Skip to content

Using Music When Words Fail

July 21, 2009

For many children, it is nearly impossible to express the trauma of losing their parents to AIDS, or what it means to have lived with violence or abuse.  They lack the words to explain why they’re grieving, and are unable to articulate the pain that they’re feeling.

But in childcare centres, hospitals and school programmes in the townships surrounding Cape Town, the Music Therapy Community Clinic (MTCC) is working to help children unlock their emotions and express them through music and dance.

Gumboot dancing with children in Khayelitsha

Gumboot dancing with children in Khayelitsha

In Khayelitsha yesterday, Thomas and I visited Home from Home, a residential programme for children who have lost their parents or who have been removed from violent home situations. The Music Therapy Community Clinic has partnered with the organization to provide psychosocial counselling and support to the children through music. Each week, a community musician named Zwai comes to teach the children songs and ‘gumboot dancing’.

‘Gumboots’ are rain boots, and ‘gumboot dancing’ is a form of dance that originated in South African mining communities, where men from different cultures and language groups used dancing as a means of communicating. Gumboot dancing is a perfect way to introduce small children to music, because it lets them use their own bodies as percussion instruments – stomping loudly on the ground while singing and dancing their hearts out.

Zwai, a community musician with MTCC

Zwai, a community musician with MTCC

Zwai has been working with the children at this centre for about five months. A marimba player and percussionist by training, he studied African music at the University of Cape Town and has travelled internationally with a number of music groups. Most importantly, he is a patient and caring male role model for children who often have few men in their lives to look up to.

When the children arrived home from school, they trickled into the room and stood around shyly. As Zwai handed out the gumboots, they stood in formation and began to sing and dance. It was an amazing transformation – from the moment they began dancing, the children came to life.

Music therapy is a way for children to access the feelings that they can’t articulate through words, said Home from Home’s programme manager. “So whatever the child is busy with – whether it is the drums, the guitar, whatever – the child puts his heart and soul into it. It tells you a thousand tales in more words than what he would have been able to have in a one-on-one with someone…What I think is very helpful with music therapy is the fact that the whole child is being listened to.  So if a child’s mum or dad has died, a grandparent, or whatever the case may be – or the child has been abused – she can’t say it [in words]. She doesn’t understand what has happened to her. And it’s because it’s so normal that these children don’t know that they’re grieving, that they are in such pain.”

Today, Stephen and Aissatou joined the trip, and we visited some of the other incredible programmes run by the Music Therapy Community Clinic. At the Brooklyn Chest Hospital (for TB patients) in Milnerton and at the aftercare programme at Etafeni in the Nyanga township, we had the chance to see MTCC’s work in action in a different way.

At the Brooklyn Chest Hospital, community musicians Victor and Spencer work with the male TB patients to sing traditional songs and play guitar. Not only is singing good for their lungs, but it offers an opportunity for the men to feel part of a community in what is otherwise often a fairly sterile hospital environment. On the children’s ward, MTCC’s music therapy assistants work with infants and toddlers to make basic percussion sounds. With the three-to-five year old group, a community musician named Chris sings and plays the guitar as children learn to dance and sing together.

Stephen with a gifted young marimba player and Vuyo, a community musician

Stephen with a gifted young marimba player and Vuyo, a community musician

We sat in on a music therapy session with six to thirteen year-olds run by Karen, one of MTCC’s music therapists. Many of the children living on the ward are quite ill – some of them living with HIV, others battling multi-drug resistant TB. With her guitar slung around her neck, Karen drew each of the children out of their shell, inviting them to sing about whether they were feeling ‘strong’ or ‘bup’ (‘weak’), and encouraging them to add their own sounds, rhythms and dances to each of the tunes. They giggled and sang at the top of their lungs, and forgot for a few moments that they are living on a hospital ward. It was a remarkable sight.

After a brief break in the day – Stephen was speaking at a press conference at the International AIDS Society 2009 conference being held here in Cape Town this week – we drove to the Nyanga township to visit Etafeni.

At Etafeni, we met with women who do beading and sewing as part of an income-generating activity. Each Monday, they gather with community musicians to sing traditional songs and to dance. For many of the women, it’s a safe place for them to be vulnerable, and the songs offer a kind of healing that doesn’t exist in other realms of their lives.

Watching young musicians at Etafeni

Watching young musicians at Etafeni

At the after school programme, we watched a group of gifted adolescents and teens play marimbas, drums, tambourines and maracas. Led by Vuyo, their community musician and mentor, these children have become talented musicians. Most importantly, they have a place where they can go after school and express themselves, away from the lure of violence and gangsterism that is often all-too-prevalent in townships like Nyanga and Heideveld. They also demonstrated a more advanced version of gumboot dancing – all the while beaming from ear to ear.

