On day five, I shared books that were created by DrawBridge children who live in California shelters, as gifts for African orphans and street children. The project grew out of my belief that everyone has something valuable to contribute and everyone needs an opportunity to give. Facilitating the exchanges between children from different countries who have shared experiences has become some of my most meaningful work.
The books are made of fabric and include (iron-on) photos of each child who gets a page to describe him or herself and share their feelings. Typically the pages are decorated with many colors and designs. The cover says, “We are one family” and includes a group photo. When I share the book, I like to say, “Even though the children who made the books live very far away, they are still your brothers and sisters.”
Messages from homeless children in California:
“What does Africa look like? My name is Brenda and I am nine years old. I love the color pink and I love basketball. I also love to dance and sing and eat chicken with rice. Please come and visit me. I love you.”
“My name is Jessica and I am thirteen years old. I made this beautiful flower just for you. Kisses, hugs and friendship. I love you very much.”
“Hello. How are you doing in Africa? I am fine in California. I painted a beautiful rose just for you guys.”
When I shared the books with the street children, they were mesmerized. Little Brucie held the book open to Brenda’s page and kept kissing her photo (he spent hours painting a picture for her). Each of them wanted to hold the book and study the photos. Then I told them, “You can do something really special if you paint or draw a message for a child in California who is very poor and has no home.” It’s a simple exercise, yet the result is profound…a sense of inter-connectedness and belonging.
Messages from Zimbabwean street children:
“To all the wonderful children in the street of California: First I would like to say how is your life? I know it is a difficult life. I want you to know that you are not the only, but we are lots here. We are very happy to see the book that you have written. I like to dance to Reggae.”
“I like playing football and basketball and I like the color red. I love the children who made us the book with all my heart, I wish they could come here one day to see us and also we will be going there one day to see them. When I go to California maybe I can find a job.”
“I like playing football. I like playing with people who shareespecially food. My favorite color is green. I love to eat sadza and chicken. I like those children in California. I wish to meet them someday. I will tell them, “I love you with all my heart.”
“When I grow up I want to be a teacher that teaches children to right and read. I will think about the children in California everyday for the rest of my life.”
On the sixth day of the project, I asked the boys to write and draw about their favorite moments of the week and also what they didn’t like.
Some of their comments:
“I am a boy. I am 15 years old. I want to thank you for what you teach us. You teach us how to smile and work as a team and also you teach us how to share. I want to thank you Gloria for taking Michelle with you to Zimbabwe and I also want to thank you Michelle for taking Gloria with you to Zimbabwe.”
“I liked drawing and painting very much and I also enjoyed taking pictures with the camera.”
“I myself I have been very satisfied about what I have been doing for the whole week. It was tremendous, really exciting, interesting and educative. This was absolutely great. Before I only used pencils, so we learned to mix colors. Everyone had their own ideas and it was so exciting….but we all painted together. I’m proud because I didn’t expect that we could behave like this. This is the best thing that we ever did as a group and I hope we can come back together next year and do this.”
“I wish God bless Michelle and Grorea with his love. Now I can do many things like art.”
“I loved the food very much. I never painted before and I never knew what painting is. I love Michelle and Gloria very much.”
“I wish I could stay with Gloria and Michelle at the happy time. They being good to us.”
“My name is Learnmore. I love every moment.”
“We didn’t know that people from outside Zimbabwe could care for us so much.”
“I enjoyed painting and mainly the food. I like to thank Gloria and Michelle for playing games with us. The lastly I like to thank God for giving us time like this. I did not know how to paint but now I can teach others. We enjoy so much. You will always in my mind.”
We told them that the last day would include a party and surprises. They asked, very respectfully, if we would buy soap so that they could wash their clothes and their bodies in preparation for the party. Michelle and I stayed up half the night preparing for the party. I printed 28 copies of the HIFA ’07 group photo to distribute (my portable printer is junk but I managed somehow) and I also prepared a slide show, sifting through thousands of photos that had been taken during the week. What a labor of love that was! Michelle carefully wrapped bundles of $10 for each child in shiny patterned origami paper, wrapped with gold ribbons. The packages looked like exquisite flowers…almost too beautiful to touch.
