Left to Right: Sithembile Ndlovu, Thembisile Zondi and Mbulelo Duma (Photo by Alexis MacDonald)

Healing and the Arts

Voices from the Frontlines is an update from the Stephen Lewis Foundation profiling grassroots African expertise in response to the AIDS pandemic.

Community-based organizations are using music, art, performance, storytelling and other forms of creative expression as powerful catalysts for healing, transformation and action.  In this month’s issue of Voices, we hear from dlalanathi’s Mbulelo Duma about the organization’s groundbreaking work using the arts to help children and their caregivers affected by HIV, poverty and loss. Click here to watch the full video interview with Mbulelo online.

Q: Can you tell us about some of the arts-based therapies that you use at dlalanathi?
We have one activity where we ask the children orphaned by AIDS to draw a profile of themselves: it’s called a ‘Me Drawing’. Using their drawing, they talk about the things that make them happy, things that they don’t like about themselves, people that matter in their lives and people that are in their hearts. The ‘Me Drawing’ helps them realize that there are people who still care about them and that the people that they have lost are still in their hearts – they still matter even though they are no longer physically with them. The drawings help children realize the strengths they have that they can use in times of trouble. Because in most cases when people are experiencing problems, they don’t realize that they’ve got something within themselves which can make the situation better.

We also use clay to help children deal with what we call ‘unfinished business’. With the clay, they make objects depicting the things that they would have liked to have said to their late parent, and then they use their voice, saying, ‘I would have loved to have a bicycle’, for instance. Then they would also use the voice of the deceased saying what is it that they think would have been their response. So in that way, we give them an opportunity to say the things that they didn’t get to say, and to get the responses that they didn’t get while the person was alive.

I think clay can also be helpful in that it is a form of expressing anger without hurting others. For example, children make objects that have made them angry or that represent a situation in which they were angry. Then  they work in pairs to share about what is it that had made them angry. Through the clay activities we help them realize that anger is a feeling that is worth talking about, but what matters most is the expression of their anger. After that we talk about what other ways they think might be helpful to express their anger without hurting themselves or hurting others.

Q: Can you share with us some of the challenges involved in working with orphaned adolescents?
Working with the youth, we try to help them to find ways in which they can make a meaningful contribution to the society at large, see the strengths they have within themselves, and refine them. For example, we do activities that include lots of planning, organization – they get to organize their time effectively – to help them realize the strengths that they already have. Most of them, after the loss of their parents, are taking care of their small siblings. So working with them helps them to cope with all these difficulties. I think it also gives them a sense of meaning, because they know that whatever they’ll be doing, they’ll be doing it to the best of their ability. We do not use a judgmental attitude: whatever they are doing will be good, considering the situation they’ll be in.

Working with youth is important because the youth tend to be the people who care for the other siblings, and they are at a stage whereby they are at a transition between being children and adults. We want to help them to be prepared as they make the transition to adulthood.

Q: How do people become participants in your programmes?
At dlalanathi, our model is based on invitation, choice and participation. We go to the community and explain to them how our programmes operate, and then we ask those who are interested to take part. We leave it up to them to choose whether they want to participate or not. If they choose to, then we form groups.

In the children’s groups, we work with about 12 children in a group. In the children’s groups we mostly work with children who are bereaved in their communities. We believe that the community members are the experts of their community, so they are the ones who help us identify the children who need our services. We’ve also got children who’ve participated in the programme and now are identifying other children who might need help. We spend about 2 to 3 years in a community, so it might happen that we have, maybe a list of 90 people, and after we are done with the first group, we’d have another group with the rest of the people.

Q: What is your experience as a man doing counselling and therapeutic work with children?
I’ve noticed that there are very few men who do this kind of work, caring work. So for me, I feel like I’m an ambassador for other males – maybe if we give love, patience, and compassion, we might have a positive impact in children’s lives.  As men, we play such a huge role in the children’s lives and in helping them to believe that they can do things themselves. So, I hope somehow being a man in this type of work also encourages the young men to be caring and to be sensitive about life in general.  

Watch Mbulelo's video interview online here.

About dlalanathi
Based in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, dlalanathi is an organization that works to bring healing and hope to children and their caregivers, using play for communication in communities affected by HIV, poverty and loss. Through play, stories, metaphor, doll-making workshops, collage, and other innovative arts-based tools, they help children and their families to come to terms with their grief, and move forward.
Read more about dlalanathi in the Fall & Winter 2011 issue of our Grassroots newsletter.

To learn how SLF is working with grassroots organizations to promote healing in their communities, watch "Hope at the Grassroots," a short video about the Foundation’s work in Africa.

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