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Kids’ Clubs

Zimbabwe 6 November 2006 (continued) I am at the offices of an organization that cares for aids orphans in Zimbabwe. One of the many pastors who works with Katherine and Peter, the co-directors of this organization, stops by Katherine’s office. His name is Philip and he is an old friend of Katherine. I am writing up my notes, and shamelessly eavesdrop on their conversation: “I told them, ‘Don’t expect revival if you’re not doing what God asks.’” “She looked so bright after we got the ARVs to her. But now look at her.” I’m quoting them here because these were the kind of phrases I heard my entire time at Katherine’s side. HIV/aids everywhere. Death so much a part of daily life. Speaking of God as if He were the Guy next door. Philip invites me and Katherine over to his house for dinner tomorrow night.

One of the things this organization does is organize children’s workshops, or Kids’ Clubs, for the orphans. I’ve already written about the workshops for gogos, or grandmothers raising the orphan generation. Now listen to this motivation, stated in the organization’s brochure, behind the Kids’ Clubs: Aids deprives kids of the opportunity to enjoy, play and have fun because these children are continuously experiencing loss—loss of childhood, loss of education and loss of loved ones. At the Kids’ Clubs they have fun, can unwind and enjoy. This means they can grow and develop as children.

So simple. Let the children play. I’ve interviewed many aids orphans and former child soldiers who said the same: “The world thinks we are some sort of tragedy. Really, we’re just like children everywhere else.” A secondary motivation behind the Kids’ Clubs is to integrate socially the marginalized children like orphans, disabled children and albino children through play. To give them the chance to make friends. See, aids orphans need to make friends.

Speaking of which, I meet a real-live Lucky, like my protagonist in the child-soldier book. This Lucky is a pastor and yet another old friend of Katherine. He works with Peter in an organization aimed at informing the Zimbabwean Diaspora (like my friend Joyce in The Hague) about the resistance among churches to government policies.

Then another pastor pokes his head into Katherine’s office. The men come and go, phone calls get broken up as lines break, Katherine keeps phoning and typing as I scribble away. When Katherine steps out for a moment, this pastor leans conspiratorially in my direction and says, “I see you’re spending time with the Mother Teresa of Zimbabwe.” It’s the second time someone has called Katherine this and it makes me wonder what books may be written about her behind-the-scenes passionate efforts to come alongside the orphans and “do the next thing,” as Oswald Chambers, my favorite Scottish writer and preacher calls it.

The pastor says something about tennis to Katherine when she returns and I ask if he plays. “Oh yes, Peter and I usually play when we can find the time. All the pastors here (and I think he meant working with the organization, not in Zimbabwe) play tennis together.” I think, typical funny British something still showing like a slip under a woman’s skirt. Katherine has overheard the “Mother Teresa” comment and I ask her what she thinks. She actually blushes, then says, “It’s Jesus—listening to Him and being willing—that’s all it is.”

I think these notes I’m copying below about the Kids’ Clubs are from Leonard. I find them so valuable. More advantages to providing a forum for children: • Provides social safety nets, a place where children can share problems, where children realize they are not alone, so they can get support from each other and church members; • Builds up a culture of care and support. To identify, mobilize and share resources. Instills desire to love and care. One of the children who participated in a Kids’ Club wrote: “As long as there are people in this world, I don’t think any child should suffer.”—Towanda • Creates awareness of children’s rights, informing them of the right to participate, their rights to belong, to play, to be educated, and teaches them about values; • Acts as a referral center. • In addition to HIV information, young people need to learn to be active contributors to society. When groups of children get together like this, they become more aware of the impact of HIV on other children and themselves. Direct participation helps young people cope.

When I ask for children’s voices, Leonard looks up his own notes and I copy this quote from a 19-year old into my notebook: “Working directly with children has made me see the impact of HIV and aids on our church. I need to change my behavior so I can be a survivor, and help in instilling hope and courage amongst children affected by aids.”

When I ask Leonard how he takes care of himself, he talks about the need for self-care and quotes 2 Corinthians 12:9: Continually draw on God’s strength.

At some point that afternoon Katherine says we should pray together about my own writing and the interviews. I feel relieved. The voices and emotions have been building up inside of me and the only form of release I’ve found is to meditate in the evenings. But the days are so full, by the time evening comes, I’m feeling edgy and close to tears. She prays for God’s heart to be revealed in my writing—something I also want very much. She prays for my heart to be stretched. She argues with God like I think Jacob must have—well, it’s not arguing so much as talking as if to someone you know can handle anything you throw at them. She says things during her prayer like, “Do that, man.” It’s old Rhodesian English, or maybe a leftover from Afrikaans, but it makes me smile as I feel my heart growing to embrace these children and my hope stretching into trust that I can give a face to this war in my writing.

I return to Leonard and ask for more information about the children he’s met in the Kids’ Clubs. I won’t have the chance to meet many aids orphans during my weeklong visit, so I draw on his vast experience and long-term relationships with children. He says that in the children’s groups kids talk about their fear, anxiety, anger, and feelings of helplessness. The children say this is the impact of aids. They have learned negative coping mechanisms—self-stigmatization, blame, seeking revenge and aggression. He tries to coax them into pursuing more positive coping mechanisms such as seeking help, talking to someone or to God, and forming supportive and healthy relationships.

