It’s amazing how well young people can communicate without relying on language. While adults are often at a loss when facing a language barrier, kids can jump that hurdle with a warm smile, a cool handshake or a slick dance move. At least that was the case with the kids we meet on a recent field visit we took to Tanzania with NBA and Olympic basketball star Tyson Chandler.
The very tall (7’1”) center for the New York Knicks was fresh off his gold-medal winning performance with the U.S. Olympic Men’s Basketball team in London. But instead of heading back to the U.S. for the many celebrations and parties set to get underway for the triumphant team, Tyson opted to travel to Africa and personally experience the work UNICEF is doing to fight for the survival and development of every child in need. The first stop on our journey was the Kigogo Center on the outskirts of Dar es Salaam, the country’s largest city, located on the Indian Ocean coast. The location houses the Dogodogo drop-in center (Dogodogo means “young ones” in Swahili), an emergency and short-term shelter for children living and working on the streets. UNICEF Tanzania does great work with partners to assist the center’s efforts. The day of our visit we watched a street drama performed by the kids, produced through a program called MAKINI. The program provides children with the opportunity to realize their potential through life skills, fine and performing arts training, and vocational skills opportunities. The street drama was all about children’s rights and protection. Though the show was in Swahili, there was no mistaking the stories the kids were telling with their words, movements, song and dance. The performance was incredibly moving, and I didn’t know whether to cry, laugh, or jump up and clap (we all ended up doing the latter). The kids were amazing while performing, and even more amazing afterward. The best part of the day was when we ate lunch and talked with the children after the show. There was some translation, but it wasn’t really needed. The kids showed Tyson and the rest of us a slew of cool handshakes and some not very easy dance steps. They shared smile after smile with Tyson, his family and everyone from UNICEF. They even taught us a few basic words in Swahili. A group of us then talked with the children about their plight. With the help of a translator the kids told us of life at night on the streets, and of dodging the police and those who want to take advantage of them while they stayed together in groups to “watch over each other.” The look in their eyes and the inflection in their voices told us all we needed to know. These kids had all left home to get to the “big city” for a chance at a new life. Some escaped terrible situations at home, some realized that home needed one less mouth to feed. Now their life harbored a small ray of hope that peeked through with a twinkle in the eye, a broad smile, a song, a handshake and a dance.