For many children, it is nearly impossible to express the trauma of losing their parents to AIDS, or what it means to have lived with violence or abuse. They lack the words to explain why they’re grieving, and are unable to articulate the pain that they’re feeling.
But in childcare centres, hospitals and school programmes in the townships surrounding Cape Town, the Music Therapy Community Clinic (MTCC) is working to help children unlock their emotions and express them through music and dance.
In Khayelitsha yesterday, Thomas and I visited Home from Home, a residential programme for children who have lost their parents or who have been removed from violent home situations. The Music Therapy Community Clinic has partnered with the organization to provide psychosocial counselling and support to the children through music. Each week, a community musician named Zwai comes to teach the children songs and ‘gumboot dancing’.
‘Gumboots’ are rain boots, and ‘gumboot dancing’ is a form of dance that originated in South African mining communities, where men from different cultures and language groups used dancing as a means of communicating. Gumboot dancing is a perfect way to introduce small children to music, because it lets them use their own bodies as percussion instruments – stomping loudly on the ground while singing and dancing their hearts out.
Zwai has been working with the children at this centre for about five months. A marimba player and percussionist by training, he studied African music at the University of Cape Town and has travelled internationally with a number of music groups. Most importantly, he is a patient and caring male role model for children who often have few men in their lives to look up to.
When the children arrived home from school, they trickled into the room and stood around shyly. As Zwai handed out the gumboots, they stood in formation and began to sing and dance. It was an amazing transformation – from the moment they began dancing, the children came to life.
Music therapy is a way for children to access the feelings that they can’t articulate through words, said Home from Home’s programme manager. “So whatever the child is busy with – whether it is the drums, the guitar, whatever – the child puts his heart and soul into it. It tells you a thousand tales in more words than what he would have been able to have in a one-on-one with someone…What I think is very helpful with music therapy is the fact that the whole child is being listened to. So if a child’s mum or dad has died, a grandparent, or whatever the case may be – or the child has been abused – she can’t say it [in words]. She doesn’t understand what has happened to her. And it’s because it’s so normal that these children don’t know that they’re grieving, that they are in such pain.”
Today, Stephen and Aissatou joined the trip, and we visited some of the other incredible programmes run by the Music Therapy Community Clinic. At the Brooklyn Chest Hospital (for TB patients) in Milnerton and at the aftercare programme at Etafeni in the Nyanga township, we had the chance to see MTCC’s work in action in a different way.
At the Brooklyn Chest Hospital, community musicians Victor and Spencer work with the male TB patients to sing traditional songs and play guitar. Not only is singing good for their lungs, but it offers an opportunity for the men to feel part of a community in what is otherwise often a fairly sterile hospital environment. On the children’s ward, MTCC’s music therapy assistants work with infants and toddlers to make basic percussion sounds. With the three-to-five year old group, a community musician named Chris sings and plays the guitar as children learn to dance and sing together.
We sat in on a music therapy session with six to thirteen year-olds run by Karen, one of MTCC’s music therapists. Many of the children living on the ward are quite ill – some of them living with HIV, others battling multi-drug resistant TB. With her guitar slung around her neck, Karen drew each of the children out of their shell, inviting them to sing about whether they were feeling ‘strong’ or ‘bup’ (‘weak’), and encouraging them to add their own sounds, rhythms and dances to each of the tunes. They giggled and sang at the top of their lungs, and forgot for a few moments that they are living on a hospital ward. It was a remarkable sight.
After a brief break in the day – Stephen was speaking at a press conference at the International AIDS Society 2009 conference being held here in Cape Town this week – we drove to the Nyanga township to visit Etafeni.
At Etafeni, we met with women who do beading and sewing as part of an income-generating activity. Each Monday, they gather with community musicians to sing traditional songs and to dance. For many of the women, it’s a safe place for them to be vulnerable, and the songs offer a kind of healing that doesn’t exist in other realms of their lives.
At the after school programme, we watched a group of gifted adolescents and teens play marimbas, drums, tambourines and maracas. Led by Vuyo, their community musician and mentor, these children have become talented musicians. Most importantly, they have a place where they can go after school and express themselves, away from the lure of violence and gangsterism that is often all-too-prevalent in townships like Nyanga and Heideveld. They also demonstrated a more advanced version of gumboot dancing – all the while beaming from ear to ear.
The Music Therapy Community Clinic is an inspired organization. It is rare to see such joy on the faces of children in such difficult circumstances. In just a few years, the little organization that began with two music therapists has grown into an organization with 17 people, including seven music therapists as well as community musicians and music assistants from the townships they serve. Their work, which is still relatively rare in South Africa, is undoubtably having an enormous effect on the individual lives of the children they serve.