Michelle woke up very early the next morning and managed to finish the construction of the three installations (that she had designed, working every night on detailed diagrams and sketches) by bending rebar into arcs and screwing the panels onto the rebar so that the panels stood upright and created a tunnel that could be walked through. When the boys arrived at the HIFA site on the morning of the last day, they were amazed at the beauty that Michelle had created. Everyone was. The founder and director of HIFA came by our area and congratulated us on putting together the most successful interactive art project of the festival.
Then the party began…we had arranged to have cooks prepare an extra special (and extra big) meal and they brought tables and real plates and served the children. Soft drinks (two per child) and a large beautiful chocolate cake was part of the feast. We ate in a circle and everyone wanted to be photographed with his or her plate of food.
After the feast, we moved the group to a nearby tent that was dark inside…perfect for the slide show. The children sat in a group, close to each other, wondering what was about to happen. As the show began they were screaming with laughter, pointing and yelling out names, “Brucie!” Anyway!” “Milton!” They were beside themselves with enjoyment and wanted to see the show over and over. I’m certain that they had never seen photos of themselves presented so beautifully. They were truly being honored.
Next surprise…Michelle and I went around the circle and presented each child with a photo and a bundle of money. Many hugs and handshakes ensued. Then I spoke about how proud I felt and what an honor it had been etc. etc. I could barely get the words out because I was so overwhelmed with love and appreciation. After my speech, (Michelle gave another better one because she knows some Shona), the boys very excitedly and proudly presented us with a gift that they had been secretly working on. They had made an exquisitely framed painting/collage for us. That’s when I started crying and couldn’t stop easily.
We had a closing circle and some of the children chose to share their feelings. Fanuel looked at me with tears in his eyes, and the video camera in his outstretched hands. “In my lifetime, I never thought that I would get to touch something like this. You taught me how to use it and you gave me skills. You gave me a new start in life.”
And then the week was over and the boys left, although I ran into some of them over the next two weeks as I walked around downtown. It was a thrill to hear one of them call my name and run over with a huge smile, sparkly eyes and a hug. I felt so thoroughly proud to know them.
During the last few days of HIFA, Mkhululi shyly approached me several times and told me that he wanted to go home to see his mother. He had run away from home four years earlier after his father died and there was no more food. The mother lives in a rural village near the border of South Africa…quite a journey from Harare. The last day of our project he told me tearfully that he had dreamed about her the night before, and then he painted the dream to show me.
Several other boys also talked about their desire to return home. Michelle and I decided that we would send Mkhululi, Frankie and Thomas back home. The first step was to clean them up and purchase new clothes…top to bottom. They were unwilling to go in rags and it was very important to them to return home with a sense of dignity. They looked fantastic when they showed up at our hotel the following morning in brand new stylish athletic suits. Gift and Ivor, our assistants, agreed to chaperone the boys back home. We paid for bus fare and food for the several day journey and they were on their way.
Several days later we received a phone call…Mkhululi’s mother was beside herself with joy to see her son again. I am currently sponsoring Mkhululi to set up a chicken farming business ($20 a month) and I know without a doubt that he will succeed. Thomas is back with his mother and he immediately enrolled in school. Because he is exceptionally tall, and was placed in a class with very young children (because of his level) he felt out of place, left school and decided to start a small business.
Poor Frankie, whose parents are both dead, arrived at his village and his aunt (mother’s younger sister) wouldn’t take him in because her husband wouldn’t allow it. “They rejected him,” said Gift when we spoke by phone. Gift stayed with Frankie for a while in the village and finally persuaded the step-uncle to give it a try, and Gift enrolled him in school (Michelle is sponsoring his school fees). Hopefully it will work out…Frankie is a beautiful child.
Our next project:
The boys want to make a movie about life on the streets. They want to educate people about their humanity. “We are good, we are not bad” said Learnmore. I will help them with their dream because it’s a good one and because I believe in them. A professional crew will need to train and guide them as they write the script, act and shoot the film. Any thoughts or ideas for funding would be appreciated.
“Through art everyone can understand you. Art is a language.”
~ Pardon, HIFA mural project 2007