Healing through creativity
The fight against HIV/ Aids reaches across all continents and touches the lives of many, as it has done when it introduced students from the reputable Juilliard School to the kids at Nkosi’s Haven Village.
The initiative, overseen by Astep (Artists Striving to End Poverty), shows, among many things, another side to the battle against HIV/Aids, which is that of longing to be valued.
“Care for us and accept us – we are all human beings. We are normal. We have hands. We have feet. We can walk, we can talk, we have needs just like everyone else – don’t be afraid of us, we are all the same!” Nkosi Johnson, the co-founder of Nkosi’s Haven, once said.
The haven accommodates orphans, families and children infected and affected by HIV/Aids. It is the legacy of Nkosi, who was born HIV-positive and, through his plight, became a spokesperson, national icon and voice for what humanity is supposed to be.
Astep, an organisation that works closely with the Broadway community, uses the arts as a tool to empower young people around the world. Its work can be traced to Shanti Bhavan, India; Homestead, Florida; and New York City. Astep made the journey to South Africa with students and graduates of Juilliard, who formed Inside/Out, a group of volunteers who help people living with HIV/Aids.
On July 18, they left after spending two weeks at Nkosi’s Haven Village.
The challenge for Inside/Out was to get the kids at the haven to own their stories. “We had to take the kids out of the collective to see who they really are, which they found uncomfortable because they are so used to being in a group,” said Evan Todd jr, graduate of the arts at Juilliard. Three-hour morning sessions were held for the younger kids (six to 11 years) and three-hour afternoon sessions for the older one (12 to 18 years) during the two weeks. The sessions featured dance, music, improv, storytelling and visual arts. “We want to make them theatrically sturdy and able to reflect on their past to help them in making future choices,” said Dick Scalan, a writer who teaches at Juilliard and advises the students involved with Inside/Out. Colin Bates, a 20-year-old drama student at Juilliard, had been overwhelmed and humbled by working with the kids. “It is like a different world here; the cultures and everything is so different,” he said. “I have learnt so much from these kids. The children in the US have so much compared with them, yet they are so happy.”
Gail Johnson, director and co-founder of Nkosi’s Haven, and her team for the work they put in. Though she plays it down by describing the daily management of the facility as “an adrenalin rush” and herself as an “adrenalin junkie”, having to deal with finances, adjusting with the kids, getting them into school and making sure they get proper counselling is a feat.
Johnson adopted Nkosi when his mother, debilitated by HIV, was no longer able to care for him. At the time, Johnson was one of the founding members of The Guesthouse, a foster care home, where she had met Nkosi. When the foundation closed, he had nowhere to go and was left in her care. “Nkosi taught me unconditional love and unconditional acceptance. Every day I learn from my kids,” she said. Scanlan described the Nkosi’s Haven team as showing “motherly love… showing love through discipline, which also gives the kids a bit of dignity”. He also observed that the kids are open-minded.
“They have their own opinions, but cannot tell their stories, which is different from American kids, who can tell you about themselves all day, but do not really have their own opinions,” he said. Todd added: “We would like them to keep writing their stories in a way that’s not just therapeutic. It is about empowering them to use their voices; own their stories.”
Each member of the Inside/Out crew, with Astep firmly in support, shared their lives with the Nkosi’s Haven children, who responded in kind. Tall canvases stand in the art room, adorned with passages from the lives of the kids. Some of it is witty and some seemed too personal to intrude upon.
One can’t help but feel that the American visitors left a valuable legacy, which, in collaboration with Astep and funder BC/EFA, they hope to replicate annually with graduating seniors at Juilliard School.