I’m in the garden of an orphanage in Zambia. The kids are 6 or 7 years old to young teens. Some of the girls wear first holy communion dresses. The sun beats down. It’s 35 degrees. The girls look like black-faced angels fallen from the tops of shopping centre Christmas trees.
They run around the garden and take turns to sit in a car-tyre hanging on a rope from a tree and swing.
I shoot a few pictures.
“Do you know any songs?” I say.
“Yes, yes,” they say.
And they sing a song about Jesus.
They finish and I ask do they know any other songs.
“Yes, yes,” they say.
And they sing another song about Jesus.
They finish and I ask “Do you know any children’s songs?”
They don’t say anything.
“You know…?” I say. “Like Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream, Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.”
They don’t know that one. They look blank.
The orphanage is a Victorian bungalow with a conservatory at the side. The conservatory is full of white bridal dresses hanging on rails. Used once in England, then donated. The orphanage pays for the children’s food by renting out the dresses to brides for their weddings.
The orphanage is run by Christians.
I arrived in Zambia 3 weeks ago. I’m with volunteers from an NGO and I’m shooting photo-stories.
They are building teacher houses beside a village school. On the first day I arrived by minibus with the volunteers to the building site. We could hear the people before we could see them. Hundreds from the village showed up to welcome us, mostly women and children. They welcomed us by singing. A choir of three or four hundred voices. We heard them from half a kilometre away, over the engine of our old bus. It was like the air sang.
They sang one of their own songs, a welcome song, in local dialect.
The NGO volunteers gathered on the school porch and sang an Irish ballad for the locals in response.
A week ago I rode in the back seat of a pickup truck from Lusaka to a graveyard out in the bush. A plastic coffin with a 15 year old street kid lay on the cargo bed on the back of the truck. A few of his friends sat back there and held the coffin in place as we drove out the bumpy dirt road.
I shot a wide-angle photo out the back window, taking in the coffin, the boys, and the dirt road.
The dead boy’s name was Gift. Hit and run and left by the road. His friends found him and took him to where they holed up. They swabbed his forehead with a damp cloth. When he didn’t wake up the next morning they went for help.
A Christian NGO paid for the plastic coffin. Street kids took turns with a shovel and a pick to dig his grave. Apart from me the only other whites at the burial were my journalist colleague, a woman from the Christian NGO, and a few volunteers from another NGO for street kids.
Three plump black women sang by the graveside.
It was a burial place more than a graveyard. A place of freshly dug mounds of red clay among the bushes at the end of a dirt road.
Two or three more burials took place beyond the bushes around us. We heard singing from the direction of each burial. That’s how I know it was two or three more burials. A choir around each hole.
Gift’s coffin rested on the dirt by the grave hole, with the coffin lid open like a half-door. It was the woman from the Christian NGO who opened the top half of the lid and asked the street kids to file past to say goodbye to their friend. She prayed aloud and said Gift was having a cool time in Heaven. But he was just there on the ground in the half-open plastic coffin, a dead kid with the sun glaring down.
The street kids took turns with the shovel to fill in the grave. When they were done some kids stuck yellow flowers into the earthmound on the top of the fresh grave.
The singing at all the burials was in the local tongue. No English. No Jesus.
I understood why the kids in the garden at the orphanage couldn’t sing anything but Jesus songs.
They got food, clothes and a place to stay. They became Christians.
At least they wouldn’t end up as street kids.