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01 July 2008

Restoring Laughter

Restoring Laughter

In a small town on the border between Chad and Sudan, children are singing and laughing. This is surprising when you consider that three quarters of the people here have been displaced from the surrounding villages, victims of the five-year-long Darfur conflict that has seen two million people flee to refugee camps.

Refugees claim that after air raids by government aircraft, the Janjaweed militia ride into villages on horses and camels, killing men, raping women and stealing or destroying everything in their path. Despite the evidence, the government denies links to the Janjaweed. And there is no sign of peace, as people eke out lives with too little water, shelter or firewood, and with a constant threat of danger.

Yet in this town, Tearfund workers are helping children recover from what they've experienced and learn basic health messages, all through the medium of a puppet theatre. The stars of tonight's show are puppets Adel and Howa, who in the story are forced to leave neighbouring Chad because of the violence. They flee with their mother and grandfather, two cousins and their friend, Selwa.

"We use puppets because it makes it more fun for the children," says Tearfund's Anne McCulloch. "When the puppet Adel had to leave Chad, some of the children said that similar things had happened to them."

Thousands of children gather for the twice-weekly club nights to see the puppets. "As you move around the community you find it is quite deserted," says McCulloch, "as mums are also gathering in another spot for their club. You can tell you're getting nearer to where the clubs are held as you can hear lots of singing. Then after the club finishes, it's like the end of a football match or a pop concert as everyone streams happily home."

Coming to terms

During the shows, Tearfund uses the puppets to convey important health messages, such as how to make up an oral rehydration solution, which could save lives. And it uses drawing classes among 80,000 children in Darfur to help them to express their experiences.

His mum asked him about the club and Amir started to sing 

"The children love drawing," McCulloch says. "They often draw pictures of difficult experiences they've been through. Our local volunteers can talk to the children about what they've drawn, and this can help the child come to terms with these experiences."

One such child is 8-year-old Amir, who is displaced from his home and who, until recently, didn't speak. He didn't attend school because of this. But when a children's club opened near his home he went every week with other children. "One day his mum asked him about the club, and Amir started to sing," says McCulloch. "Now he's started to speak a little too."

Meanwhile in Mumbai, India's most populous city, 60 per cent of people live in slums. And it's in these slums that development agency World Vision uses theatre to teach about preventing HIV/Aids.

Some 5.7 million people in India are affected by Aids. The Mumbai Thane HIV and Aids project is keen to prevent that figure from rising, so it sends actors into some of the poorest slums. In true Bollywood style, their show is a dramatic story of love and fidelity, with a clear message woven in.

A crowd soon gathers. Old and young stop to watch this sensational performance on their doorsteps. There are squeals of shock and waves of laughter. Everyone is allowed to watch, however young. No-one is excluded from the safer-sex message.

"We use street theatre because India is renowned for its love of the arts and all things creative," says World Vision spokesperson Esther Williams. "So this is a really relevant and powerful way to engage in communities on the subject of HIV and Aids."

The charity has used street theatre to address these issues for the last 11 years, with impressive results. "Many women are coming to the clinics for testing as a result of the street theatre," says Williams, "and after the shows men come forward and ask for condoms."

Similar stories echo around the world as Christian agencies find that the arts can convey vital information and, perhaps even more importantly, help children laugh again.

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