A huge, golden paper-‐maché lion glistens in the afternoon sun as it looks over a dusty, hot yard in the backstreets of Lusaka, capital of Zambia. Under the shade of a nearby mango tree a group of street kids rehearse the story of Zambia’s independence struggle. The offices of Barefeet Theatre have been turned into a temporary orphanage with bunk beds and mattresses strewn about, taking up nearly all of the available floor space. In the Artistic Director’s office, which is filled with masks, drums, face paint, props and people, Adam McGuigan is meeting with Christian Schoonerveldt-‐Reid of ThisSideUp acrobatics. Does Adam know where they can get a generator? Cheap? Free? As we approach opening night of the 7th annual Barefeet Youth Arts Festival there is an undeniable energy at work…improvised, chaotic, powerful and full of soul.
In a country where 70% of the population lives below the poverty line, life expectancy is just over 40 years and over 1 million street children struggle for the basics, Barefeet Theatre is a beacon of hope. In 2006, when Irishman Adam McGuigan was travelling with a one man show through southern Africa, he stopped in Lusaka long enough to meet some local artists, ex-‐street children themselves, who were living at the Fountain of Hope children’s centre. There he met Taonga Tembo, a local performer who was working with the orphans, and from their initial workshops together, their company has blossomed organically into an inspiring creative force for change. Barefeet have engaged with thousands of children across Zambia using theatre, art, dance, music and storytelling. The performing arts are used as vehicles for self expression, education and restoring self esteem. Ultimately their aim is to keep kids off the street for good.
Back at the crowded Barefeet space everything is in a state of flux. Run down minibuses are turning up from all over the country filled to capacity with excited children. Rehearsals are going on in every available space. Huge pots of nshima, the local staple of stiff cornmeal porridge, are being cooked outside the back door on coal braziers. Props and costumes are being magically made from scraps found from around the streets. The one hammer has gone missing and the new drill only works at a certain angle. The limited funding, promised months ago, won’t be arriving until after the festival, and so, in dribs and drabs, small amounts of cash are scrounged and handed out to whoever needs it.
Changing the lives of the most vulnerable people in one of the world’s most vulnerable countries is no easy job. It takes time, commitment, energy and love. And money. That this incredibly effective and inspiring theatre company struggle to get the basic funding they need to survive is an injustice. While NGO officers drive around in brand new four wheel drives delivering unrealistic development programs, Barefeet facilitators pay for their own share taxi fares to deliver their highly effective workshops.
The huge golden lion finally gets its chance to roar, heading the children’s parade, a 2000 strong carnival procession which marches along the polluted and busy main road of Lusaka. It’s a joyous and empowering event for the street kids of Barefeet as they tumble, sing and dance in a celebration of themselves and a fitting finale to a heartening and uplifting week.
Check out the Video HERE…