An Irish folk dance - Zambian style

I recently had the privilege of being the guest of Father Michael Kelly, a wonderful Irish-Zambian Jesuit priest, who took me to visit the My Home orphanage for girls in Zambia.

Together, we drove about eight kilometres out of Lusaka to a peaceful rural location shaded by big trees, where the Indian Sisters run the small centre.

A lovely Indian nun greeted us when we arrived and walked with us into the orphanage compound. Bright mosaics created by the girls on a wall at the entrance declared the centre a 'Home of Joy'.

Unlike other orphanages, My Home is made up of a group of houses that share a main compound. Forty girls aged between six and 14 are cared for in the small buildings that each house ten children and one volunteer 'mother' from the local community.

Each 'house' is just that, and is equipped with a small kitchen, a dining room, a TV and four bedrooms. This creates a real house-hold feeling and the girls consider the centre to be their home, rather than an orphanage.

When we walked out of one of the houses, we were offered freshly made donut-like cakes that two of the volunteer mothers were deep frying as an afternoon snack for the children. Saturday's are washing days at the orphanage and colourful clothes were hung between the houses to dry in the warm sun.

The girls go to local schools from Monday to Friday and a year's school fees come to about US $100. The home makes sure that most of the girls spend at least a little time each year with their extended family to ensure they maintain a connection with their relatives and know more than life within the orphanage.

The home is mostly funded with donations from outside Zambia but inside the country several companies donate food, with deliveries of commodities such as meat arriving daily.

The girls were not in school when we visited, although some were attending extra lessons. When we walked into a large building we were immediately met by about thirty of the girls waiting for us on a stage. They were excited and keen to welcome us in true Zambian style.

Clapping and swaying they started a harmonious welcome song by greeting Father Michael and singing "welcome Father, we're really glad you came". They repeated the verse to welcome "auntie".
Then the children, dressed in a colourful array of African and Western clothes took their places for the start of the show. Sister Ruby, a warm hearted and softly spoken woman clapped her hands to help the girls get organised. We were enchanted as the older girls led the younger ones in a multicultural singing and dance show.

The performance moved through Zambian dances, which had even the youngest girls swaying their hips rhythmically, to a surprising rendition of 'Walls of Limerick' and a four-person Irish dance backed by an older girl acting as DJ.

Father Michael and I joined in the Irish dancing and what can only be described as a Zambian c?ile (Irish folk dance) to the tune of an Irish reel. For the finale, the children gave a beautiful performance of the Irish national anthem followed by biscuits all round.

We were shown out to the back garden where there was a duck pond and a large field of maize. The ground is ploughed by adults but the girls plant the corn and harvest it themselves to help their home become self-sufficient.

The children seemed happy and at peace in the loving environment provided by the Indian sisters and volunteer mothers. It was a true privilege to experience their remarkable programme with Father Michael leading the way.

In a country where more than a million children are estimated to be orphans, My Home is an excellent child-care model, looking beyond the girls' immediate material requirements to take care of their psychosocial and emotional needs in a comfortable, non-institutionalised setting.

According to statistics, more than half of Zambia's orphans have lost their parents to AIDS and helping the country's most vulnerable children remains a big challenge. It also remains our duty to make sure their voices are heard and to advocate for children affected by HIV.

Nadine Ferris France - HDN

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