”
“I sleep in 4th Street in the bus terminal area. We are three guys there and we sleep under plastic. It’s very cold. I came to town to look for money after my parents dead. I’m here with Learoy, my older brother, but he has his own area. I want to go to school.”
I sleep on 1st Street with my friends. There are four of us. We had sleeping bags but bigger guys came and stole them. We have nothing for tonight. It’s a very disturbing area. There are lots of people around all the time and big guys come every day and take everything from us. My father lives nearby, but my stepmother kicked me out. My stepmother hates me…I don’t know why. We are four children in the family and three are in school. The stepmother sent me away. She just hates me. I wish that I could go to school.”
I sleep in a service station near the generators because there is heat coming from there. It’s also a good place to beg for money when cars come to get fuel. There are other bigger guys who come and chase us away. At my home there was no food. I was staying with only my mom because my father ran away. It’s a big problem to find food here too. I won’t go home though…too many problems there. If I had money I would go back to school.”
There are three friends sleeping under one blanket on 1st Street. It’s a very cold and open area. After my father died, I was living with my mom. She married another man and my stepfather said that I had to leave and live with my grandmother. I went to live with my grandmother and she told me to go back to my mom. That’s when I went to live in the streets. It’s not OK. I want to go back to school. I am a very good hairdresser.”
“I sleep in a bus terminal. There is a shed and some iron bars. We sleep in the shed. Last night the police came and chased us away so we look for another place.”
Pardon and I were washing brushes one afternoon. He shyly said to me, “What you are doing with the children is great.” “Do you think so?” I said, rather distractedly. “I don’t think so, I see it with my eyes.” He carefully put the brushes down, removed the necklace that he was wearing from around his neck (that he had made), walked behind me and put it around my neck.”