|Blessing sits outside his home in Zimbabwe
Thirteen year old Blessing takes center stage on the dirt school grounds and demands attention. The group of children and teachers who have gathered in a rural Zimbabwean school yard to watch his performance grow quiet and all eyes are on him. Behind Blessing, eight of his friends are lined up wearing matching t-shirts that read "Smart Guys Abstain. Avoid HIV and AIDS" and waiting for his command. Without the benefit of musical accompaniment, their voices cut through the silence and captivate their audience.
Blessing was 11 when his mother died and he began living with his aunt, who is raising seven other children. In such a big family, it was easy to be unintentionally neglected and struggle for an equal share of time, love, and attention. Without a job, his aunt struggled to feed the family and would often collect food items from others in the community.
Though he now comfortably takes the lead in the performance, and guides the group through a series of songs, he hasn't always had the confidence to do such a thing. He says that he now enjoys interacting with other people and getting to learn about important things that impact his life. On and off stage he leads the group of boys who have formed a performing arts group with the support of Nhimbe Trust.
Nhimbe Trust is a local Zimbabwean organization that uses theater as a way to engage young people in community advocacy to address relevant issues, particularly around reproductive health. Nhimbe provides training in performance techniques and helps children develop the self confidence to stand up in front of the community and deliver important messages.
A grant from the USAID-supported and World Education implemented, Children First project has strengthened the capacity of Nhimbe and other local NGOs to work directly with youth to improve services offered to them.
Blessing's group, called Mbanewezulu (Lightening Bolt) has gained local notoriety and is regularly invited to perform at community events. The songs the children sing warn other students and the community in general about the dangers of HIV, how to avoid cholera, and discuss other issues that affect the community like sexual abuse, youth behavior, how to respect adults, and theft.
It can be difficult to talk about sensitive issues in the community, especially abuse, since the perpetrators are often the adults who are supposed to be the caregivers. The training provided by Nhimbe Trust shows children how to address these important issues using entertainment, so that the message is delivered but in a way that is less threatening to those who are listening.
According to Winston Ngulube, the adolescent reproductive sexual health coordinator at Nhimbe Trust, "we have been able to bring out the issue of abuse and make talking about it acceptable in the community. Sexual abuse was very common and perpetrators were not being punished. Now we are able to get a number of cases addressed and children are being helped."
As an orphan, a child like Blessing would often be stigmatized in his community. But with the help of Children First and Nhimbe Trust, he has been empowered to be a leader among his peers and fight HIV, abuse, stigma, and discrimination in the general community. "It is good to be part of this group," he says. "I feel happy and people know me now. I used to be too shy to stand in front of a crowd, but now I can stand in front of them and tell them things. And they listen."