AIDs, war and famine have redefined the meaning of childhood in sub-Saharan Africa and there are very few resources to train desperately needed professional service providers, including mental health professionals, to meet the massive need for services. In this region, everybody has lost someone to AIDS. In many African countries, life expectancy has fallen dramatically from age 54 in 1982 to age 34 in 2006. A recent UNICEF report states that in Zimbabwe, another child dies of AIDS or is orphaned by AIDS every 20 minutes; there are more than 1,000,000 orphans in Zimbabwe alone. By 2010, more than 40 million children will have suffered the death of a parent.
Orphans and other vulnerable children in Africa who are affected by AIDs, war, and famine face personal tragedy and loss so overwhelming that it is often beyond their ability to express. They need psychosocial support interventions like those developed in California shelters by DrawBridge founder Simoneaux and adapted to the needs of African communities by her in collaboration with local health providers and educators. Art and play therapy provide a non-threatening way for children to tell their stories. The children’s creations ground and organize their thoughts and feelings while communicating their experiences to others.
It is now widely accepted by medical professionals, politicians, teachers, and caregivers that orphans and vulnerable children need more than practical assistance in order to heal and become healthy members of society. Recent studies indicate that there are also many academic benefits to including the arts in daily curriculum. Multi-disciplinary arts programming contributes to enhanced creative thinking, more meaningful community engagement, a greater capacity for educated risk-taking and leadership, and higher order thinking skills. Children involved in the arts develop an expanded set of skills. With the capable leadership provided by Harambee Arts, children learn teamwork, conflict resolution, abstract thinking, creative problem solving, improved communication and enhanced self-esteem.
Teachers, counselors and other service providers in Africa are commonly undertrained and overworked. They often face severe burnout and hopelessness, so they too are in need of nurturing interventions. Nevertheless, they are most often eager to learn new skills to enhance what they already know. It is essential to provide these caregivers training to communicate with traumatized children in gentle and non-threatening ways. They need to be encouraged and trained to reflect on and effectively cope with the professional and personal tolls that their high-demand, resource poor environment has upon them. Most importantly, they need to be supported in their belief that they can make an impact on the lives of the traumatized children in their charge.