For the target group of orphans, the disabled, abandoned, sexually abused, and street children, the Kids’ Clubs are their only opportunity to belong, make friends and feel valued. Another quote, this time from a 10-year old: “You expect us to feel pain and ignore it, to see death and forget it, we might be young but we are aware of what is happening around us.”

I believe the wisdom shared here about children applies to children of all cultures. This is what Leonard says about what happens to the children he has met and mentored at the Kids’ Clubs: “In order to get the children to participate, we give them information and work at building their capacity to influence and change through self-expression and active communication. This helps them further develop their personalities and achieve personal growth.

“Children are not helpless victims. They have strengths and enormous power to survive and cope. They also have the ability to bounce back after going through difficult and challenging situations. Children have tremendous resilience. All we do is help them tap into their inner strengths and resources.

“HIV/aids has the following psychological effects on children: multiple losses, fear, hopelessness, a diminished sense of self worth and competence. It manifests itself in nightmares, loss of concentration, social isolation. There is a lack of support structures in communities that would facilitate a process of self expression and healing for children. Providing opportunities for children to express themselves is crucial for the healing process.”

This makes me think of the trauma therapy given to former child soldiers. If such a child can reach the point where he or she expresses what happened and the ensuing emotions in any form at all—story, drama, dance, pottery, drawings—the child has a better chance of recovering enough to live a relatively stable life.

I am hearing echoes of children past and present. The children’s voices all around me now as Leonard explains what is actually happening inside the aids orphan. More and more, it sounds like what happens inside every child, every adult, every single one of us.

Anger—When the world fails to meet the child’s expectations, the child feels robbed, cheated, disappointed and betrayed. • Guilt—When children blame themselves for their parents’ deaths because they may not have known how to nurse the dying. They blame the deaths on their own personal ignorance and accidental lack of care. Some see their parents’ deaths as punishment for wrong doing. • Sadness—About the illness of their parents, separation of siblings, stigma and isolation. They can deal with this when they face up to the emotion or talk to a trusted someone. • Fear—of death, the dark, developing emotional attachments—for example trusting relationships with adults who may then die, contracting diseases from ill parents, the unknown. All these fears may in turn, cause a lack of confidence, clinging behaviors, sleepless nights, bed-wetting, panic attacks, aggression. Responses that help include identifying and expressing the emotions, identifying positive ways of dealing with situation, such as identifying individuals and institutions the child can go to for help when afraid. What also helps are discussions about the fear of physical harm versus the fear of emotional harm, and talking about how to deal with individual sources of fear. Fear manifests itself as something unpleasant and disabling. It inhibits us from reaching our set objectives in life. It can bring feelings of illness: fatigue, stomach aches, shortness of breath. Fear can lead to irrational behavior, like the fear of loneliness can cause a child to have harmful multiple sex relationships in order to feel wanted. Freedom of fear leads to happiness, clarity in our planning, and a general psycho-social sense of wellbeing. • Worry—About who will take care of the children and what will their future be like without the parents, about acquiring day-to-day needs such as food, clothing, shelter, education, and love. Aids orphans worry about the lack of emotional and physical protection, their health—especially with regard to HIV, their siblings and the survival of their families. Worry manifests itself in self-pity, withdrawal, hyperactivity, mood swings, insecurity, psychosomatic disorders, uncomfortable eating habits and problems with trust. • Loneliness—Social stigma. Failure to form and maintain new relationships. Separation and geographical relocation of siblings. Lonely people show withdrawal, cynicism, sleeping disorders, difficulties in forming healthy relationships. They spend a lot of time with TV and video games, demonstrate attention-seeking behavior and have dysfunctional relationships. • Loss and Grief—heavy emotional, social, and spiritual burdens: loss of home, loved ones, friendship, sight or a limb, educational opportunities, dreams and hopes for the future, loss of childhood. Aids orphans lose their childhood. One child’s loss cannot be compared with others’ grief experiences. Children’s grief and loss experiences are as personal as adults.

When I ask Leonard what can be done for grieving children, he says it is possible to “negotiate the grief experience, move past the experience, readjust into normal life, and move on without the deceased.”

I press for details, but how? He says it is often, again related to getting the children to express their emotions. The following questions can sometimes release the grief: How do you feel when you experience this loss? Who can you share your feelings with? How do you feel now as you talk about your loss? Is there an activity that triggers these feelings? How do you remember the person you’ve lost? What reminds you of them?

Leonard reminds me that the loss of a person, highly valued object or dream is one of the most painful human experiences there is. Adapting to loss, facing it, finding a way to move on is one of life’s greatest challenges. He tells the orphans, it’s all right to feel pain when they’ve lost someone they care for and love. Often that is enough to get them talking about their feelings. And that, is the first step toward healing.

More and more, I see fewer differences between what aids orphans experience and what the rest of us struggle with. For them, though, it is an accelerated process, intensified by the proximity of death and extreme losses of parents and childhood. They must swallow the crystallized form of life concentrated down into a few years, so it is more intense. We all must mourn in this life, fear, grieve, let go—but they must do it all at once and at the very beginning of their lives.

They live a lifetime of pain in just a few young years.

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