By Michelle Bulterys
The raw desire for daily performing arts in the Zambian culture surpasses social barriers and unites people from different walks of life.
The young boy’s neon face-paint crinkles around his eyes as he flashes a smile to the crowd. Two older boys thrust him high into the air—higher than the baobab trees they climb each afternoon to watch the sun set. The young boy’s red clothing clashes with the turquoise sky as he flips three times before landing securely into the arms of his teammates. All sorts of individuals gather in unison to cheer on the young performers; from the blushing girls giggling, to the old gentleman bobbing his head under his leaf-umbrella. The crowd vibrates with infectious energy, and it’s near impossible to believe that just weeks ago, these thriving children were begging for money and food on the streets of Lusaka, the capital city of Zambia.
According to UNICEF, over 20,000 Zambian children are currently working and living on the streets. Waking at the break of dawn, trekking kilometers to the nearest watering holes, scavenging for scraps of food, and pressing their hopeful faces against windows of cars that speed away; these are just a few of the many hardships street children in Zambia face everyday. At the heart of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, life expectancy is hovering at fifty years of age and one in three children is orphaned by the time they reach adulthood, ultimately victimizing them to adverse outcomes such as social exclusion, malnutrition, disease, violence and, every so often, death. Nevertheless, as an African proverb states, “However long the night, the dawn will still break”; the street children of Zambia chant songs of hope.
A budding Zambian band performs their latest hit in a club, as homeless children sit by the door knocking rocks against empty, yet cherished, cans to the same beat.
Music and dance are sources of leisure, optimism and social belonging, all of which are essential elements for healing vulnerable children from the detrimental effects of adversity. Wonderfully, this has sprouted organizational interest for using performing arts as the key to opening doors to brighter futures for Zambian youth. Several non-governmental organizations, such as The Butterfly Tree, Music Earth Rise and Family Legacy Missions International, have used music and dance as portals for providing necessary aide and health education. These organizations have shown up unannounced in impoverished communities to sing popular African songs that attract a particularly young and curious audience.
Children often join in on the singing and dancing and quickly decide they want to be a part of the group. As a result, haunting fears of social isolation, hunger, homelessness and lack of access to proper education are forgotten for the time being and diminished in the long run. These organizations work to alleviate the problems of hunger and find solutions for shelter and education with the help of charitable donations.
As the children return to their musical haven, they harmonize in melody and step together in sync. Their calloused feet now comfortably fit in new stockings and shoes that match their school uniforms. As the sun begins to fade, the last rays of sunshine paint the horizon with brushes of violet and gold.
In particular, a performing arts organization called Barefeet Theater has made remarkable achievements in taking children off the streets of Zambia. Founded by Grainne O’Neill and a team of Zambian performers, over 30 mentors work for the organization, many of whom were living on the streets of Zambia before becoming artists. Barefeet Theater equips the children not only with performing skills but, more importantly, the skills needed for living healthy and independent lives; as their goal states: “You can give a human being water, food and clothes for their back, but unless you work with a human being’s spirit…change will take time.” Barefeet Theater’s work has led to young and successful acrobatic and musical groups with talent that has traveled through media and risen to impress Zambia, Africa and now the globe.
By allowing children to be children, performing arts in these organizations facilitate a safe environment for them to grow as individuals, as well as create a strong sense of belonging and teamwork with others. The African proverb stating that “a single bracelet does not jingle” highlights the importance of coming together as an act of change, both domestically and internationally. Performing arts weave communities and nations together to help save disadvantaged youth, and as the Zambian saying goes, “Imiti ikula empanga” – indeed, “The little trees of today are the forest of tomorrow.”
The performance ends with a back-flip and a colorful explosion of lights. A young girl beams a smile and her eyes begin to water, in them capturing the stars’ reflections. She flashes back to the image of her tired fingers drawing patterns in the dirt that she used to sleep in. And upon kissing her tiny knuckles, she merely points high into the roaring crowd that begs her for more and more.
Photo by SuSanA Secretariat