The Music Therapy Community Clinic is an inspired organization. It is rare to see such joy on the faces of children in such difficult circumstances. In just a few years, the little organization that began with two music therapists has grown into an organization with 17 people, including seven music therapists as well as community musicians and music assistants from the townships they serve. Their work, which is still relatively rare in South Africa, is undoubtably having an enormous effect on the individual lives of the children they serve.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. kathy french permalink
    July 22, 2009 3:50 AM

    Interesting readinga nd having been to Karaleyshia I know too well the issues. I am going back in Oct and please advise if there is a single thing that might help or to give to the children.. pens etc?


    • July 22, 2009 5:47 PM

      Dear Kathy,

      Thank you for you message. School supplies are important for children to attend school and are often in high demand. Based on our experience working with grassroots organizations in Africa, it is our policy to put money directly into the hands of community-based organizations so they can reach as many children as possible through their efforts.

      We believe that local grassroots organizations are the best equipped to understand the needs of the community, decide how supplies should be allocated and ensure they reach those most in need in their communities.

  2. nicole d'avignon permalink
    July 22, 2009 7:39 AM


    I will be leaving for Kigali, Rwanda on October 3, 2009 and returning to Canada March 28, 2010 from Cape Town. I will be volunteering with the foundation Barakabaho in Rwanda when I arrive. This foundation takes care of orphans from aids and from the genocide. I intend to spend a month or maybe more in South Africa closer to when I have to leave (February/March 2010)but I do not have any contacts there and would like to do some volunteering. I am a civil servant with the federal government (Senior policy analyst)and I have taken a leave without pay. I am totally financing this trip. If I can help in any way with your foundation, please let me know. I am willing to do whatever is needed.


    • July 22, 2009 5:45 PM

      Dear Nicole,

      Thank you so much for your message. Although the Stephen Lewis Foundation does not facilitate volunteer placements, we do have information in the FAQ section of this blog with links to organizations that do provide volunteer opportunities for people wishing to go to Africa.

      Thank you for your support and all the best in your travels!

  3. Hilary Walsh permalink
    July 22, 2009 11:31 AM

    Thanks for such informative blogging! I’ll definately be following you all on this important
    journey. It must be both difficult and inspiring for you to witness firsthand the suffering and the joy of their lives.

  4. Alejandra Jaramillo permalink
    July 22, 2009 2:29 PM

    Thanks for sharing your experiences with us Gill – it is great to learn about the human side of this difficult situation through your eyes.

    It is admirable how people not only learn to cope with the circumstances of their life but have enough strength left to give and support others. Maria is a great example!

    I look forward to following your blog throughout your trip. Great work!

  5. July 27, 2009 8:26 AM

    Thanks to the Steven Lewis foundation who made this visit real and to give us an opportunity to reflect on the phenominal work all of us are doing and the impact of the MTCC programme.
    Thanks to all for their well wishes:
    Toni Murphy
    Programme Manager
    Home From Home

  6. August 9, 2009 9:00 AM

    It is wonderful to read about what is happening with some of the projects that were visited. I was particularly impressed with the music therapy/gumboot dancing. How simple yet so effective. We can learn here in Canada how to do this too to help abused women and children.

    It gives us Omas more impetus to continue to do what we do.

  7. Brenda McBean Cochran permalink
    August 31, 2009 10:46 PM

    Having visited and travelled with my parents when they lived in East Africa (a number of yrs ago), this report and especially the video of gumboots dancing, brought back strong memories. I was also struck by the similarities with abused women in Canada–I wonder if they receive the same degree of support, empathy, and even awareness–does the average person know about the importance of shelters for battered women? The Elizabeth Fry Society? The role of drugs and alcohol? As a health professional and divorced, moderately (hopefully short-term) disabled woman who now counts herself very lucky in areas of safety and having food on MY table, these are areas I intend to explore further–and further afield. Thanks for the inspiration! What you are all doing is fantastic.

  8. Brenda McBean Cochran permalink
    August 31, 2009 11:08 PM

    All my earlier comments regarding “Using Music When Words Fail” apply equally to children, both in third world countries and here at home. Children are our FUTURE and, as such, deserve tremendous investment, worldwide.


  1. Videos: Gumboot dancing with MTCC « Stephen Lewis Foundation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: